Bug Tracker Blog by Corey Trager

Google interview

by Corey Trager 23. March 2008 00:06

Last summer I was interviewed at Google's Chicago office but I was not given an offer.

Others rejected by Google have written about their experiences:


Here's my story:

It started when I received an email from a Google recruiter asking whether I would be interested.  Sure, I was!  Even though I was fairly content and well paid at my current job, I figured that if nothing happened beyond the interview process it would be an interesting adventure, like a voyage and maybe an extended stay in a foreign country.  I am interested in different cultures and foreign languages.  I've even coerced my family, when my kids were still compliant, into taking "vacations" in Mexico and Guatemala where we were in classrooms 5 hours a day, in Spanish immersion classes.  Way back in the 70's I traveled the Hippie Trail, from Europe to India overland.  So, even though I was content at my job, I was up for the adventure.

The recruiter scheduled a phone interview and gave me advice about how to prepare for it.  First, review algorithms, data structures, and Big O notation. Second, read the Google papers on the Google File System, Big Table, and Map Reduce.  I didn't mention to the recruiter that the first part, the "review" of algorithms, data structures, and Big O Notation, wouldn't be a review for me; it would be my first formal study of those topics.  I was a liberal arts major, Ancient Greek and Latin (an armchair adventure).  If I were to be around hard-core computer science majors discussing algorithms and data structures in precise academic language, it would be like me being among the Eskimos, with their many words for snow, me having just a few terms like "snow", "slush", and "powder".  I understand the concepts and apply them daily, but I don't know the words for them.  I don't know what the concepts are called.  For example, although, I've learned to call a big array that only has a few of its slots ("slots"?) filled in a "sparse" array, I don't know what to call an array where each element is a linked list.  I bet there is a formal name, but I haven't learned to speak that language.  And I can't read or speak Big O, even though I have experience applying the concepts that Big O notation is used for.  My software development skills are solid, but they are ... rustic.

Looking back, preparing for the interview was the most valuable and lasting part of the whole process, not so much for the algorithms and data structures, but for the Google papers.  Prior to being contacted by the Google recruiter, I hadn't done any reading about the technologies on which Google search is based.  I enjoyed learning about them.  True, these days I'm not doing any programming where the Google technologies would have an application.  In my day job, I work for a company that makes software for futures traders. On my weekends, I work on BugTracker.NET.  Neither app has to deal with large datasets or parallel processing.  But my previous day job was with a credit bureau, with a huge database of payment history that needed to crunched for the credit score calculations and needed to be digested for our our search engine (which I wrote).  Maybe the idea of a credit bureau sounds boring to you, but it's interesting and challenging work.  We didn't know what Map Reduce was, but we had a similar challenge because of the amount of data - the need to manage parallel processing - and so our solution ended up being very much like Map Reduce. Well, except that ours wasn't a general framework.  I've since contacted my former coworker there and pointed him to Hadoop, an open source implementation of Google's Map Reduce.  I really do enjoy my current job, but part of me wishes I was back at the credit bureau tackling those particular types of engineering challenges that big datasets present, playing with Hadoop.   Plus, the data itself is kind of fun.  If you are ever going to loan money to a business, you are safer lending to a Lutheran church in Minnesota than a restaurant in Mississippi that has the word "Grits" in its name.  That's what the statistics crunched from the database tell us.

The phone interview was conducted by a guy from Google's Boston office. The questions were reasonable. I didn't read any of the non-disclosure agreements I signed because life is too short to read what lawyer-ese, but the golden rule of do-unto-others guides me that I shouldn't spoil the schtick of a fellow software developer's interview techniques by spilling the beans, so I won't tell you what I was asked.  I did learn something, though, in the course of the phone interview: that cosmic rays can cause computer memory chips to flip a bit.  Did you know that?  I didn't know that. I wonder if in my career I've ever spent time investigating a bug that was cosmic by a cosmic ray?

After the phone interview a date was set for me to interview at the Chicago office. Before the interview I, well, what else, googled "Google Chicago Office" and got a sneak peak of what I was going to encounter.  I even got a tour of the office:  http://video.nbc5.com/player/?id=124170

As the day of the interview approached, I felt an increasing amount of distress. One of the sources of distress was my anxiety about being judged and falling short. In advance of the interview, I found that the infantile, emotional part of my brain was busy manufacturing reasons to not care how I was judged.  One train of thought was that there is no "Google" that is judging me.  There is just the guys on interview duty that day, the idiosyncratic individuals who were going to be talking to me that day.  Maybe things would click with them, maybe not. And, especially in the Chicago office, there was no "Google" in that the developers there were the ones absorbed into the company from Google's purchase of FeedBurner, a Chicago startup, plus, the lead developers from the Subversion project, who had been recruited to run the development staff in Chicago.

Another source of my distress was that my mind was involuntarily preparing myself to leave my current company.  Every work place has its shortcomings and irritations, but with time and self-hypnosis, if not outright self-medication, you learn not to dwell on them, to look at the positive.   At that time, though, because of my poisoned mindset, I was becoming hypersensitive to every irritation, so that whereas I had been content before the process with Google started, I disliked my job by the time the interview came.   Another part of the distress with my current job was keeping secrets from my coworkers.  I have a great relationship with my boss and my partner, but I didn't tell them about the Google interview.  I would never be good at cheating on my wife because during this period every conversation I had with them was colored by the fact that I was keeping a secret from them, lying to them.  I had involuntarily emotionally detached myself from these guys.  I felt lonely and fraudulent.

So, by the day of the interview, I was in emotionally unsettled.  Where I really felt it was in the lobby of the Google office waiting for the interviewer to come and get me.  The decor of the lobby and the office in general relies on Lava Lamps (a Chicago product).  Hundreds of Lava Lamps.   The thoughts I had while waiting were, "How juvenile to think that owing a particular product makes the owner cool!" and, as a bill-paying father of teenage boys who never turn off the lights, "How wasteful to be spending all that money for that wattage!".  We took a family trip to Alaska during which a Denali National Park ranger asked us to think about the consequences of using florescent lights on the glaciers we were viewing.  Hadn't the Google interior decorators seen "An Inconvenient Truth"?  I would have felt more at home in a humble Amish household than I did in the pseudo-hip, purchased-cool, energy-profligate, global-warming-contributing lobby of Google's Chicago office.

