How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire.

Ask yourself this question, “What do employers owe the people they do not hire?” I asked myself that question more than a decade ago and it changed my life forever.

On Sunday, January 18, 2004, I ran a help-wanted ad in the New York Times that read in its entirety, “Programmer – Will train, enjoyment of mathematics a plus” followed by an email address. I was heading a statistical arbitrage trading desk and I needed help maintaining all the code I’d written.

 

I was surprised to get more than 300 resumes and because nobody had experience in the language we use (APL), and I could not gauge learning potential from a resume, I sent everyone a link to a 500-page manual (latest version available here), and I suggested applicants try their hand at a half-dozen puzzle questions they could easily answer in this language.

openhouse07Thirty-eight people answered the questions so I invited them in for an open house. I had them sit on our trading floor for a bit where they played a game I’d written called BF Game that simulated an information market. We talked about the technology and the nature of our work and then I asked them what they thought I should do next.

Twenty-seven of the applicants suggested I teach them all first and then make a hiring decision, so I ordered tables and chairs that arrived the next day. And the day after that we built a classroom. Continue reading “How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire.”

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Stories from Germany

by: Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com


luftwaffeA Luftwaffe Airman’s Daughter

In 1980, my girlfriend and I were traveling on a rail pass. We left from Milan bound for Frankfurt only because that is where the train went.

A German businessman sat across from us and asked, “Where are you going?”

“Frankfurt.”

“Why? Frankfurt is so boring. You should go to Wiesbaden instead.”

We asked, “Why?”

“Because that is where we live and you will stay with us.”

His wife spoke English with a perfect British accent. It turned out her father had been in the Luftwaffe and had been shot down during the Battle of Britain. He became best friends with a prison guard, and after the war during the summers they would swap children. She grew up partially in England.

She said the difference between the treatment of prisoners by the British and the Germans was astonishing.

We all cried.

We were there having dinner with them because they had decided to make it a habit of being kind to strangers; which is not a bad policy even when the stranger had recently been trying to blow up your country.

treblantwoman

Beautiful Women of the GDR

I won a British Airways contest based on my social entrepreneurship site, No Shortage of Work, and the prize was airfare to anywhere BA flies. I put a notice on my profile on Europe’s equivalent of LinkedIn called Xing. Dozens of people said they would love to meet me in person so I flew into Frankfurt, then Cologne, and flew out of Hamburg and for 11 days I spent my time meeting people in person I’d only corresponded with before on Xing.

Although my sample size is very small, I have the following observation:

The most interesting, dynamic, interesting, hard-working, fearless, and interesting people I met were:

1) Female

2) Beautiful

3) From East Germany, but were now in the West.

4) Were born under Communism, but grew into adulthood after the fall of the Wall.

My sample size was small and I am partial to young beautiful women so perhaps that is why I find them more interesting than old male businessmen like me, but I still think there is something to this.

What do you think?

 

germanunemployment

An Unemployed German

In 2004, in Nuremberg, I met Kai, a very talented 51-year-old programmer who had been unemployed for 2 years, so my wife and I took him to dinner. His attitudes were self-defeating and I attacked every one of his beliefs:

“The economy is terrible.”  So, are you just going to wait for it to improve?

“The government is incompetent.”  Are you going to run for office and fix it?

“I’ve only had 2 interviews and they both ended abruptly when they learned my age.”  People are prejudiced. Do you have a plan for how you are going to change them, or are you going to take a different approach?

“I don’t have a college degree.” That hasn’t stopped you for 30 years.

“Nobody cares.” There is a whole community of programmers just like you. Are you going to continue ignoring them or are you going to start caring about them and see if they care back?

“There is no work.” There is never a shortage of work even when there is a shortage of jobs. Find some work and do it even if you aren’t paid.

“I’ve built some amazing software on my own, but can’t sell it.” Are you going to learn to sell, partner with someone who can, or give up on doing what you want and start doing what other people want?

