Aug 292007
 

I received a reply to my Google post today. Since I get a lot of spam, I filter everything on this blog. Usually any comment that comes in I just make sure it isn’t porn or spam and approve it. This one was extremely interesting, but not very compelling, mostly because it was posted anonymously. This could mean it is a Google employee that didn’t want to be found or just some random person trolling (I do have his IP address however – hehe). Anyways, the comment is a personal attack, so at first I took offense and got defensive. But the more I thought about it the more I began to think about interviewing again. Here’s the comment:

Wow, this entire article is littered with hubris and cocky remarks, but the summary takes the cake. Why didn’t Google hire you? They were trying to best you in a battle of wits and you were too smart! Of course that must be it since you’re an algorithms God!

Seriously Bro, you need to check yourself. Your ego, not Google’s, probably cost you the position.

First things first… I want to clear the air about my post and this comment. The majority of my post has no cocky remarks or hubris. It’s just what happened, pretty simple. I agree that my post got somewhat more subjective near the end, but I was forced to draw conclusions because of the treatment I received. Just to give you perspective, the Google recruiter left me a voice mail telling me I was not selected because they “thought my coding skills were not very good”. You read that correctly, A VOICE MAIL. This was very unprofessional. My phone and Boulder interviews were great and very productive. However, my treatment in California and after was very poor.

As for being a God of algorithms, I clearly state I’m not. I had trouble with some of their questions and that’s the point. They want to challenge you, which I completely agree with.

As for egos and battles of wits, I disagree with the commenter and this is what I’ve been thinking about since I read this comment. Ego is an interesting beast. In an interview, there are a few of possibilities, two of which are:

1. The interviewee has an ego and think they are better than the interviewer or the company. In this case they usually just answer the questions and if they gets stumped it is my experience that they start arguing. In most cases the arguments are defensive and without any pragmatic basis.

2. The interviewer has an ego and think they are better than the interviewee. In this case the interviewer isn’t out to find good candidates. They are out to find the candidates that will make them feel smart. If you answer their questions well, try to create good dialogs or introduce any pragmatism, you’ll probably get the toss.

So, what happened with me? Well, I have no doubt that the dictionary question threw me off a bit. However, I was definitely excited about being able to interview at Google. Even though I didn’t know the answer, I was interested in trying to figure it out with a good dialog. My first reaction was that it might be an early optimization because it could be a complex solution. In truth the optimization isn’t complex, but I didn’t know the answer at first. So, I wanted to begin a dialog about it and try to work through it. This didn’t go over well. In the end the interviewer got annoyed and just gave me the answer after I asked for it (he was about to move on without finishing that question when I stopped him).

Next was the hiring error question. This question had very little information around it and I again was interested in solving it. I did what I normally did and asked some questions, trying to start a dialog about it. This again didn’t go over well. The interviewer actually tried to solve it. I’m not making that up, it actually happened. But he couldn’t. This really made me think that this interviewer had a lot of ego and access to a list of questions to pick from. He picked a few, but hadn’t actually solved them all. After the interview I talked a bit with my local mathematics wiz (2 master degrees and almost a PhD in case people think he’s just some quack I work with) just to see if the interviewer and I were missing something. He confirmed that the question didn’t make sense given the information and that the solution I posed was correct without more information and bounds. You have to reduce the error to fix things.

Lastly, my comments about the tag-along were completely subjective and editorial. I personally thought it was poor form to bring along someone who wasn’t going to participate in the interview. It was uncomfortable and made it difficult to concentrate. Was this ego, maybe. But probably just plain nerves.

Now, I think the commenter was specifically thrown off by my summary and once he had finished that, he forgot about the other stuff I wrote. This summary was completely editorial and just a plain old guess as to the end result. The reason I suggested that I was “grilled” because of my resume is that I’ve had a number of friends interview at Google. Many of them never got the questions I did and my phone interviewer even told me that his questions were the hardest that Google gave. So, why, when I did so well in three interviews prior, would everything fall apart in the end? How was it that when I called my friends at Google they were astonished that I was hired?

