Last week, a GitHub repo called google-interview-university popped up on the radar when it hit Reddit and Hacker News. Go ahead and check it out.
The tl;dr is that an early-forties self-taught developer named John with an Econ degree and about fifteen years of varied startup experience has compiled a lengthy and thorough study guide of sorts that he is using to try to get a job at Google. It contains hundreds of links that run the gamut — tips from Google recruiters, books to read, articles on data structures, questions to ask in the interview, and even a link to a PDF file that says “future Googler” with the colorful Google logo intended for printing as some sort of inspiration (you know…because you should print a sign) — all courtesy of a man who uses the domain googleyasheck.com.
According to his LinkedIn, John has been studying full-time since April of this year to reach his goal of becoming a Google engineer.
Insert sound of brakes screeching.
A guy that has been programming since the TRS-80 days and doing stuff with the web since 2000 and runs his own startup is taking off seven months to try to get a job at Google?
I’m not sure exactly what is wrong with this picture, but something feels wrong.
It could be that someone is investing an awful lot of time into a goal that, when they reach it, might be entirely unfulfilling. This isn’t meant as a knock on Google – but clearly, like every other company in existence, Google isn’t going to be a great fit for everybody.
Maybe it’s that an experienced person already in the industry who is probably qualified for a substantial number of programming jobs and even less hands-on technical roles (Product Manager jumps out at me) at hundreds of other companies still may need (or felt the need) to spend over one thousand hours studying just to get past a few hours of interviews with Google.
And what if it doesn’t work out? I’m absolutely rooting for John no matter what (I can’t imagine his enthusiasm and newfound fame won’t help), and I guess if he has a bad day on the phone screen and fails he could still take his knowledge to some other elite companies that could hire him.
Reaction from the web has ranged from laments on the effect of Google’s “CS trivia” interviewing style on the industry to cringeworthy Google fanboyism to admiration for a guy who is working hard to achieve a goal. All have some level of validity.
I see Google worship on a fairly regular basis on Reddit, and I’ve previously written about this fixation many new college grads have on the “Big 4” (or Big 5) companies. It’s rare to hear of senior level candidates having the same enthusiasm, and rarer to see someone taking months off of work to try and qualify for a new job.
As much as I admire someone for setting a goal and working towards it, I’m torn.
Many new entrants to today’s technology job market are obsessed with the handful of high-profile companies that set the trends in the industry, and the next generation of software engineers seem to think that the only companies worth working for are Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and Amazon. Software development has become both a celebrity culture (where companies and their CEOs are the stars) and an oligarchy in the eyes of recent graduates and teens, who set their sights on employment with this small number of firms. Young developers in foreign countries appear to be particularly susceptible to this hyperfocus on a tiny segment of the hiring market. If you don’t know how widespread this is, I’d suggest a visit to Reddit’s CS Career Questions section to see what people are asking.
When Yahoo changed their remote work policy the web exploded in debate around the value of remote employees, and the more recent news around Google dismissing GPAs, test scores and answers to Fermi questions made many tech companies reconsider their hiring procedures. Not a day passes where a piece on one of these companies doesn’t hit the front page of most major news sites. A cottage industry has erupted with authors and speakers providing guides for aspiring engineers to create résumés, land interviews and answer technical questions to get jobs specifically at these companies. The focus seems to be less about becoming skilled and more about being attractive to a specific subset of employers.
These companies are glamorized amongst budding engineers much like Ivy League and top-tier schools are with high school students, and the reason you probably won’t work for Google is the same reason you probably didn’t go to MIT. Because they are highly selective, and they simply can’t hire everyone.
Of course some of you can and perhaps will work for Google and the other companies listed here, just as some of you may have attended top universities. But the majority of
you us won’t – and that’s OK. Follow your dreams, but be realistic about the outcome.
So here comes the good news! Beyond Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and Amazon, there are hundreds of awesome places to work that are highly regarded by engineers the world over, and most people outside the industry (and many inside) haven’t heard of most of them. Experience with these shops, much like the above list, will get you noticed. Companies like Netflix, LinkedIn, Salesforce, eBay and GitHub are well-known but not typically mentioned in the same breath as the top celebrity firms, though they certainly could be. I’d venture that most college CS majors haven’t even heard of 37signals or Typesafe, where smaller teams are doing work that is regularly recognized by the engineering community.
And again the bad news. You probably won’t work for these companies either. For most of the world, these are still reach schools that employ relatively few. Although they may not be held by the general public in the same esteem as that list up top, they are incredibly selective, and most in the industry will view the difference between this group and the Googles as incredibly slim.
And now for some more good news. Beyond the lists of companies above are thousands of great places to work that I guarantee you have never heard of. These may consist of startups that fly under the radar or smaller specialized technology companies that serve a niche market. They could be the development groups for major banks or 25 year old mom and pop shops that have an established customer base and solid revenues. Game developers, ecommerce sites, consulting firms, robotics – the list goes on.
In almost every city, this group is the one that employs the overwhelming majority of engineers. This is where most of us will likely end up – a company that you will surely need to describe and explain to your parents and significant other.
In the city where I focus my business (Philadelphia) and run our Java Users’ Group, we have some Googlers and I’ve known engineers who have worked for Amazon, Yahoo, and Apple. And I know many many others who either turned down offers or likely could have joined those companies, but chose instead to work somewhere else. Just as some students may reject the offer from the top-rated school to stay closer to home or to accept a more attractive scholarship package, many of the world’s top engineers simply don’t work for Google or Facebook, or anywhere else in the Valley for that matter.
Philadelphia is by no means Silicon Valley, yet there is a fairly robust startup scene and a large number of software shops that are doing valuable work. Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with hundreds of Philly companies to hire engineering talent, and 99% of these places would be unknown to the typical developer. I almost always have to describe my clients to potential candidates, as most of these shops have not built a reputation yet, and these are firms ranging from 20 to perhaps 20,000 employees. And the vast majority of them are great environments for technologists where developers work alongside at least a few top engineers that could (and some that did) pass the entrance requirements for the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
All the great engineers in the world aren’t in the Valley, and they don’t all work for Google. This fact is obvious to most, but fewer than I’d expected and hoped. If that is the goal, go after it. The rest of us will be here if it doesn’t work out.
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