“There are no jobs in Germany.”  You’re in the EU now so you can go where there are jobs.

“My English isn’t good enough.”  Sure it is; I understand you perfectly. If you don’t understand me it isn’t because of your language skills, it is because of how you are thinking.

My wife kept kicking me under the table and whispered, “He just wants your sympathy.”

I said, “Perhaps, but it isn’t what he needs.”

We were living in London at the time and he even flew over to spend a weekend with me to get more of my abuse.

Soon he got unstuck and landed a job in Copenhagen (good pay, company apartment, flight home every other weekend) and a year later he moved to England for another job.

Kai and I have become good friends and my wife and I stayed with him outside London in November 2010.

He says he hates going back to Germany because too many people there think the way he used to.

I was speaking to a group of programmers, many of whom were looking for work. I asked Kai to write a short essay explaining what he learned, and how he changed his approach to what some call “networking.” Here is what he produced:

KaiStory

What am I?

© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com

Originally published August, 2009, in International Family Magazine

My friend in college, Debra, asked me, “What are you?”

I did not understand the question.

“What are you? How hard can that be? I’m Jewish, what are you?”

I said I was not religious.

“Neither am I. Just tell me what you are?”

I had not been raised with a religion… in fact; it had not been mentioned, kind of like sushi. I was 25 before I had even heard of sushi.

I asked my parents, “What am I?”

My mom said, “Brooke.” She laughed.

“I know that, but what am I relative to you?”

“Our son.”

“But what religion am I?”

“We don’t know. You haven’t told us.”

“How can I not even know what religion I am?”

“That is a personal choice – you will need to make it yourself. Or not.”

This was frustrating, “Ok, let’s make it simple. How about race? I’m not Black, right?”

My mom said, “I wouldn’t be too sure. There was a lot of fooling around going on. Everyone did it; don’t let them tell you otherwise.”

It was like sparring with a judo master who fades from every thrust.

In total exasperation, I said, “Look, my girlfriend is Jewish, and she wants to know what I am. Let’s start there… I’m not Jewish, right?”

My father became serious, “Do you want me to tell you what I want you to be?”

“Yes.” That would be a start.

“When they come to round up the Jews, I want you to be Jewish.”

__________________________________________________________

My friend in graduate school, Mona Hakim, was born in Bethlehem. When she was young, her family moved to Lebanon to avoid threats against her father’s life. She was going to the American University of Beirut when the civil war started.

She told me that your identity card had your religion printed right on it. Thugs would stop your car, and if you were the wrong religion for that part of town, they would chop your head off and place it on a fence post. Muslims did it. Christians did it.

Some people began blackening out their religion on the ID card. That worked for a while. How could you kill someone if you didn’t know what they were?

It didn’t take long for the thugs to think up an answer. If you were Muslim, and you weren’t proud of it, you deserved to die. Christians felt the same about Christians. They couldn’t agree on much, but they did agree on that one thing… don’t say what you are, and we’ll kill you.

That is when she decided she had to get out of there.

I asked her, “So, what are you?”

She said, “I’m not telling you. I’m through with that shit.”

Turns out, she was Mona – good enough for me.

If you conclude that your problems are caused by members of another group, you had better make sure you are not one of them.

If those others are humans, then you are either one of them, or you are inhuman.

Rejection

208641140_a9a7f6da5b_b© 2009 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published as Borders in International Family Magazine
Republished in Folks Magazine on 9/12/09.

Dennis and I had never been to Canada.

So, in February of 1971 we decided to hitchhike from Terre Haute, Indiana to Toronto by way of Detroit. A kindly gentleman in a pick-up truck offered to take us over the bridge to Windsor, on the Canadian side of the border.

He said, “If you are dodging the draft, don’t tell me, but I’m willing to try to get you across.”

At the border, the guards asked him who we were. “Just friends.”

