I got started at a good time last night, and I had good intentions of getting you up to the next big plot reveal, but having to pause to do battle with a bat for twenty minutes at 9PM somehow slowed me down and broke the mood. However, weekends are made for writing. There will be more! (14,420 words total now, though still trailing where I should be by 3,000.)
Monday morning found Kristy, as per her routine, in business clothes and sitting at the kitchen table. She was looking at the phone, a number already dialed, summoning up the confidence to hit “call”, and reflecting as she did so, that she would have made the call without a moment’s hesitation if she had still had her job — if she had not needed so much to make the call. She exhaled and put the phone to her ear.
“Search Solutions. Can I help you?”
“Hi there. My name is Kristy Nilsson. I’m calling for Lauren Baird. Is she available? I’m returning her call.”
“Please hold while I see if she’s available.”
Relentlessly innocuous music blared at her for a minute and until the receptionist returned abruptly to the line and stated that she would be able to put her through to Lauren.
“This is Lauren.”
“Hi, Lauren. This is Kristy Nilsson. You’d sent me a note about a product line manager position and said to call any time.”
“Kristy!” the voice on the other end of the line greeted her with the overwhelming familiarity of the professional networker. “Good to talk to you. Yes, I’ve got an opportunity that I’m trying to fill here, and from your profile I thought you might be a fit for it. Do you have a few minutes to talk right now?”
The conversation followed what were already familiar lines. Was she willing to relocate? Yes. Can we just talk a bit about your experience? She did. What are you hoping for out of your next position? She did her best to tailor her answer to the few hints of what this job might be like that had been dropped, and to suggest that she had clear ideas and standards. Shouting, “Look, right now I just really need a job,” would not be the right answer. What were her salary expectations?
“I’m not in this just for the money. The biggest issue for me is finding the right opportunity. But of course I expect compensation to be competitive and to recognize the importance of the position.”
Lauren acknowledged the cleverness of this response but firmly asked how much Kristy had made at her last job, to which Kristy could not but comply.
At last, Lauren performed the ritual reveal, “Based on our conversation, I think that you could be a good fit with out client. They are a manufacturer of premium power tools named Schneider & Sons, located near Chicago. Would you be interested in my forwarding your information to them so that you can be considered for this opportunity?”
The name meant nothing to Kristy, though since power tools had not, heretofore, been an area of great interest to her this was not an indicator of the company’s worth one way or another. She felt a momentary disappointment that it was not a company she knew, or in a field that she found interesting. However, her goal right now was simply to get offers on the table.
“Yes, I’d definitely be interested in having my information passed on to Schneider & Sons and in hearing more about the role there. Actually, the Chicago area is somewhere I have ties. My parents live not far from Chicago, and I have other family back there as well. So that area would be a great fit for me.”
They closed the call with the usual assurances. Kristy set the phone down and sighed out her tension. Talking about herself was almost addictively gratifying, but the stakes made each call an utterly draining experience.
After a few moments of slow breathing and walking around the apartment, Kristy sat back down and typed up all the details of the conversation for her prospect file. This made the fourth prospect which had reached the point of her resume being sent on to the company with the opening, thus far she had only the one interview scheduled, and none of the job prospects gave her enthusiasm. Still, they were jobs. And a job was what she needed.
The headquarters of Aspire Brands was up in The City. Kristy drove up to where she could catch BART, and made sure she allowed herself plenty of time. Nothing untoward occurred, so rather than arrive forty minutes early she found a coffee shop in which to cool her heels and calm her nerves until closer to the interview.
The building, when she reached it, was glisteningly modern, and in front of it an utterly abstract tangle of iron beams stood twenty feet tall astride an inverse fountain. In the lobby, Kristy announced herself to the receptionist behind the main desk, provided identification, and was rewarded with a visitor’s badge.
“Here’s your schedule,” the receptionist said, handing over a clip board. “It looks like you’re a few minutes late for your first interview. Kim Martinez from Human Resources is waiting for you in the atrium.” She waved a hand in the direction of a tall, slim, dark-haired woman who was already approaching the front desk.
