June 2015

Volume 30 Number 6

Upstart - Job Hunting

By Ryder Donahue | June 2015

In my last column, I wrote about what it was like for me to adjust to a new career at Microsoft, and gave some advice that I hope will benefit new employees in the future. But to take advantage of that advice, you need to land a job first.

For college students entering the workforce, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to start your job search early. I began job hunting in the first semester of my senior year, and had secured a full-time job before the start of my last semester. By contrast, I saw how difficult it was for some of my colleagues who didn’t begin their search until after they graduated.

I also urge developers—whether new to the industry or simply changing jobs—to carefully research the companies they hope to join. I spent a fair amount of time studying various tech companies before applying for openings, and that helped me determine that Microsoft would be a good fit for me. You’ll want to find a workplace that best fits your needs and personality, and provides a compatible corporate culture. Maybe you want to work late nights on cutting-edge technology, while living on campus with access to great free facilities, or maybe you want to be able to go home after work and spend time with your family. Whatever your preference, realize that there’s a tech company for everyone, and they all seem to be hiring.

And keep in mind, when you walk into a job interview, be sure to judge them just as hard as they are judging you. Landing a job won’t make you happy if you don’t like the company you’re working for, which brings me to the next topic: preparing for the job interview.

There are countless resources out there on things like, “How to nail the tech interview,” or “101 common coding interview questions,” which you may or may not find helpful. The key is to prepare for an interview so you can confidently present yourself. The most important takeaway I had from my interviews was not how tough they were technically, but how they tested other aspects of my skillset and character beyond coding, problem solving, and basic knowledge of fundamental algorithms. In short, interviewers are trying to decide if you are someone with whom they want to work.

You may be the best programmer at your university, but if you’re a pain to work with, no one will hire you. Whatever job you’re applying for will almost certainly have you doing something you may not have done a lot in college, which is working on a team. Tech companies don’t create the most lucrative or innovative companies in the world by having thousands of programmers coding all day in isolation. It’s an entirely collaborative process. In my job, I rarely spend longer than 30 minutes at work before I have to ask someone a question, run something by a product manager or do a code review.

Of course, the technical/coding aspects of the interview remain important, but it really isn’t something about which you should be too concerned. Every interviewer handles the process differently, but most are just trying to determine if you have strong problem-solving skills. Most likely you’ll be solving a problem on a whiteboard, or on paper, which for me was somewhat daunting, given that my whiteboard handwriting is terrible. Luckily, as one of my interviewers put it, “Don’t worry about your handwriting, we actually normally write code on these crazy things called computers most of the time here at Microsoft anyway.”

One way to prepare is to find some sample technical interview questions and practice solving them on a whiteboard while timing yourself. Don’t expect to anticipate the specific topics on which you’ll be challenged. Rather, the practice reps can help you feel confident about the process during the interview.

In the end, I had a great time during my interviews, even though I arrived too early and almost froze to death in the below-freezing November weather (I’m from Hawaii, and my wardrobe was utterly insufficient). My interview team was very friendly and tried to make me feel comfortable. I was actually surprised at how quickly it was all over because I was having such a good time. And while I was fortunate to actually land the first job I interviewed for, if I hadn’t got it, I would have had plenty of time to explore other options.

Just like anything in life, the harder you work the bigger the payoff, and when it comes to something as important as starting a career, you want everything to go as smoothly as possible.

Ryder Donahue is a software developer engineer at Microsoft. Originally from the Hawaiian Islands, he now resides in Redmond, Wash., with his fiancée and their cat, Marbles.