I knew these judgments were being fueled by my unsettled emotional state.  I knew that if Google were to make me an offer, I would accept it.  I mean, hey, it's Google, the Angelina Jolie of tech employers.

It was the Subversion guys who were scheduled to interview me.  These guys are somewhat public figures.  They blog.  Here's where maybe I made a mistake:  I spent time reading their blogs and sent them emails about what I had read, pointing to some of my work which related to their writings and which reflected on me favorably.  One of the guys had blogged about his favorite Chicago restaurants and I shared with him my list (He had tried and hated one of my recommendations....)  I wonder in retrospect whether my actions were, to them, kind of creepy and uncomfortable?  Like, I was some sort of stalker.   Hey, see what I'm doing here?   See the angst-ridden self inquiry?   That's what you do to yourself when you get rejected by Google.

So, first one of the Subversion guys interviews me.  He asked me how I would design software to do X, where X was the kind of challenge that Google has to deal with.  The content of the interview as appropriate.  It tested my thinking, experience, problem solving skills, rather than specifics of some language syntax.  The design challenge was left deliberately underspecified, testing whether how I would dig with good questions to add more specifics.  The guy conducting the interview played his part well.   He helped me feel at ease, guided me well, gave clear answers to my questions.

In a previous job, I completely controlled the interview process for the developers I hired, and so I have some opinions about dos and don'ts in the interview.  I think the Google interview was a good test and I thought this guy did a good job.

Maybe I did ok, because I got passed along to the second Subversion guy.  The content of the interview was the same, a design challenge.  But, this second guy was different.  Whereas the first guy had put me at ease, the second guy shook me up.   Now, I'm not a fragile flower at all, so I have rehashed the scene in my head to figure out what it was that happened that allowed this guy to shake me up.  One theory is that this guy hooked into my primordial primate brain and pressed certain buttons that have been hard-wired into my DNA by evolution.  Shortly before the Google interview I had read, "In the Shadow of Man" by Jane Goodall, about chimpanzee behavior, and "Our Inner Ape" by Franz de Waal, about bonobo behavior.  The books had been given to me buy a friend, a school psychologist, with three daughters.  She said that all her daughters had read the books too and that they used the zoological terminology from the books to describe various behavior they would encounter in males in their daily life.  "He's just displaying" was one of their catch phrases, when they would witness some asshole making angry noises.

This second guy was definitely an alpha.  He made intense direct eye contact with me, unsmiling.  He seemed irritated.  He didn't shake any banana branches at me or make mock charges at me, but he might as well have.  His flat, cold affect in turn made me, I guess, somehow try harder, in a pathetic way, to evoke some sort of warmer response from him.  If it would have helped to pick insects from his fur, I would have tried it.  Now keep in mind, these thoughts are all happening while I was trying to figure out how to adjust my faulty algorithm for solving the design challenge to work in constant time rather than linear time (O(1) vs O(n) in Big O notation!.  Look at me!  I can spake Big O!  Caramba!).  There had been a misunderstanding between us earlier in the session, a sort of fork in the road of the conversation, so his thinking went one way down that fork and mine another.  Although I eventually realized what happened, and saw the misunderstanding as mutual, that's not how he saw it, and my attempt to explain and backtrack to that fork in the road just sounded argumentative and weasel-like.  Actually, I think one of the things I contribute to whatever team I'm on is that I'll be in a meeting and person A will be talking to person B, and they will be agreeing, but I'll realize that although they think they are agreeing with each other, they actually don't agree, but are merely mutually misunderstanding each other in such away that each is shaping what the other says into his own expectation.  Even if there are a dozen people in the meeting, it ends up being me who intervenes and points out that A and B are not actually agreeing, only seemingly   And it works the other way too, when A and B actually are saying the same thing, but because of misunderstanding, are arguing.   (We call that "violently agreeing" with one another...)

That's pretty much where things ended.  I felt a sense of impatience and irritation coming from the interviewer, because, I suppose, he had already made up his mind and didn't want to waste any more time on me.  I asked him for some feedback, what his thoughts about me were pro and con, my weaknesses.   Maybe there would be an opening for me to change a perception, but if not, I would have some more knowledge that maybe I could benefit from.   And I can handle the truth.  I'm the type of guy who tends to have painful post-breakup-analysis conversations with girlfriends who have dumped me, where I end up hearing details about the new boyfriend (One girlfriend told me about her new boyfriend, "He had never come in a girl's mouth before he met me".  Gee, thanks for that image.).  So, I was ready to hear what he thought, whatever he thought.  But his answer was a curt, unadorned, unexplained, "I'm not going to tell you that.".   I don't understand that part.  That's really just about him, I think, so that he doesn't have to do anything uncomfortable.

Oddly, he then gave me a tour of the office.   Game room, ping pong table.  I can't imagine why he gave me that tour.   It was a perfunctory tour, but, why bother?   My thinking during the tour?  You can go fuck the Lava Lamps.

I don't claim that I know anything about the second guy really, what he's really like.  Our interaction was limited.  My perception was skewed.  I know it can be stressful to be in his shoes, the interviewer, especially if you know you are going to give a thumbs down to somebody.  It's no fun.  You have to sort of harden yourself to it.   And maybe he was having a bad day.  What looks like coldness might be just shyness.   So, if somebody were to tell me he is a warm, generous guy to work with, I wouldn't doubt it. 

