Interview from Another Dimension

I was asked if I was interested in covering a temporary administration position a few days ago because finding bilingual Unix people is pretty hard here in Japan. It sounded marginally interesting and stood a chance of getting me in touch with the local Unix community, so I said sure, have the interviewer give me a call.

One day the positioning agency asked for a resume. I sent one in. The next day at 3pm I got a call saying that I would get a call an hour later to conduct a phone interview.

At 4pm I didn’t get a call.

At 5:30 I called their office back to say that I didn’t get a call. They called me back asking if I’m still available today — I tell them that if its OK that I’ll be playing with my kids then I’m game. They call back again telling me that the company is really going to call this time but from the office in Yokohama, not Okinawa — I’m fine with that. They also told me that the guy calling would “be a foreigner, like you” — I’m fine with that, too.

Not a minute later I did get a call but not from Yokohama, and from a foreigner but not “like me”. The call was from India over the world’s worst connection.

This amazed me. For one thing it was 2013. I expected bad connections when calling across multiple satellite hops from contested jungle territory in Southeast Asia in 2004. But this was a lot worse than that, and this guy was supposed to be calling from an office. And he supposedly works for a high-tech company looking to contract me. It bears mentioning that you could get crystal-clear cell connections from most of Afghanistan in 2010.

So that was the first weird smell. The second hint of rotten tuna was the voice. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand most of what he was trying to say. I’ve never been one of those “You gotta speak ‘merican!” types (hard to justify it being an expatriot myself), but if you’re going to speak English it should be English and should be intelligible, if not at least generally correct. Otherwise speak Japanese, or German, or get an interpreter, or have someone else do the interview — I’m open to any of the above. If you do know English but have a heavy accent, just slow down. But such ideas are lost on some people.

His speech had a magical pattern to it. Merely missing syllables or mushing sounds together like most non-native speakers was beneath this guy. He set a new standard for unintelligible second-hand language by injecting new syllables and sounds into each word.

The deft ease and fleet pace at which he mangled the language makes me think in retrospect that he probably considered English to be his first language. Maybe it was just taught to him wrong as some sort of cosmic joke. It was what speech would sound like if you could somehow hear a hash salt being added to it. This blew Pig Latin out of the water.

An abridged transcript of the conversation follows:


