cracking the coding interview

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Behind the Scenes
For many candidates, interviewing is a bit of a black box. You walk in, you get pounded with questions from a variety of interviewers, and then somehow or other you return with an offer… or not.
Have you ever wondered:

  • How do decisions get made?
  • Do your interviewers talk to each other?
  • What does the company really care about?

Well, wonder no more!
CareerCup sought out interviewing experts from five top companies – Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Apple – to show you what really happens “behind the scenes.” These experts will walk us through a typical interview day and describe what’s taking place outside of the interviewing room, and what happens after you leave.
Our interviewing experts also told us what’s different about their interview process. From bar raisers (Amazon) to Hiring Committees (Google), each company has its own quirks. Knowing these idiosyncrasies will help you to react better to a super-tough interviewer, or to avoid being intimidated when two interviewers show up at the door (Apple!).
In addition, our specialists offered insight as to what their company stresses in their interviews. While almost all software firms care about coding and algorithms, some companies focus more than others on specific aspects of the interview. Whether this is because of the company’s technology or its history, now you’ll know what and how to prepare.
So, join us as we take you behind the scenes at Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Yahoo and Apple…

Behind the Scenes | The Microsoft Interview

Microsoft wants smart people. Geeks. People who are passionate about technology. You probably won’t be tested on the ins and outs of C++ APIs, but you will be expected to write code on the board.
In a typical interview, you’ll show up at Microsoft at some time in the morning and fill out initial paper work. You’ll have a short interview with a recruiter where he or she will give you a sample question. Your recruiter is usually there to prep you, and not to grill you on technical questions. Be nice to your recruiter. Your recruiter can be your biggest advocate, even pushing to re-interview you if you stumbled on your first interview. They can fight for you to be hired – or not!
During the day, you’ll do four or five interviews, often with two different teams. Unlike many companies, where you meet your interviewers in a conference room, you’ll meet with your Microsoft interviewers in their office. This is a great time to look around and get a feel for the team culture.
Depending on the team, interviewers may or may not share their feedback on you with the rest of the interview loop.
When you complete your interviews with a team, you might speak with a hiring manager. If so, that’s a great sign! It likely means that you passed the interviews with a particular team. It’s now down to the hiring manager’s decision.
You might get a decision that day, or it might be a week. After one week of no word from HR, send them a friendly email asking for a status update.

Definitely Prepare:
“Why do you want to work for Microsoft?”
In this question, Microsoft wants to see that you’re passionate about technology. A great answer might be, “I’ve been using Microsoft software as long as I can remember, and I’m really impressed at how Microsoft manages to create a product that is universally excellent. For example, I’ve been using Visual Studio recently to learn game programming, and it’s APIs are excellent.” Note how this shows a passion for technology!

What’s Unique:
You’ll only reach the hiring manager if you’ve done well, but if you do, that’s a great sign!

Behind the Scenes | The Amazon Interview

Amazon’s recruiting process usually begins with one or two phone screens in which you interview with a specific team. The engineer who interviews you will usually ask you to write simple code and read it aloud on the phone. They will ask a broad set of questions to explore what areas of technology you’re familiar with.
Next, you fly to Seattle for four or five interviews with one or two teams which have selected you based on your resume and phone interviews. You will have to code on a whiteboard, and some interviewers will stress other skills. Interviewers are each assigned a specific area to probe and may seem very different from each other. They can not see other feedback until they have submitted their own and they are discouraged from discussing it until the hiring meeting.
Amazon’s “bar raiser” interviewer is charged with keeping the interview bar high. They attend special training and will interview candidates outside their group in order to balance out the group itself. If one interview seems significantly harder and different, that’s most likely the bar raiser. This person has both significant experience with interviews and veto power in the hiring decision. You will meet with your recruiter at the end of the day.
Once your interviewers have entered their feedback, they will meet to discuss it. They will be the people making the hiring decision.
While Amazon’s recruiters are excellent at following up with candidates, occasionally there are delays. If you haven’t heard from Amazon within a week, we recommend a friendly email.

Definitely Prepare:Amazon is a web-based company, and that means they care about scale. Make sure you prepare for questions in “Large Scale.” You don’t need a background in distributed systems to answer these questions. See our recommendations in the System Design and Memory Limits Chapter.
Additionally, Amazon tends to ask a lot of questions about object oriented design. Check out the Object Oriented Design chapter for sample questions and suggestions.

What’s Unique:
The Bar Raiser, who is brought in from a different team to keep the bar high.