After the interview I felt horrible.  I knew I wasn't going to get an offer.  Churning in my mind was what went wrong?  I suspect that the second guy had a negative inclination about me the moment the interview started.  It's just pure speculation.   I have no way of knowing.  The things that might have given him a negative inclination are:

* My age.  I'm 52.  I'm not claiming any sort of discrimination.   I'm just saying that my age makes me maybe not look the part of a young energetic geeky software developer.   Actually, I think age has changed me for the better as an employee.  I do think I'm less "hungry" in the workplace, so in that sense, I don't try as hard.  But overall, I'm more productive.  Not just because of my experience and judgment, but because whereas I used to be a smart but disruptive hothead, now I'm more of a stabilizing elder statesmen, giving guidance to the young hotheads.  In the mid 90's I worked at this company which went through an odd experiment of allowing folks to chose their boss.  In answer to the question, "Who do you want to be your boss?", I was the #2 vote getter out of 110 developers.   But, in answer to the question, "Who do you NOT want to be your boss?", I was the #1 vote getter.  I'm not proud of that.  A couple years ago, at my current job, my boss wrote in my review.  "Everybody likes him".   That I'm proud of.   So, in short, age, and my two teenage boys, have mellowed me.

* My work experience is on Windows, not Linux. That's a legit demerit against me.  My day-to-day hands on skills are not on Linux.  I can use Linux, but I'm much slower and I have to look things up.   Also, there's probably a prejudice that a Windows programmer has a different mentality than a Linux programmer, in the same way I prejudge a Hummer driver to have a different mentality than a Prius driver, or a Visual Basic programmer to be different than a C++ programmer.   An interviewer has to make decisions based on limited info, and the fact that my experience is on Windows is fair game.  I think it is appropriate for a tech interviewer at Google to have those prejudices.  I think there is some truth to generalizations, so, it's appropriate to factor them in.

* My education background, liberal arts instead of computer sci.

* Perspiration stains around my armpits.  Well, no, I'm just making that one up.  I hope.

Take those three together, and it would be a special interviewer who could overcome prejudices and see me as a fitting into a team of 20-something developers with engineering degrees.   I'm not accusing anybody of anything illegal, unfair or narrow-minded here.  The essence of doing an interview and making a hire/don't hire decision is to take a few impressions, inadequate information, and make a judgment.  Or, maybe, there wasn't any negative inclination, that it was purely a case of the interviewer judging my design skills to be lacking based on how I handled the questions. Could be. Maybe I truly don't have the brain power Google is looking for.   Maybe I truly am *NOT* a good fit for what Google is looking for.

As I walked from Google's office to my the building where I work, I had to steel myself to deal again with all those things at my current job I had grown to be irritated with.  The process of detaching myself from my current job had progressed so far that I was irritated by the smallest things, but I knew that I quickly needed to re-acclimate myself to all those annoying people and practices. As I write this today, I am back to being a happy and well adjusted model employee.  I like my co-workers, my boss, my boss's boss.  There are many things that my current company is doing right.  As compared to Google, we don't have hot lunches, but we do have free bagels and cereal.   I'm on the 14th floor, but I like the granola they have on the 10th floor, as opposed to the Captain Crunch they have on 14.  And we don't have ping pong, but we do have a Wii room (always busy) and fussball, which I suck at.   And, thankfully, we don't have any fucking Lava Lamps.




3/23/2008 12:57:43 AM #

Lava Lamps are an interesting analogy.  Old school, uses lots of watts, purchased coolness.  And made in Chicago!

Andrew Davidson |

3/23/2008 1:38:12 AM #

first, i don't understand why you (or so many other people) want to work for google. second, i've seen blogs from high ranked google employees and... erm... they're not ubber geniuses.

most of the times interviews go wrong by the wrong reasons. dont go hard on yourself. many people would envy your position.

vilaca |

3/23/2008 1:58:07 AM #

Mind games, drive me nuts.  Second guy was just a pig, jealous someone might take his job.  Be content with your life and forget the "mighty" google

Fred-the-man |

3/23/2008 2:00:57 AM #

I can sort of empathize with you here.  I was interviewed by Google coming fresh out of college and the overwhelming thought in my mind after the interview finished was "How in the heck did I get as far as the physical interview?"  They were looking for someone with a lot more experience than me.  Everyone who interviewed me was several years older, and Google was their second or third job out of college.

Cyde Weys |

3/23/2008 3:19:08 AM #

You are just an interior decorator. Not a house builder. Quit whining.

Rasmus |

3/23/2008 3:22:55 AM #

Your 2nd interviewer sounds antisocial, socially inept, and comes across as if he would be a complete bear to work with.  In a sense I am glad you didn't get the job, as working with someone of that nature would drive me up the wall.

Justice~! |

3/23/2008 3:31:40 AM #

Regarding "You are just an interior decorator. Not a house builder. Quit whining".  To continue with your analogy, I think I am too a house builder, but the house would be built without a building permit, undocumented-workers as labor, with some lumber I stole from some other construction site in the middle of the night, and would have many building code violations.

Corey Trager |

3/23/2008 4:36:40 AM #

Hip is the new square. I'm glad you're not hip enough for Google. Working for Google is very overrated.

I don't know you but I think Google is the Starbucks of work places.

antonio |

3/23/2008 4:49:04 AM #

Oh, dear.  Thanks for trying.  I feel bad you had a bad interview with the second engineer, he might just have been stressed out.  Since most reviews involve rejection, people feed bad about them.

I'm an engineer at Google and I've given over 200 interviews there.

We know we leave a lot of good people on the table;  we know that you're in the category where we're more likely to leave people on the table;  it's extremely hard to know how to fix it without breaking this system that works fairly well.  Certainly, it's better to miss a good engineer than to hire a bad one in general... Also, I feel that the "language barrier" might have been an issue;  but frankly, I'll bet that, sigh, it was a fair test and your lack of "fundamentals", a sort of generalized base computer science skill set, was what flunked you.

I'm a musician, so I compare this to scales.  If I were hiring, say, a pianist for a band that was already successful, I'd simply require the the pianist could do various things like scales in different keys, various standard vamps and that sort of things, pretty well perfectly.  Now, I'm going to miss some brilliant pianists whose minds don't work on "scales" but, heck, I'm a pretty "out" musician and I still know my scales.

So that's something we tend to just require you know.  If you don't instinctively know O() of your algorithms and have a standard toolkit in your mind that will let you do standard things fast, if you don't understand hashtables on a gut level;  if you don't have a feeling for what O(log n) means and don't instinctively know that you can insert into a table in O(1) but into a *sorted* table in O(log n);  well, it won't be impossible for you to pass but it might be difficult.