In honesty, I don’t know. So I have to hypothesize as to what happened in California. During both interviews I had in California I had a feeling that I wasn’t really a candidate. I wanted to get a sense for what life was like at the company. I asked the first interviewer if people went out for drinks or if there were company activities and his answer was, “I’ve got kids and I don’t do that”. Another interviewer took off part way through the interview. So, given my experience I drew out some conclusions. Were they accurate? Who knows, but I did warn readers that I had nothing to back it up. As for my points:

Have I worked on huge systems? You bet.

Are the systems I’ve built larger that the majority of other engineers? Yes. 3000-5000 servers, distributed, etc.

Do I think that I write solid code? Absolutely.

Do I think I could work at Google on huge systems? Yes.

For these reason, I wrote my summary and made a guess as to the result. This conclusion I came to was based on experience. Having been part of interviewing processes at a number of companies I have seen a few interviewers just clobber lesser candidates but hire them and pass over good candidates. Therefore, I believe that it is fundamentally important to ensure your interviewers are doing a good job and working in the best interest of the company. If they are allowing ego to interfere with making good selections, they shouldn’t be interviewing. Lastly, my summary only applies to my experience in California. My phone interview and Boulder interview were great. Not a single sign of ego during either.

  4 Responses to “Ego interviewing”

  1. Hi Brian,

    This is about your previous article on Dr. Dobb’s. (http://www.ddj.com/java/184406242)
    I was just curious if you still had the source available for this. I’m trying to learn Java NIO, and in the article it mentions to look under the “resources section” for the source, but there is not resources section, at least none that I could see.
    If you could make it available, I would be very grateful. It was a great read by the way!

    Thanks.

  2. Sorry you found my anonymous comment non-compelling. I certainly didn’t mean it as a personal attack, rather an honest reflection of what I thought after reading the article.

    What I meant by ‘hubris’ is simply the tone of the article. There’s an extreme confidence in each of your question descriptions that borders on arrogance (“this is easy”, “this one is simple”, “I didn’t know this. Not because I couldn’t learn it, but because I don’t want to know it”). This is all well and good, but when you close the article with commentary on Google’s “ego and dominance” issues your editorial comments take an entirely different light. Is this and article about Google interview questions or about how they’re pigheaded, ego-maniacs for not hiring you?

    In any given interview I’d guess that technical know-how is only half what the company is looking for. The other half is personality, compatibility, etc. When you argue with an interviewer over the details of a contrived problem don’t you think that sends them a message that you’re stubborn or, worse, arrogant?

    You’re obviously an intelligent, well-qualified engineer, but the giant chip on your shoulder isn’t doing you any good.

  3. rmf,

    I think you take confidence for arrogance. The reason I say things are easy, or that I’ve done them, or that I figured it out, or that I could figure it out is simply the truth. I think if you re-read what I posted I never once said that I don’t want to know the answer. In fact, you’ll find that I re-enforce the fact that I really did want to know the answer and had to actually ask for it.

    Now, my summary is obviously what keeps throwing you off. It is just a guess my friend. Nothing more. I’m not stating that Google are a bunch of jokers, bad engineers, or anything of that nature. My point is to try and draw out some conclusions. Like you said, it could be personality. Or it could be bad interviewers. Who knows.

    As for your theory about questioning the questions, every time I’ve interviewed candidates and they argue with me, I’m delighted. This shows that they are willing to debate and work through solutions. The world isn’t going to move forward without people who are willing to argue. Arguing isn’t arrogance or being stubborn, it’s about being pragmatic. I think the issue I had, and this is where the go comes in, when you argue with folks who have active egos you’ll usually run into brick walls instead of insightful dialogs.

    Also, I’m fairly certain I have no chip on my shoulder. I could offer you hundreds of folks I’ve worked with who would back that up. I do know that I’m quite obviously confident, perhaps to a flaw. But I feel like that’s a good thing.

    Lastly, if you refuse to use your real identity, I’ll probably stop accepting your comments. You must at least be willing to stamp your name on your thoughts, or who will take them seriously.

  4. Tim,

    Emailing you now.

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