Him: “Dis is Gumbntator Hlalrishvkttsh koling flum Ueeplo en Eendeya an ayam surchelin Mestarh Kleg Ewurlet?”
I could sort of make out what he was trying to say.
Me: “This is he.”
Him: “Ah see. But dis is Governator Ralrishevdish koling flum Weepro en Indeya an ayam surchen Mestarh Kleeg Iwuuret?”
Perhaps he couldn’t make out what I was trying to say?
Me: “Yes, I am the person you are looking for.”
Him: “OK.”
Me: “…”
Him: “…”
Me: “You are calling about the interview?”
Him: “So ifna kolik abbaud arun foha.”
Me: “I’m sorry, the line is echoing very badly, can you please say that again?”
Him: “So if colling aboud arun four?”
So here I think he’s calling to schedule a call at four because they screwed up today’s schedule already.
Me: “Tomorrow? Yes, you can call me at four.”
Him: “OK. So hou abbaud you al habing eksperens an de Sulrais Ziss?”
Now I don’t know what he’s saying, but I know its not a scheduling question.
Me: “Can you please say that again? This connection must be very bad.”
Him: “You al hawing eksperens wit Lenaks an de Sularis swistems?”
Me: “Yes, I have experience on Linux and Solaris systems. Mostly Linux, though, because that is the platform I develop on.”
And here it began to dawn on me that this was the actual interview. In Indo-Pig Latin.
Him: “Okai. Bud wud abaudd yor kulanted lol on de dekuhnikal missm?”
Me: “I must be having a bad phone day. Please give me a moment to get to a quieter room so I can hear you.”
Him: “So komaing fru dat ayem ah phookink zandngar an…” [and so on...]
He kept babbling on and on about something that I couldn’t hear as I moved to an environment better suited to auditory-verbal cryptanalysis. Hope I didn’t miss anything paradigm shifting.
Him: “…[continued spacetalk]…”
Me: “What would you like to know about my experience?”
Him: “Inna suba sisesutm hau ew mak da pashink?”
Me: “The reception is poor again, can you please say that again?”
Him: “Inna subaa susutem hao eww poot a pach?”
Me: “Patching? Are you asking me how to patch a server? It depends on what you mean by ‘patching’. Are we patching sources to rebuild a program, or installing upgraded binaries through a package manager or performing an automated patch and rebuild the way ebuilds and ports work?”
Him: “Yesss. Inna sabaa, hou eww poot a pach?”
Me: “What system are we talking about?”
Him: “Inna sauce.”
Me: “Sauce? In source? Oh,  Solaris? If we are receiving updated binaries I would use the package manager. I haven’t seen people bypass IPS and use the patch manager directly for a while.”
Him: “Zo uatt ai am gunda be dou nuh is abbauda passhin inna sabaa. Hau yu du?”
Me: “I’m sorry, I think you are asking me how I would patch a Solaris server, and without knowing anything else about the question I think you mean we are receiving updates from a repository. My answer is that I would use the package manager, probably IPS, or if just patches then the old patch manager. But I don’t really understand your question. It is really broad.”
Him: “SO hao eww do?”
Me: “You mean the command sequence?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “You want me to spell it out over the phone?”
Him: “Yeis.”
I couldn’t help but snicker a little… is this really the way system administration interviews go?
Me: “OK, which version of Solaris?”
Him: “Inna sabaa.”
Me: “I understand in a server, but that doesn’t really change the question much, unless I’m missing something. Which version of Solaris? We are talking about Solaris, right?”
Him: “Zo vot ah em denkning niss uii nut dokkin abbaud da deweropent zicheeshn. Dust a passh a sabaa.”
Me: “Right, not a development situation, just patching a server. But this is a difficult question to answer unless I know what system we are talking about. They don’t all work the same way.”
Him: “Du eww habba poosiija fou da makkink na fou da af emma lepozitorian?”
Me: “I’m sorry, the phone is being worse than usual again, can you please ask the question again?”
Him: “Enna proosiija fou passhing. Eww habba lepozitori an poosiija. Du garanti ob da safti?”
Me: “My procedure to guarantee the safety? You mean during patching? If I make a repository? Was that part of the question?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “OK, yes, in a production environment I would expect that we have separate testing and production repositories at least. I would patch or update the test servers, run applicable tests for whatever application or server software we have installed, and then deploy the update to the production servers. But this is a really basic thing to say, and I can’t give you any details without knowing what system we are talking about. Is this even a Solaris question?”
Him: “So abbaudda Lennuks.”
Me: “Linux? The question is about Linux?”
Him: “Onna Lenuks hau eww makka lepozitori?”
Me: “Repositories on Linux? Which distro?”
Him: “Onna Lenuks.”
Me: “OK… What package manager are we talking about? RPM, yum, smitty, portage, aptitude, they all do things very differently. Even RPM is different on different distros that use it.”
Him: “Yeis. Onna Lenuks. Hau eww mak da lepozitori?”
Me: “Just assuming you mean Red Hat or CentOS or something else derived from Fedora, I would collect the RPMs we want to distribute, sign them, write a meta RPM for yum installation that has the public key and config file in it and build the repository metadata with createrepo. But if this is not a development environment we’re probably just mirroring an existing repository, so most of the time syncing with the master is sufficient. If not we could sync, re-sign, and recreate the repodata with createrepo.”
Him: “So hau eww mak da lepositori?”
Me: “I think I just told you. I have maintained several software repositories in the past and using createrepo is by far the easiest and most reliable way to do it, if we are talking about a yum repository full of RPMs for a distro like Red Hat Enterprise Linux.”
Him: “Yeis. So da Redhat.”
Me: “Maybe I don’t understand the question. You want me to tell you how to create a repository?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks hau eww mobbing fom weri zmar drraib enna rojikalworuum?”
Me: “Sorry, I can’t hear the question very well, the phone is full of echoes. You are asking me in Linux how to do something?”
Him: “Mobbing werri zmorr drraib anna rojikalworuum.”
Me: “Moving a small drive in Logical Volume Manager?”
Him: “Yeis.”
And here is where it dawned on me that I should have hung up at the first sign of weirdness. Instead I had hung on and now I was really along for the ride. Until the bittersweet end…
Me: “Do you mean changing a physical block device from one volume to another, or moving the volume itself?”
Him: “Retzsai eyabba  werri zmorr drraib anna wanna denk u poot enna rojikalworuum. Hau kann godu boot?”
Me: “You are asking me how to move a Linux installation from a small drive onto a logical volume, and then boot it later?”
Him: “Yeis.”
Me: “Assuming this is a simple case I would copy the filesystem to a new partition within the logical volume and add an entry to the bootloader so that we could boot it from the new location. But what bootloader we are using in this case? Grub or LILO or Grub2?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks.”
Me: “Right, in Linux, but which bootloader are we using?”
Him: “In da Lenuks.”
Me: “Right, but are we using Grub or LILO?”
Him: “LILO. Inna Lenuks.”
At this point I was relieved just to get something other than “Inna Lenuks” by itself out of him.
Me: “OK, assuming that the version of LILO we are using is logical volume aware, I would add the entry to the LILO configuration file that points to the location of the kernel on the relocated installation.”
Him: “Wat fail?”
Me: “What fail? You mean what file? The LILO configuration file.”
Him: “So wat fail?”
Me: “You mean where is it? Its usually in ‘slash E T C slash L I L O dot C O N F’.”
Him: “Inna Redhadd.”
Me: “In Red Hat? LILO isn’t a part of that distro any more. They use Grub2 now.”
Him: “Uadda za komunt fur addikt inna neu intree?”
Me: “The command for adding the new entry? There is not a command to add a new LILO entry, you have to edit the configuration file directly. Grub2 has some commands like grub-install and grub-update. But you still have to check the configuration file to make sure things are in the right place. Is that what you mean?”
Him: “Inna Lenuks?”
Crap! We’re back to this again. I really don’t know how to debug this guy. He’s worse than the Emacs Psychoanalyst.
Me: “Yes, in Linux. But this is not exactly a Linux question. The bootloader can load anything, so I don’t know what you mean.”
Him: “Adnanujinnadundaweenananndana…[A good five-minute bunch of spacetalk that I completely cannot understand. It was riveting, though. Like a symphony it had its own movements. Initially with the monotone of a public announcement, then to the lively staccato of a friend relating a happy story, capping with a crescendo of alternate gravelly and soft sounds unique to Indian speakers, and ending with a friendly chuckle -- as if he had enjoyed himself and was ready to say goodbye.]…”
Me: “OK, thank you for the call.”