When it comes down to it, I want to be able to say to another engineer, "OK, it's cubic in the size of the problem, but the queries are are Zipfian (have a Zipfian distribution -- many interesting things do!) so if we cache 90% of the items, we can respond to 99% of queries in less than a millisecond."

I'm an older engineer too;  I don't have a computer science degree (but I have a math degree, and that's different from liberal arts).  But I feel that I should be able to kick these kid's asses if I'm going to hang around them.  All code at Google is formally code-reviewed and I'm a pointed reviewer, extremely polite but relentlessly critical and I nearly always manage to make it shorter and faster because of fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.  

Computer science is adolescent if not mature; there aren't going to be radically better solutions for most of the fundamental operations appearing;  there are about a dozen algorithms (hashing, indexing and inverted indexing, Bloom filters, tries and similar O(log n) structures, sorting, a few classic, simple graph algorithms) that are "the best" for certain extremely common needs, and even fewer ideas (O(), delegation, abstraction/lambda/closures/frames, caching, functional programming and a few more - you might know these ideas under radically different names) that you need to know, a really solid grasp of first year mathematics, and a few dozen gotchas and rules of thumb that will likely depend more on the system you're working on, and then you are as good as the next guy (and G certainly hires people who don't know all of the above either...)

Again, thanks for applying, and I'm sorry you didn't get it.  It's an exciting place but it's also an awful lot of work... :-D

Tom Ritchford |

3/23/2008 4:59:11 AM #

Tom - I'm offended by you writing that the "queries are Zipfian", all at once bringing both sexual orientation and ethnic background into this discussion!

Corey Trager |

3/23/2008 5:09:24 AM #

What is this 'lava lamps' ?

Kartik Mistry |

3/23/2008 5:42:49 AM #

Ok, Tom, my juvenile remark aside, your analogy about a musicians and scales is fitting for the
story and has special relevance for me:

After college, after the Hippie Trail, I came back home (Detroit) and started getting gigs as a
classical guitarist.  Classical guitar was something I taught myself in my teens.  No private
lessons, although I had been exposed to other guitarists via clubs and master classes.  I became
good enough so that I was in ensembles together with musicians from the Detroit Symphony
Orchestra, with performances broadcast on the local FM classical music radio station.

Me in 1982, I think: ifdefined.com/files/guitar/bryce_sarabande.mp3

But as you might suspect, there WERE deficiencies in my musicianship as a result of my lack of
formal training.  And I did NOT know my scales.

Corey Trager |

3/23/2008 5:43:49 AM #

Pingback from bob-ak.com

bob-ak  » Blog Archive   » Google interview

bob-ak.com |

3/23/2008 5:56:51 AM #

A question that you could aks yourself:

Why is the job at Google so important for me?

Roland |

3/23/2008 6:01:34 AM #

Roland, my first programming job was at Kmart.  "Kmart" doesn't have the chick-magnet cachet that "Google" has.

Corey Trager |

3/23/2008 6:55:12 AM #

Corey, thanks for the story it was a good read. Remember that despite the hype, google is an advertising company, bottom line. If hired you would have been spending your time basically trying to get people to click on ads. So maybe you had a lucky escape after all.

Tom, your referring to google as "we" made it sound a bit like a cult, as opposed to a place to work. "google goggle one of us, one of us..." (from the movie "freaks").

Buford Twain |

3/23/2008 7:11:46 AM #

Unfortunately, Google is meandering down Microsoft lane.  It is becoming the same kind of environment fostered there in Redmond, with interviews and a culture designed to test *knowledge*, and not particularly skills, or innovative thinking, or creativity, or work ethic.

Kenny |

3/23/2008 7:26:14 AM #

Thanks for sharing that story with us. Frankly, I think you already have a good deal where you are apparently trusted and respected. Granted the work you're doing may not be as cool, but it's what you make of it.

Andy |

3/23/2008 7:40:07 AM #

I have heard how wonderful it is to work at Google, but also how hard it is to get in. Don't fret, you rose to the occasion and took a chance. We all take chances...and if every chance we took guaranteed success....well, that would just spoil the fun of taking a chance.

Okinawa |

3/23/2008 8:04:00 AM #

"I did learn something, though, in the course of the phone interview: that cosmic rays can cause computer memory chips to flip a bit. Did you know that? I didn't know that. I wonder if in my career I've ever spent time investigating a bug that was cosmic by a cosmic ray?"


Raghu Srinivasan |

3/23/2008 8:26:24 AM #

Pingback from techinterviews.in

Tech interview questions  » Google interview preparation techniques

techinterviews.in |

3/23/2008 8:37:45 AM #

So it's chicks then?

scribbles |

3/23/2008 9:04:09 AM #

Google needs these two types of people:

1) People who care only about living and breathing technology; kids content to play with their own toys. Started programming as kids; best place on earth = CS lab at university; has/contributes to open source projects; understands gcc internals.

2) People who are techno-savvy but primarily interested in the problem domain and architecture of solutions -- they are aware of the competition, typical solution architectures, typical problems with typical solution architectures. Politically aware. Can code decently well.

Which category do you belong to?

Anonymous |

3/23/2008 9:28:03 AM #

Your chances of being appreciated at Google drop every day they hire new PhDs and workaholics.

Tis better to find a company where they appreciate their engineering staff... and not just by showering them with perks designed to keep them at work.

Google Reject 52312b |

3/23/2008 10:19:01 AM #

>"*Actually, I think one of the things I contribute to whatever team I'm on is that I'll be in a meeting and person A will be talking to person B, and they will be agreeing, but I'll realize that although they think they are agreeing with each other, they actually don't agree, but are merely mutually misunderstanding each other in such away that each is shaping what the other says into his own expectation*".  

I call this "symmetric mistranslation"

Burton MacKenZie |

3/25/2008 1:33:19 AM #

Somehow, the software running this blog, BlogEngine.NET, deleted a days worth of the comments, including some entertaining ones by the actual guys who interviewed me.... Sorry to all those who took the trouble to post.  I don't see any way for me to get the info back.  

