Go with a smile!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Great Job Hunt part 1

This time last year, I had flown back to Mexico for the second time in three months. It was an uneasy time. One year earlier, I had started a part time course towards a post-grad degree. Six months earlier, I got accepted by Mexico and decided to quit my job, although I didn’t manage to get out until one month before I was due to fly off.

Three months earlier, I started school at Mexico. During the first three months, I had felt as lost as I had during the six months doing that part time course. It wasn’t like Snowy Hill where I felt like there were a thousand new ideas streaming through my head every day. Ploughing through papers were a pain. Working things out.

I realised that doing a postgrad degree in something you hadn’t done as an undergraduate was a hard slog. You sorda got the main ideas, but the technical details escaped you. There were talks going all the time. It used to be exhilarating looking at all the things that you could learn / could have learnt. Now it just induces a vague sense of panic. It used to be exciting that so many big companies were visiting the campus, but then you realize that you had to up your game to even be considered.

I hadn’t come to the states thinking that I’d look for a job. To be honest, I continued my education in the states because that’s where I got my bachelor’s, and I was already familiar with the system. I didn’t like the Singaporean education system which placed more emphasis on memorization. I preferred the US system because it rewards you when you have a sound grasp of the ideas. It wouldn’t surprise people that in my short stint in the local uni, considering that I had to work and study at the same time, I wasn’t 100% impressed with my own grades. Then on my first week here, I told an American that I wasn't expecting to find work, because the US economy was so shit, unemployment was so high, and the recession was still going on. He said, are you kidding? Do you realise that you're in the one industry that is recession proof? That got me thinking.

My first job fair involved looking for an internship. I was walking around with a resume, and I handed copies out to everybody. I got only one reply, and that involved me flying to – well let’s call this place Cowland.

I was asked to do an online personality test for Cowland. And afterwards, there was a phone interview. And after that, a standardized test administered by a third party, where you went to one of those exam booths like the one where you sat your GREs. I spent almost the entire three hours allotted coding the assignment, and I had to rent a car for 1 day to drive me to that place. 1 month later, they flew me onsite for an interview. All the way from the south to the Midwest, and they put me up for 1 night at the local Hilton. Their headquarters, or as they called it, the “campus” was the most lavish one I had seen so far, and it had plenty of artwork collections on a huge sprawling site. Programmers were seated two to a room. It looked very interesting.

However, I think I bombed that interview. I was supposed to present to them a software engineering project that I did, and it started well, until I got very confused at the terms and the questions that the interviewer asked me. We got our signals crossed. The second interview was a short one, and basically just a HR person asked me stupid standard questions about my strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately they said that they weren’t granting me an internship because my summer break was different from most other peoples’ summer breaks (this is true). But then why advertise for internships at my school? Duh.

What followed were a pile of resumes sent out online, and almost no replies. That was the bleakest part of my stay. I had to fix my resumes. Or else I had to target the better job. Any job, I thought, I could grow into it and start bullshitting my way through until I was actually competent. After all, that was how I did my last job and I turned out fine in the end.

There was another campus event, and I handed my resume to a nice lady. Then she called me up for an interview. It was somewhere else in Mexico. I had tried to get my shirt ready for that event the night before – I wasn’t good at ironing shirts and I was wondering why the one shirt I brought over wouldn’t fucking stay ironed. I woke up a little late, and not really willing to go to the interview. I finally got to the rental car place and drove over, and actually arrived at the interview 15 minutes late. That was a very bad sign. The interviewer asked me a few questions, and the internship involved uploading some code into the firmware of tractors. Sounded like a decent but boring job. It may have been the tardiness for getting to the interview on time, but I didn't get the job. There was a follow up question, asking for my immigration status, and during the interview they had told me that they did not employ foreigners. Eventually I realised that if those guys knew what they were doing, they wouldn't have asked me in for an interview at all: they could give an internship to a foreigner, but they weren't going to employ a foreigner full time. Then they give internship for fuck?

