I Interviewed at Nine Companies in Big Tech while Traveling Full Time as a Grad Student and Here is What I Learned

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Starting in February 2017 over the course of nine months of full-time travel as a remote graduate student, I interviewed at nine companies for a senior level hardware engineering position (MS/PHD with 5 to 10 years of industry experience). This included 18 one-hour long phone screens, two onsite interviews, and one day long interview. Altogether this accounts for a whopping 42 hours of interviewing. 42 hours of getting my ass grilled with hard technical problems in the realm of EE, ECE, and CS. I felt the sting of rejection six times and got three offers.

  • NVIDIA: Two phone screens. No Offer.
  • Cadence: One phone screen. No Offer.
  • Amazon Lab126: One phone screen. No Offer.
  • Apple: Five phone screens. One full day onsite. Offer.
  • Intel: One phone screen. No offer.
  • Qualcomm: Three separate hour long phone screen. One full day onsite. Offer.
  • AMD: Two phone screens. One day long Skype interview. Offer.
  • Google: Two phone screens. No offer.
  • D.E. Shaw Research: One phone screen. No Offer.

What is it Like to Travel the World While Interviewing? You would think that taking in the Seine River in Paris and then retiring to your Airbnb for a technical chat with Google would be a pleasant way to experience the world and stay on top of your career aspirations. Wrong. The reality is that when you are a budget constrained traveler in an Airbnb and your interviewer wants to do a video call via Google hangouts but you realize that the internet connection might as well be a dial-up modem you start to sweat bullets. My interview experience was absolutely peppered with experiences like this and other technical guffaws like my headset not working or my international cellphone plan randomly dropping calls from recruiters. On the upside, motivated technical recruiters will work through time zone differences and technical difficulties if you simply disclose that you are traveling. However, the actual interviewers will be less forgiving since their time is limited, they often screen more than one candidate, and they are looking for reasons to weed you out. Having a faulty internet connection or a non-functional headset come interview time simply comes off as being unprepared and is an easy way to get your resume banished to the nether zone.

What does it take to fail an interview? Not being able to move the conversation forward in a technical discussion is a sure fire way to look bad in an interview. There are two broad categories of roadblocks that occur during a technical interview. The first category being gaps in knowledge and the second being weakness in problem solving. The only way to bolster knowledge is through months and years of exposure to technical material through work experience, graduate school, or good old fashioned reading. The second, and in my opinion more difficult of the two, is to improve problem solving ability through practicing structured thinking such as Feynman’s method.

What does it take to pass an interview? Copious amounts of luck. Big tech interviews are designed to be difficult but are often times arbitrarily difficult. I’ve encountered brain teasers and have been quizzed on exotic and little used corners of my field. How high is the correlation between my ability to answer a brain teaser about a polar bear walking near the North Pole and my ability to design some bad-ass CPUs? Low. For us hardware folk, there is no standard hardware engineering interview like there is for computer science and its algorithm heavy grilling. It is in our power to hedge against the litany of questions thrown at us by reading research papers and pouring over textbooks but ultimately we are at the mercy of the randomness of the interviewers. While my bruised ego was healing after a series of particularly brutal technical drubbings, I realized two simple things:

  • If I got one interview, I can get more
  • It is only matter of time before the questions would line up for me

Because of these simple points and because I had amassed adequate funds to continue my travels, time, patience, and reading became my biggest ally. Time became such a powerful ally that I was able to turn down some spectacular offers and continue my world hopping until I felt ready to rejoin the working world, feeling no pressure to jump at the first opportunity that presented itself.

Did OMSCS at Georgia Tech Help? Hundreds of hours spent watching lectures, working on homework assignments, and toiling through projects helped me with exactly two interview questions. Two questions out of 42 hours of grilling. If you can’t read between the lines this is not a shining endorsement saying that my coursework got me a job. But, and this is a big but, being a remote student grants you access to Georgia Tech’s full library resources. This means research papers that are normally behind a pay wall are accessible as are PDF versions of virtually any textbook. Access to this virtual library was an integral part of my daily interview preparation and the knowledge I gained from these resources did help come interview time.

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