Corey Trager |

3/25/2008 2:41:48 AM #

Hi, Corey,

I caught your website from today's Silicon Valley plug.  

At 52, don't fret about not hooking up with Google.  I'm 88 and can speak with conviction -- you have many years to go before you sleep.  The problem is the promises you have to keep. You have intriguing writing talent and a splendid base of education and experience to write from.  

So you are a classical guitar afficianodo?  Great!  Check out my website www.aventuraproductions.net or just google (!) Aventura Productions - Loose Ends.  I have a particular affection for the sound track on Don Juan DeMarco.  Can you think of a writer of comparable talents who is not in such great demand?  

John Updike, I believe, once complained (?) to the effect that when he was young he didn't know anything to write about so he made his mark writing about what other people had written, but that now that he is old and has a life time of experience to write about, he doesn't have the time or the energy required to do so.

At 52 you're just starting to get your bearings.  America needs you.


Lew Warden |

3/25/2008 3:20:15 AM #

Wow, thanks for that comment on the ex-girlfriend, really fit into the story.

pb |

3/25/2008 4:46:45 AM #

I'm kind of surprised that you mention a liberal arts degree as a point against you at the office after you spent time reading the Subversion developers' blogs--at least one of the two engineers who interviewed you most likely also had a Classics degree.

- fellow Classics student, though I spent a good time studying Computer Science as well

Michael Greene |

3/25/2008 5:48:44 AM #

Where are my comments  Smile you have deleted mine as well

Vishal Sharma |

3/25/2008 8:00:06 AM #

I went through the interview a year ago, so I have some basis on which to comment. I have three technology startups under my belt (2 successful, 1 a dismal failure).  I found the interview to be interesting, but not that useful for hiring great thinkers and/or experienced tech people (the interview definitely removes the chaff from the wheat - the smartest shine).

Hiring people with no real past is a luxury because they are in a business that has about a total 5 year window of experience, that will change and there is no real substitute for experience.  It's like skiing, I can tell someone exactly how to ski, what to expect, give them all the visual and physical cues, train them with ski exercises etc. etc., put them on the slopes, show them video, but day one, they can't ski even though they have all the knowledge in their head of how to do this thing, like building businesses it takes real experience and real failures/successes to learn from.  

Although they own/build lots of products they have failed to deliver profitable/successful product/service #2 (Search they obviously own, until better search comes along) I recently reviewed and edited a business plan for better search and the bottom line is that a new more intuitive search will be created and not by Google's teams, it will come from the outside and as fast as people switched from Yahoo, MSN, Altavista, Metacrawler etc. is as fast as users will shift to a better search (better mousetrap).  There's very little stickiness in search, all you need is to remember a new word... like BetterthanGoogle  Wink

I will give Google credit they seem to acquire some of the best startups in the technology space (e.g GrandCentral, Picasa, Keyhole, YouTube etc.), they just don't seem to have found the next killer app like Search.

They are doing something right and as their is a blog dedicated to discussing their interview as a "hot topic" that generates buzz and interest and lowers their hiring costs. Time will tell if their hiring strategy works, I think it may backfire as Google matures, lots and lots of Indians with lots of arrows, too few Chiefs who know when and when not to use the arrows.  

Miles |

3/25/2008 10:06:59 AM #

"When it comes down to it, I want to be able to say to another engineer, "OK, it's cubic in the size of the problem, but the queries are are Zipfian (have a Zipfian distribution -- many interesting things do!) so if we cache 90% of the items, we can respond to 99% of queries in less than a millisecond.""

The google guy who said the above is either ignorant or arrogant.  I worked at Microsoft for more than a decade and I can say 99% of the time the situation described above does not happen in a software engineering job. Most of the time, you don't need fancy data structures/algorithms.  The work is about executing and executing.  For the 1% time you need a fancy algorithm, you look that up.  Many computer scientists will agree with me on this.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the book "Programming Pearls" by Jon Bentley and see the kinds of interesting problems engineers face.  Many problems have elegant solutions.  No fancy stuff is involved.

Guy |

3/25/2008 1:00:41 PM #

I'm still bummed about the glitch in BlogEngine.NET that caused me to loose about two dozen comments. I wanted to sum up here some highlights of what got lost. First, here's a comment I posted both here and at Reddit, so at least it didn't get lost:


It's been about 24 hours since I posted this blog and there have been dozens of comments both here and in my blog.

Reading some of the themes in the comments, I want to clarify:

* The intent of my blog post was to write something that others enjoy reading. I wanted to amuse and entertain you. And if I generated some Google AdSense revenue from it, all the better. The events I wrote about occurred in June 2007. I was a little bummed for a week or two back when it happened. Nothing more.

* The interview process I went through at Google seemed to me intelligent and appropriate. I don't think my interviewers did anything wrong. I have no corrective feedback to give to my interviewers. Now, I know that these guys have used their encounters with other people as material for THEIR publications, so I don't feel bad using them as comic fodder in MY story. But, bottom line, I don't have anything to say against them, or Google for that matter. I know from their blogs that the guys who interviewed me are well-rounded, many-faceted, with accomplishments outside the field of computers.

* Do you know that feeling when you are at a party and and somebody says something funny but you can't think of anything to say funny back. And then, the conversation moves on to something else while meanwhile you continue to try to manufacture some clever rejoinder. Later, the party breaks up, you are leaving the party, walking down the front porch steps and only then, you suddenly think of something witty you should have said, but of course now it is too late. Has that ever happened to you? Ok, well, if you live in the United States, you probably don't know the word for that situation, but the French call it "Esprit d'Escalier", the Germans "Treppenwitz", and the British, "Staircase Wit". You have now learned the technical scientific term for some phenomenon that you have known for years. You knew the concept even though you didn't know the word for it. That's all learning Big O notation was for me. Learning the concise mathematical notation for something I thoroughly understood and was able to express with other words and in my software designs.

