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Advice for Whiteboard Coding Interviews
Postcard From The Valley

21 February 1998

Postcard From The Valley

by Satnam Singh

Satnam Singh
Apt 4
101 Oak Rim Way
Los Gatos
California 95032-3483
Tel: +1 408 358 9736

This is a rather long e-mail message about my experience of moving to California. It’s about 4 A4 pages of text, so you may wish to discard it or read it at a later date. There are a few positive remarks at the end :-)

On Monday 9 February 1998 my United Airlines flight touched down at San Francisco International Airport, and my new life in the United States began. I knew it was going to be tough at first. I was prepared. Or so I thought.

Bob Slous, a college at Xilinx, picked me up from the airport and safely deposited me at my temporary accommodation (provided for one month by the company). I had a small room booked in a chain called Homestead Villages. Accommodation is always in short supply here, and Xilinx could only find a room right at the north of the valley, in Sunnyvale, almost in the bay itself (just north of Highway 237 at Lawrence for those of you know the valley or are too familiar with Yahoo Maps). Xilinx is at the opposite end of the valley, and I was not looking forward to the commute.

My temporary accommodation was a very depressing place indeed. A tiny wee kitchen, a bed, a chair, and a bathroom. I had left my fully furnished and much cherished flat (which I would never see again) for this? My heart sank. It was a top priority to find a decent place to live.

On my first day at work I went immediately to the Social Security office and applied for a social security number. Nothing much happens until you get this number. You need it to complete your driving test, get a bank account, get electricity etc. The application process was swift, and I checked the receipt given to me and everything appeared to be in order.

I waited patiently several weeks for my social security card to arrive. Normally it only takes about 48 hours before you can phone up the government and ask what the number is so you can get on with the rest of your life. But every time I phoned they said my name was not in the system and told me the ring back another day. Eventually I discovered that I was in the system, but my name had been mis-entered as SATANAM SINGH by the person at my local Social Security office. This is Very Bad. I asked them to fix the spelling of my first name, but they refused. They can not make a change for 30 days to a first name (but they can change a surname). Even if it is their fault. I had to wait for a month and then make a change of name application (i.e. reapply from scratch).

In the meantime, I had been filling in applications for apartments to rent, loans and bank accounts with my correct name. But this was also a problem, because there is another Satnam Singh in the USA with a very bad credit history. He has had multiple evictions and failed to pay loads of bills. People refused to rent to me because they said I was that Satnam Singh, and that I was lying about my social security number. I had to prove that I was in the UK during the other Satnam’s ill deeds i.e. I was assumed guilty until I could prove my innocence. When I got my social security card with my name mis-spelt which did not match any of my other ID, it did not do a great deal to endear me to prospective landlords.

For the first few weeks I did very little work. I spent almost all my time looking for a place to rent. Initially, I was looking to rent a three bedroom house. I got sent an email message three times a week which had listings of places to rent. It looks rather like this:


This is a 3 bedroom two level apartment for rent in Los Gatos, a town near Xilinx. In fact, it is just around the corner from the place I eventually rented. The apartment is unfurnished, available now, if you are willing to part with $2100 (£1312) per month in rent, and if the landlord likes you and your credit and renting history. And he will run a credit check on you and he will follow up previous renting history by phoning your old landlords. Just glancing through the listing made me think I would have to live in a cardboard box outside the CalTran station for $800 for month (if I could get someone to rent me the box without a credit history, which is doubtful).

Each day I would make a list of places I was interested in and start off the morning by phoning the owners or agents. This process made me realise why there must be so many drive by shootings in California. First, I would ask the owner/agent for an appointment to view the house. The owner would ask “have you done a drive by?”. Well, no. “Do a drive by, and ring me back if you like the outside.” So, I would often do more than ten drive bys each day. I carefully placed a black dot on my mapbook for each place that I was interested in seeing the outside of. My mapbook is now peppered with black dots. I would then plan an order to visit the houses which minimised to-ing and fro-ing in a strange town where everyone drove on the wrong side of the road.

