On Tuesday, August 6, Hack Reactor's programming bootcamp graduate Mark Wilbur, now an employee with Groupon, hosted a Google Hangout with a couple of current Hack Reactor students - Phillip Alexander and Hao Liu. The group was also joined briefly by Hack Reactor co-founder Shawn Drost. Mark gave job hunt and student project advice to Phillip and Hao, who are entering the second half of the program with Hack Reactor. The group discussed the technical interview, and how to achieve success and employer attention with their group and individual projects.
Mark Wilbur: I was going to ask if you've been interviewing non-stop since graduation, but you haven't even graduated yet...Have you finished the main part of the curriculum?
Phillip Alexander: We're just about to finish our personal projects and go into group projects. What is the timeline - is it two to three weeks on group projects and then we go into resume stuff?
Shawn Drost: Resume stuff is actually going to come before group projects. It's kind of cool. Resume stuff happens, then group projects happen, and then you do a lot of workshopping throughout the group project.
Phillip: (To Mark) Is there anything specific you would recommend us focusing on? Anything that you would have done differently if you could go back in time and warn your earlier self?
Mark: I would have focused on building as much as I possibly could until the resume polishing. Blogging (about your projects and sprints) doesn't hurt, but I was a little too focused on it early on. And I could have just been building more stuff. Maybe just blog once a week.
Some of the best results I saw were from one of my classmates who wasn't from the U.S. He was like, 'Well screw it, I can't get a VISA anyway, so I'm just going to do more extra sprints and build cool stuff.'
By the end, his GitHub was just so awesome that he had a lot of options (from employers). He didn't have a resume, he didn't have LinkedIn, he wasn't on Twitter, he was just building a bunch of stuff.
Phillip: They let us publish our sprints (to GitHub). Do you mean that kind of thing, or were you thinking just little side projects that you do?
Mark: He was working on lots and lots of projects and learning new things. The more stuff you build and the more things you learn, then the more impressive your skills and your GitHub will be when the time comes. And the more impressive your group project will be too.
Hao Liu: You've interviewed with a lot of big companies. Do they value each skill differently? Do bigger companies look at your technical resume and GitHub, and the smaller companies look at other things?
Mark: My experience was that big companies all did the exact same thing. They all had a few tech screens, like maybe one phone screen that is not technical and maybe one or two that are, and then a full day on site interview where they send a different person in every hour and have you solve stuff on a white board.
For the smaller companies, I saw one that did that and a couple that just had me pair program with them for a couple hours and that was what they made their decision off of.
The resume is for getting to the interview. I don't really know how I got the Google interviews. I actually just applied over the front page. I went to the jobs page and I applied and I put in a cover letter and I got a phone screen out of it. For Groupon, it was because I was presenting my personal project at anSan Francisco BackboneJS Meetup and someone from Groupon saw it and then he got me in touch with them.
Hao: What type of position where you applying for with Google and Groupon? Were they looking for backend Java developers?
For Groupon I wasn't really sure what I was going to work on until they made the offer. They had me talking with their data science people, and then a front-end guy in the next interview. And then the on-site it was a mix of front-end people and people working with Node.
Hao: Can you talk about your thought process as you weighed different job options? How much emphasis did you put on salary Vs the team you'd be working with?
Mark: Due to things I learned from the instructors at Hack Reactor, I was putting a lot of emphasis on the people I'd be working with and how quickly I'd be learning. because if you learn faster, that first year salary won't matter much in the long run. Your subsequent salaries will be much higher in the long run.
For me, I was in a financial bind. I did care about the salary and about how quickly I could work somewhere, plus the effect it would have on my resume. I know now that I'm at Groupon, I won't have to worry about the fact that I'm a Japanese major. If I had gone with a smaller company that no one had ever heard of, that may or may not have been an issue.
I was looking at everything - big companies, small companies. I made my decision based off getting a good offer. I had a really good interview experience with Groupon. The guys I interviewed with were all super sharp and I'm actually working with them now.
Phillip: We're wrapping up our personal projects. Do you have any thoughts on the types of group projects that we should try to come up with, with regard to getting hired? People say that your group project should be like a flashy thing that Reddit and Hacker News like. Do you have any thoughts on those kind of strategies?
Mark: I would focus on both of them. If you do something that is really technically challenging, the kinds of places that you want to work might respect that a lot. Obviously getting picked up on TechCrunch or Wired would help you a lot. I wouldn't worry too much about it. The first class actually had a group that didn't finish their group project and they all still got hired. You don't want to do that but you don't have to get featured in the media to get hired.
Hao:In terms of preparing for the tech interviews, were there any materials or books that you'd recommend?
Mark: Definitely, the basic stuff - working with sorting - you should have down cold. One area I was a bit weak, even after all that practice, was actually just building something during the interview. The first hour (one company) asked me how I would make something that looks like Google Calendar - just the front end. I started out with the CSS and that was no problem. And then they asked, 'What are you going to do with appointments that over lap hours?' and I had to rethink stuff on the fly. And it worked out OK but it was something I was not fully prepared for.
Phillip: When you worked with CSS on the Google Calendar, did they have you answer very specific CSS questions?
Mark: It would start out high level - they'd usually ask you about yourself and your background. After the initial pleasantries you'll get some kind of problem and if it's something like a Google Calendar they'll start out very vague. And you can say, 'Well I'd use this kind of technology and I'd want a template sort of system.' And after a little bit they'd say 'Ok, let's start writing code for it.'
At least with my Google interview, the interviewer definitely wanted me to say what my plan was an then start making an algorithm. Because if you figure out the strategy then the code isn't really that hard. But you'll get all kinds of practice on that stuff so I wouldn't worry too much.
Maybe the best thing to do is have another Google Hangout when you guys are closer to the interviews and picking a job.
Students: Yeah, definitely. Thanks Mark!
Mark: Good to meet you guys. No problem.
(End of hangout! For more helpful info., visit the Hack Reactor blog.)