This post describes an incredible job interview and the worst mistake for which I will never forgive myself.
In Spring of 1989 I came to see my friend and ex-classmate, Andrei Tchijov, at the LETI University in St. Petersburg Russia, where he worked at the time. Out of nowhere he says:
- We've got to get out of here.
- Out of where?
- This country.
- Alright, what do you have in mind?
This conversation started a long process that eventually led him to the US in 1992 and me in 1994.
In the beginning of 1990, my other friend, Mikhail, was traveling to California for a month. I gave him a stack of 50 copies of my resume and 50 copies of Andrei's along with a list of 50 addresses of computer companies, which we picked up from various computer magazines and newspapers. We did not have stamps or money, so I said: "Toss them into a mail drop. Perhaps some will reach destinations." He was actually nice enough to buy some stamps and filch some more from his host.
Andrei and I received a handful of "we'll keep your resume on file" responses - but no job offers. The only one that stood out was a package from Borland. Borland was a very big deal at the time. They made all kinds of developer tools and productivity apps for Windows. The package contained all kinds of marketing lit and an invitation to a Computer Forum in Moscow. Andrei and I were excited: "we are definitely flying to Moscow!"
I decided to prepare a piece of software that I could show in case there was somebody interested in seeing it. At the time I was working on a program I called "Turbo Animator", which was actually a nice visual bitmap editor. It had all kinds of tools: pencil, brush, floodfill, gradient, shapes etc. Also, as the name suggests, it had some support for animation. You could organize bitmaps into sequences, assign delays, hit Play and watch. Turbo Animator was my personal project. Having received the invitation to the Computer Forum, I accelerated my development, and the product was ready in time for the conference. My mother, a professional artist, drew some cartoon characters for me and I prepared a funny demo with those. Andrei also wrote a demo piece: it was an interpreter of a language he invented, not unlike SNOBOL.
We hopped on a plane and came to Moscow on the first day of the show. As this was on Borland's invitation, we ran straight to the Borland booth. I said to the person manning the booth, a Frenchman named François:
- We need to talk to somebody about our interview.
- What interview?
- We got an invitation to an interview to be conducted at this show.
- We don't do interviews at trade shows.
- Then why did you invite us here?
- Let me see the invitation.
I give him the invitation, which of course said nothing about an interview. He looks it over and says:
- I don't know anything about this. You might want to talk to Philippe.
- Ok, we'll talk to this Philippe guy. Where can we find him?
- He's certain to show up here at some point. Just hang out.
We are hanging out for a few hours - but nobody shows up. As the floor is about to close, I come to the booth guy again:
- So, is this Philippe going to show up?
- Not today. Come tomorrow.
The next day we come again and continue hanging out by the Borland booth. Around 2pm I gather my courage and come to the same guy for the third time.
- So, where's Philippe?
- Oh, sorry, I forgot about you. He's actually giving a lecture at the Moscow University at 3pm. Go there, you might still catch him.
So we rush to the University, which is on the other side of the city. We are late for the lecture and lost on the campus. We wander around aimlessly. At some point I see a limo standing by some building. I say: "This must be his." Russians don't drive limos. I run to the limo and say to the driver in English (for some reason I thought that the limo driver had to be American as well): "Do you know where I can find Philippe from Borland?" He gives me a condescending grin, points at the entrance and says in Russian: "In there".
We run inside and see this sign: "Philippe Kahn, president and CEO or Borland, will be giving a lecture in Auditorium 103". We look at each other: "President and CEO?!!" We are both in shock. But we have already passed the point of no return, so in we go. As we are entering the auditorium, we hear: "If there are no more questions, we would like to thank Mr.Kahn for a wonderful lecture. Thank you. Goodbye." We literally run across the auditorium as Phillipe Kahn walks to the exit. We catch up with him in the corridor. I say:
- Mr. Kahn, I need to talk to you. Francois at the booth told me that you are the only person who can help my friend and me.
He smiles. There are chuckles among his entourage. We are all walking toward the elevator.
- How can I help you and your friend?
- We want to work at Borland and we came here for an interview.
He enters the elevator. Andrei and I squeeze in as well. Kahn's guards, two huge men (must be KGB) block Kahn from us. He says: "So, what do you want, again?" I repeat what I said earlier. He exits the elevator and the KGB guys hold us back in: "You cannot exit here." As the doors are closing, Kahn says: "Come to the show floor tomorrow at 3pm".
We don't know what to think, but of course we come to the Borland booth the next day, a third in a row. At around 2:30pm we see him from a distance. He waves at us: "Hey, boys, come with me." As we walk beside him, he says: "We'll do the interview after the presentation." We enter a large auditorium. He says: "Just sit down anywhere." He proceeds to the stage, takes off his jacket, sits down by the piano, opens the lid and starts playing jazz. Andrei and I are the only two listeners. He plays for about 15 minutes. Then they open the doors and the auditorium starts filling up. During the presentation, he introduces Borland C++.
Afterward, he signals to us again and takes us to his suite in the very hotel where the forum is held. He sits down on a couch, his crew takes places around him, some sit on chairs, some on the back of his couch.
He opens up his computer, a portable Compaq and we can tell that he is actually quite proud of the computer: shows us how slim it is, only 5 inches. I load Turbo Animator from a diskette. Besides myself he is the only one who can actually see anything, because the screen appears to be pitch black when you look at it from an angle. Also, the screen is very slow and turns my animation into a blur. He asks me a few questions. He seems to be a little concerned about the name of program. I show him the splash screen that says: "Turbo Animator, Built with Borland Turbo C." He seems to be satisfied. He asks me how long it took me to develop the program and I tell him: "A couple of months, but I was only working evenings and weekends," which was true. Someone in the room mocks me: "only evenings and weekends".
Then Andrei shows his software and answers some questions.
Kahn turns to his people and says: "Can we bring them onboard?" His aide answers: "Yes, it can be done," and they start discussing details. After awhile he says: "Welcome aboard! Come to the party tonight. Get the address from Tod." All of a sudden, I get shy and I say: "Sorry, but we have return tickets for tonight and we have to go home." Andrei looks at me and his look says: "What the hell?" We give Tod our addresses and phone numbers and leave.
Never heard from Borland again. We tried to call Tod, sent him faxes, even tried to talk to Kahn himself, all to no avail.
If only we had gone to that party!
Among many other great achievements, Philippe Kahn is credited with the invention of the camera phone. This is the photo of his daughter he shared online the day she was born. It is the first photo posted to the Internet using a cellphone.