Kristy felt a brief wave of panic and started to open the folder in which she’d brought the interview schedule she’d been sent, according to which she was still ten minutes early. Then she thought better of it and went to greet the woman approaching her.
“Kristy?” the woman asked, extending a hand.
She shook the hand firmly. “Yes. Kim?”
The woman nodded. “Trouble getting here?”
Kristy focused on keeping any sound of nervousness from entering her voice. “You know, there must have been some kind of mix up. I didn’t show the first interview as starting till 10AM.” She pulled out the printed schedule she’d brought with her and handed it to Kim. “Luckily, the receptionist was able to give me a copy of the updated itinerary, so I’ll be on keel from here on out.”
Kim glanced at Kristy’s paper, then shrugged and dismissed it. “They must have updated your schedule and forgot to send a copy to your recruiter. Well, that’s how things are here. Fast paced. Two things you’ll have to be comfortable with if you’re going to fit in at Aspire are speed and change. Change, change change! Our corporate value for the year is ‘Dealing With Ambiguity.’ Come on, we’ll talk as we walk to your next interview. That way we can still get fifteen minutes in despite this scheduling mix-up. Now my goal is to see if you’d fit in well with our culture here are Aspire. Can you tell me what you liked most and least about your last job?”
She set a rapid pace. Kristy struggled to both keep up and answer her questions thoroughly.
“Now your next interview,” Kim announced, cutting Kristy off in the middle of a discourse, “is with Alexia Astov. She’s the senior vice president in charge of our flagship Sylvia Lytton clothing brand. She’s also been one of the executive sponsors for the Courier brand revival, so while this role would not report to her, she has a major stake in finding an outstanding candidate to see the project through.”
They came to a stop outside a curving glass wall which enclosed an office of unsettling elegance. A woman of uncertain age but unquestionable pocketbook was talking animatedly to the speaker phone from behind the massive desk, whose design resembled a flattened amoeba made of highly polished mahogany. She waved to Kristy and Kim, then continued to address the phone. The wall successfully obscured all sound, making Alexia’s performance, complete with expansive hand gestures, look like a silent pastiche of “woman having an urgent conversation”.
“I have to get to my next meeting,” Kim announced. “One of the talent acquisition admins will meet you here in thirty minutes to take you to your interview. Good luck!”
She rushed off, leaving Kristy to reflect that although she had often been accused of over-formality in the tech industry, in the Aspire Brands headquarters her fashion ethic appeared conspicuously plain.
Alexia’s phone conversation lasted long enough to allow Kristy to contemplate the question of whether to attempt to look composed by standing with her hands at her side or to assume an appearance of busy-ness by checking her phone for email, but not long enough to reach any resolution in this question. Then the vice president stabbed her phone with decision, rose and pulled open the door.
“Kristy Nilsson?” Her hands enclosed Kristy’s in something that was more of a clasp than a handshake: cool, dry and without pressure or movement. “Come in, come in. Have a seat,” she said as she indicated a chair which proved, once Kristy sat in it, to be by accident or design made such that one was forced to choose between either sprawling back comfortably in it, or perching carefully on the edge, back straight and knees together. No middle ground was given, no quarter extended. Kristy perched. Alexia resumed her place behind her desk. Until that moment, Kristy had not given much credence to the claim that sitting behind a desk implied power because the person behind the desk had the posture of her legs hidden, while the person facing her had hers exposed, but this explanation now seemed readily believable.
Alexia leaned forward, elbows on her desk, and entwined her hands thoughtfully as she regarded Kristy. “Now I’ve read your resume and you seem like a very capable young woman,” she began, her voice betraying no clear accent, yet somehow expressing an unmistakable foreignness in tone and rhythm. “However, at Aspire we do not look merely for the capable. We require some element of the extraordinary. Not just anyone can work here. And having been, if I may say, the inspiration behind the acquisition of the Courier brand, I feel strongly that we must have the right person in this role. Our last line director was not quite right.”
Kristy offered tactful sympathies over the difficulties of not having the right person.
“Essential to my vision,” Alexia continued, “is that we must insist at every turn upon the integrity of the brand. Courier is an iconic brand. It must again be inconceivable that a business woman not have her Courier with her. And for the modern woman, that means a technology bag. Do you know technology?”
