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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Fiction Excerpt: A Prince Goes on a High-Tech Job Interview

Something is fishy at a giant company called Anahata—and it’s not just the giant squid that serves as a mascot for the world’s largest tech firm. A prince in exile is working as a product manager. The sales guys are battling with the engineers. The female employees are the unwitting subjects of a wild social experiment. The VPs are plotting against each other. And the yoga-loving, sex-obsessed CEO is rumored to be planning a moon colony, sending his investors into a tizzy. Is it all downhill from here? Or is this just the beginning of a bold new phase in Anahata’s quest for global domination?

This excerpt is from The Big Disruption, a work of fiction by Jessica Powell. It may or may not be a coincidence that she is a former Google employee.

To interview at Anahata was a privilege. And the next, nearly inevitable step—to be rejected from Anahata—was a great honor. Just making it into the company’s lobby already indicated that one was superior to 99.39 percent of the world’s population. To be accepted, of course, required passing an even higher bar.

One by one, the gobsmacked Rejects filed past the Hopefuls sitting in the lobby, as unsure of their steps as they now were of their qualifications. They turned back to catch a final glimpse of Anahata’s collection of gleaming white buildings, and smiled then, just briefly, knowing that despite their failure—a failure from which they might never recover—at least they were among the few to have glimpsed the world hidden behind the company’s doors.

Arsyen Aimo surveyed his surroundings. It couldn’t have been a friendlier place: wide green sofas, a gigantic refrigerator full of fresh juices, and a flight simulator to help pass the time in the unlikely event of a delay.

Sitting on the very edge of the first couch was a young man, hair uncombed, T-shirt wrinkled, emitting a faint odor of sweat. Crumbs of breakfast cereal cast a pebbled road across his chest. A thin folder jittered in his hand, its transparency revealing a document whose tidy bullet points and blurbs belied the man’s unkempt appearance. His knees bounced lightly up and down, and he rocked as he sat, lips moving silently as though he were counting to himself.

On the second couch was another man, this one in his mid-thirties and wearing a suit, his cologne the essence of a crisp morning in the mountains. His back was against the sofa, one ankle thrown across the opposite knee, an arm thrown over the cushion as if he were there to watch Sunday football. He kept checking his watch, darting glances both anxious and dismissive at the female receptionists.

Arsyen immediately recognized their types. The first was an engineer, the second a salesman. And there was no reason for Arsyen to think any more of either of them—or the other fifteen iterations also waiting in the lobby—as he had seen enough of both during his time in the Valley to identify their species by smell alone.


Arsyen had other things on his mind; he was there to conquer his job interview. For he was Arsyen, Prince of Pyrrhia.

Or rather, a former prince who due to unfortunate circumstances had been reduced to working as a janitor in Silicon Valley.

Or, as he preferred to refer to it, a sanitation engineer.


Not that he liked cleaning. He hated it. Prince Arsyen had not been raised in the Order of the Red Woodpecker—buffed and preened and rubbed and polished to perfection by handmaidens each morning—with the idea that he would leave the royal palace and clean people’s toilets in America. (As a child, Arsyen didn’t even know how to use a toilet, thanks to the service of his royal wipers.)

But like most everything he undertook in life, Arsyen excelled at janitorial work—he was so good, in fact, that he usually finished his work in half the time of other janitors. Previous employers had occasionally misinterpreted his skill as laziness and accused him of not having logged sufficient time with the mop. But Arsyen knew that a truly exceptional company would see it differently.

Anahata was that company, and this was no ordinary janitorial job. It paid better than any other Silicon Valley company by a full $3 an hour. If all went according to plan, in a few decades, Arsyen would save enough money to raise an army and reverse the unfortunate circumstances that had driven him from his country. His future, and the future of his adoring minions, depended on the outcome of this interview.

A recruiter entered the room, and the crowd of hopefuls looked his way. His casual good looks and affable demeanor struck Arsyen as an effective ambassador for a company whose public image was one of approachable superiority.

“Arsyen Aimo?” the recruiter read from a sheet of paper.

Prince Arsyen, Arsyen silently corrected him.

The recruiter used a badge to push past the security doors, and Arsyen’s mouth moved in a silent Wow as he entered the building. The cheerful but simple lobby area had not prepared him for this. The recruiter stopped—a seemingly well-rehearsed pause of ten seconds—to let Arsyen take it all in.