Behind the Scenes | The Google Interview

There are many scary stories floating around about Google interviews, but it’s mostly just that: stories. The interview is not terribly different from Microsoft’s or Amazon’s. However, because Google HR can be a little disorganized, we recommend being proactive in communication.
A Google engineer performs the first phone screen, so expect tough technical questions. On your on-site interview, you’ll interview with four to six people, one of whom will be a lunch interviewer. Interviewer feedback is kept confidential from the other interviewers, so you can be assured that you enter each interview with blank slate. Your lunch interviewer doesn’t submit feedback, so this is a great opportunity to ask honest questions.
Written feedback is submitted to a hiring committee of engineers to make a hire/no-hire recommendation. Feedback is typically broken down into four categories (Analytical Ability, Coding, Experience and Communication) and you are given a score from 1.0 to 4.0 overall.
The hiring committee understands that you can’t be expected to excel in every interview, but if multiple people raise the same red flag (arrogance, poor coding skills, etc), that can disqualify you. A hiring committee typically wants to see one interviewer who is an “enthusiastic endorser.” In other words, a packet with scores of 3.6, 3.1, 3.1 and 2.6 is better than all 3.1s. Your phone screen is usually not a strong factor in the final decision.
The Google hiring process can be slow. If you don’t hear back within one week, politely ask your recruiter for an update. A lack of response says nothing about your performance.

Definitely Prepare:
As a web-based company, Google cares about how to design a scalable system. So, make sure you prepare for questions from “System Design and Memory Limits” Additionally, many Google interviewers will ask questions involving Bit Manipulation, so please brush up on these questions.

What’s Different:
Your interviewers do not make the hiring decision. Rather, they enter feedback which is passed to a hiring committee. The hiring committee recommends a decision which can be—though rarely is—rejected by Google executives.

Behind the Scenes | The Apple Interview

Much like the company itself, Apple’s interview process has minimal beaucracy. The interviewers will be looking for excellent technical skills, but a passion for the position and company is also very important. While it’s not a prerequisite to be a Mac user, you should at least be familiar with the system.
The interview process typically begins with a recruiter phone screen to get a basic sense of your skills, followed up by a series of technical phone screens with team members.
Once you’re invited on campus, you’ll typically be greeted by the recruiter who provides an overview of the process. You will then have 6-8 interviews with members of the team for which you’re interviewing, as well as key people with whom your team works.
You can expect a mix of 1-on-1 and 2-on-1 interviews. Be ready to code on a whiteboard and make sure all of your thoughts are clearly communicated. Lunch is with your potential future manager and appears more casual, but is still an interview. Each interviewer is usually focused on a different area and is discouraged from sharing feedback unless there’s something they want subsequent interviewers to drill into.
Towards the end of the day, your interviewers will compare notes and if everyone still feels you’re a viable candidate, you’ll interview with the director and then VP of the organization you’re applying to. While this decision is rather informal, it’s a very good sign if you make it. This decision also happens behind the scenes and if you don’t pass, you’ll simply be escorted out of the building without ever having been the wiser (until now).
If you made it to the director and VP interviews, all of your interviewers will gather in a conference room to give an official thumbs up or thumbs down. The VP typically won’t be present, but can still veto the hire if they weren’t impressed. Your recruiter will usually follow up a few days later, but feel free to ping your recruiter for updates.

Definitely Prepare: If you know what team you’re interviewing with, make sure you read up on that product. What do you like about it? What would you improve? Offering specific recommendations can show your passion for the job.

What’s Unique:
Apple does 2-on-1 interviews often, but don’t get stressed out about them – it’s the same as a 1-on-1 interview!
Also, Apple employees are huge Apple fans. You should show this same passion in your interview.

Behind the Scenes | The Yahoo Interview

Resume Selection & Screening: While Yahoo tends to only recruit at the top 10 – 20 schools, other candidates can still get interviewed through Yahoo’s job board (or – better yet – if they can get an internal referral). If you’re one of the lucky ones selected, your interview process will start off with a phone screen. Your phone screen will be with a senior employee (tech lead, manager, etc).
On-Site Interview: You will typically interview with 6 – 7 people on the same team for 45 minutes each. Each interviewer will have an area of focus. For example, one interviewer might focus on databases, while another interviewer might focus on your understanding of computer architecture. Interviews will often be composed as follows:
5 minutes: General conversation. Tell me about yourself, your projects, etc.
20 minutes: Coding question. For example, implement merge sort.
20 minutes: System design. For example, design a large distributed cache. These questions will often focus on an area from your past experience or on something your interviewer is currently working on.
Decision: At the end of the day, you will likely meet with a Program Manager or someone else for a general conversation (product demos, concerns about the company, your competing offers, etc). Meanwhile, your interviewers will discuss your performance and attempt to come to a decision. The hiring manager has the ultimate say and will weigh the positive feedback against the negative.
If you have done well, you will often get a decision that day, but this is not always the case. There can be many reasons that you might not be told for several days – for example, the team may feel it needs to interview several other people.

Definitely Prepare:
Yahoo, almost as a rule, asks questions about system design, so make sure you prepare for that. They want to know that you can not only write code, but that you can design software. Don’t worry if you don’t have a background in this – you can still reason your way through it!

What’s Unique:
Your phone interview will likely be performed by someone with more influence, such as a hiring manager.
Yahoo is also unusual in that it often gives a decision (if you’re hired) on the same day. Your interviewers will discuss your performance while you meet with a final interviewer.

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