Software engineer stopped from entering The U.S. until he could balance a Binary Search Tree

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The Unvisited Software Engineer detained at airport until he solves a binary search tree

When Celestine Omin, a Nigerian software engineer left for the U.S. on 26th February, 2017 for a business trip, he never would have imagined it would be so difficult to enter the U.S.

When he landed at John F. Kennedy Airport (New York City) after 23 hours of a tiring flight journey, Omin was stopped by an immigration Officer and was inquired about his job, to which Omin stated that he is a software engineer. Not quite satisfied with the answer, the officer asked Omin to follow him to a small room where Omin had to wait for about another hour until another Officer arrived.

The Unvisited Software Engineer detained at airport until he solves a binary search tree
Image Credits: Celestine Omin

According to the report released in LinkedIn, the officer started interrogating him with the question:

“Your visa says you are a software engineer. Is that correct?”

Omin replied with a ‘Yes’. To Omin’s surprise the Officer gave him a pen & a paper and asked him to write down the answers for the following questions:

“Write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced.”

“What is an abstract class, and why do you need it?”

While Omin must have been quite amused by the whole thing, these questions are not at all related to finding out the personality and intent of a person, which is the general norms of questions asked to a suspect at airports. Rather, these questions belong to a job interview for an IT guy.

The 7 years experienced techie found the questions vague and they could have multiple answers. To Omin, it looked as if a person without any IT knowledge would have googled for “Questions To Ask A Software Engineer” to get these questions. Despite of the tiredness, he tried to answer them in the best way possible.

“Every single time I asked [the official] why he was asking me these questions, he hushed me. I wasn’t prepared for this. If I had known this was going to happen beforehand, I would have tried to prepare.”, Omin told LinkedIn.

When he handed over the answers after 10 minutes of hard work, to his dismay the Officer told him that the answers were wrong. Such a bad day for Omin!

Omin reported that the answers were technically correct and the Officer couldn’t understand it because of limited technical knowledge.

Omin thought his visa would be denied and he would have to return to Nigeria. But fortunately, the officer let him go by saying “Look, I am going to let you go, but you don’t look convincing to me.” Omin just walked out without saying anything.

The engineer later found out that he was released only after the custom officials verified his authenticity with his employer Andela over a phone call.

So, if you are an engineer who is planning to go to the U.S., make sure to do your homework! It’s going to be a tough technical round all over again at the JFK airport. 😀

The incident can be seen as an after-effect of Donald Trump’s temporary immigration ban.

However, after tweeting about the incident Celestine Omin got overwhelming support of Americans on twitter:

Being a software engineer myself, I wonder what I would have done had I been in a situation similar to the one faced by Omin. I no longer remember anything about binary trees, so I guess I would have to go back home the way I came 😀

I am going to revise my Binary Trees now . . .