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Valuable Advice on Preparing for Technical Interviews ... and Careers

CrackingTheCodingInterview TheGoogleResume The cover of Gayle Laakmann McDowell's book, Cracking the Coding Interview, and links to her Career Cup web site and Technology Woman blog are included in the slides I use on the first day of every senior (400-level) computer science course I have taught over the last two years. These are some of the most valuable resources I have found for preparing for interviews for software engineering - as well as technical program manager, product manager or project manager - positions. I recently discovered she has another book, The Google Resume, that offers guidance on how to prepare for a career in the technology industry, so I've added that reference to my standard introductory slides.

While my Computing and Software Systems faculty colleagues and I strive to prepare students with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their careers, the technical interview process can prove to be an extremely daunting barrier to entry. The resources Gayle has made available - based on her extensive interviewing experience while a software engineer at Google, Microsoft and Apple - can help students (and others) break through those barriers. The updated edition of her earlier book focuses on how to prepare for interviews for technical positions, and her latest book complements this by offering guidance - to students and others who are looking to change jobs or fields - on how to prepare for careers in the computer technology world.


I have been looking for an opportunity to invite Gayle to the University of Washington Bothell to present her insights and experiences directly to our computer science students since I started teaching there last fall, and was delighted when she was able to visit us last week. Given the standing room only crowd, I was happy to see that others appreciated the opportunity to benefit from some of her wisdom. I will include fragments of this wisdom in my notes below, but for the full story, I recommend perusing her slides (embedded below) or watching a video of a similar talk she gave in May (also embedded further below), and for anyone serious about preparing for tech interviews and careers, I recommend reading her books.

Gayle emphasized the importance of crafting a crisp resume. Hiring managers typically spend no more than 15-30 seconds per resume to make a snap judgment about the qualifications of a candidate. A junior-level software engineer should be able to fit everything on one page, use verbs emphasizing accomplishments (vs. activities or responsibilities), and quantify accomplishments wherever possible. Here are links to some of the relevant resources available at her different web sites:

One important element of Gayle's advice [on Slide 13] that aligns with my past experience - and ongoing bias - in hiring researchers, designers, software engineers and other computing professionals is the importance of working on special projects (or, as Gayle puts it, "Build something!"). While graduates of computer science programs are in high demand, I have always looked for people who have done something noteworthy and relevant, above and beyond the traditional curriculum, and it appears that this is a common theme in filtering prospective candidates in many technology companies. This is consistent with advice given in another invited talk at UWB last year by Jake Homan on the benefits of contributing to open source projects, and is one of the motivations behind the UWB CSS curriculum requiring a capstone project for all our computer science and software engineering majors.

IntroductionToAlgorithmsGayle spoke of "the CLRS book" during her talk at UWB and her earlier talk at TheEasy, a reference to the classic textbook, Introduction to Algorithms, by Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest and Clifford Stein. She said that entry-level software engineer applicants typically won't need to know data structures and algorithms at the depth or breadth presented in that book, and she offers a cheat sheet / overview of the basics on Slides 23-40, and an elaboration in Chapters 8 & 9 of her CtCI book. However, for those who are interested in delving more deeply into the topic, an online course based on the textbook is now part of the MIT Open CourseWare project, and includes video & audio lectures, selected lecture notes, assignments, exams and solutions.

One potential pitfall to candidates who prepare thoroughly for technical interviews is they may get an interview question that they have already seen (and perhaps studied). She recommended that candidates admit to having seen a question before, equating not doing so with cheating on an exam, and to avoid simply reciting solutions from memory, both because simple slip-ups are both common and easy to catch.

Gayle stressed that was there is no correlation between how well a candidate thinks he or she did in an interview and how well their interviewers thought they did. In addition to natural biases, the candidate evaluation process is always relative: candidates' responses to questions are assessed in the context of the responses of other candidates for the same position. So even if a candidate thinks he or she did well on a question, it may not be as well as other candidates, and even if a candidate thinks he or she totally blew a question, it may not have been blown as badly as other candidates blew the question.

Another important factor to bear in mind is that most of the big technology companies tend to be very conservative in making offers; they generally would prefer to err on the side of false negatives than false positives. When they have a candidate who seems pretty good, but they don't feel entirely confident about the candidate's strength, they have so many [other] strong candidates, they would rather reject someone who may have turned out great than risk hiring someone who does not turn out well. Of course, different companies have different evaluation and ranking schemes, and many of these details can be found in her CtCI book.

Gayle visits the Seattle area on a semi-regular basis, so I'm hoping I will be able to entice her to return each fall to give a live presentation to our students. However, for the benefit of those who are not able to see her present live, here is a video of her Cracking the Coding Interview presentation at this year's Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (CUSEC 2012) [which was also the site of another great presentation I blogged about a few months ago, Bret Victor's Inventing on Principle].

Finally, I want to round things out on a lighter note, with a related video that I also include in my standard introductory slides, Vj Vijai's Hacking the Technical Interview talk at Ignite Seattle in 2008:

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