Are you upset about your grade? This one is for you
On How I Survived my First Launch School Interview Assesment
It’s 10 o’clock. It’s just one hour left to this defining moment when I’m going to be evaluated for all I have done for the past weeks on my first Launch School interview assessment. ‘It’s ok’ — I’m telling myself — ‘I have been preparing for that for so long. Countless hours of solving Code Wars problems with a timer to put some extra stress on me, all study sessions with TA I was able to attend (they probably were fed up with me already), at least one study session with other students per day to be able to present my code in front of people that I don’t know, deliberate practice with those problems that I feel less confident with. I got to the point where I could explain how to solve a problem while doing a one-minute plank exercise. I have to be ready — I thought. — ‘I can do it for A+. If that’s not mastery then what is?’
I’m doing a warm-up. Just solving again a few small problems, as planned. I look at the clock — It’s 10:15 AM — I feel this big, tight bubble in my chest. I take a few deep breaths. It helps for a minute. I stretch. I go back to problems. I drink water. I listen to some relaxing music. It feels better. The bubble comes and goes. ‘Why am I stressing so much’ — I think to myself. — ‘I know I’m prepared. I just need to do what I’ve done so many times. It’s nothing new. It’s nothing different. Or is it?’.
Meeting a monster
It’s about time. I got the link to zoom and Coder Pad. I connect. This is really happening now. I’ve read about this moment in many articles of other students. I got an interviewer that I don’t know. It’s ok. He seems nice. He is not a three-headed monster as I had nightmares about. My palms are sweating and the bubble comes back as I’m waiting to see my first problem. It feels like standing in a queue to roller-coaster. ‘Go away bubble! I don’t need you now!’ — I’m trying to explain to her. But she is stubborn as me. She decides to stay and settles comfortable in the middle of my chest.
I can see the first problem on the screen. I cannot believe my luck. I’ve done problems like that a million times before. I know instantly how to solve it. ‘Remember to spend your time reading the problem carefully’ — I hear Rana’s voice in my head — a friend that I spend almost every day practicing with. So I do. Just as practiced so many times. I look for the ‘catch’. Sometimes the ‘catch’ is hiding in one word in the problem’s description and sometimes is hiding in test cases. The ‘catch’ is this one single detail that make you solve the wrong problem and you end up with one test cases that your code cannot pass. I remember a study session with Srdjan when for the first time I was preparing for the interview. I got so excited. I solved the problem beautifully. Just not the right one.
I don’t want to make this mistake now. I read problem twice. I view the test cases carefully. I choose one of the test cases and do a ‘dry run’. I make sure that my understanding is correct by asking few questions to the interviewer. I feel ready to go to the algorithm. But the bubble is still there. It actually spread to my through a bit so I can hear my voice shaking from time to time. ‘Can the interviewer hear that? Does he know that I’m stressed? Will that affect my grade?’ — Tones of thoughts running in my head. ‘Focus!’ — I’m screaming to myself.
Everything goes as planned. So far so good. The algorithm is ready. I don’t do a dry run with an example. I forgot although Kyle was telling me to do one just a day before. ‘I feel confident with my algorithm so I’m going to start coding, but If I have any problems during the coding process then I will go back to it’ — I inform the interviewer. That’s a phrase I always say just before starting to code. Every single time, even when I practice myself. I want it ingrained in my mind. If I got a bug, and it’s simple syntax error a would fix it. If the code returned an unexpected result I would analyze it and go back to the algorithm. That’s the plan. And that’s why I have been practicing. But it’s not what is happening right now.
I’m explaining what I want the code to return just before I click ‘run’. I don’t get what I expected. The bubble grows. I know that’s my weak spot. I know I got extra stressed when I get a bug. ‘It’s ok’ — I’m explaining to myself. ‘It’s a very simple bug to fix!’ I know where the problem lies. I take test cases and I start counting. I hear the interviewer asking me some questions but his words start to deform and for a second I don’t understand English anymore. I look at the code. My mind gets blank. I don’t see code anymore. I only see signs that doesn’t mean anything. ‘Is that’s it? I’m going to fail because I cannot fix a simple bug? How can I not know how to solve it? You have done it hundreds of times!’ — I hear a voice in my head. I throw out articulateness vowels. I hear the voice of the interviewer in the background ‘it’s just a small thing’, he says. My mind goes crazy ‘It’s just a simple thing and you cannot even find it?!’ I don’t know how long it passed. I get together. ‘I feel I have confused myself so I’m going to finish the rest of the code and go back to this problem when I’m done with the rest’. — I’m communicating. I do what I said. I’m distancing myself from the issue. That’s what usually helped me. I go back. I struggle. I hear the interviewer feeling my pain. I hear him trying to help me and giving suggestions. I think to myself ‘Does that mean my grade goes down because he is telling me all those things that I don’t need?’. It doesn’t help because my problem is not a code. My problem is that sometimes my bubble spread on my eyes too and I stop seeing things. I finally just decide to test one approach. It works. All test cases return ‘true’. I can breath again.
