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A fire engine ride that could have turned bad


'Quit my job at Microsoft, off to be a sculptor, thank you'
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The best interview is if you can convince people you're on the same side as they are, trying to figure out whether the job is right for them. Usually, by the time I get to interview someone, they've already been technically vetted. So they're qualified for the job, but the question is much more, are they a fit? And sometimes that's a matter of intuition, and there's a fine line between intuition and prejudice and I... actually, one of the most successful interviews I think I ever did seemed like a disaster at the time, but I was interviewing for a senior software manager and I had a woman who had been recommended to me that had worked at one of the big software companies, and had had really a career that showed that she had been very successful in her projects. She kept on getting bigger and bigger projects, more and more promotions, and this was a very, well, it was Microsoft, a very hard-nosed company, so she clearly was competent, because she kept getting promoted in an environment like that.

And so I interviewed her, but something seemed a little off, and so there's a question that I ask sometimes of: what would you do if you weren't doing this? And when I asked her that question, she lit up and said, 'Oh, I would be a sculptor.' And I said, 'Really, tell me about that.' And she started talking about her sculpture and she just got all bright and happy and whatever it was that had been bothering me went away. And then I said to her, 'I was like, you know, you seem much happier when you talk about this than when you talk about software management.' And she sort of went back, 'Oh no, I'm very serious about being a software manager. Sculpture is just a hobby.' You know, and so I'm thinking, 'I don't know, my intuition is this is not right, but do I have a... since women are so rarely software managers, am I being prejudiced against her, or...?' But something just didn't feel right. So I listened to her for a while and I said, 'You know, I just have to tell you, you're just not convincing me. You just don't seem as enthusiastic about this as you were when you were talking about your sculpture.' And then she started doubling down, talking about it. But then she started... I could see that she was starting to cry and she realised I could see she was starting to cry and then she got all embarrassed and she... and I felt terrible and she's like, 'This has never happened to me.' And I was like, 'Yes, I know Microsoft. I realise. And I know your career and I know this has never happened to you.' And she's like, 'Yes, this is really...' And so I felt really bad and I said, 'Okay, I'm sorry I really touched on... I got too personal there, let's... why don't you just come back tomorrow and we're going to just start the whole interview over again. Just from the beginning. We'll forget about today. And I got her some Kleenex and we agreed to get together the next day. And she left and then, sadly, she cancelled the interview the next day. And I thought, 'Oh, I kind of blew that, because she was incredibly qualified and I really felt like I had mis-interviewed her.' So I felt really bad about that for a few days, but then after about three days I came in and there was this huge, beautiful bouquet of flowers on my desk and a note from her, saying, 'Quit my job at Microsoft, off to be a sculptor, thank you.' And I don't know what happened to her, but I think whether she decided to stay a sculptor or she just tried it and decided she wanted to go back to software management, I'm sure she's fine. I'm sure it worked out for her. And I'm glad she did that.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: interview, sculpture, software management

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017