I have no idea what most of that was about. I got the feeling he asked me some Solaris questions and some Linux questions and some general installation-wide question at the end that I never quite got a fix on. Actually, I never quite got a fix on anything at all, and I don’t think he did either.

This was the weirdest interview experience in my life. It is like a trick they would pull you at Robin Sage but this guy was for real; no OC is going to come evaluate me on how I did and counsel me how to better deal with the crazy and ambiguous.

Now for the scary part. This is the new face of IT outsourcing. Think long and hard whether you want to trust your data integrity and the construction of business systems you expect to get reliable answers out of to companies that have trouble communicating with their own (prospective, in this case) subcontractors and employees.

Since this is Japan, I wonder how on earth they manage to conduct interviews of Japanese people?

Am I alone here? Has anyone else ever experienced this sort of thing? (Other than when calling Dell or Microsoft tech support and being redirected to India, that is.)

8 thoughts on “Interview from Another Dimension

  1. ChaseEckers

    Just confirmed the stereotype of Indian IT a little too much there. But that was really funny. I half hope this was just an elaborate, tasteless joke, but you don’t seem like the type for that. So now I’m just slightly (more) afraid of the brave new IT world.

  2. zxq9 Post author

    Icing just came in for the cake. Today I received a follow-up call from the placement agency. They say the company reports that “communication was great, but we probably want someone with more experience in clustering”.

    There is something interesting to learn here about how language is used in business.

  3. hanna76

    This isn’t surprising at all. Welcome to the New Way Things Are. Well, at least until people finally realize that paying an American or Irishman $15/hr for part time work vastly outstrips what you get for paying an Indian $15/hr full-time for work he’s probably not even interested in doing. Not to mention the time sync problem and the fact you can’t talk to them in person, etc. so many problems with this way of doing things.

