Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Charmin Cold War

It's a quiet Sunday evening in my apartment, a rarity here.  Individually, my roommates are quiet academics, but together, after hours of isolation in the dusty annuls of the library or some dingy chem lab, they are pretty combustive.  I suppose constant noise is the biggest downside to having a Jerry Jones-size TV in the living room.  While we can see Jake Heaps throw interceptions with perfect clarity on game day, the time share ESPN gets on our TV is miniscule compared to that of Call of Duty.  I just might end up with PTSD after living here, hearing gunfire and death day in and day out.  You can probably hear it way out in front of our building, on those benches by the science project of a duck pond we have here.   

Yes, an apartment full of college guys in their mid-twenties has all kinds of byproducts.  Noise is one; the Cold War is another.  Not the war which made Russians the bad guys in every Hollywood film for 20 years.  No, this war is all about not being the guy to buy some apartment commodity.  A clear example, repeated in every apartment I've ever lived in, involves toilet paper.  Nobody wants to buy the next pack of Charmin because everyone swears that someone is using way more than they are themself.  They'll never get their money's worth--besides, it's someone else's turn anyway!  Always.
a more perfect world

Learning to dodge bankrolling the T.P. supply is priority one when living in an apartment of mid-twenties barbarians.  It's a game of chicken, each person watching the roll quickly dwindle down to nothing.  Then, one day, there's just a poor man's piƱata there on the rack: a cardboard cylinder with shredded paper tassels.  The game is on.  Unable to go without some two-ply for very long, people resort to all manner of tactics.  Some hoard a secret supply while other roommates covertly dig for it when they think nobody's looking.  Some, afraid of their cache being discovered by such scavengers, bring a day's supply home at a time, shamelessly collected from some restroom stall at school.  The less innovative roommates, underestimating their foes, find their stash of coincidentally-two-ply Cafe Rio napkins rapidly disappearing and hope their socks' disappearance on laundry day had nothing to do with the war.  Once, we even discovered a roommate was actually getting by using the roll of blue crepe paper left over from a Cinco de Mayo party. In the end, someone invariably breaks down and the opulent supply of Charmin is again enjoyed for a few weeks before the cycle repeats.

While not usually shared among all roommates, food also seems to continually be dwindling in supply.  College guys are in a perpetual state of needing to go grocery shopping.  I'm pretty sure we have this demographic to thank for the formulation of the dollar menu.  With school due dates repeatedly coinciding with that fateful day when the home food supply runs out, Wendy's, McDonald's, Little Caesar's and Taco Bell make their fortunes, one green Washington at a time.  It's tough to find food with short prep times and distant expiration dates.  I recently decided I'm done bothering with potatoes.  I don't know how the Irish do it.  Mine always go forgotten beneath the sink and I find them some time later once they've sprouted into a healthy family of chia pets.  They usually stay there, loyally guarding the cupboard for a while before we bother to throw them away, at which point they are adolescent shrubs.  We usually drag them out to the dumpster on our way to Wendy's.  In the end, it's hard to remind yourself that all the shopping, cooking and cleanup are all worth it for just yourself.  I've outlined it in a flowchart down below.

I hope all the madness is good for us after all.  Living through countless toilet paper cold wars, making who knows how many fast food runs and trimming entire forests of potato chia pets will serve to make us appreciate the craziness of family life later all the more.  

(click image, then click "show original" to zoom in)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Game

As the work day was winding down on Thursday, I was informed by a coworker that Friday's work day was canceled and that our entire division was having a "morale event." This seems to me like the kind of name AA would give to a group picnic or support circle. Come Friday morning, we hopped on some very large buses that were waiting outside and were zipped off to downtown Seattle.

We unloaded and headed into a tower nearby, navigating our way through a mall and going up six escalators to the top floor where we were ushered into a posh fashion club artistically decked in dark furniture with starkly contrasting white accents and brilliant pink decorations.

We seated ourselves at the tables as deep club music pulsed. It felt strange to be in a club during the day, light sneaking in through windows as neighboring skyscrapers leering pale in the daylight, clearly visible on the other side of the glass. We all talked awkwardly at the tables, eating the lunch they served, until a carbon copy of Michelle Dodge walked out in an orange jumpsuit with military accents and the word GO in shiny black letters on the back. She stood at the stage and started the show.

