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The Sighting

I feel proud to have attended Bishops all-boys school in Pune, India from age 5 to 16. I assume anyone who has been to an all-boys school will unabashedly attest to one recurring phenomenon: The alleged presence of a female in a 500 metre radius is sufficient to warrant the dropping of your pen, book or cricket bat and ensure you do not miss out on the ‘sighting’. This sighting, however obscure, would then be the topic of conversation for the remainder of the week at the minimum.

A decade later, and after a Liberal Arts college education in Ohio with a favourable gender ratio, I find myself back in familiar all-boys surroundings at a tech start-up company in Scottsdale, Arizona. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to this new city. Internet dating was nascent in those days, and Scottsdale wasn’t the easiest place in the world for a single 20-something Indian dude to make new friends. I was hired to be part of a team of data scientists, and they mostly fit the stereotype - extra high IQ, painfully shy…not much happening by way of introductions to the fairer sex there. We worked looong hours and social life was limited to office poker, chess and ping pong tournaments at the local bar on Monday night. Hopefully you get the picture and are feeling a little sorry for me by this point.

The rules of the game when a sighting occurred at work were similar to the rules at Bishops school: Always remain vigilant, and inform your comrades as soon as you hear the sound of high heels in the reception area. One of the Korean data-scientists (let’s call him Harold) had even devised this not-so-discrete hand sign to flag us out of meetings if there was a special sighting. And yes, for those of you wondering - we occasionally hit up White Castle.

At the end of the long year, in a routine team meeting - our manager asked an open-ended ‘What are some of the changes you would like to see here next year?’. To which I honestly responded that we would do well to improve our gender diversity in the work place. My situation wasn’t a secret by this point, and while this suggestion was laughed off at the time, a few weeks later we get this very interesting application from a female candidate for a role on our team – Graduate from UC Berkeley, Double Major in Math and Econ, 3.998/4.0 GPA, women’s rights activist stuff, volunteer work helping the destitute in Africa blah blah.….it all seemed a bit unreal.

For those of us who have spent a high percentage of our life with quant geeks, developers, programmers etc – we recognize that the chances of meeting our Princess Leia in the workplace are pretty slim. As you can imagine, when we get this CV, there is a high degree of skepticism. If this applicant was legit, what would she be like? The logical next step for the team was to develop a menu of betting options – I won’t get into the details of the spreads on this post.

A few Tuesdays later, and I’m quite hungover from the Ping Pong tournament the night before, stuck in some deathly boring mandatory security and compliance training meeting. I see Harold bouncing up and down with his sign indicating there was a sighting not to be missed in the reception area. Harold’s credibility in these matters had been rapidly deteriorating, but I was optimistic he had incorporated the feedback the team had given him and I jumped out of the meeting.

Harold and I did our standard walk past the reception, pretending to sound important with our rehearsed scripts holding our gigantic Nokias. By now, the receptionist had caught onto our routine and rolled her eyes. Sometimes I detected a hint of a smile, I think she genuinely felt sorry for our plight. But most importantly, finally Harold had gotten it right! We just had to do a couple of extra rounds, and blatant double takes. Our Tuesday had dramatically improved, and our lunch break was spent on speculation as to what this mysterious, beautiful visitor (let’s call her D) was doing in the reception of a Price Optimisation software company.

On returning from lunch, a last minute Outlook meeting invite had popped up, titled Candidate Interview Quant Skills Assessment from 2 to 3pm. Turns out our manager had a conflict, and Harold and I were tasked with conducting this assessment. A word on the assessment - this was essentially an Applied Mathematics test with 10 problems on it increasing in difficulty. I had taken this test exactly a year ago, and scraped through Problem #6, which was considered barely sufficient to get me the job. Harold, with his degree in Electrical Engineering from Cal Tech, would endlessly brag about how he had made it through to Problem #8 using this unconventional heuristic. If you’re thinking Silicon Valley sitcom here, you’re spot on.

Fast forward to 2pm – we head towards the meeting room to conduct the quant skills test. It’s one of those rooms where you can see inside, but not outside. And yes, as you correctly guessed by this point– it is D who is sitting in the room. Harold and I had a long pause outside the meeting room, this was a huge moment. Obviously, we were praying for D to be successful. Surely whatever gaps she had in quant skills would be made up for by boosting team morale?

Poised, eloquent and charming – D got to the whiteboard and knocked off the first 5 problems in a hurry. The verbal explanations for the approaches she used were concise and thorough. Maybe her CV was legit? I had my fingers crossed for #6, and even had a helpful hint prepared – but the next thing we knew she had written up a slick proof to solve #8! The rest of the test was a blur for me – Harold and I were mumbling in appreciation of her solutions, but clearly by this point we were the nervous ones in the interview. However, there is a vivid memory after D made it through Problem #10 and sat down in her chair. No one on the team had achieved this feat, or could pretend to truly understand it even after they had seen the solution. There was several seconds of silence as she gazed back at the board. What happened next can only be described as a scene out of Goodwill Hunting. D picked up the eraser, wiped off her equations and distinctly said, ‘Actually, there might be a more elegant solution to #10’….and proceeded to write more beautiful math on the board.

To say I was in love would be an understatement.

Happy 10th wedding anniversary D(anna).

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