Unaccustomed to such an open-ended, not to say unanswerable, line of questioning, Kristy attempted to provide a satisfactory answer to this. Alexia fixed her with a look of complete attention which seemed to interject, “not enough yet” at every pause, and Kristy quickly began to feel herself to be running on too long, yet not having said enough.
At last, Alexia cut her off in mid sentence. “Well, well. Of course, this role is not a creative role. We have, of course, the very best designers providing creative input to the line. This role is responsible for assuring that that vision is executed flawlessly. Can you explain your ability to execute flawlessly?”
This seemed a challenge that must be met with a challenge, however, softly. “I don’t think you’ll find someone who can tell you honestly she can deliver flawless execution. As a product line manager, I’ve been responsible for coordinating the work of teams all of the world. Errors are inevitable. The key is developing checks and processes such that problems are identified early and addressed quickly.” She attempted to illustrate this with several examples.
“Yes, yes.” Alexia waved a hand somewhat dismissively. “But in so many companies this simply means making sure that your follow the plan, that you obey authority. Organization, problem solving, these I can see you have. But are you able to work without direction? No, no. Not enough. Are you able to challenge authority, challenge conventional wisdom?”
“Surely if I simply say, ‘Yes,’ that is itself utterly conventional?”
“Examples!” Alexia cried. “Always examples. Can you provide an example of a time you challenged authority?”
After briefly marshaling her thoughts, Kristy laid out an example of her attempting to turn her management around on an issue.
Alexia shook her head. “No, no, no. That’s just a case of standing up for what you think is the right thing to do. Very good, but what I want to know about is a case of standing up to your management. Slaying sacred cows. Those times you have to fight, fight, fight.”
Kristy tried again.
“Once again,” Alexia replied, with a theatrical expression of despair. “This is simply a case of arguing for what you think is right. When have you fought authority? Really fought it?”
Fighting down rage, Kristy decided that the time to defy authority was now. “In that case, I’m not sure how I can answer your question. Why would I fight authority if it wasn’t a case of arguing for what I thought was right? Would you respect me for having confronted authority in order to argue for something I thought was wrong?”
Alexia threw up her hands. “You see? It’s so hard. We need people who are willing to stand up against authority and conventional wisdom. But what is business? You come in, you have your list of things to do. You have your boss to please. You play by the rules. You seem like a very, very smart young woman, but just the other day I was telling someone younger than you, ‘I don’t know if I can hire you. It may be that other businesses have spoiled you and you can’t think anymore.’ Not everyone can work here. It takes someone who can really be an Aspire employee.”
A willowy young woman with very blonde hair was standing outside the office tapping on the glass. Alexia held up a finger: “one minute.”
“What do you think,” she asked, fixing Kristy with an appraising gaze. “Can you be an Aspire employee?”
Kristy shrugged and spread her hands. “I don’t know how you can expect me to provide a useful answer to that question. If I say, ‘yes,” I may just be saying it. And why would I say “no” when I’m here interviewing for a job?” She rose. “It looks like it’s time for my next interview. Thank you so much.”
She reached out and Alexia performed the not-quite-handshake again. The two women regarded each other for a moment. “Good luck!” Alexia said, and opened the door.
“Hi,” the young woman greeted Kristy, introducing herself by a name Kristy instantly forgot and explaining that Kim had asked her to escort Kristy to her next interview. Kristy desperately wished she could have a moment or two to regain her calm, but that was not how the game was played. Instead the followed the admin, meditating on the fact that in addition to having a comparatively plain fashion sense by Aspire standards, she was also, despite her athleticism, a heavy-weight.
“You’re going to be meeting next with Larry Burkett. He’s the the vice president of Marketing Analytics. Most people really like Alexia,” the admin confided. “But Larry is a tough interview. Still you look tough.”
“Thanks,” Kristy replied, wondering what a tough interview would be like if the last one had been easy.
Larry resided in another curve-walled glass office, which was different from Alexia’s in nearly every feature except for the chair which required either perching or lounging. Larry himself was an even greater contrast: well over six feet tall, heavy, dressed in plaid flannel shirt, suspenders, and studiously tattered khakis,with ragged hair that was pushed back from his face without apparent styling of any sort.
