17 June, 2017

When everything goes wrong (email)

Now that this Roman roads thing is settling down, by popular request I am publishing this email. Context: someone I knew set me up to meet a Mr. Srinivasan, who would consider me for a job. Some names and info were changed.

Hi Natalie,

I just want to thank you again for the opportunity to meet Mr. Srinivasan. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the meeting went well by any means. The experience was so bizarre that I feel compelled to tell you the whole story.

It began with a small misunderstanding. After arranging the meeting with Srinivasan’s assistant, I received a Google Calendar event with the date, time and location—5 October, 4 pm, Adams 323. Around 3:30 I open my email and see a series of messages:

3:05 PM:

3:12 PM:

To my horror I realize that the Google Calendar event said 4:00 pm ​Eastern, which is 3:00 pm Central. Why did Google think I was still in Eastern Time?

I got to Adams as fast as I could. Of course, I went in the wrong side of the building, so Srinivasan’s name wasn’t in the directory. I told the lady at the desk that I was here to see “Mr. Srinivasan”.


—”Balaji Srinivasan?”

​By the time I figured out that everyone knew him only as “Bala”, I also realized I didn’t have my ID, since I’d left in such a hurry. ​They asked me what my name was, and I said “Alexandr Trubetskoy”, since I figured they’d use my full, legal name. There was no Alexandr Trubetskoy who had any appointments that day. It took another 2 minutes for everyone to realize that it was “Sasha” who had an appointment.

I went upstairs and awkwardly approached room 223. The door was closed, the glass matted, and there was no sign or name tag. So I stood there, wasting more time, until some guy in a cubicle turned to me asking if I was here to see Bala. Soon enough it became clear that Bala had “gone out”, and I sat for another few minutes until he walked in.

At first glance he looked a little different from the pictures on the Internet. What if it’s not him? “Are you Mr. Srinivasan?” I finally managed to ask.

—”Yes, but what do you want with me?”

I introduced myself and attempted to explain the mixup, even showing him the exact email, at his insistence. My profuse apologies were cut short: “I have no time for you.”

After some stuttering on my part and stern looks from Bala, he relented. “Okay, walk to Starbucks with me.” Along the way he asked me some general questions, and I figured I might as well try to redeem myself, at least partially. I knew that Balaji Srinivasan, aka Bala, graduated from Stanford with three degrees in electrical engineering. I also knew that he cofounded a genome sequencing startup, and has moved on to some sort of virtual currency security protocol. His Twitter was full of links and pictures of bitcoin, Silicon Valley startups and cryptography.

Accordingly, I spun the whole entrepreneurial, data science aspect of my interests. I told him about my visualizations, maps and various research projects. “So why don’t you work in a lab?” he interrupted. I had no answer. Then he tells me, “I got a PhD in mathematics at this university”.

   — “Uh, not Stanford?”

   — “No, no. Different guy, same name.”

   — “Exact same name?”

   — “Same name, it’s a very common name.”

I had spent hours researching some completely unrelated guy in a completely different field. Bala knew this. “You looked up the wrong guy. You got the wrong time, wrong guy. You want to work for the other guy, not me!”

At this point I tried to salvage the conversation by talking about my experience in research, education, my interest in Asia, etc. I think Bala thought that you had referred the wrong guy. I began wondering that myself, actually. Eventually he made an excuse. “I really do not have much time,” he said, his mouth full of pretzel bites. In a final attempt at being gracious I reached out my hand and said, “I really do apologize, Mr. Srinivasan. Thank you for your time, it was very nice to meet you.” Through vigorous crunching of pretzels I was able to make out a sentence or two about how he would “get in touch if he needed anything.” His right hand was covered in food, so he twisted his left hand nearly 180 degrees as I shook exactly three of his fingers; the other two were busy holding the bag.

Thus concluded my comically doomed meeting with Bala.

I can’t help but wonder what led to all this. Assuming there was no mix-up, I genuinely am grateful for the chance. I really appreciate that you would consider putting me in touch with such a high-level guy. In fact, after he described the work, I became very interested in what he was doing—I had never really thought about the business aspect of higher education in Asia.

Seeing as how this opportunity came out of nowhere, it seems fitting that it would crash just as spontaneously. But the encounter really was a learning experience. Bala is one of the most no-nonsense people I have ever met. He showed me an entire line of work that I never knew existed. I would regard this whole situation as a net gain. Looks like you really can make something out of nothing!

Sorry for the long email, like I said, it was just such a strange series of events.

Thanks again,


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