  4. dudundum

    Damn that was funny! And, uh… is that no conicidence that “Ueeplo en Eendeya” actually “Wipro in India”? HAHAHA!

    Does that ever shed some light on the dumb shit that has been happening around our IT management services ever since we decided to outsource! I bet that it actually saves money to hire your own IT guys, or at least contract in from a provider with a local presence. I don’t even want to think about what that means for us when we get all cloud-centric! NO~~~~! Does Microsoft or Amazon run their cloud stuff in India? Surely they must have a tighter operation than this. We’re all going to digital Hell.

  5. hadrons123

    I am from India. I can see your frustration with the language and accent. You should understand that English is not the primary language for most of the people back here. In India where there are more than 40 different languages spoken across the whole coutry its very difficult even for us to communicate accross the whole country in English. Language wise India is so divided. Accents of English accross the country varies heavily. Even though we tend to be better at writing a comprehendable english, we are mostly poor in speaking. But it doesn’ mean we can’t talk to you in way which you could understand. More training could get people to communicate better.

    If the western world doesn’t find an alternate solution to cut down the costs, we are going to be all over you in coming years. We will be calling you morons for not understanding our heavy accented english/(what ever we speak).

    1. zxq9 Post author

      India will no doubt have a huge impact on the world (not just IT) once it gets mobilized. What this experience (among others) has shown me is that India is not yet mobilized.

      I’ve worked in India a good bit, and my observation is that the most difficult problems India faces are self-inflicted and attitude driven. Much of that will change, but not before about a half generation passes (that is, as younger people get to the age where they are in charge of things and are accepted socially as being old enough to be in charge). My experience was colored by the sort of job I did there, of course, which was training Indian military and police, and certain attitudes may be more prevalent in the military than in newer commercial centers — but the negative side of the “old” attitude was definitely present in the guy I (tried to) speak with on the phone.

      The anecdote above doesn’t mean India isn’t important or that Indians are all idiots. It is merely indicative that Indian IT is taking a lot longer to find its feet than everyone expected about 10 years ago. It also perhaps speaks most strongly that of the Indian IT companies which may make a global impact in the future, the sort represented by the story above are not among them.

    2. Kuba Ober

      My problem is not with the accent, this can be learned. It is with the apparently culturally ingrained skipping of understanding: the whole “don’t question the authority” thing. If you can’t apply it, you don’t understand it. A lot of outsourced IT suffers from this: people who “do as they are told” without having a clue as to what it actually is they are doing. It seems to be a cultural phenomenon and India is just but one of the places where this is a raging problem.

      It is very easy to turn this into racist arguments, but it has nothing to do with race, intellectual capacity, or the spoken language (or lack thereof), etc. It’s just that, somehow, the culture there seems to let people off the hook without understanding. If you’re of the hook in that department, it doesn’t matter how clever/intelligent you are. Your intelligence goes unused. Somehow, though, it also seems to make for – apparently – generally happier people, so it’s not as bad as everyone thinks it is. It’s just not a good match for engineering anything, software/IT included.

      Feynman had some good thoughts on knowing vs. understanding.

      1. zxq9 Post author

        Thank you for focusing on the deeper mechanism at work here and not knee-jerking at the peculiar cultural circumstance here.

        As a side note, I consider happiness quite overrated and to be a horrible index of human achievement. Happiness is an enormous motivator, though, so it is a critical ingredient in much of human success though its role is often not what the common discourse makes it out to be. The long version of my position is really about developing a sense of satisfcation about our ability to defer short-term goals in favor of long-term ones (the whole “life’s a journey” thing).

        As for flavors of human understanding, I go a bit farther than Feynman in drawing distinctions and I do not consider them as levels which are obviously graduated in nature. Information is distinct from knowledge which is distinct from wisdom. Unfortunately much of the test-in criteria for outsourced IT positions stop at information.

        The good news for really sharp folks from the developing world who are on the servicing end of outsourcing is that they have a wonderful chance to stick out as particularly bright among the tech support army of dullards. I have witnessed this a few times recently — and good for those folks, both the discoverers and the discoverees.


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