“Let’s go thru it one more time,” he said. I’m sitting across the table from Bram Cohen, the creator of the BitTorrent protocol. In front of him lays a printout with a dozen lines of Python code.
“Well, I’m not sure what this code does anymore,” I replied. I was nervous. I did not expect to be asked to reverse engineer an algorithm on the spot like that. Specially not as a first interview question for an engineering management position and in a language I knew nothing about. In fact, I did not know what to expect at all when I stepped foot in that San Francisco office.

The setup was a bit messed up from the get to. The wife of the recruiter was having a baby. He called me from the hospital to arrange the meeting. Quite understandably, the call was brief. That did not leave me with much of an opportunity to get the proper background. Who was I gonna be meeting with? For how long? What would we cover? All I had was an address and time.

It was February 2007 and BitTorrent, Inc. — the company behind the ongoing development of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol — was about to launch a major consumer initiative to legally distribute media content to the masses. It turned out to be a failed attempt to legitimize a brand that to this day is still synonymous with content piracy.

They were looking for a VP of Engineering to lead and organize their development, hence my presence there.

“So, what do you do here?”, I asked Bram.
“I run the show,” he said.

I should have prepared better. I was not very interested in that position in the first place. I liked the space and technology but I couldn’t see a clear business model. It was no excuse for being careless.

A simple Google search would have alerted me to Bram’s self diagnosed Aspergers syndrome. That would have put in context the social awkwardness that I felt during our interaction.

I would have been spared the embarrassment of asking, “So, what do you do here?”. “I run the show,” he said.

I would have realized that a couple of system administrators I knew were working there, before I bumped into them in the hallway. That kind of personal connection is key to gain a better perspective on a company.

After stumbling thru the algorithm question I was introduced to the director of development. As the company was on the verge of a major launch, our time was cut rather short (and perhaps my less than stellar performance on the code quiz was a factor too). I got the impression that he was overworked and somewhat overwhelmed. No doubt they needed the help.

This is not going well, I remember thinking.

Later on, I was handed off to Brian, the then general manager. After the uncomfortable start and the feeling of being rushed, meeting him was a relief.

Brian took the time to explain the business, product vision and articulated some of the challenges the organization encountered. He asked thoughtful questions and we connected.

I left feeling that the ordeal had not been a complete waste of time. I had met someone I’d enjoy seeing again in the Valley.

Coincidentally few years later and without my knowing, Brian interviewed for a position at the startup I had joined in the meantime. He came onboard and I was happy we became colleagues after-all.

When I reflect back, here’s what I take away from this experience:

  • If you’re a candidate, do your homework before the interview. Ask about the interview setup, who you’re going to meet with, what’s their role and what will be expected of you. Research the company, the team and the product. Come prepared even if you’re just looking around.
  • If you’re a recruiter at a company, take care of your applicants. Walk them through the process. Tell them who they’re meeting with, how they will be evaluated, etc.
  • If you’re an interviewer, treat the candidates the way you’d like to be treated. You never know when you’ll find them on the other side of the hiring table.