End of the comment that got lost. So, now me in real time:

Both of the guys who interviewed me posted comments here. They were both entertained by the article, which makes me glad and relieved. They offered some constructive feedback in a truly friendly, positive way: They both said it WAS a touch uncomfortable that I contacted them prior to the interview, and also uncomfortable that I asked them for pros/cons on the spot.  The second guy was a particularly good sport and joked that if we do bump into each other some day, do say hello, don't bother picking insects out of his fur.

It turns out, both of my interviewers have liberal arts degrees, and indeed, the second guy's degree is, like mine, in Latin and Greek. Ironic plot twist, huh?

They both confessed that they too had to cram on Big O notation in preparation for their own interviews at Google.

I like how my subjective account from just my own point of view had the feel of objective truth, especially when I was confirming stereotypes that people, including me, already had. But then, when you throw in the subjective point of view of the other players in the story, it overturns the little world my narrative constructed.

Corey Trager |

3/25/2008 5:45:35 PM #

Corey: What's "all at once bringing both sexual orientation and ethnic background into this discussion" about Zifpian? I don't get the joke. Zipf's Law is legit enough.

Steve |

3/25/2008 8:03:55 PM #

Hey, don't run to Apple too fast..  I did a contract there.. and I wish I had never stepped foot into the place because the minute I started.. all grand ideas of this Awesome place to work at.. disappeared instantly.  Instead I was surrounded by a bunch of socially inept apple zealots.. At one point I was asked by my supervisor to turn off my Win-notebook's audio because the startup/shutdown music disturbed my fellow co-workers.  Are you friggen serious?  How old are we?  Then to actually see the "future of digital distribution" from behind the curtain.  Oh my gosh, command line.. all command line.. are you kidding me!  Smile

John |

3/28/2008 7:53:27 PM #

Pingback from geekandroll.com

Geek & Roll     - Blog Archive     » Angelina

geekandroll.com |

3/29/2008 12:14:21 AM #

your observation about how the workplace culture sorts out between the two poles of young hothead and elder statesmen  in software companies/departments confirms in my mind that the workplace environment is *still* not an environment that is conducive to nurturing women's participation in this field in general.

As far as google is concerned, a female friend who recently graduated with a phd and was hired by google shared with me her assessment that google will only hire women who have phds.

ratdog |

4/3/2008 4:21:21 AM #

Pingback from baron.vc

Baron VC  » Blog Archive   » Enter the Googleplex

baron.vc |

4/3/2008 5:14:50 PM #

Having just gone through this process, I know exactly what you meant when you talked about your perception of your current job going south. It's funny how our minds silently prepare us for these kinds of things.

Steven Klassen |

4/7/2008 2:54:24 AM #

Thank you, Corey, for an excellent account -- and at the same time providing a dialog which brought in two people from the other side of the table.

GOOG's argument of biased screening to avoid false positives ("better to miss a good engineer than to hire a bad one") bears striking resemblance to justifications invoked by TSA recently for removing a passenger's nipple piercings with a wrench. Birds of a feather...

Perhaps it's an effective strategy for a company which is still relatively new in the larger scheme of things, still enjoying its piles of cash.

However, it'd be difficult to believe that people making those kinds of calls inside a monoculture (like GOOG) have much experience making judgments outside of a conference room. That rhetorical posture belies a lack of history, of how the pendulum swings.

Paco Nathan |

4/7/2008 3:34:04 AM #

Paco - you think Google is a monoculture?   More so than other tech companies?   I figure than any company like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google that was started by techies is going to have a bit of a different slant in AGGREGATE than one started by MBA's, but I would still think that there would be a sufficient diversity that you could find all kinds of people and philosophies about hiring.   But Google is a company, and it seems reasonable to me that management would want to standardize their hiring practices, so in that sense, looking at employee behavior, if employees are adhering to the guidelines, then Google would appear from the outside as seeming like a monoculture.    

I'm reacting to this view of Google as monoculture because of my own experiences with a place that is widely viewed as a monoculture, Japan.

My wife is Japanese (not Japanese-American, but Japanese).  From time to time I find myself in conversations where I am complaining about my wife.  Hey, we've been married 18 years (tomorrow is our anniversary) and I've accumulated some grievances, ok?   Anyway, the people I happen to be venting to sometimes tend to explain the conflict between me and my wife as being rooted in cultural differences.  I guess to outsiders, the impression of her Japanese-ness overshadows the impression of her particular personality.  But not to us (and our kids) here INSIDE this family.  Here on the inside, it's that PERSON that is driving the other spouse crazy.

So, I distrust a viewpoint that doesn't sufficiently factor in individuality.

Corey Trager |

4/8/2008 6:03:15 AM #

Happy Anniversary Smile

I'm no expert on GOOG, never worked there. I wish them well and enjoy using their services. People who've worked for me have gone on to interview or work there, so I hear stories. Sometimes I attend community events at the Googleplex, and maybe grab at mocha at Red Rock Cafe in Mountain View. (Quite a spot to overhear Google staff in conversations at nearby tables, especially on the new second floor addition.)

My sense from friends working at the three firms you mentioned is that GOOG is much closer to being a kind of "monoculture". Considerably more so than YHOO, yikes. Recruiters targeting relatively narrow profiles, stories about ideas and people being labeled more/less "Googly" -- those points seem to confirm the gut feel one gets walking through their campuses. YMMV.

A counter example might be Bell Labs. I saw it as an MTS there in the mid-80s. There was no sense of ideas which didn't fit, or narrow hiring profiles, but instead a focus on solid engineering and science. GOOG will have many, many years of consistent breakthroughs ahead before their culture can claim that level of success. Maybe they'll pull it off, but their first real round of layoffs will be quite telling, since their culture seems to be about huge profits and free lunches.

This may not count for much, but I was in the same grad department as GOOG's founders (a few years earlier, mostly the same profs, similar courses, and taught there). Maybe I'm missing some key point, but all those limo buses, free Naked drink stands, and sophomoric interview tests don't add up to the culture we had at Stanford CSD. Not even close. Someone like Brian Reid, infamous at both organizations, would be much better equipped to comment about that point.

Anywhoo, I don't mean to knock the value of individuality. And congrads on 18 years!

Paco Nathan |

4/8/2008 2:04:31 PM #

Paco - you have street cred!

