A few months after graduating from college, I accepted a job offer at a small IT consulting company near Washington, DC. They promised they would provide free housing at their luxury apartment for the first few months and also give me the training I need to excel at my job. I flew across the country and found many unexpected turns and twists.
What greeted me when I walked into their luxury apartment were flies circling around piles of unwashed dishes and utensils in the kitchen. When I stepped into the bathroom, I saw urine on the floor. Each room had bunk beds in it.
"You can just pick an empty bed," said the HR staff who escorted me to the apartment.
There were many beds to choose from, but all of them had so much hair on them. As I sat there, organizing my belongings, I had this sinking feeling, the realization that I probably got scammed. This was no luxury apartment. The nearest grocery store was 35 minutes away on foot. How was I going to get food? Were they actually going to train me?
There was a part of me during the interview process that kept saying "walk away." For one, they kept praising me for answering their questions; as a recent grad with a severe case of imposter syndrome, that felt really weird. But it was more than that. It almost seemed like they weren't as interested in assessing my technical capabilities as they were in measuring my need for a job. Something just felt off.
When they told me they'd like to extend an offer, however, I did what most people desperate for a job would. I decided to take a chance. They gave me just four days to fly myself to Washington, DC.
My roommates, all 20-something men from wildly different backgrounds, came in to say hello to me. It felt to me that they saw each other more as family than coworkers. Having experienced themselves what the first day feels like, they tried to comfort me, almost successfully. One of them drove me to the grocery store so I could buy food for the week. They were some of the most friendly and kind people I have met.
That night, "David," one of my roommates who recently finished the training program, assured me that everything was going to be alright.
Don’t worry, don’t worry. My hands and feet were shaking in the first few nights. Everything is going to be fine. I know what you’re thinking, but they’ll help you. They’ll help you. You just have to work hard in training. Then they’ll help you.
I am still thankful that David was there.
On the first day of training, the trainees went around introducing themselves. Of the ~10 people there, a surprising number were CS majors from 4-year universities in America. Of course, there were many foreign talent as well.
Once everyone had their turn, the instructor laid out the expectations. They took a big chance with us. Not everyone would make it through. But if we put in the effort, we can succeed. They talked about how so-and-so became hugely successful in their career by getting assigned at a prestigious company and then getting a full time offer. Apparently, they now manage a lot of people.
Next, they went over the training material. Some of the most in-demand skills at the time such as Java, Angular, and MySQL were on the list. They said completing the course would make us high level full stack developers. I was slightly relieved after seeing the list, because I had actually worked with most of the items for my personal projects before.
During lunch break, I checked out their snack corner and found a bunch of cup noodles stacked vertically. From then until the day I left, I ate two cups of noodles each day.
I asked David that night whether it's true that not everyone makes it through the training program. He hesitated for a moment, but eventually let me know that there's actually another apartment that's mostly empty at the moment because most people who had lived there could not find work in two months. He then told me that I don't have much to worry about, because those guys were learning Android development and could barely speak English. As long as I know how to communicate, the company can help with the rest. He went on to mention briefly that the company has special processes in place to "embellish" people's resumes and give assistance during virtual interviews.
I had more questions for David, but "Steve," another roommate, interjected.
"Hey man, it's all good," said Steve, as he took out a check from his pocket to put on display. "See, they pay you real money. The company is legitimate. You just need to focus."
The day at the office began with David giving a motivational speech to all the new trainees. Work hard, and the company will take care of you. He was unsure at first too, but now, he's interviewing at Fortune 500 every day. We must have faith. We can all succeed.
To this day, I still feel that David's speech was genuine. It felt like he was really speaking out of gratitude.
After the lecture, while eating a bowl of cup noodles, I made a series of searches on Google based on the conversation I had with David the night before. What I saw confirmed my suspicions. Webs of consultancies, sometimes under the same owner, abusing the H1B system, mass producing and dumping "senior" engineers into the market. There were articles and people on forums saying these companies create entirely fictitious resumes filled with all the trendy keywords loved by recruiters and hiring managers. These resumes would contain years of fake experience, endorsed by fake companies, the sponsoring company itself, or other tech staffing companies that are in on the secret. There were also claims about cheating in virtual interviews by swapping candidates.
