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Ignite: Technical Interviews Make Me Cry

Ignite: Technical Interviews Make Me Cry

An Ignite talk for FooCamp 2014, based on this blog post:

Pamela Fox

June 23, 2014

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  1. A year ago, I was working at Coursera and decided

    that what I really wanted was to work at Khan Academy, on their CS platform. So I stalked their engineers on Twitter, forked their Github repos, and read their blog posts. I was obsessed, but I really felt like I would be a great fit for them in that role, if I could just convince them of that.
  2. After reviewing my resume, they started me on the usual

    interview process, scheduling a 40 minute phone screen with an engineer. I wasn't sure what sort of questions I’d be asked, but I figured I was known as some sort of JS expert, so I spent a night reading through the ECMAScript spec. It was a great night.
  3. Part of me thought I should study more, enough that

    I'd feel confident that I could handle *anything* they threw of me, but that would have taken me months, if that. More likely, I'd never feel 100% confident. Plus, I still had my full-time job to attend to (one where I was already working in a similar role), so I didn't have infinite hours to prep.
  4. When the time came, I sat there on my bed,

    on an unusually hot SF day, and dialed into the Skype call. My interviewer started with the usual, asking me about a recent project. Then, we opened a Stypi and he gave me the coding question - a function to compute the answer to a question, using a bit of simple math and logic.
  5. And that's when I froze. I didn't immediately know how

    to answer the question, and I broke down. I stared at the white wall for minutes. I typed nothing. I listened to my interviewer breathing, knowing that he wanted me to start working through the problem, but at that point, I couldn't.
  6. The only thing going through my mind was "I can't

    do this." I stared at the "hang up" button on Skype. I could just press it, and he would go away, and then I'd give up on my obsession, and I would convince myself it was a stupid idea in the first place.
  7. I could feel my palms getting sweatier, and then I

    could feel the tears start to come. And the silence grew more uncomfortable. It'd been minutes since I said anything. I needed to do something, anything.
  8. I finally managed to convince myself that I'd be an

    idiot for hanging up, and in an act of honesty, I choked out something like, "Um, I'm sorry, I've literally gone blank and not thought about anything for 5 minutes. I'm not used to coding on the phone."
  9. And my interviewer understood. He guided me through it, urging

    me to keep going, even though I kept wanting to throw in the towel. I wanted him to give up on me, to realize the mistake I'd made in thinking I could meet their bar, to put me out of my misery. At some points, I couldn't even type because I could no longer see through the tears that had welled up in my eyes. But eventually, we got to the end of it, and the interview was over.
  10. And then the sobbing REALLY began. I had just finished

    the first step of the interview process with the company I desperately wanted to work for, and I'd bombed it. I’d frozen, I’d cried, I’d stumbled through my somewhat shoddy solution. Did I really deserve to even be an engineer, if I couldn't even make it through a phone screen?
  11. After a night spent in existential crisis mode, I found

    out that I'd made it to the next step. Apparently, my solution wasn't that shoddy after all and somehow, I hadn't scared my interviewer off.
  12. It was then that I decided the most important part

    of prepping for the next phone screens: confidence. Even if I didn't really have any, I had to convince myself that I did, and do everything in my power to not mentally run away. By the last phone screen, I was *almost* having fun.
  13. This story has a happy ending: I was offered the

    job and have been working there ever since, almost a year now. But this story could easily have had an unhappy ending. What if I broke down during every phone call, and never got my dream job? What if I had scared him off with that first one, and not had a chance to redeem myself?
  14. What if I'm not the only one that responds so

    negatively to technical interviews, despite being skilled in what I do? I wrote a blog post on this, and found out that indeed, I was not the only one. How many people out there aren't getting jobs because they can't get through the technical interview huddle?
  15. Yes, I could have prepared for the technical interview better.

    I see that now, and I now recommend to anyone in the interviewing phase that they study for the format, not just the content. HOWEVER, I think there are inherent flaws both in the format and the content of technical phone interviews.
  16. First, we are asking interviewees to code in a way

    that isn't at all how we code on the job. We don't code on- demand solutions over the phone, we mull over a problem (often one which doesn’t have a clear solution), ask colleagues for their thoughts, maybe sketch it out on paper or Google for approaches to similar problems, and *then( code it out.
  17. Second, we are often asking interviewees to implement algorithms or

    do math problems. I very much value my algorithms education from my CS major, however, I do not use it for 99% of my job. What I mostly use in web dev jobs is my specific frontend skills, desire to have a well architected codebase and APIs, and debugging skills.
  18. So what *would* help us understand how well an interviewee

    would actually do in a job? At Khan Academy and many other companies, we're starting to experiment with the take-home project, which is both an opportunity for the candidate to see if they'd enjoy working on the kind of projects we do, and its an opportunity for us to see how well they do in a more natural setting.
  19. That's not the only approach. Some companies have candidates work

    on a project while they're on-site. Some companies are even experimenting with having candidates work with them for a week.
  20. My plea to you: if you are an interviewer, remember

    how incredibly intimidating that experience can be, be understanding, ease them into it, forgive them if they cry. If you have any power to experiment with your interview process, please do, and please share the results of what you try. The technical interview process is still an unsolved problem, and one that we can all work to find an optimal solution for.