This is a different jumpsuit girl

“Welcome to the Go Game! Look at the people around you at your table because they are now your teammates.” She proceeded with some brief instructions and a lunchbox for each group. Our group ended up with a yellow, weathered metal box with a marred picture of Bugs Bunny eating a carrot. “Open your boxes and let’s start.”

We opened the lunchbox to reveal a cell phone, a digital camera, two maps and a black permanent marker. Jumpsuit girl looked nothing short of amused at the looks on everyone’s faces as she instructed each group to turn on their phones. As the worn screen slowly flickered to life, jumpsuit girl in an ominous, theatrical flair said, “Welcome to…the Go Game.”

Our group crowded around the screen which again welcomed us to the game and, with some brief instructions, offered our first challenge. Go to the corner of 1st Street and Pine and press “go.” Do not press go before arriving at the exact intersection or you will lose points. We dashed down the escalators, dodging pedestrians who wondered why a group of adults were running around, holding an open cell phone out in front of them like a compass. We spilled out into the street with other groups and ran to the corner where we pressed go. Take a picture with all members of your group together and then select “prove” on the phone. It was here we discovered to the Go Game wasn’t an average scavenger hunt; it included riddles, historical questions requiring internet help and paid actors disguised as normal people which you had to find and interact with.

Congratulations! You now have 15 points! Now for your first real task, you are near the famed Pike Place Market! While many manage to master the art of disguise and deception here, an unlucky few have not. Near a portly porcine wanders an embarrassingly conspicuous tourist who would be overjoyed to point you in the right direction. If you find the correct tourist, she will respond only to the question “Are you from a small town?” with a key phrase which you will need. The task seemed deceptively easy, but the portly porcine (which means pig if you, like I, didn’t know) happens to be in what’s probably the most touristy point in all of Seattle, so spotting a “conspicuous” became a game of Where’s Waldo.

After a few minutes, we regrouped near the pig statue and Don exclaimed, “This whole place is full of tourists! How are we supposed to find the right one??” I turned to say something to him and noticed a woman literally six inches to his right wearing a Canada sweater, a baseball cap from the MidWest, a fanny pack, sunglasses and was holding a tattered map. “Umm, excuse me ma’am. Do you happen to be from a small town?” She turned her head with a sly grin and Don yelled, “Holy cow, she was right here??” She chatted excitedly for a minute and gave us a password to type into the phone, but not before we got a very touristy photo together. The only way you can advance in the game is by either getting the correct passwords at each clue, or guessing incorrectly three times, each incorrect guess costing you points.

Here are some of our other tasks which were written into sometimes-complex riddles. Some of the riddles were tough since I was the only native English-speaker on my team.

1. Video challenge—In nine minutes, film a scene from your favorite video game. We filmed a battle scene from Street Fighter II with Mike bobbing back and forth, fists out, like Ryu. After Mike defeated Xiao, I leap-kicked into the scene and Mike pretended to get hit. Coincidentally, a woman behind Mike was opening her car door right as he fell backward leading him to fall completely into her car, knocking her over and smashing his head into the car door. She had one scary angry face.

2. Look for a pirate near the waterfront lookout. You have 20 yes/no questions to figure out his favorite food, but you must ask them in a pirate accent. We found the character and I asked, “Arrr thar mate. We be lookin fer a pirate.” I got a blank stare back, accompanied by, “What?” Thinking he was simply unimpressed with what I felt like was a good pirate impression, I asked him again. “We be lookin fer a pirate thar sir. Have ye seen one?” The man looked slightly flustered, “Son I can’t understand a word you’re sayin’.” Awkward pause. “Aye, thank ye, mate.” The real pirate was down another flight of stairs. After 16 questions we found out his favorite food is marshmallow (whose favorite food is marshmallow?!) and the pirate gave us a bag of marshmallows.

3. How many large marshmallows can you fit in your mouth while retaining the ability to say the phrase "chubby bunny"? Don got seven, after which he gave us a password

"chubby bunny"

4. Video challenge—In 14 minutes, film a ballet re-enactment of a historical event involving the whole team. We did a beautiful, moving piece about the Berlin wall coming down following which East and West Germans Riverdanced together. We were mildly embarrassed when some school, there on a fieldtrip, all stopped to watch us.

5. Inside the Athenian is a "magical maestro" who, if asked, "Do you know Harry Potter?" respond with a magic trick revealing a keyword. We had to walk through the pub, which is where part of Sleepless in Seattle was filmed, asking anyone who looked like they were either a musician or magician if they knew Harry Potter. A portly gentleman seated near greasy windowpane said, “Yeesss, I know that Harry fellow. He does magic! I do too!” and he pulled out a deck of cards. His tricks were rather impressive.