Eventually, summer came and there were no internships. I was looking at a bleak summer. I had a not very nice academic term just before that. Being able to watch the Euros around that time took the sting off things, but it wasn’t very fun. I had some time to learn some computer skills and try to make myself a little more attractive to employers.

Out of the blue, however, I was asked to be a teaching assistant for a subject that I hadn’t been very good in. I grabbed it, of course. But otherwise my life during that summer was pretty boring, although there were nice parts for me exploring “Mexico” and what not.

After the first few weeks of fall, there was a mass mail sent to all the students telling that google was visiting. The deadline was actually on the last day of Crazy Frog’s visit. I quickly got that resume ready again. This time, with the benefit of one year in a master’s program, I was able to pump it up with some more nice sounding bullshit. That is the problem with resumes: if you half know something, you probably should put it in. Then if the job calls for it, polish it up just before you get started. Most programming languages are similar to each other, and you only need to know one really well – probably C or C++, and then you can learn the rest pretty quickly. The only thing the other people can tell is whether you’ve named it on your resume.

Resumes have to be sifted through the computer search system, and if you do not have the terms, then no humans will ever see it. So even if you’re at beginner level, put some things in. HTML. CSS. Because I did this, suddenly my resumes were getting some replies.

The first round of the Google interview had two 45 minute sessions. The first interview was more pleasant. The guy asked me a two coding questions. The first one was easy. The second one, I was more hesitant about being able to code the whole thing. But I showed him that I knew how to do it, even though I would say that my display showed that I was a little disorganized.

The second interviewer was a little more arrogant. But you know what geeks are like – a few of them seem arrogant without actually being so. He asked me a few questions about computer systems, and my answers were probably quite naïve.

The Facebook interview had a coding challenge. I was answered by a neatly dressed Asian American. I thought it was going to be a technical interview, but then it turned out that his first question for me was “how would you improve Facebook”. It went downhill from there. It was pretty stupid of me, one of the most obvious questions asked, and I couldn’t answer it well. Then I managed to get into an argument with him concerning Timeline.

The coding question, I think I did OK on it, but maybe they were looking for somebody faster than me. He asked me to correct a few things on my code.

Cloud Report
The other company, I’ll call it “cloud report”, since their business involves delivering a lot of reports on the cloud. It took place on campus as well. I met with a pretty old guy, and the problem with white guys is that if you don’t master the Yankee accent well enough, you’re going to be repeating yourself quite often.

The work looked interesting, and there were a lot of data queries involved, a lot of backend optimization. But I think I realised that I wasn’t able to explain well enough what I did in school. I had just finished working on a problem set the previous night, but I had it on the tip of my tongue what I was doing – and never managed to explain it to him.

Towards the end of the interview, I actually asked him when they were going to get back to me. He said, “our HR people are quite on the ball, and they’d reply to you quickly”. On hindsight, he had probably already decided by then that I wasn’t it. Properly translated, he was probably saying something like “don’t hold your breath man”.

So it was dejecting: three on-campus interviews, and three strike outs. But at least a few heartening things was that it was giving me practice. I would make one or two fewer mistakes every round, and it gave me practice.

The worst thing is that my fucking shirt wouldn’t stay ironed. Only after that interview did I try spraying water on the shirt and that actually worked. I supposed that’s why that fucking shirt was so fucking cheap – all that fucking inferior material. I finally got that shirt sorted out last month.

I was talking to a friend afterwards, and I complained that it was so hard to find work. He said, “you got to be kidding. You are in the field which has the most employment opportunities”. Well I couldn’t deny that. Then again, I discussed this with another Singaporean I bumped into on campus, and he told me that it was that much easier for Americans to get employed in the US. He told me of the countless times that an American would get employed, but an equally qualified Singaporean would not.

But then again, he was a scientist rather than an engineer, and we all know that scientists find it harder to be employed than engineers.


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