Work Paris: job interview gaffes with GAFA tech companies

Traditionally there were only two ways to make money in France: come from a bourgeois family, or marry into one.

But in recent years, a third avenue has been opening up. Become a tech entrepreneur. France doesn’t exactly have the greatest incentives to start a business, being a monolithic socialist State run by a series of philanders for whom “Business Time” exclusively referred to what they did with whichever young actress in the bedroom. But as a major European city, it’s still a hub. From the late 2000s, app developers and various tech wunderkinds have started popping up like champignons.

I’m not sure when I decided that a tech firm was the best place for me, but having spent one week in New York with a bunch of ex-Googlers, the lifestyle was certainly one I could get used to.

And, with many of the big names boosting their profiles in France, there were certainly openings, especially for Anglophones.

PAYPAL: zero returns on interest

Paypal was the first job I applied for. The job itself involved writing the micro-text for their website and mobile apps. It wasn’t calling for a Wordsworth, but for someone who at least knew the precise value of words.

My knowledge of Paypal was limited to two experiences. I’d once commissioned a rap song over the Internet to be played at my childhood friend’s wedding. The payment was immediate, even if the couple was well on the road to a disappointing divorce by the time the song actually arrived (he did include an apology sung as a rap though, which was a nice touch).

Then another afternoon, I’d sat next to dad at our dining room table overlooking the treetops in Warrandyte as Paypal’s customer support patiently talked him through a problem he was having with one of his accounts.

Dad isn’t a natural with technology. As the CEO of a company, he once asked his secretary to replace his new-fangled telecoms device with such an older generation model, he literally had a dumb phone. To see him typing, using only two fingers mind you, and interspersing each paragraph with a loud “Oh fuck, where’s that fuckin’…”, was to be reassured that technology’s dominion over mankind was still a long way off.

Ergo, anyone who could patiently talk my dad through a tech problem was probably a sympathetic employer to work for. I sent off my application in the form of a Buzzfeed-type list: 5 reasons to pick me for the job.

The position description sounded itself like it was written by machine. Or perhaps a committee of tech-dictionaries. It was a UX job, with the applicant needing to work in a iterative workplace, with understanding of a something at this point I stopped understanding, but had enough to blague my way in.

The CV bait clicked: within a week I’d been called up to their offices, which they shared with eBay, opposite the Bourse in Paris’ chic and illustrious 2nd arrondissement. There was no foosball table, but at least they had a shiny coffee machine, and a fresh lick of paint, which was more than my home office could offer.

The interviews – for there were at least 3 – seemed to go well, if not for long. There was a video link with some guy in America, senior enough to be wearing a t-shirt. The second was with my would-be boss. He had studied psychology and writing: the exception who proves the rule that Arts degrees don’t get you nowhere.

With some subtle digging, I’d managed to find out that I was the only person to have made it this far. If I could just make it through the final interview, I would have a real chance of working at a bonafide hot tech company, albeit in a role that in reality bore me – like one of Paypal’s own products – close to zero interest.

Another hip young guy now took me into a small conference room and presented me with a challenge I should solve. He outlined some problem his teams had been working on; something about how to persuade people to buy from our site, and not a merchant’s site, using a text-based solution. It was the crux of the job I’d be doing, if successful of course.

“I can see why you’ve been having trouble with this,” I agreed with him. In this case however, a ‘problem shared’ was not a ‘problem halved’. And with every minute longer I stared at the blank butcher’s paper without offering any useful suggestions, it was clear that his problem was very much a problem for me too.

After 20 minutes I suggested I think it over back home and email him some suggestions. “When are you needing someone by?” I tempted.

“Well, we’re looking for the right candidate, so, as long as it takes…” Then adding ominously, “Anyway, we’ve struggled to find someone who fits our PD, so we’ll probably re-advertise it differently.

Within a week the job was indeed readvertised, albeit with exactly the same ad text.

It had been mine for the taking; and yet I’d come second to none.

BLA BLA CAR: blag, blag, oh crap

But there were plenty more opportunities. Bla Bla Car is a French success story, having recently been valued at 1.5 billion. It’s a ride-sharing app for long distances; effectively teaming up painful journeys with tedious company.

It’s the type of service that sounds good in theory but daunting in practice. Since people were using it because other means of cross-country transport were too expensive or poorly connected, I sensed a certain amount of teeth-gritting love for it among users: if you had to travel to from Paris to Rotterdam by tomorrow evening and only had 30 euros to your name, you didn’t really have much of an option.

I’d never used it myself, but two of my friends had, with mixed results. Andy indeed managed to get from Paris to Amsterdam, but it took him 8 hours longer than expected, included an unscheduled hour-long stop at a drug dealer’s apartment in suburban Brussels, and he finally asked to be dropped at Rotterdam once he twigged that the driver was high.

