CodinGamer in the dark: Interview with Mickaël Steler

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The September 21 CodinGame was undoubtedly one of our hardest challenges; those who ranked in the top 50 have distinguished themselves as exceptional developers.
In communicating with CodinGamers on the day of the competition, we got to know Mickaël Steler, who stood out for his active IRC presence, quick repartee, and unfailing sense of humor. He placed 45th in the September challenge, with a score of 90% -- a very strong showing.

A bit later, while browsing the logs, we chanced upon one of his cover letters. There again was Mickaël, his fine sense for composition, humor, and … one section stunned us in particular: “I am nearly blind (RQTH [Recognition of Handicapped Worker Status] category B), but I’ve adapted my workstation quite easily. I challenge anyone who thinks that this is an obstacle to being a powerful nerd to try a CodinGame with me. As a matter of fact, I spent nine months studying in China, with two solo multi-day camping trips during the holidays, so I think I can say that I know how to use what I have left.”

We couldn’t believe it, so we contacted him. The exchange we had opened our eyes, and he taught us a great deal.



Hello Mickaël. You are one of our best CodinGamers. Your handicap hasn’t stopped you from getting excellent scores. As an accomplished nerd, can you reflect on your career?

Hello CodinGame. :) I was born with a visual handicap. I’m not totally blind (an important point); rather, I can see about 10 degrees out of 200. This effectively means that I see two-hundred times more poorly than a normal person.


In my childhood, I had to be admitted to the hospital many times, which made my schooling very chaotic. It was during a period of nearly a year away from school that I truly learned how to use computers, with a particular interest in chat sites (the timeless IRC) where I could meet and communicate with other people in my age group. I started by coding bots, and I was hooked. When I returned to school at the National Institute for Blind Children in Paris, I took my passion with me.


When did you decide to make this a career?

In the ninth grade, we had to do an internship. I spent mine at the Epitech IT school. Three years later, with my high school science diploma in hand, I went to study IT for good. That was also the beginning of the real challenge. Determined, I shook the tree to get the [few things] I needed to be able to work: inverted colors (white on black instead of black on white) and large-character fonts. As such, I could configure things to my liking for my own environment, but it was always a problem during exams. Nevertheless, I got some of the best grades of my class.


To that point, a very successful academic career. How did things end up?

Everything went well until I started looking for on-the-job training. Despite my excellent grades, my CV, with the words “handicapped worker”, had a miraculous tendency to end up in the dustbin … when I removed that phrase – miracle of miracles! – I started getting interviews. However, my use of the white cane seemed to make me unsuited to any position. For my internship, I ended up offering my services for free to non-profit organizations. In the end, they were so grateful for my work that I was paid well, better even than many others in my cohort.

And then there was China in my fourth year. I let go of my cane and took confidence in myself. I often went traveling on my own for several days, thousands of kilometers from the university, without anyone knowing. That proved to me that I had every tool I needed to follow the same path as a totally normal person.


How was the start to your professional career?

Upon returning to France, I sought out end-of-studies training that would lead to a permanent contract. My strategy: never, EVER, state my disability, in my CV or in phone or video interviews. Instead, I always brought my cane to interviews, without saying anything else about it.

I applied everywhere, especially to IT services companies, which were the only businesses that readily granted me interviews! But when the interviews came, I heard it all: “Hello, sir, I think you’re on the wrong floor …”; “No, sir, it’s impossible – you can’t work in IT”; and there went my CV into the trash as I stood face to face with the interviewer. When I recall these adventures, they generally make me laugh, because I can see them in a certain light. But it’s also the sad reality.

To help things along, I made a small web site that generated QR codes. And thanks to that, I got an interview at my current company. There was a nerd among the decision makers, which helped me a great deal to get the job.


When did you decide to try out the CodinGame experience?

I happened upon CodinGame by chance, while doing my daily web watch. I liked the concept and decided to do the September 21 contest, while selecting a few job offers: AdThink, CCM Benchmark, Dailymotion. The day of the challenge, I cut off contact to the outside world, readied myself with pizza and cans of Redbull, and it started. I had a great time during the com
petition – friendly atmosphere in the chat, cool problems (except the 3rd :D) – and in the end: 45th out of 1,124. (Huzzah!!)

In addition to winning a pass to the dating site AdoptAGuy (which I resold on Ebay to pay for my pizza ;-) ), the three companies that I applied to responded. I had an interview with one of them, but I’m still waiting on the result.

Despite my handicap, I’m getting better and better at my craft. I’ve refined my skills, developed a lot of exciting projects, and acquired some certifications. I am still passionate about my work. I seek out “mind-bending” projects, and a team of nerds who share my passion. In my job search, if I have the chance to meet the right interviewer, I know that we will have both won the day :-)


We haven’t done much to enhance the accessibility of the CodinGame platform; have you encountered any problems in doing the challenge?

As for the platform, frankly, it’s fine. You can do the classic “ctrl” + “+” in order to make the text big enough to comfortably read it, and that’s basically all I need. I edit my code in my preferred IDE and I copy/paste my answers to your online IDE. As for the tests, and this has nothing to do with my disability, but I noticed that I was not very effective at using the online platform (often, when launching a series of 15-20 tests, for example), so when I start an exercise, I download the in_* and out_* files and place them in the same folder, and I've already set up a local interpreter to launch the test cases.


Any final thoughts?

I find your method of recruitment ideal for eliminating any form of discrimination. But even if the challenge serves as proof of my skills, I fear that, even with the best intentions, it does not relieve recruiters of all their prejudices. Yet, in everyday life, when I talk about work, it has nothing to do with my handicap. When I work, that doesn’t exist as all. When I’m in front of my screen, I’m a lead developer, I build the programs, I manage a team. I do my work. If tomorrow I quit my job, I am sure that the saddest person will be my boss.

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