How to Hack a College Dining Hall (And Maybe Get a Job Along the Way)

It takes some nerve to e-mail a job applicant who just sent you her resume just to let her know that you thought her resume seemed “a little bland,” yet, there I was, a little flummoxed, staring at this three-sentence e-mail in my inbox from Co-founder and CEO of Pagelever, a Facebook page analytics company, calling my resume “a little bland.” My heart almost dropped right there until I read the rest of this sentence, which read”..but good dose of passion and curiosity came through your email, so I put you on the short-list of candidates” to fill out an online pre-screening application.

So over the next few hours I found myself filling out a series of short answer questions about my background in technology, and unlike any online application I’d ever filled out, recording myself on webcam giving a practical tutorial on creating a Facebook page. Then came a question I had to skip and come back to the very end to come up with an answer.

Tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage,” (here we’ll take the word “hack” to mean something along the lines of this Urban Dictionary definition: “to jury-rigor improvise something inelegant but effective, usually as a temporary solution to a problem.”) And if this question looks familiar to you, perhaps it’s because it appears on the Y-combinator startup incubator application (even though I was not applying for Y-combinator).

Here’s the story that took me two hours to finally recall from my memory and about twenty minutes to actually write and finish about five minutes before Jeff’s next-day midnight application deadline; about a time I hacked my college dining hall by thinking outside the dining hall feedback box:

The Boston University West Campus dining hall is arguably the best dining hall on campus, with the freshest salad bar, and widest variety of accommodations for all dietary preferences, from double-decker BBQ cheeseburgers to a made-to-order vegan grill to a fully-stocked waffle station with blueberries and chocolate chips. Not to mention, the dining hall is “all you can eat.” They had “everything” except for the three things I wished they had: garlic marinade on the rotisserie chicken, Sriracha brand hot sauce on the sauce table, and strawberry flavored ice cream in the soft-serve machine. As college student who loved cycling as much as I did eating, all I wanted after a long hard bike ride workout was to it down stuff my face with garlic-roased rotisserie chicken and Sriracha before rewarding myself with with strawberry soft serve, and the best way to get the dining hall to provide these food items was to take advantage of the dining hall’s feedback system.

One day I asked one of the dining hall workers how I could request each of these things, and she pointer her finger towards the tiny plastic pen-and-paper write-in feedback box, where students fill out a card with dining hall feedback, which, in the age of e-mail, seemed like an ancient system, but I filled out a card politely requesting my three savory and sweet desires anyway. An entire semester went by, and no garlic, Sriracha, or strawberry ice cream ever materialized. I asked a dining hall manager about it, who shrugged and recited to me that they “take all feedback into consideration and will change the menu if they hear from enough students about it.” So then I wondered, “how many students is enough?” and decided to find out.

I gathered three of my other friends together who happened to have the same tastes as me and hatched a plan: we would each grab a handful of feedback cards every few days and request the dining hall to stock each of these three food items, but in different handwriting every day requesting each of the different foods as to be conspicuous. We must have written close to 50 cards before, to our surprise, only took a few days later the rotisserie chicken was swimming in chopped garlic, another week before the bottles of sriracha hot sauce appeared, and another few days before my dining hall hacker friends and me were high-fiving each other over strawberry ice cream.

But as with any hack to a large unaccustomed to change, end-users will complain about change and the system administrators will usually figure out what happened and the system corrects itself. For us this happened a month later; while the bottles of Sriracha stuck around, the garlic and strawberry ice cream went away. Sitting at dinner with a large group of friends, one friend not involved with my hack took a bite out of his chicken and breathed a sigh of relief. “Finally!” he sighed. The rest of us looked curiously at him as he continued. “The dining hall’s been really overdoing it with the garlic in the rotisserie chicken, and I’ve been writing complaints for over a month!” Everyone at the table looked amused, but my three feedback-hacker friends and I all looked at each other and burst out laughing. The hack we pulled was a great success.

A few days after submitting my application I was nervous to see another e-mail reply in my inbox from Jeff. He let me know that he had chosen someone else for the position, but that on the bright side, he loved the “passion, curiosity, and personality” that came through my writing, and was glad that I applied anyway.

And even though these complements to my writing were without-a-doubt an ego-boost post job-rejection, I was still confused by what Jeff meant in his very first e-mail reply to me when he called my resume “bland.” That is, until I saw the illustrated slide-show PDF Jeff created and sent to Seth Godin instead of a PDF resume for an internship which he did manage to land:

Which, for Jeff, a guy who describes himself as someone who “[gets] insane pleasure out of beating the system and doing things a little differently,” is pretty impressive.

But until I figure out a way to create a slideshow-resume as clever as Jeff’s, perhaps I’ll stick to making my “bland” vanilla PDF resume more interesting, and sharing more stories you’ll enjoy reading, like how I “hacked” Boston’s “T” subway system in college by riding a bicycle everywhere, which not only cut down transportation time and costs, but helped me make more friends, lose weight, and enjoy getting around the city a lot more.