This picture was shamelessly pulled from Google

6. Go back and ask the magician one more question for a riddle with the answer. He did a neat coin trick and give us the next password disguised in a phrase—a phrase he had to repeat four or five times before we got what the word was.

7. The absence of what animal allows Pike Place to be "sanitary"? If you’ve never been inside that part of the market, absolutely everything is decorated with animals.

8. How many girls does it take to bake a German white rye? It's been done for more than a century in a certain shop along the market.

9. Special challenge—duel with another group in a dance-off on the street which had to be judged by a stranger (Thriller vs. the can-can). In a surprise upset, our team of five Indians, one Chinese, one Vietnamese and the least dance-capable American ever couldn’t put together a version of Thriller worth calling the winner. It was heartbreaking for us and nauseatingly hilarious for any passers-by watching.

10. Inside a nearby dairy shop is a hand-painted hen. While the hen looks like she’s right out of the 1970's, what event occurred in the same year the hen was actually painted? (Steve Jobs announced the iPhone [in 2007] )

11. In the market is a place that seems like a place Lionel Richie would love to hang out with other musicians of similar ire and fame from his era. Next to that spot is an unsuspecting reference to a mid-western U.S. city. Which city is it? After spending a substantial amount of time looking for references to the Midwest near a women’s clothing store, Don found a Milwaulkee Sausage sign behind a coat rack downstairs by a store marked “Earth Wind and Fire.” Don’t know how we overlooked that.

12. Photo challenge—take a picture of your team showing superhuman strength. We were about to do this when we encountered a bonus challenge… (the caped superhero walking the streets)

13. Bonus challenge-- Superwoman asked us to take a "compromising picture" with her. We asked a UPS driver who was parked there if we could use the back of his truck. While two guys in the group posed, pretended they were on lookout, Xiao stood defiantly shushing a shocked-looking George while the two girls and I were picking up Superwoman and stuffing her into the back of the truck as the UPS driver looked on.

14. Start walking back toward the Super Pink Lounge in downtown Seattle while answering some questions:

I. What movie is the following picture of a kiss from? (we never got it)

II. What logo or product is the following picture of a Q featured in? (Quaker Oats)

III. What female actor does this childhood picture belong to? (Brad Pitt – since when is he female?)

IV. What note do orchestras tune to? (A)

The first 10 teams back got a password for 100 bonus points. The club served drinks and oysters while the Go Game staff readied the closing presentation which consisted of each of our submitted pictures and videos. To date this was the coolest work function I’ve attended, despite the embarrassment of having the video of me ninja-kicking into Mike played in slow motion with sound effects for all of management to enjoy. Thank you, Jumpsuit Girl (whose name actually turned out to be Michelle after all).

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Final Round Interviews

I typically have to wait for a few days and accumulate some stories and events before I write on here, but this month has been active enough that I have to be selective of what to share or I’ll just keep typing for days. About a month ago I received a call-back following an interview with Microsoft, asking me to come to Seattle to interview again. I was understandably excited since working at Microsoft would be a dream opportunity for me. After a lot of emails and arrangements, I packed my bag and headed to Seattle. I generally enjoy traveling, and have since I was a kid; however, one aspect of travel is and will always be annoying—for some reason, I always get selected to be searched at the airport. I don’t know what TV shows those TSA people grew up watching, but in the shows I watch, no terrorist has ever looked like me, so really this all seems slightly unjustified. The agents dug through my bag and scanned it twice before handing it back with a look of lingering suspicion.

As I packed everything back nicely I wondered if the contents really did look a bit fishy. Inside were toiletries for three days’ travel, a suit, passport, laptop and a book on secure algorithms. I was missing a few things to achieve true spy status though—mainly a 9mm, an Aston Martin DB5 and probably a speedboat driven by a girl named Ginger.