For each place I visited, I took photographs of the outside, and I entered a comment into my log book. Then I would drive to the next house, with a map book in one hand, the steering wheel in the other hand, post-it notes stuck all over the window with cryptic messages like “L Bascom” or “W Pruneyard” or “S 85”. En route to my next house, I would only just avoid several near fatal car crashes as I tried to navigate without making contact with other cars or Very Big stationary objects (like buildings). Then I would get to a seedy part of town, and be slowly driving past a total wreck of a house, going for $2100 a month. No wonder there are so many drive by shootings. It’s frustrated home renters doing a “drive by” and taking a pot shot in frustration through the living room window.

This process continued for three weeks, and as I started to view the inside of houses, I realised how terrible the housing market is in the valley. My mortgage in Glasgow was around $350. To rent something similar here I would have to pay at least $1800. Ideally, I would like to have bought a place. How much? $350,000. Forget it. I can afford the mortgage on a house that expensive, but I am in no danger of finding the 30% downpayment that I would have to make as someone who does not have a US or California credit history (and as I rapidly discovered, that’s the only kind that matters).

Eventually I found an apartment through a friend of mine that work at Xilinx called Cameron. He stayed in townhouse (two storey apartments in a row) and one of them had just become vacant. I made an application, and I had to get the Abbey National to fax a credit history and I got Cameron to vouch for me. There were loads of other applications. But in the end, I think I got the flat because the owner and previous renter (how had a say on who the next renter would be) liked my Scottish accent and felt sorry for me. So, now I have a wee 2 bedroom apartment for $1450 a month, but it’s only 3 miles for work. It is also across the road from nice shops and 25 minutes for the centre of Los Gatos, a fairly nice town by valley standards.

Having moved into my apartment, I had to do what would appear to be simple tasks like arranging for gas, electricity and a telephone connection. Last summer I had no social security number (I was not earning money in the USA) and Pacific Gas & Electricity set up gas and electricity for me after just one phone call. This time, I assume because of the other Satnam, I had to turn up at their San Jose office, argue firmly against paying a deposit and insist that they connect me on the basis of my previous good record with them. I had to show them my passport to prove I was not the other Satnam. I could tell you a similar story about the phone company, but you get the idea by now.

The worst encounter was with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). I had passed my written test and I turned up for my appointment for the actual driving test. I had made several enquiries about what documentation I would need, and I was reliably informed that I should just bring my passport and the Avis rental agreement. A friend of mine called Cameron had passed his test with just this documentation. I needed to pass the driving test as soon as possible (by law, 10 days after arriving in California). And I only had a hire car for 30 days, after which I had to buy a car (which means I need a California driving licence). But disaster: the person behind the counter refused to let me take my driving test! She said that I was not insured to drive the car. I patiently explained that the Avis rental agreement includes basic insurance, which is mandatory in any rental agreement in the USA, and all that is required to take a driving test. She said that I had declined LDW (loss damage waiver). I patiently pointed out the text on the rental agreement that said “LDW IS NOT INSURANCE”. She refused to take that into account: she said that nowhere on the agreement did it say I was insured. I reminded her of the pertinent laws of her country, and that the insurance was implicit, and that a friend of mine had been accepted for a driving test a few weeks earlier on the same basis. No, she refused to let me take the test. I asked her to phone Avis: she eventually did, and the person she spoke to at Avis told her (incorrectly) that I was not insured to drive the car. She said I had to make another appointment (which would have been weeks away, long after returning my hire car). I broke down in tears at the DMV encounter: this was the last straw in a sequence of setbacks.

I dried my tears and decided to go home and sleep for the rest of the day. But I changed my mind and I drove to the Avis office at the airport and asked to speak to the manager. I asked if I was insured to drive the car. “Why, of course you are sir, LDW is not insurance”. I asked if I could use it for a driving test. “Why, of course you can sir”. Then I asked why the person from the DMV was told that I was not insured. “We always say no when the DMV asks that question sir”. WHAT! “Yes, sometimes people let their friends use our cars for driving tests, so we just always say no”. I was not pleased. I made him write a letter stating that I was insured and that I could use the car for a driving test. I took this back to the same person at the DMV and insisted on taking my test immediately. Twenty minutes later I had my test. I passed with a highs score. The person that did the test even complimented me on my driving.

