Monday, July 25, 2011

What I learned about myself, interviewing at Google.

Recently I interviewed at Google.  To prepare, I went to a site called that hosts sample interview questions for various companies. Lots of them for Google.

I was interviewing for the position of Google Software Engineer, so I went through the practice questions labeled with that position.  They were mostly of the form, "write a program that solves a particular puzzling problem."  For each of those questions, I said to myself, "Yup.  I understand what they're asking.  With effort I could write such a program."  I slogged through about forty Software Engineer questions and indeed it was a slog.  What can I say?  I can code.  I'm good at it.  But my motivation comes from what the code does for someone,  not from the joy of code by itself.

Then I came across a question for an "Associate Product Manager" position:

Should Google buy Netflix?

All of a sudden I felt my whole brain light up like a christmas tree!  This question was not a slog.  This question was interesting!  I couldn't stop thinking about it, and thinking about it was fun.  Whereas coding, for me,  involves a lot of uncomfortable mental housekeeping to make sure every little thing is right where it should be for the one right answer, this Netflix purchase question was a whole universe of tradeoffs that were fun to play with and explore as different scenarios.

Satisfyingly, unlike a computer program where one mis-step invalidates the whole problem solution, the space of inquiry about Netflix's impact on Google's business is a continuum. Though the question is stated as yes/no, the commercial impact is a continuous flow that can be observed and changed over time.  The system is not only continuous, it is dynamic. With new products, players and different agreements being made all the time, the tradeoffs change in nature and importance all the time.

Gratifyingly, in the face of that complexity, I felt I had an answer to the yes/no question, along with a narrative of what to watch to validate or amend the answer.  I'll provide that in a subsequent posting.

Like many of us laid off in the Great Recession, I've struggled with my job search.  I took extra time to revive my skills as a software developer to make myself more attractive in the marketplace.  But the drumbeat of advice from every quarter is:  Search for a job with work you will love doing.  That will make you the most attractive candidate.

The discovery of what you love doing is not something you can sit down and think through. It's a process of experiencing the feeling you get when you do something.  As I said succinctly in one of my One Liner Poems:
We find our aspirations by tripping over them.
Here I've tripped over a love of pondering business relationships and the emergence of a product and market.  Cool!

When the time came to visit Google and do the coding problems, it was clear both to the interviewers and to me that:
  • I understood and could do the problems.
  • I had the training and insight to understand the tradeoffs being made.
  • I was a meticulous software engineer.
  • I was not excited by the process enough to be the kind of Change The World software engineer who would best fit Google.

So now I'm looking for Product Manager openings.

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