“I’m responsible for marketing analytics,” he explained, “Which means, of course, that I’m at constant war with all those who are ‘fashion’ driven. You see, there are two ways to look at the world: gut and facts. Which way do you look at it?”
“Given the intro, does anyone answer ‘gut’?” Kristy asked.
“Is that a fact-based answer or a gut answer?” Larry countered
“It’s not based on numbers, but it’s based on observation of human tendency.”
Larry smiled. “All right then. Give me an example in which you’ve changed your beliefs about something based on data.”
Kristy had begun to sketch out such an example from experience when the door opened and Alexia entered.
“Larry, do you mind?” she asked. He shrugged. “Kristy,” she asked. “Did you think our interview went well?”
Kristy reeled. “I thought I did the best that I could,” she answered.
Alexia fixed her with an appraising look. “I think you thought it went rather badly. You did well, though. I’m impressed with you. You did very well. What do you think about that?”
The rapid changes in tone and personality were taking their toll on Kristy’s calm, but she fought down frustration and kept fierce control of her voice. “I’m glad you found it revealing. I tried to answer everything as well as I could.”
“I just wanted to tell you that I was impressed,” said Alexia, and left as abruptly as she had entered.
Larry fixed her with an appraising gaze.
“How did that conversation with Alexia make you feel?” he asked.
“I’m glad hear that it went well,” Kristy responded.
“How were you feeling about the interview when you finished it.”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“Fit is incredibly important here,” Larry explained. “You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t incredibly smart and if you hadn’t proved yourself in your previous jobs. The reason for talking to you in person is to find out if you have what it takes to work here and not only survive, but thrive. What do you think so far?”
Kristy attempted to sketch out an answer which expressed her eagerness to be challenged and excitement about the opportunity itself — anything other than the baldly stated, “I really need a job,” which was the only drive still keeping her collected.
Larry cut her off. “Do you always talk so much when you’re nervous?”
Kristy seethed. “No.”
Larry cocked an eyebrow, but Kristy held any further words in. Silence stretched out to the point of agony. “Alright,” Larry said. “Let’s go back to my last question. Tell me about a time you’ve changed your beliefs based on data.”
Two more interviews followed, though if Kristy had been asked to provide a detailed account of them later she would have found it difficult to do so. Then she was shown back to the lobby and stepped out into the street. Again she confronted the tangle of modern sculpture above the inverse fountain, though now that she saw that from the vantage point of one leaving the Aspire Brands headquarters, the metal beams formed an italic “A”.
Walking to the station and riding the BART she felt herself still under scrutiny, holding her expression rigidly neutral. By the time she reached her car, control had become a necessity. She drove home in tooth-gritted silence.
“How was the interview?” Katie asked asked as Kristy entered the condo.
Kristy stalked to the liquor cabinet, pulled out a bottle of Buffalo Trace, and filled a tumbler half way. With this she retreated to the arm chair.
“Bad?” Katie asked.
Kristy took a long drink. “It could have been better,” she responded.
At that moment her phone rang. Kristy answered it and heard the voice of Cathy Bradford, the recruiter who had contacted her about the Aspire job.
“Kristy! How’s it going?”
Kristy segregated all her feelings about the interviews from the sound of her voice and pushed out a cheerful tone. “Oh, just resting up after the interviews. I feel like I did the best that I could.”
“Well, they were very impressed,” Cathy replied. “They would like to extend you an offer if you are interested.”
The sheer unexpectedness of it, the contrast with the way she had been treated in the interviews themselves, seemed an offense. She crammed all her frustration into the back of her mind and responded with faux excitement.
“That’s great news. I need to see the offer, of course, before I know my response, but I’d certainly be excited to consider an offer.”
“Wonderful. They’ll be very glad to hear that. I think you can expect to see a copy of the offer letter via email tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be looking out for it. Thanks.” Cathy hung up.
Kristy threw her phone at the couch as hard as she could and hurled twelve variations on the theme of “fuck” after it.
“What’s wrong?” Katie asked.
“They offered me the job.”
Worth a Thousand Words: The Green Parasol
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