Liam meanwhile used it to get from Biarritz back to Paris. We’d been three of us renting a beach house through Air BnB, and Liam, who could afford money less than time, decided it was worth saving 40 extra dollars by car-sharing.

At about 9.30 in the evening, once I’d been home already for at least 4 hours, he’d made it as far as Bordeaux, and wasn’t hopeful of making Paris by daybreak.

I digress. Bla Bla Car was in full expansion mode following their successful funding round and were looking for a variety of roles, notably as a global head of social media.

A social media expert? I can do that, I thought. After-all, I had a Facebook account after all. Weeding out trolls and devising glib messages in an over-excited tone sounded like something I could easily do. A popular Halloween costume you could buy online that year was the “Social Media Expert Guy”, which came with “an alarming lack of qualifications”.

In hindsight, perhaps they were looking for someone a bit more serious after all. I was requested to prepare a presentation, a preview of how I might report social media statistics to an executive board.

Statistics have never been my strong suit; though I was keenly aware that I was statistically less likely to be hired for roles for which numeracy was key. However, I did not let this deter me: Bla Bla Car looked like the type of company I could enjoy working for: it was an international team, rapidly expanding, and had swanky offices opposite Google’s Paris HQ (which somewhat ironically, is intentionally hard to find).

The offices were newly refurbished and shared with various other upcoming French start-ups (or up-starts, as the French traditional business viewed them); a large glass covered atrium for the reception, which since it was raining, gave the impression of walking under a giant carwash.

The first sign for caution should have been the upbeat, motivational posters on the walls. Being led from the shiny lift doors as they opened through to the blond wood cafeteria area, I was instantly transported back to high school.

‘Beaten paths are for beaten men,’ went one poster in the Year 8 common room. It’s probably since been replaced with ‘Prison is for abuser teachers’, after the coordinator got hauled off years later.

“What do you know about the Bla Bla spirit?” my guide, and first-round interviewer asked me casually.

I looked to the walls for inspiration. “The member is the boss!” went one. This seemed a remarkable shift in attitude for France’s notoriously workplaces, which might have said “Remember, I’m the boss”.

Another one: “Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter” – obviously written by someone who’d never made the journey to Australia next to an incessant talker.

“It’s a very motivational, inspirational, kind of place,” I ventured. She smiled and opened a door to a small room, where were seated four women, all under 30. These would be my interview panel.

‘Women interviewers, my forte,’ I thought.

“Well, let’s see about your presentation, then.”

I had prepared 8 slides in total, comparing Bla Bla Car’s social media performance compared with what I perceived to be the rival transport companies, such as the French rail SNCF, and Uber. This choice of competitors caused some consternation however.

Apparently Uber, with it’s bullish disregard for regulation, was a company Bla Bla was keen not to be compared to. These were the nice guys on the market, remember? The ride-sharing app where you selected co-passengers as “Bla”, “Bla Bla”, or “Bla Bla Bla”, which denoted how talkative you were.

It was however, another aspect of my presentation that I should have been more worried about. My physical presentation. For not long after starting, I become acutely conscious of a rather large piece of snot that had dislodged itself from my nose, and was quivering in a nostril hair above my lip.

I should have left it there and hoped for the best, for when I surreptitiously wiped it with my forefinger, it fell on to the table, about 30 centimetres from where my lead interrogator was sitting.

Social media is all about reputation management and responding to crises. I didn’t respond to this one well – flicking it with my finger. Towards her handbag.

As I walked out I noticed another poster, stuck to the door of the lift, and so having escaped my attention on the way through: “Fail. Learn. Succeed.”

Well, I had the Fail part done.

FACEBOOK: face up to my actions book

If I made a cock-up of my visual presentation for Bla Bla Car, I made a cock-face of it in my interview for Facebook.

In an exciting development, the social media giant was expanding into the news content sphere and had put out a call for people with essentially my exact profile. It would be based in London, sure, but plenty of travel to Italy, France and Spain. In short, a great job.

I’d quickly applied, and perhaps helped by having met an insider on the stag party, had been selected for a series of interviews.

That Friday I excitedly told my friends the news during an intimate dinner party in the Marais.

There were 5 of us; my hosts were an French-Scottish couple. She worked in journalism and he was a rising star in advertising; they were imminently leaving to New York, where both their careers were about to take off, and we were having a last supper.

The other couple, from Norway, also worked in advertising, leaving me with the unsexiest, boring job to talk about. Lucky then, I could talk about my interesting new job around the corner, with pretty much the hottest company there was.

All that stood in my way was a series of interviews. The other diners guys had all succeeded in their various fields – what could I learn from them about leaving a positive first impression?

“Succeeding in these types of interviews is about luck, but also about having something different,” said the Scotsman, James, who the previous year had won industry-wide recognition for one of his ad campaigns for Microsoft.