What do you mean by "their first real round of layoffs will be quite telling"?   Like, what are possible scenarios and what would you conclude from them?

Corey Trager |

4/10/2008 5:14:08 PM #

good to read, Corey.

I had a similar approach at Microsoft some months ago: I read KO into his eyes after fifteen minutes. he didn't want to know my patterns, he wanted me to know exactly his perfect ones.

when you hire, you got some hours to explore their skills; when you're hired, you got some hours to give the best of yourself. both situations are not easy.

maybe if I went the next day, I would be in Microsoft now. maybe not, who knows: never be discouraged.

matro |

4/18/2008 9:31:31 PM #

For some reason I can completely hear you saying this stuff out loud.  And I hate lava lamps too.

Monica |

5/13/2008 8:52:42 PM #

Hey Corey,

very interesting story. I will have an interview with google on Thursday and I'm not sure if I should prepare for that or just wait and see. I'm a student and I just want to do an internship for a short time, but their recruitment strategy is really stressing me...

It was encouraging to read your post and all the comments of the others. I'm sure I can handle to get rejected now Smile. But I'll give it a good try!

Tomte |

5/21/2008 11:07:33 PM #

Thanks for your thoughtful blog post.  I'm a Google engineer and am sorry to hear that it sounds like one of your interviewers was a jerk.  Most interviewers try to put candidates at ease, but I totally believe your account of your second interview.  I also can't say you're wrong to wonder if he was turned off by your age, although Google does have more non-youngsters than outsides realize.  My husband and I, both Google engineers, are 40ish.  Just yesterday, I had lunch with a >40-yo colleague who didn't graduate from college, and another colleague told me he's planning his upcoming 50th birthday.  Still, engineers 40+ are in the minority.

As a previous Google poster said, the Google interview process rejects lots of great people.  That's not just a line: We all know it firsthand from former colleagues we referred who didn't make it through the interview process.  (In the language of information retrieval, the precision is great, but the recall is terrible.)  If it's any comfort, Larry Page said that he's bad at this sort of interview and was rejected by Microsoft.

Feel free to email me if you'd like to discuss any of this off-line.  I'm also going to pass your feedback on to your recruiter.

Ellen |

5/21/2008 11:37:31 PM #

Ellen, I'm must quoting myself here from a comment I posted a while back.   Both of the guys who interviewed me posted comments back the comments got lost because of a tech glitch here.   I summed up what they said as follows:

Both of the guys who interviewed me posted comments here. They were both entertained by the article, which makes me glad and relieved. They offered some constructive feedback in a truly friendly, positive way: They both said it WAS a touch uncomfortable that I contacted them prior to the interview, and also uncomfortable that I asked them for pros/cons on the spot. The second guy was a particularly good sport and joked that if we do bump into each other some day, do say hello, don't bother picking insects out of his fur.

It turns out, both of my interviewers have liberal arts degrees, and indeed, the second guy's degree is, like mine, in Latin and Greek. Ironic plot twist, huh?

They both confessed that they too had to cram on Big O notation in preparation for their own interviews at Google.

I like how my subjective account from just my own point of view had the feel of objective truth, especially when I was confirming stereotypes that people, including me, already had. But then, when you throw in the subjective point of view of the other players in the story, it overturns the little world my narrative constructed.

Corey Trager |

5/21/2008 11:52:40 PM #

Thanks for your reply to my message.  I should have read the comments more carefully.

Have a nice day!

Ellen |

5/28/2008 2:21:05 PM #


I too come across the situation you mentioned that "they actually don't agree, but are merely mutually misunderstanding each other in such away that each is shaping what the other says into his own expectation"

Karthigeyan |

6/6/2008 3:57:13 AM #

Love this story and have read it several times cos it reminds me of ... me!  Had a really good belly laugh at how the situation affected your perception of curent job - can REALLY relate to that. Had a similar experience but completely different company.  I guess we subliminally self-impose pressure on ourselves "to do well".

Ian |

6/10/2008 5:26:20 AM #

Corey maybe you will get lucky and the lost comments will show up on Archive.Org after about 6 months..

Dramastic |

6/17/2008 11:41:41 PM #

You have a fluidity to your prose, a pleasure to read.   Where can I find more of your writing?  A personal blog?  Are you a guest contributor to other online publications?  

parker |

6/18/2008 2:18:26 PM #

Just here

Corey Trager |

7/2/2008 10:19:12 PM #

Hi Corey,

Yesterday I downwloaded and installed your bugtracking tool and I must say I really like this tool. I thought I might have a look at your website and read some interesting blogs on JIRA and about your interview with google. I think your a genuine persons with an honest heart and can really emphatize with your story.

You clearly have a writing talent, and as you say its not google but one indivual that is judging you. I say fuck the lava lamps and the big O, keep up your creativity and nice blogs !

Greetings from the Netherlands

Nico |

7/18/2008 3:00:28 AM #

Well, I have the opposite experience. I knew much more than the guy that interviewed me (at least 10 times as more). I actually teach computer science to kids like him for a living. I answered correctly all the questions on the phone interview, but didn't get in person interview. Seriously, do you want to work for a company where they ask Computer Science Professors to find the i^{th} Fibonacci number? Maybe because I said "a of i" instead of "a opening square bracket i closing square bracket" I didn't get the job. Anyways, the fact that you didn't get a job at google has 0 correlation with your skills and my experience proves it. I am sure that the opposite is also the case, the fact that you get a job there doesn't mean you are good at computer science. If they let top candidates slip, this means they are not getting the best people.

Joe |

7/23/2008 12:31:00 PM #

I'm a strange creature.  I love being a developer.  Discovering new tricks to doing things.  But at the end of the day, I go home and work is forgotten.

I've worked places where the developers "live and breathe" their work. We didn't even have defined working-hours... you woke up at 3am (or whenever you felt), had something to eat, went to work.  Maybe stop by Wal-Mart/Asda on the way home to find it's shut because it's 5am Sunday.