I thought about what I needed to do next for a minute. Thankfully, I did not need VISA sponsorship. I also had the luxury of being able to fall back on my parents. Although I wasn't sure if I could score another offer any time soon, it felt too risky to start my career on such a shaky foundation. Before long, I called my parents and booked a flight back home. Then, I began writing down everything I could remember about the last 2.5 days on my laptop.
Later that night, back at the apartment, I greeted Steve as he walked in. He told me he was out clubbing. After a few minutes, I changed the topic to the company's practice of embellishing people's resumes.
"What do you mean?" replied Steve.
"You know, I heard from someone here that they make a new resume for you."
He reluctantly acknowledged that everyone gets the senior engineer title with five years of experience. He also explained, after some persuasion, that they sometimes have someone else sit in virtual interviews behind the laptop camera so they can write out the answers on the whiteboard in case people need help. I asked him if he went through the same process. Understandably, his response was a little defensive in tone.
Yeah, I did. But you have to know that this is just how it is now. You see all the Chinese and Indians out there working in tech? Now you’re telling me they all have five or more years of experience working for companies in America when they haven’t even lived in America for that long? This is just how it is. When they do background checks, they know too. They have to know. Because they see, they see that these people haven’t lived here long enough to have the experience, but they just don’t care. They even get government clearance too! The game is rigged. We just play the game.
He then pulled out the same check he showed me the night before.
You know, I had to fight with them because they wouldn’t pay me right. They kept trying to steal from me. I did the math. I counted up all the hours I’m supposed to be working this year and they were paying me a lot less than what they promised. So I went and talked to them about it and got a new paycheck. But it still didn’t add up right. So I went again and got a new paycheck, again. I’m not saying they’re going to scam you and call it good, you know. But you definitely need to keep your eyes open and make sure they don’t try any of this with you. Their goal is to make money, and you need to make sure they treat you right.
I asked Steve how much money he makes. He said around $50k. He was a green card holder.
I set a 1:1 meeting with the UI engineer working at the company. She was the only engineer working for the company itself, so she never had to go through the process. I asked her if she knew about the company's practice of helping out their trainees.
"Yes," she replied. "But they help with my VISA and I don't have to do anything like that. So I'm good."
I spent the rest of the day helping other trainees complete their assignment.
After waking up, I turned in my assignment for the week and went to the Smithsonian's National Zoo. I spent a few hours there watching elephants, naked mole rats, and other animals on display.
When I came back, I walked to the office and told HR I plan on leaving the next day. They asked me why. I told them it's because I'm not sure I can go through with all their practices. The conversation was brief but gentle. They mentioned that I may have signed a contract saying I had to do my best to finish the program and find work through the company, but they quickly dismissed it when I replied that the arrangement was not exactly as advertised. They asked me whether they can add me on Linkedin. I told them I don't have an account. They wished me luck.
I took off early in the morning without waking people up.
It took around five additional months of job hunting, but I managed to get another, legitimate job offer. Today, many years after my graduation, I work comfortably as an engineer in California. I still have a big dislike for whiteboarding interviews, though.
I am sure my experience with the company is a mere droplet in the ocean. If you don't believe me, just look up on your favorite search engine "IT consulting fake resume."
While I certainly don't approve of these practices, I'm also not saying that these companies are only evil. I view that they serve a very strong need in some corners of the system, like a coding bootcamp for the less fortunate. They certainly didn't seem to have any problem securing interviews and projects for their employees. I just wish there's a way people can fill this void without bringing so much pain, especially to the international workers. There are many stories of these companies forcing their workers to go back to school without giving any tuition reimbursement so they can continue working. Meanwhile, the VISA paperwork sits in the office to deliberately slow down the sponsorship process.
It's amazing to me that we live in the Information Age, yet the way we organize ourselves for work is still largely limited by our physical location. We still fight over whether that wall along the US-Mexico border was a good idea or not.
There is a lot more to discuss on the topic of what things could be like, but we'll leave that for another day.
Tips for Hiring Managers
If you're looking to filter out candidates from these backgrounds, I suggest looking up key phrases on the resume. If you see identical copies, chances are, they got it "manufactured." Nowadays, people are getting better about hiding their tracks by slightly modifying these lines. But I still come across these manufactured resumes regularly at work.