These clever campaigns contorted large outdoor adverts into useful objects, such as bus shelters, and luggage ramps. In short, they were pretty, damned, cool.

“For example,” he continued, “I look like any other creative in advertising.” And with his thick-rimmed square glasses, loud shirts and permanently affixed 5-panel hat, I couldn’t argue with that.

“But two things recruiters always notice about my resume, are that I’m a certified football coach, and also that I started out studying modelling.”

I could see how the football thing might have been interest in his native Scotland.

But modelling? If there even was a university course for that, he probably could have afforded to take a few extra units.

“Like with plasticine, clay, and stuff,” he continued, before I could articulate my joke.

From an antique cupboard he then pulled out a lump of terracotta-coloured modelling clay. “This sort of stuff. In fact, I still dabble.”

“What type of stuff do you make?” we asked, incredulous at this hither-to unknown fact about our host.

“Well, I just play around these days,” he said, his fingers already expertly working the clay.
Into the shape of a dick. Which he then put on my forehead. “Here’s something for you.”

It was rather realistic, perhaps with good reason: a few months earlier James has seen my penis during an aborted orgy in his bedroom. The attempt had formally concluded at 3:30am, by which time the three men were naked, the girls fully clothed, and the neighbour complaining about the noise.

When the doorbell rang, I’d opened the door, naked except for a garish yellow rain-jacket I hastily slung over my body though left unbuttoned, to find not the elderly neighbour that I’d hoped to shock into going home, but three policemen. I agreed with them the rain jacket was a little loud.

Around the dinner table, the Norwegians had now joined in, literally getting their hands dirty as they fashioned a rival clay penis and vagina. These they also placed on their heads, wiping away some sweat with a paper napkin first to make them stick better.

There were now five of us, drunk off boutique gin and boutique tonics (a la mode that year), Bordeaux and merriment.

And then, perhaps against better judgment, the camera phones came out.

It’s always good to keep in mind that the Internet has a long memory. No matter if, when or how you delete something you later regret, there’s always a small chance that traces of it will live on, waiting to be found by the one person who shouldn’t ever know.

And so it was with Facebook the next day, when on second judgment, I decided to delete the album of photos I’d posted capturing the previous night’s hijinks.

In the subsequent weeks, as I waited notification of when my interviews would be, my contact on the inside eventually told me the post had been filled by a hot-shot American candidate, ex-CNN.

And while I’m almost sure the decision was based on that candidate’s merits, I’m pretty sure the interviewers also didn’t find in his deleted items folder an album of Facebook photos titled “Dickheads for dinner”, with the candidate revealing himself to be far from a model employee.

TWITTER: a needlessly short experience

As you’d expect from their raison d’etre, the rejection process with Twitter was a lot more brief.

I’d learnt about Twitter in my first year in France, when it famously spread news about a severe earthquake in China faster than many news outlets.

Now, having tried several formulas for success, none of which had the magic desired, they were making a bid for the news territory. They were launching a service in France, the US and Brazil, which would curate the most exciting tweets on a news-worthy subject for their audiences, in an easy-to-find place.

It was certainly true that finding news on Twitter, amid the hundreds of marketing and celebrity updates could be like finding a needle in a haystack: or to translate into Twitter terms, a survivor in a major Chinese earthquake.

They’d found me on LinkedIn (still the Number One social network for recruitment) and suggested I apply.

It was only by luck that I checked my email late Friday night to find one from the HR contact. I had until 7pm the next day, Saturday, to complete a news curation test and respond to some questions.

I’d technically not done curation before – or not in any meaningful sense. But was there not truth in that headline from the Australian satirical newspaper The Shovel: ‘Curating Same As ‘Choosing’, Wankers Told

How hard could it be to find 10 tweets on any given subject and put them into chronological order? Certainly no harder than had been updating my LinkedIn profile to add “Social Media Curator Expert”.

I’d gone to bed at 2am, was up by 11am, had eaten brunch by 12:30, and now had 4 hours to complete the task. I opened her email.

As I soon found, finding information of interest on Twitter can be a time-consuming task. My concentration focused once I realised the enormity of the task ahead of me. And yet, I completed the exercise by deadline, helped along by a 30 minute-break to share a pichet of wine at a local café once my brain was full to bursting of mindless celebrities and get-rich quick apps.

The response on Monday was rather more brief: just 1 minute 30 to say my test hadn’t exactly impressed, and to inquire if it was perhaps my first curation task.

It takes a few seconds to write an update of 140 characters, but finding updates worthy of repeating to a mass audience, updates that were telling, insightful, funny and original, that was the art to which ‘curation’ referred.

I’m paraphrasing for the Twitter generation, but the gist of the conversation was:

“If I was any type of artist in this curation field, I was only a bull-shit one.”

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