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I’m Not Great at Technical Interviews. How I Got Hired.


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Job_InspirationThis post comes from Sr. Software Engineer Sam Nguyen.

I’m not great at on-the-spot thinking, so I’m handicapped off-the-bat in technical interviews — especially when I have to code on a white board. I’m at my best when I have time to prepare in advance. Last year I discovered a method which played to my strengths and landed me a job that I love.

The Briefcase Technique

In 2012, I took a course on how to start a business called Earn One Thousand Dollars On The Side by Ramit Sethi, a business consultant. His headlines come off really scammy, but it turns out he gives very practical advice grounded in research.

One of the negotiation methods he teaches is The Briefcase Technique, in which you prepare a hard-copy document describing the value you would provide to the prospective employer. At the point in the meeting when you might discuss compensation, you pull out this document from your briefcase and impress them with your preparedness. In doing so, you take the conversation to the point where “price is just a technicality.” You have already convinced them you can solve their problems.

Seek to Serve, Not to Be Served.

Many job-seekers pursue leads with the self-centered notion of “I need a job.” Me, me, me. Wah, wah, wah. To land yourself the job of your choice, stop thinking about what you want for a moment. Try starting with these questions:

  1. What are my customer’s problems?
  2. How can I solve their problems?
  3. How can I reduce risk for my customer?

While I was enrolled in Ramit’s course, I received a job lead for a small technology company nearby called SendGrid. It was hip, growing fast, and just a seven minute train ride away. I wanted to work there. To make myself a prime candidate for the position, I took time to think about what problems they might be facing. I came up with these two facts that I thought would resonate:

If you can execute on a company’s core business, there’s always demand. Businesses make money when employees do their jobs. The trick is how you demonstrate that competency. If you want to work for an auto mechanic shop, then show them you can fix cars. If you are gunning for a software development job, write software that is relevant to the company’s business.

Companies are constantly on the hunt for top talent. Unfortunately, most don’t have a reliable, reproducible way of attracting the people they need. Every interview candidate walks through the door with a big question mark over their head. Will this person produce more value than they consume? That is the risk of the hiring process. You can reduce that risk by clearly communicating how you would add value to the company.

Demonstrate Competency, Communicate Value

If you find a company you really want to work with, stop playing Guess-The-Obscure-Interview-Puzzle. Companies often play these games because there’s no sure-fire way to identify great candidates. Don’t pay attention to the generic interview prep material that the recruiter sent you. Spend time figuring out how you will solve their problems, and how you will communicate that to them.

My tactic when applying for SendGrid was to execute a Double-Briefcase maneuver. First, I sent in my “cover-letter,” a tiny web app incorporating some of the technologies that I imagined they would be using. I spent about four hours building this. The goal was to mitigate the risk of whether or not I could actually write code in a domain that was useful to them. It was a combination of front-end and back-end web technologies.

For my on-site interview, I prepared a one-page document listing five ways SendGrid could improve its services or utilize new technologies. I did this by spending an hour browsing the website and using the service. Then I wrote down five things I would do to improve the business based on what I saw and handed that to the vice president that interviewed me.

I ended up getting an offer from SendGrid. Then I executed the briefcase technique with another company and got a competing offer.

Of course, I now work at SendGrid in Anaheim, CA on a small team building distributed systems. Incidentally, we’re looking for a few good engineers. Come practice the Briefcase Technique on us.


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