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Tales from the Google interview room

'Do not remove the batteries from your interviewer..'

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Letters We've heard quite a few anecdotes of bizarre interview practices from Google over the years, so when we asked if you had some of your own, you didn't disappoint.

The company that turned down Bram Cohen, creator of Bittorrent, but managed to find a post for crazed neo-con headbanger Dan Senor, certainly moves in mysterious ways.

So when we heard that Google is using a robot to aid with the recruitment process, we solicited some of your tales. Here they are, with names removed, for obvious reasons...

On a phone interview six or seven years ago for Google-

I have a PhD-level resume and a string of major innovations and discoveries to my credit--the interviewer asked questions like, "What is the C-language command for opening a connection with a foreign host over the internet?"

My (wrong) answer: "Look it up in the back of the book." Apparently they not only want you to be able to program, but to have memorized all the function syntax.

A more recent interview there for a product-manager position was very intense: one 45-minute session after another, with the interviewer firing off rapid-fire questions like "How would you boost the GMail subscription base?", "What is the most efficient way to sort a million integers?", "How would you re-position Google's offerings to counteract competitive threats from Microsoft?"

But the interviewers didn't actually look at me as I answered, since they were busy tapping nonstop notes onto laptops.

The whole vibe was eerily like I felt when interviewing on Wall Street years before: arrogance personified, with the brusqueness coming from certain knowledge that they are the Masters of the Universe and you are very lucky to even be in their presence.

So for sanity's sake, it's probably just as well I didn't get the job(s), although I'd be much richer now if I had.


My background - 10+ years of technical work in "X", and management experience, at Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies. No brand name school degree though.

It was pretty interesting. I sent in my resume to a job I really like, a manager position (of X). It's what I've been doing for quite a few years now. Didn't hear anything back.

I know someone who works there though, and talked with him. He suggested manager of Y as well as X. I talked to manager of Y, and he liked me and thought I had good technical skills, but did not have enough management experience for large groups (50+). Fair enough. Largest group I've directly managed is about 12, and I've worked across multigroup projects of 20+. I don't think managing more people is really that big an issue, but... that's not my call.

I then got through to the recruiters about X because of my friend's recommendation. So I started on about 4-5 rounds of technical interviews, ending with an interview with manager of X. Got through all the technical interviews. Invited to go onsite. Went onsite, and had another 5 rounds of more management type interview, but had one technical interview. The technical guys really drilled down on what I know, and I had a brain lockup that day. Couldn't do anything technical at all, could not explain how ssh works, could not explain how diffie-helman works, don't even know how cross site scripting works.

A couple of weeks back, I was told, no go. Apparently in the other 4 onsite interviews they really liked my management style, but I got kicked out for not being technical enough. I was at lunch when that happened, and I announced to the folks there. They looked at me with big eyes - I'm probably the most technical person in the group; Even my ex-boss, and a reference, thought Google was crazy :)

So, there you have it. Team Y thought I had good technical skills, but not enough management skills, and Team X thought I had good management skills and not enough technical skills.

I'm just surprised that the ONE onsite tech interview where my brain locked up counted so much - apparently running the 4-5 months of technical interview gauntlet didn't indicate that I had technical skills. Google might also want to consider the fact that sometimes, the technical guy doing the interview is asking questions that HE knows about, and the interviewee may be very technical, but just not in the exactly questions being asked (aside: I do know how Diffie helman and x-site scripting works. When I need to know exactly how it works, ie, when i'm investigating an issue/protocol/something, I'll go read up on the exact mechanism, but in general, I do not keep the Diffie Helman protocol in my head - encrpytion stuff is NOT my dayjob).

Am I still interested in working for google? Sure. Would I be interested in going through another 4-6 months of Google-interview-roulette? No.


First.

You are correctly noting the ominous "organizational citizenship". That is absolutely correct. While Google likes to draw itself as a "revolutionary" in terms of organisation, job conditions, etc - their hiring practicies and internal organisation are conventional and frozen in the past in a manner which closely resembles a civil service at its worst. Their network engineering is strictly separated from software, systems, operations and business. A person is not ever allowed to straddle the sacred boundaries and if a person has skills that span the sacred boundaries they end up being the ball in an interdepartamental HR volleyball match (you have this one, no you have it, etc).

Even traditionally rigid places like banks, telcos and service organisations have recently seen the light and allow people to straddle boundaries between network, software and systems provided that they have the skills, because this vastly improves turnaround on projects and reduces project deployment times. From this perspective Google beta pathology is no longer surprising.

Second.

Their hiring process is clearly disfunctional. They agree to interview a person who is interested only in a chosen location and has no interest in working anywhere else. So for example, you have agreed to go ahead with the interview only if you can work in their Denver office. They schedule an interview with you and you pass the interview after which you are contacted by a HR droid who says "I am contacting you about this job in Mountain View for which you have applied, we would like to take the process further". At which point you tell them to go stuff the Mountain View somewhere where sun does not shine as you are only interested in Denver. At that point they reschedule a new interview agreeing that Denver is OK as a possibility. Interview passes, the next HR droid contacts you again with "I am contacting you about this job in Mountain View for which you have applied, we would like to take the process further". Rinse, repeat. No wander they need bots to filter applications.

Third.

They have a process which intentionally filters out people who are single minded and focused on a goal in favour of people who like to spread around and tinker with things. At some point in the process you end up in a room with gadgets and things. The room actually has either a CCTV camera or a double mirror (no idea what is the actual technical implementation). If you open your bag and read a book so that you do not lose concentraion at that point and ignore the shiny gadgets you are most likely going to fail the interview. If you tinker with the shiny trinkets around you, the likelihood that you will pass will vastly improve. Once again - no wander the pathological beta.

Rinse, repeat


Several years ago I put my resume in as I thought it would be an interesting place to work. Got a call for a telephone interview. The call came in 90 minutes late and lasted 15 minutes. Can't say I was surprised that I never heard back from them.

The interview may have had two brain cells but I'm not too sure. I had to correct the questions he was asking. Either he had no idea or the paper he was reading from had some very badly worded questions.


And tough luck if your interviewer is just an out-and-out wanker. As demonstrated here -

I'd tried for a spot I was, from the job description, very qualified for (to the point of almost being over-qualified). It was right before the IPO, which would have been very lucrative, as they were still giving out very generous stock options. 

I'm a 6-year US Army vet, and while quite proud of my service, I never had to fire a shot in anger - I was an "MI Weenie" - Military Intelligence Signals Analyst.

The interview was going swimmingly until I met up with one interviewer who was apparently anti-military. Using the Google "Do No Evil" mantra as a pretense, he asked me how many people I'd killed when I served. When I explained to him that I was MI, he then asked if I could estimate how many people were killed because of the intelligence I'd gathered. The implication was I was either an evil, efficient killer or an incompetent one - a real no-win situation.

I didn't get the job, and with no explaination why. I'm fairly certain his negative comments took me out of the running. For awhile, I assumed Google was anti-military, but after getting some time and perspective on it, it's possible it was just a personal thing - one person's bias.

I think if they'd had this system in play, I'd have scored well, and could have been evaluated less subjectively. It's a shame... I think I would've liked working there.


So to sum up, memorize those reference manuals, folks!

Finally, Calin Cosma seals our earlier story with this gag:

I think this is a very important angle that you might have missed.

From what I've seen, recruiting people tend to select people they personally like, people with whom they have something in common. If the job bot works in a similar fashion with the recruiting personnel, is that to say that the job bot is more likely to hire other robots ?

Any more experiences (successful or not?) - and we'll stick 'em here. ®

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