The interviews themselves were extensive, challenging, stressful and fun at the same time. I’m fairly sure I was the only person on campus in a shirt and tie, surrounded by surprisingly stylish, coffee-bearing, North Face-clad engineers bustling about. I’ve had some curious people ask what the interviews were like (and I would found it helpful before I went) so for any curious potential interviewees, here you go:

  • 10:30 am
    • After taking a wrong turn and driving through what looked surprisingly like the compound on Jurassic Park, I arrived at the recruitment building. It took some time to find it since Microsoft’s campus is a small city, several times the size of my decently large university. Inside was nothing like I expected—I found myself waiting in a vogue lounge furnished with furniture that looked like colored microwaved marshmallows, Xboxes with Rock Band, sound-proof meeting rooms with glass walls, karaoke booths, banks of futuristic-looking computers, tables of breakfast food, cold beverages and every kind of tea Britain could ever dream of taxing us for. I felt very odd standing there with a folder of papers, adjusting my tie.
  • 11:15 am
    • My recruiter arrived and we stepped into a conference room. She asked some questions to get to know me a bit better, offered some helpful advice for the interviews and explained how the day would go. She then slid me two cards, one with my first interviewer’s name and office number, the second with “Microsoft e-cash” written on it. “Your first interview will be a lunch interview. Buy yourself and your interviewer’s lunch with that card. They’ll like that.” The lady at the desk in the lobby punched something into the computer and within a minute or two a campus shuttle Prius with a number pained across the side pulled up. “Good luck!” the girl called as I headed out and drove back through Jurassic Park in the Prius.
  • 12:00 pm
    • Lunch interview with a nice Indian guy where we ate pasta and he asked me about my job, schooling, methods of troubleshooting, what the most difficult problem I’ve ever solved at work was, high-level questions about different programming languages, etc.
  • 1:00 pm
    • Headed to his office on the second floor of a our building. Few engineers even turn their office lights on because the building has so many windows. “Alright, now let’s do some coding problems. We’ll start with a pretty easy one.” Popping the lid on a marker he asked, “So if I give you three numbers, each representing the length of a side of a triangle, write an algorithm to tell me what kind of triangle it is.” I was specifically told several times by my recruiter to ask questions before coding because the interviewers intentionally give you too little information, wanting to see what type of questions you ask for. I asked a few questions to get what I needed then got work. He’d occasionally comment or ask why I was doing something a certain way and not some other way. The last several minutes of the interview were him asking me what errors could occur, what vulnerabilities the code had and how I could make it faster. I was surprised at the level of error checking they did, looking even at things as small as stack or operator overflow.
  • 2:00 pm
    • Went to an office just across the hall where I was greeted by another Indian guy named Sunil. This interview started with behavioral questions followed by more code. He asked a question about binary trees and wanted a function to traverse the tree and determine which path led to an edge node where all the nodes along the path added up to a number he would pass in. I got to the end of the function but I knew I wasn’t recursing right and couldn’t quite figure it out in time. My confidence was a bit shaken afso I decided to follow my recruiter’s advice to grab a juice from the fridge and take a breather between interviews and shake it off… You are interviewing all day and they understand it’s tiring, so one bad interview won’t kill your shot at a job, she said.
  • 3:00 pm
    • This one was in another wing of the building with another Indian guy named Shiv. He had spent some time in Utah and was excited to talk about it. He seemed very at ease which was good after how tense the previous hour had felt. His coding question was a direct nerd snipe. He asked me to write a function which would, given a string like “abracadabrax” would return the most repeated character, printed the number of times it was found, followed by the least repeated. If there were any ties, then both characters had to be printed alphabetically. So the output above would be “aaaaadx.” I wrote my solution and he asked “so how fast does that run?” I looked at the algorithm and answered. He said, “Okay, can you make it faster?” So I worked to shorten things up a bit, cut out a nested loop and he asked the same thing. Then he asked, “can you get that to linear time?” I worked until we were out of time and he asked, “So how do you feel about this?” I felt like I’d just missed the final answer, but I said, “Well I solved the problem, I made it subsequently faster twice, but I’m curious how you get it to linear time. How do you do that?” He grinned and said, “Oh, you can’t.” Then he cast a side-ward glance and with a mischievous smile added, “You said you liked challenging problems; how did you like that one?” Seriously? An unsolvable problem?? It was inward relief and agony.
  • 4:00 pm
    • Final team interview with the hiring manager, the only American I interviewed with besides my recruiter. He was a hilarious guy who shook my hand and said, “So this is Richard Holley. What’s up?” “Hey, nice to meet you. I actually go by Wes.” Still half-smiling he said, “Yeah, I don’t like that, man. Why would you forego using such an illustrious first name as Richard?” He grabbed some Red Vines and sat behind his desk. Then I noticed the placard on the door with his name “Rich H.” and I smiled and he laughed. “Alright, now as the manager around here I get to save the hardest questions for last. So I’m going to ask you some of the craziest code you’ve seen here today.” He paused for a second before continuing while I inwardly groaned, “nah, I’m just messing. Let’s just chat—we’re done with coding today.” So he sipped from one of the four juice cans on his desk and asked questions like why I’m here, what I’m interested in doing at Microsoft, why I want to work at Microsoft, where else I’ve interviewed, how the day has gone so far, and what accomplishment I’m most proud of in life. He was unexpectedly inquisitive about what inspires me, drives me, and where I wanted to go in life and particularly in my career. The interview seemed relatively distant from anything of a technical nature at all and involved a lot of laughter.
  • 5:00 pm
    • I grabbed a shuttle back to the recruitment building and had a final meeting with my recruiter in the melted marshmallow furniture. She told me what she thought and said she’d get back to me as soon as Rich made his decision.