I spend my evenings now on the carpet floor by the fire, sipping whisky and watching BBC TV programs on the public broadcasting channel (like Are You Being Served? and Eastenders). The flat is almost empty: my belongings are still half way across the Atlantic (I hope). My house got sold recently, and I feel quite depressed at not being a property owner any more.

After the House Renting Saga, I engaged in the Car Buying Saga. Car dealers here really are reptilian scumbags. Susan and I visited loads of Honda dealers, and I even bought a book on how to buy a car. I eventually bought a new black Honda Accord LX for $19,600: hopefully I won’t have to buy another car for a very long period of time.

Before I could buy a car I had to get a car loan. I applied to Wells Fargo, with whom I had banked with since last summer, and with whom I have several thousands of dollars worth of savings. They refused my loan application because I did not have enough credit history. I was furious. I told them to take into account my excellent UK credit history. They said they could not do that. I complained to the branch manager. She was not able to do anything. I kept on complaining until I spoke with the Regional Marketing Manager for this part of California. She put in a good word for me to the credit department, but I was still refused a loan. I was exasperated. Eventually, my credit union gave me a loan designed for “new” drivers that did not have credit history and who were willing to pay higher interest.

The Bank of America refused me a credit card. They said I did not earn enough money. I went to my branch to complain: they had omitted the last zero from my annual salary. So, now would they change their mind? No. I kept on complaining and complaining until I had a nasty encounter with a senior credit analyst. He told me the real reason was that they never gave credit cards to non-residents (I am a Non-Resident Alien). I asked why they did not say that on the form? Because it is illegal for them to say that. But then is that an illegal policy? I wish I had a tape recorder. Anyway, my (incorrect) salary was just used as an excuse to refuse me a credit card (because I have no credit history…) The credit analyst told me it was policy not to give cards to non-residents. I told him it was my policy not to do business with such obnoxious banks and that I will close all my accounts with them.

I did manage to get an American Express credit card by first applying for a UK AmEx credit card just before I left for the USA. When I arrived here I phoned up AmEx and asked for a USA AmEx card on the basis of my UK card. They said no problem, it’s in the post. And it was. But so was Susan’s, because she is a joint card holder with me. They sent my card to me at Xilinx which I got, but they also sent Susan’s card to Xilinx. Someone in the mail room stole it and maxed it out. There is now a fraud investigation and I am sure that this has done nothing good for my credit history. In parallel with this I have been refused a corporate Xilinx AmEx card! Despite several complaints from our HR department.

At work my productivity is picking up, and I even wrote my performance appraisal for my manager today. Working at Xilinx is fantastic, and so far I have no regrets about the company. I have a tiny wee cube rather than my illustrious office at Glasgow, so I feel pretty cramped. But I think I prefer the cube, and loads of people wander in to talk. Nearby is a great coffee place called Peet’s where Bob Slous and I have just been named Customers of the Week for being regulars (I did not write that in my performance appraisal!).

I love cooking so I was delighted to discover really fresh vegtables, meat and fish (at a premium). They have Safeway here, but I don’t think it’s as good as my local Safeway back home. There are also loads of Indians here, and it’s no problem getting hold of garam massala or Indian sweets. There is also a large diversity of restaurants which serve excellent food at reasonable prices. I’m developing a taste for sushi!

The hills around the valley are really beautiful at the moment. The recent rainy weather has rendered a lush green carpet over the soft rolling hills which are usually brown in the summer (or “golden” as the Californian’s prefer to call it). And it’s nice going to the beach when it is sunny, or walking in the state parks.

I miss Scotland a lot, especially small things like walking down Byres road and shopping by foot and going on pub crawls (which I hardly ever did, but I seem to miss it anyway). I’m in severe danger of turning into a whining ex-pat. And I also miss the sense of humour of Scottish or British people. There is extreme political correctness here, which I find hard to cope with.

Every day I promise myself that I will say one or two good things about the USA. Usually I can only think of (i) the beautiful scenery and… what was the other thing? I’ve forgotten already. Oh yes, they say the weather is good. But it’s often been grey and rainy. So I’m not convinced about that yet.

Only 455 days until Susan moves permanently to live with me. Hopefully I can hang in there until then.

Kind regards, Satnam