Years of that... and I've realised its better to "be average".  My last interview; turned up 20 minutes late, mentioned that I go to a pub at least twice per week, and that I probably play more poker than I really should.  Of my past CV/Resumè, they seemed pleased to see "5 years bar experience" at the end of it (most recent experience first of course).  I also showed them my portfolio.  I got the job.  They wanted a human, not a hardcore guy.  They were sick of those guys.

I don't think I'd ever want to work around such hardcore guys as I had previously. Enjoy your life!  Stop trying to be the UTTER best.  Be content that you're just "Pretty damn good"!

Mike |

7/28/2008 12:50:54 AM #

Your problem wasn't your age. Your problems are:

1) You talk too much.
2) You are too emotional for technical industry.
3) You can't deal with people which are unlike you.

In other words you expect surrounding reality to change to fit into boundaries of your vision of life instead of you trying to adopt to reality. It's common problem of many people.

To make long story short I will say as somebody said above: Quit whining.

ruslan |

8/28/2008 3:53:57 PM #

I think that they thought "Hey, he's 52, and with all that time, he couldn't, at least, get a computer science bachelor degree?. And his English sucks, too!". You had a, what we at work call, "book burning experience", in the sense that whatever you may know at the moment, just doesn't matter.

Maybe... It's just a thought.

jay |

9/18/2008 9:02:18 PM #

Trackback from Google Interview

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Google Interview |

9/21/2008 11:23:36 AM #

I enjoyed reading your blog entry. It was interesting. Also comment from rulsan!

Jandost |

10/23/2008 7:09:34 PM #

Corey, I love the post. Had a similar experience with a company I thought I was a slam dunk for. Actually I had already accepted another position and was just sort of interviewing this other company for future reference. a) Interviewed with manager - A+ - hit it off - would love to work for him. b) Interviewed with lead developer who showed me crappy C code and asked me to explain how it worked. I wanted to say no professional would ever code like that and it went down hill from there. c) Lastly interviewed with a Phd in a flunky staff position who needed to show he had the right stuff - so painful I laughed at the guy in disbelief. No offense but the last two guys wanted a junior guy with skills (read into this H1B) that they could dominate and would not threaten their positions as this company oscillates between hiring and layoffs.

Obviously the parallels ended somewhere in the middle of my rant but it made me feel good to write. Regarding the G cloud, your experiences reinforce my anectdotal insights into google. G land would rather have the best algorithms on earth than spend a fraction of that effort on user interfaces and connecting to the masses in an appealing way. If every G camper is an algorithm guru, how on earth do they ever decide which way to go? Someone has to put it all together, make it user friendly and reliable, provide support through it all and figure out next steps. They are so busy swinging for the fences that they sometimes lose the value of incremental progress.

Incremental and steady work is boring, but if they want to de-throne the MS kingdom (which they have the talent to) they gotta step back and look at the big picture - not just the next big killer app using the slickest algorithms to date.

dave |

10/24/2008 9:06:41 AM #

all the points are so interesting..

asankhan |

10/31/2008 12:49:08 AM #

Corey I thought is was a great blog post.

Mostly because I felt you were as honest and introspective as possible rather than trying to mitigate the experience for your own comfort.  Good writing.

Also I'm sure you know interview success is a less than perfect assessment of talent.  I interviewed for Novell in 92 when they were a well respected company.  I was rejected.  Then at a later date hired, promoted, and received an employee of the year award.  Can't make sense of that one.

Also when programming as a teenager I had a mentor - with no degree at all.  He was just a brilliant guy and I don't think he was an expert on big O notation.

ecards |

11/2/2008 6:30:06 AM #

I love your post, too, especially the part about mutual-misunderstanding accepted by the parties involved as quite the opposite.

My ire raised on reading the ramble from the Google Engineer, the math/music/blah blah blah guy:  "[...]we know that you're in the category where we're more likely to leave people on the table; it's extremely hard to know how to fix it without breaking this system that works fairly well. [...] but frankly, I'll bet that, sigh, it was a fair test and your lack of "fundamentals", a sort of generalized base computer science skill set, was what flunked you."

I bet you could have 'seduced' that guy into giving you an excellent grade if you had crammed just a litte bit more of the vocab and phraseology before your interview. Maybe you can you do time-space complexity analysis in your head or with visualization and in that case the math really doesn't matter except as an academic merit badge that you need to fool the trolls guarding the lava lamp lounges.

Really Google is so big and well funded and has so many resident geniuses working hard doing the work that sustains it that the multiple mistakes in hiring I bet they make are very easy to overlook: excess people at Google living off the fat of the land (so to speak).

That said, I would really love to work at Google.

Fear and loathing at the job interview....Some want to hear the about big O notation, others want to hear about "design patterns and idioms", and maybe others want to know what libraries you use, but in the end, to them, it doesn't much matter what you've actually done and what you are capable of doing. What matters is that you look like what they think is goodly--analogous to what Kant wrote about beauty in Critique of Pure Reason--that the unfamiliar is likely to be regarded as ugly. Too bad older is uglier.

After reading your tale my reservations about installing bugtracker.NET are removed. I mean I trust you enough to go ahead with it. Of course I googled bugtracker.net and security as part of the due diligence required before putting btnet on a public server. And I think it will be fun.

subcientifico |

11/24/2008 2:20:16 PM #

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My Job Interview at Google - good coders code, great reuse

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12/12/2008 12:53:40 AM #

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3/2/2009 1:12:14 PM #

Good story.

Hari |

3/8/2009 2:19:30 AM #

Tks very much, nice post

paul |

4/17/2009 10:48:44 AM #

tks for nice post

ngo |

4/23/2009 1:36:27 AM #

I enjoyed the story and the comments, too. It is nice to see how many intelligent people discussing this topic. However I mostly agree with ruslan: probably you're a bit too emotional for such job. Being 52, to recall some bad words of an ex-girlfriend 20-30 years before... well...
One more thought: knowing big O probably does not help you too much in work at Google as well (however I can't be sure). But understanding the concept behind it, and that there are VERY different solutions for a problem, might indicate a way of thinking that is essential in writing good software. By the way I can hardly imagine why to "cram" the big O or any other concept like this, as somebody wrote here. At least I am quite sure it does not make much sense.

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