The building was a light-filled air hangar with expansive skylights and shoulder-height cubicles of varying geometric configurations. One could see across the entire building in a glance. Colorful beanbags were sprinkled here and there, and sleep capsules lined the walls, emitting the faint lullaby of snoring engineers. Each corner and space was maximized to project a sense of possibility, and employees seemed to congregate wherever the mood struck—a beanbag suddenly the appropriate place for a conference call; a foosball or pingpong table a surface to plop one’s computer.

Arsyen was ushered into a small, white room. It looked like a normal office, except all the walls were made of glass—a familiar layout in Silicon Valley. For most employees, these spaces were a symbol of transparency and openness. For sanitation engineers like Arsyen, they were just an invitation for dirty fingerprints.

The recruiter sat Arsyen at a table in the center of the room.

“We’ve found that it’s most efficient for everyone to take a test before we invest in a conversation,” he said.

“Sorry?” said Arsyen, perpetually annoyed that the English language required him to apologize when it was others who were unclear.

“You’re going to take a test now. If you pass, then someone will come interview you,” the recruiter said.

“And then I meet Bobby Bonilo?” Arsyen asked.

“The founder of Anahata? At your interview? Uh—”

“I give great interview,” said Arsyen, rising to his feet. He placed his hands on his hips and raised his chin as his father, the king, used to do.

The recruiter’s smile collapsed for a split second before rebounding.

“How about we first see if you can find the error on this page.” He pulled a paper from the top of his stack and handed it to Arsyen.

Arsyen looked down and gasped at the dark incantations before him: nonsensical numbers and letters enclosed in .

It wasn’t that Arsyen had never seen computer code before. It was inescapable in the Valley—on buses and billboards, hats and T-shirts. Valley people spoke of code like it was an act of progress, on par with a social movement. Over the years, as he mopped and scrubbed in the background, Arsyen had overheard more than a few hallway conversations in which scrawny men talked about using their code to change the world.

But knowing how to recognize code and knowing how to code were two very different things. Surely there was no way he could be expected to perform such a task. Arsyen grunted. It was in moments like this that he particularly missed his home country of Pyrrhia. There he would have had any number of servants who could have learned computer programming on his behalf.
Perhaps this was the right moment to inform the recruiter of his royal lineage. Arsyen ignored the recruiter’s prompt to find the coding error—he had no clue, and in any case, such details were for clerks and commoners. Instead, he sketched a crude outline of a pointy crown across the length of the page.

“Done,” announced Arsyen, pushing the paper across the table.

The recruiter glanced at Arsyen’s paper and did a double take. “Well, that’s a bold statement,” he said finally, then excused himself and left the room.

Minutes later, a slightly balding man in his thirties entered carrying a brown paper bag. He was wearing a purple T-shirt with an orange cartoon character on the front; the sandals on his feet were made of red plastic. Arsyen was surprised by the ensemble. From what he had seen during his time in America, most sanitation engineers dressed inconspicuously, their very livelihood dependent on being able to make dirt—and themselves—as invisible as possible to the general population.

This man looked more like a court jester.

“Hi, I’m Roni,” he said, setting Arsyen’s test on the table and extending his hand. “You got a résumé?”

Arsyen shook his head. No one had ever asked him for a résumé before.

“I get it, I get it,” Roni said. “I think they’re dumb, too. I mean, a piece of paper—it’s like, so corporate, you know? We don’t need ’em. Let’s just talk like equals, like regular guys who went to Stanford together.”

He sat down in the chair opposite Arsyen.

“So, how long have you been an engineer?”

Arsyen felt his heart jump. It was the first time someone had properly called him an “engineer.”
“Four years,” he answered.

“Now, where were you before this?”


Roni’s eyebrows leaped up in a flash, but then, equally quickly, were dragged downward—a clear attempt by their owner to anchor his admiration. Galt was one of the Valley’s hottest startups, famous for having created a bunch of apps and tools that eliminated the tedium of journalism, research, essays, and speeches by reducing all thought and opinion to easily shareable, bite-sized chunks. Everything they did was about minimization—making the world “easier to digest.” Some people predicted Galt was the next Anahata, though personally Arsyen had found the company lacked any creativity or vision and was always asking him to take a second pass at the men’s stalls.

“Galt, eh? Well, that explains this,” said Roni, pointing at the crown Arsyen had sketched across his test, lassoing most of the page’s code.

