The Google Interview
A crowed corner in Chelsea. First thing she says to me eventually becomes an unescapable mantra driven in on an endless choir of kettle drums:
We’re looking for Generalists.
But f** that, let’s skip through to the good stuff. Every onsite interviewee is given Lunch and a Tour at the famed Googleplex Cafeteria™ — now.. pause for a moment and don’t lose track of the fact that this is New York F*ing City, a Golden Empire of Promise where food is form of worship.
You just can’t pass off some anorexic infused flavoring, some corn syrup narrative about a happy couple and a chemically whitened smile as good food. Maybe in the suburbs where the palates are ruined by traffic exhaust and microwaves and rows of boxes on the hillside devoid of flavor, but not here and surely not now.
I think I had some kind of fish or something that melted in and sent me through a dreamworld of delight skewed visually down the glory of Manhattan at a 16 story high intoxicated dreamscape of metal and shape and the sun reflected a thousand times interrupted by my tour guide, a fine gentleman by any measure but re-reiterated that he had some made unfathomable, undisclosed amount of $ as part of some sort of ad thing; he boasted a football field past what was needed— I half expected his accountant to sit down on the bench next to us at any minute to confirm the specifics.
Brilliant sculptures and massages and optical illusions and puzzles and mysteries built literally into the mortar to a full service cafe as I clumsily pulled my wallet out to pay only to realize no one pays for anything in this magical place.
But sure the reason you’ve read this far, The Questions. Of course no one can go into specifics but they were legitimately hard in that the puzzle seemed to unfold in a different almost maze like quality, every turn introduced ten more corners.
Everyone person I met that day were just exceptionally bright mother f**ers that all shared the same gripping anxiety and/or clearly unhealthy levels of stress.
Each repeatedly mentions depending how do you on your review without ever being asked, suggesting an ominous dictatorial world of iron fists and marching hammers..
And I never been able to fein enthusiasm for the Narrative no matter how convincing it may seem and this awful shortcoming now bore itself out like a collapsing building. I simply couldn’t get excited about the prospects of joining the columns of Masters of the Universe no more than an old dog can dribble. One of the cruelest ironies in life is that from day one you’re taught to be honest by your mom and your teachers and whatever path you’re on to get to heaven before the sun goes down, yet your first job interview, your first glance into adulthood you’re expected to lie about your loyalties and devotion to a company that will drop you in a single alligator death roll the minute you’re perceived as a liability.
But back to the Puzzling. Being good at solving puzzles doesn’t make you a good software developer anymore than being good at crossword puzzles makes you a good writer; though worth acknowledging it’s classically American to view all of reality in such awkwardly simplistic terms.
The Problem with puzzles is they don’t represent the realities of software development —good design tends to be iterative, knocking out the perfect design in one shot on a white board whipping while sipping your 13th cup of coffee successfully has the same likelihood as knocking out 11 straight points in a game of racquetball on the International Space Station.
You never design in a weightless vacuum — you need to bounce ideas off an another person and they you, researching how similar problems may have solved in the past, presumably you could do that in an interview but on a significantly smaller scale.
Instead you risk having staff who are all the same, good at solving puzzles — due to the necessary preparation, just willing to goose step along to the latest edition of cracking the code interview. The Question seems to be “will you play along with the narrative or not?” — none of which strikes me as the qualities of creative people. Sure maybe a creative person will slip through, but you’re building an Army of Automatrons.
The experience just wasn’t representative of what it takes to recognize a good developer — good developers have two very simple qualities, attitude and aptitude. They’re generally positive about solving problems no matter how trivial and they genuinely love doing it. Both of these are very simple to see and almost impossible to fake.
When I interview mostly I’m concerned with the fact that I might have to work with this slob and I want to know attitude. This generally starts with a conversation about them or me or maybe the latest buffoon promising it all but I want to engage them in a conversation about something to get on their side of the screen for a moment.
Next I want to see what their aptitude is — so I pose increasingly harder but largely abstract problems e.g. write a function that returns true theoretically 80% of the time in whatever language you like and however neat or sloppy the point is to see how they approach problems. If the answer is “I’ll just google it” then you failed the exercise because you’re supposed to be intrigued by this bizarre, but stupid question.
From there I progress to a harder question design an algorithm to search for a word in a paragraph, and harder still, describe an algorithm to find the shortest path on two elements of the periodic chart; not because I want you to answer them but I want to see when / if you give up because inevitably in this gig you will face a very difficult problem that needs solving and the answer is to simply keep trying until they start selling the furniture to cover the rent.
An empty corner in Chelsea.
I gave my myriad of recruiters all 100% bravo zulu positive marks, though not because they presented a reasonably good effort, in fact quite the contrary I was passed around like an orphan with small pox, and never actually meet any of them in person. I gave them high marks purely out of sympathy for the seemingly crushing reality of the environment of competition they were engaged in. My only regret was sharing the burden of their regret for taking a chance on me and wished I could have done better for only their sakes.
The last conversation I had her was both brief and frustrated with a kind of obligatory reluctance. It was close sounded rehearsed as she muttered something else negative I didn’t quite understand nor seemed like it mattered. I could reapply in one year, thanks for playing.
It strikes me that smartness should be something more complex, ones ability to adapt to almost any environment and succeed marginally well in it — a Generalist. At least whoever is writing the narrative is onto something..
In all fairness though, the lunch and tour are the worth the price of admission. If you’re thinking should I interview at Google? then the answer is yes, you should, just getting the call from Google is self validating enough for the few fleeting moments of existence where this nonsense matters.