I have 20 minutes left. I got second problem. I fly through it. I know I have to finish on time to pass. I got all the test cases right. ‘I will let you know later about the result’ — I hear from the interviewer. I feel good for a second. I think ‘I got stressed. I got the bug and I solved the bug. I struggled but I did it. I finished 5 minutes before the time limit. I can eat pizza now.
There is really nothing that I can do while waiting for results. Trying to solve some problems, watching a tv series… I’m checking my phone every 3 minutes. So far nothing. I already know that I have passed. (I solved problems on time, right?). I’m trying to evaluate my performance. I wouldn’t change much except how I handle this one bug. I definitely have to work on my bubble. We need to get into some kind of agreement. I did it right but it took way too long. It wasn’t perfect. I will not get A+. I struggled with this one bug. I solved it in the end but I didn’t handle it as I should. All the rest was almost as planned. I’m hoping for A. Where does it even come from? I mean… I’ve had many exams in my life but never stressed like that over any of them. I never cared about them that much. Where is the difference?
Facing the darkness
I got my results. I feel weak. I open the page. I read. I see the grades. I see A- for technical grade. I feel even weaker. I read. I get angry. I get sad. I see that the main part o my grade reduction was due to that , that the interviewer had to help me. I don’t believe my eyes. ‘This is so not true!’ — I tell myself. — ‘I solved not because of the help but despite it!’. I get even more upset. I feel it’s unfair. I know exactly what I can and what I cannot do it. I have never in my life prepared to an exam that much. I never cared as much. I never could have wake up in the middle of the night and find the longest palindromic substring in a string. Yet I’m sitting now, reading my feedback and feeling so much like a failure.
My boyfriend looking at me. He trying to cheer me up. He doesn’t understand. ‘You got A-. It’s still a good grade. Why are you so upset?’ — He asks. ‘-A is the lowest grade for me to pass. It’s like getting 3 in our grade system. After two months of preparation and doing everything I possibly could I got the same grade as when I was in high school and just went through the notes once. It just hurts’.
I got on a zoom call with my friend. First I’m angry but she cheer me up. We trained together. We have been on a similar level although her code is much more beautiful than mine. She had her exam week before me. She got A+. I feel so happy for her. I feel she really deserves it. It feels better now but I clearly see that this has to change. I cannot react like that. It’s just a grade. Or is it?
So I’m starting thinking and exploring this thought. I got grades in my life. I got good grades and I got bad grades but it never felt like that. Why? I remind myself about my mum. She was a real role model for me. She worked, took care of me and my brother, and still went to school to get her high-school diploma, which she didn’t get when she was a teenager. She told me once ‘You are learning for yourself and not for the grades’. She never cared about my grades. But she cared when I came back home and I told her about an interesting thing that I have learned.
That was the thing that I totally forgot about when I was preparing for this assessment. I forgot to feel joy. I forgot about all those great things I have learned and improved and to cherish those. I forgot to look back and notice that it used to take me three days to solve problem 7kyu on Code Wars that now feels trivial. I forgot that when I had my first study session with Leena and I heard her explaining the code I told myself ‘I want to talk about my code like she does’, and two weeks before my exam I heard other student telling that about me. I forgot that my first program had three lines of code and the most difficult part of that was to use ‘Math.random’ and ‘Math.floor’ to generate a random output and now I can create programs that are hundreds of lines long. I forgot about all those small achievements that made me a better programmer and all those small things that used to feel impossible to grasp and now are so obvious. There is no grade that can describe that.
I think about the feedback after the assessment when I was asked how fair I think the assessment was. How do I think? Of course, I felt it was unfair because I felt well prepared but my grade didn’t reflect that. But on the other hand if I think about it now, is it even possible for a grade to be fair? We are meeting a person for 60 minutes, possibly that we never met before. We have only this time to make an impression and let them build a mental model of who we are and what we can do. They don’t know us so it may be difficult to tell if we are so stressed or just don’t know how to find a bug. We cannot present how much progress we made and we cannot show everything we’ve learned and how hard we worked. It’s just two problems and not 100 of them. We might get lucky and get a problem that we feel very familiar with but we can always get one that we never encountered or just cannot come up with a good algorithm for. It’s a bit of luck too. With practice we can only lower the possibility of getting something that will be challenging for us. Will our job interview be fair? Definitely not. Some interviewing engineers may decide after just seeing me, that I’m not ‘a good fit for the job’ without even seeing me coding just because ‘I don’t smile ‘ or ‘I don’t spark a joy’. Will I let that define me as a programmer? Of course not. Can a grade be fair at all? Probably not, but it’s ok. Because the only person who can give us a fair grade is ourselves.
The lesson I have learned was valuable and I don’t think I would make this realization if I would get my dreamed A+. I wouldn’t know that I have to work to find some good techniques to handle my stress so that I can be prepared for my job interview. I wouldn’t know that I can handle bugs even though I’m very stressed. I wouldn’t know that I have to work on communicating well while I have a mind block. It’s because success doesn’t teach us, but failure does. But only if we can stop for a moment and reflect on that. This is also why we decided to go to Launch School. It’s not just a school for Software Engineers. It’s a Life School as well and sometimes lessons may come in a form that we don’t expect.