“Pretty ballsy to suggest all of our code is a mess,” Roni said. “I would respectfully disagree, but I applaud your moxie. You must be good at debugging.”

Arsyen’s face pruned. “Bugs,” he spit. “I kill them every day.”

“Awesome. Me too, me too. Obviously, there’s no coding in a P.M. job, but people here will respect you a lot more if you have an engineering background.”

Arsyen didn’t know what Roni meant by “P.M. job.” Was it a powerful mopper? A plumbing manager?

Roni dipped his hand into the brown paper bag and slowly pulled out an enormous sandwich. Arsyen watched as he slowly removed the plastic and unfolded a paper napkin, square by square, until finally smoothing it before him. Roni paused and bent his head toward his sandwich, lifting his hands just slightly in prayer. And then, suddenly, the hands disappeared, the plastic wrap was on the other side of the table, and the sandwich was half hanging out of Roni’s mouth. Turds of tuna fell onto the napkin below.

“Let’s get going, shall we? I only ask one big question in my interviews. I’m kinda known for that. It’s all about the process, about how you go after it. It’s not what you say, it’s what you say, okay?”

Arsyen nodded.

“So,” began Roni. “You’re a pirate and—”

“No, a prince.”

“Huh? Oh right, haha. Well, for the purpose of this question, you’re a pirate. If you want, you can be the captain of the pirate ship. Does that work?”

“A captain is king of the pirate ship?”

“Exactly. Now you and your crew discover a treasure chest with one hundred gold coins, and you have to find a way to split it up.”

“I give no gold. Gold is mine,” Arsyen said.

“Well, now wait, that’s the catch. If you don’t give the other pirates anything, they will throw you off the ship. In order not to be killed, you have to come up with a way to distribute the coins so that at least half of the pirates agree with your proposal.”

“I kill them and take gold,” said Arsyen, dismissing the question with a wave of his hand.
“Not so fast,” Roni said. “You’re the captain, but you’re outnumbered. So you can’t kill them—though I like your aggressiveness.

“Now, if you get killed, another pirate will have to come up with a proposal, but then he could be killed, too, so it goes to the next pirate. And so on and so on. So it’s in everyone’s interest to agree on a proposal right from the start—but also maximize their profit. It’s basically a distribution problem. Actually, you know, I was given the same problem when I came to interview at Anahata. Except my interviewer used the Easter Bunny and a bunch of eggs, and the pirates were actually little kids and…”

But Arsyen had already stopped listening. His family had plundered plenty of ancient treasure over the centuries, swindling mercenaries, gangsters, and, yes, occasionally pirates—stealing from the very worst of mankind to give to the good people of Pyrrhia.

“You can use this whiteboard here to work through the problem,” said Roni, pointing to one of the walls. “Take your time.”

“One gold coin,” answered Arsyen. “You give pirates one coin each.”
Roni’s eyes bulged.

“Wow, uh, okay, that was quick. I mean, how did you…I mean, the whiteboard…Like, if there’s two pirates and then you figure out…Wait, how did you do this so fast? Talk me through the math.”

“In time to do math, other pirates kill captain,” Arsyen answered. “Capitan use brain.” He tapped the side of his head, just in case Roni wasn’t sure where the brain was located. Roni seemed a bit dim; he clearly had never been a pirate or even known one.

“Oh yeah, like, totally,” said Roni, regaining his composure. “I mean, yeah, it’s not difficult. But, um, we still have some time left, so…”

Roni looked around the room, then jumped up from the table and scribbled something on the whiteboard.

How do you use data to make your decisions?

He stood back, shook his head, then erased it.

Describe how you would improve your favorite Anahata product.

He erased that one just as quickly.

Then he tried something else.


He grinned and returned to the table.

“Okay, pick something in the modern home and tell me what technologies you would use to automate it.

“No automation. Hire more servants,” Arsyen said.

“Huh? Uh, no, you can’t have more servants,” said Roni, shaking his head.

“Why? Because someone killed them?”

“Let’s try this again,” said Roni, his face reddening slightly, fingers pressing into his napkin. “I want a technical framework for how you would go about automating something in your house.”

Arsyen couldn’t resist a smirk. Everyone in the Valley wanted to automate everything, but to what end? All they were really doing was getting rid of people’s jobs, which of course meant the peasants would eventually rise up and slaughter them. Technologists were so naive.

Adapted from THE BIG DISRUPTION by Jessica Powell. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Powell. Reprinted by permission of Medium

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