The next afternoon I was walking around near the waterfront in downtown Seattle when a girl stopped me on the street. We talked for a few minutes and her friend (who happened to be Mormon) joined us and started telling me about the singles wards here while I explained why I was in town. Just then my phone rang and my recruiter yelled, “Wes! It’s Kristy—sorry it’s so loud I’m in Disneyland. I can’t talk much now, but I wanted to call and let you know that I just got an email on my phone that we’re making you an offer!” I was a bit in shock, but she continued anyway, “Awesome right?? I’ll call you with all the details tomorrow.” I hung up and turned around smiling, “Holy crap, guess who that was??” The two girls looked at me, “Oh my—did you get the job??” We all joined in a massive hug while jumping up and down celebrating on a corner in Seattle, me and two random girls.

Monday, February 21, 2011


My grandfather was rarely seen without a watch. He had a golden watch with a Gucci-style band on it that he wore a lot through my childhood. Grandpa was a businessman and a man of his word; punctuality was an inseparable part of who he was. One year ago when Grandpa got sick, he wore that watch less and less as his priorities shifted from arriving to meetings promptly to resting and recovering. One winter afternoon my mom was heading over to help Grandma clean up her house. As we were heading out the door Mom asked if I would bring my guitar and play for Grandpa while he rested.

Grandpa sat up and tried to put on his best smile as we came in. He never liked letting anyone know he was in pain, which is partially why the cancer went undetected for so long. He told me a story about when my mom was a little girl and brought home a kitten. The kitten disappeared and my mom cried and cried. Grandpa seemed sad as he told me that part, as if he still, after all these years, wished he could go back and spare my mom those tears. His expression changed slightly and he said, “Well enough of all this old stuff. I want to hear you play.” I expected him to close his eyes and embrace sleep as I had done countless times as a kid while my dad sat against the wall in the shadows of the room I shared with my brother, playing his guitar until we were asleep. Instead, Grandpa folded his hands over a pillow on his lap and listened.

In that moment music made perfect sense, saying all the things that I could not. As I packed up to go, Grandpa spoke briefly with my mom. As I passed by, I told him I loved him and hoped he felt better. He looked up with his crystal blue eyes and characteristic grin, now stained with pain and said, “I love you too.”

In the weeks following, the family met at Grandma and Grandpa’s house often. We had family firesides where Grandpa bore testimony and blessed his grandchildren. I spent many sad drives back to Provo with bleary eyes, struggling to understand why, of all things, he had to have such a painful, incurable form of cancer. Why such a good, innocent man had to experience such a restless end. As the merciless clock on the wall ticked on, speaking and eating became increasingly taxing affairs for Grandpa and family members took turns watching over him through the night.

In what were his final hours, we talked about serving missions, football and camping. He told some stories none of us had heard before about growing up down south and, with his final breaths before he fell asleep, he praised his angel of a wife. That night, the only intelligible words he uttered from unconsciousness were brief passages of a prayer to his Father in Heaven. Even with his final breaths, he showed his gratitude and allegiance to his Savior. Grandpa knew that even though it might not be the Lord's will to heal him, it was His will to save him and have him Home.

After Grandpa’s funeral, Grandma gave me his golden watch. No longer wound, the hands had stopped moving and stood where Grandpa had left them. Feeling an unworthy character to wear this great man’s symbol, I keep his watch in a special place in my room. Coincidentally, when I put it there, I placed it next to something else—my missionary tag with Christ’s name in large letters. I couldn’t help but think about the similarity of the two items, both meant to be worn in memory of a life lived so much greater than my own. I’m grateful for those examples in my life. I love you, Grandpa. I miss you.

Photo by my mom near our home in Sandy, Utah, 2009