My Path to VFA

When I turned 16 I got my first job working at a SuperTarget behind the counter of their snack bar. The job was neither particularly good nor bad. Every day I would come in and perform the same routine of making food for customers, prepping food for the following day, and cleaning up so I could go home. Barring any particularly friendly or agitated customers, all of my days working there, 3 years in total, were essentially the same.

When I left for college at NC State, where I majored in Comp. Sci. and Textile Engineering, I picked up several jobs over the course of four years. I did everything from food prep and tutoring, to automation engineering and software development. There was only one common thread that ran through all of these jobs. Every day I would go to work, perform essentially the same routine, and go home. This was especially true of food prep and automation engineering (I did backups), but it even held during software development. This was because many of the ‘challenges’ I faced were simply large, structured tasks masquerading as real problems. Anyone can copy and paste a data format a thousand times, and that was a large portion of my job for a summer.

An exception to this monotonous work was in my senior design project for Textile Engineering, in which two classmates and myself researched, designed, built, and documented a canine biometrics vest. The project lasted 9 months, and during that time I never had two days that were quite the same. I loved having input on what the project needed, and how I fit into the work necessary to make the product functional. This kind of product rather than task focused work interested me and, after a lot of talking with friends and family, I became convinced that a start up environment was where I wanted to work when I graduated in May.

It was perhaps three months into my senior year, and senior design project, that I first heard about a program called Venture for America. At the time I had very little idea what it was about or how it worked, but having heard the words fellowship and startup I knew it was the thing for me. The only issue was that I was convinced I could never get in. Just looking at the statistics, acceptance into the program was very low, and the demographics of the program heavily favored Ivy League and private schools. As a State University attendee it was a bit daunting to think I was competing with people that had gone to such prestigious schools. However, I have always tried to be of the mindset that how hard you work outweighs your background, so I powered through the interview process. After several interviews, and an unconventional selection day, I was informed that I had been accepted into the program. But the job search didn’t stop there.

Once accepted into Venture for America, fellows are tasked with finding positions at one of several hundred partner companies during what is referred to as “the match process.” As innocent as it seems, the match process was one of the most stressful months of my life. The process began on March 26, 2016 when the official web portal opened up. This gave all of the fellows the ability to see all of the open positions at all of the partner companies, and all of the partner companies the ability to see a profile of all of the fellows looking for jobs.

Going in I knew I was looking for a software engineering position, and if it could be related to textiles that was icing on the cake. Additionally, I knew I wanted to work at a place where I was given the chance to do a variety of work, was treated like an adult, and didn’t have to wear business casual every day if I didn’t want to.

I very quickly learned these criteria were not specific enough when I didn’t manage to filter a single company after first round interviews, when I interviewed with 18 companies. This time was a whirlwind of technical projects, interviews, and answering the same set of questions over and over. During it all, I had several interviews with my future employer Leverege. Despite the fact that I ultimately chose them over other offers, I only remember three things about my interview process with them.

The first was being asked the question “which state would you get rid of if you had to get rid of a state?” At the time this struck me as a bit of an odd question, and after five minutes of rambling on and trying to come up with a logical answer I decided on Wyoming. My interviewer, Ryan, then asked why I hadn’t chosen Hawaii even though it fit my criteria better. I laughed, and cringed inside, and answered that I had momentarily forgotten Hawaii was a state.

The second was being asked to build a weather chatbot by Matt “The Crusher” Quirion, the VP of Product. It introduced me to wit.ai, Facebook’s chatbot engine, and required that I plug in geolocation and weather API’s. It was the most fun technical ‘interview’ I had ever had. I was so used to being asked questions about data structures and how graph traversal algorithms worked, it was refreshing to get the chance to just make something for a change.

The last thing I remember about my interview process was Ryan, my main contact at Leverege through everything. During the match process if I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or in class, I was interviewing with someone. This meant that everyone I talked to started to run together. The reason Ryan stuck out was because he managed to express that he cared. When I was too busy between finals and graduation to interview, and had to schedule things farther out, every company I talked to except Leverege tried to pressure me into scheduling interviews anyway. This led to some unnecessarily poor performances in interviews because the time for me to prepare simply didn’t exist, but I was too interested in the company to let the opportunity go. Leverege was the opposite, and I think that was the mark of someone I wanted to work with. A place that would understand how complex and busy life can be, treat me like an adult, and expect that if I wanted it badly enough it would happen.

If I could give one piece of advice to someone looking for a job, it would be to pay attention to the small things. Notice if who you’re interviewing with is empathetic of your situation (but don’t make excuses), if the boss/CEO treats his employees respectfully (yelling is bad), and if through the interview process you actually have a good time. The way a person designs an interview process I’ve noticed is reflective of the way that person sees the company working. It’s as much a test of culture fit as it is a test of skills. Interviewing is a two-way street, and you should be ensuring that a company is a good fit for you, just as much as they should ensure you’re a good fit for them.

James is the Director of Engineering at Leverege. He graduated from NC State University in 2016 with degrees in Computer Science and Textile Engineering. His writing focuses on development and security.

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James Schaefer
James is the Director of Engineering at Leverege. He graduated from NC State University in 2016 with degrees in Computer Science and Textile Engineering. His writing focuses on development and security.

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