We would have made it had our backpacks not been spotted in the bed of the pick-up. The three of us were interrogated in separate rooms. It was clear our driver knew nothing about us. “I’m sorry, but we are going to deny you admission to Canada. You must return to Detroit.” The official sounded quite official.

I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Then I felt guilty; I had just been treated as if I were a criminal. On top of this, I felt tremendous rejection.

Dennis seemed quite cheerful. “Great.” He said, “Would you write me a letter?”

“What?”

“I just want you to write me a letter rejecting me from Canada.”

“We’ve never done that before. I don’t even know what you are asking for.”

“Well,” He paused, “Since Junior High, I’ve been writing short stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I have not yet had a story accepted, but I have quite a collection of rejection letters from some of the world’s finest publications. However, this is the first time I’ve ever been rejected from an entire country. Would you write me a letter?”

The fellow laughed. “Why not?”

“Great. I’ll tell you what to say.”

——————————-

Dear Mr. ##########

Thank you so much for your submission to Canada. Unfortunately your offering does not meet our needs at this time.

We wish you the best in your endeavours.

Regards,

Canada

P. S. God Save the Queen

————————————

That night we managed to hitch to Oberlin, Ohio and spend the night in a house full of young co-eds. That was fun.

The next day we attempted to enter Canada for a second time, from Buffalo. The border guard spotted us immediately. A telex had been sent from Windsor describing two whackos.

As he pulled us out of the car, the guard said, “I suppose you’ll want another rejection letter.”

If you are going to go far, you’ll need to deal with lots of rejection. Start a collection.

The Magical Power of Imagination

© 2007 Brooke Allen
brooke@brookeallen.com www.BrookeAllen.com
Originally published in International Family Magazine

As an undergraduate I went on a date to see a famous “mentalist”. I find magicians entertaining. My date was eager to show me proof of the supernatural. I was entertained and she found her evidence.

His first feat was to control the minds of two volunteers. He had asked the promoters to provide a selection of decks of cards. Two volunteers each chose a deck and shuffled them. The volunteers sat at desks a few feet apart, each with a face-down deck.

The mentalist then remembered that the effect was difficult if the decks contained any jokers so he quickly removed them.

Each volunteer was asked to cut the deck about a third of the way into the pack and turn those cards over, placing them face up on top of the rest of the deck. Then they were to repeat the process, cutting past the face-up cards and turn them over again.

Finally, he used his mind to command the volunteers to remove the face-up cards so as to find the first face-down card.

Amazingly, they both had found the eight of clubs.

“See,” said she.

“I see,” said I.

He asked the audience to think of a number between one and one hundred, both digits odd but not the same. For example, 15 and 91 would be OK but 55 was not. We all thought of a number.

“I can sense many of you are thinking of 37… or perhaps 73. Raise your hand if I am right?”

Many hands went up. Not all, but certainly more than one percent.

She was thinking of 37.  I was thinking of 88. She was much better than me at following instructions..

“Do the math,” she said.

“I have,” I said.

I left amused. She left with a renewed faith.

While in graduate school I saw an act called the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society featuring two magicians who would later work together as Penn and Teller. They claimed to be no more than entertainers. They were very entertaining.

In 2005, thirty years after first seeing him on stage, I heard Penn Jillette’s essay on National Public Radio entitled “There is no God.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557

Like many people, he and I believe there is no God.

But I do believe in providence even though one definition is: “a manifestation of God’s foresightful care for his creatures.”

In high school, I imagined I would find something in college that would excite my passions. Three years later I did.

I imagined I could make a living at it, and for thirty years I have.

I imagined I would find a woman to love and ten years later I did.

We imagined having wonderful children and we have.

I imagined writing stories for them and I have.

I imagined that someone would be interested in publishing some of those stories and at Sea-Tac airport I met Catherine Wayland and she did. Here they are.

If you imagine that there is a foresightful God looking out for you, you will find ample evidence that there is. Even if there isn’t.

You don’t need to believe in God to trust in providence.