Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

California Interviews

10 Nov 2009

255 Keats Way, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Thu, November 5th 2009, 4:30 PM EST

At 7 AM Eastern time, I was awakened by my 3.5 year-old Motorola cell phone with its signature siren alarm. It was going to be a long day, but certainly not the longest day of my life. It began with one my favorite topics in all of small-m math: scheduling algorithms. After diving head-first into Moore's and Lawler's algorithms for scheduling concurrently arriving jobs with varying processing times, my project teammates and I moved on to discussing the optimization of the sale of student parking permits at the two dozen University parking lots. On my way to the Davis Center at 11:20am, I was excited to witness the first sight of mild snow and sleet after almost a year. I then proceeded to image DNA strands with diameters as small as 3 nanometers with an atomic force microscope (AFM). 3 hours of that, and I moved on to NE 481 class where we looked at antibody response to pathogens, and overall body response to synthetic bio materials like silicone.

That evening, I flew down to San Francisco, California, to interview with Facebook, Zynga, and Heyzap. The flight was a grueling 5 hours, but I got a bunch of reading done since I had a power outlet in the plane to hook my laptop into.

Both flights and hotel stay were booked in advance by the companies I was interviewing for. Facebook especially moved very swiftly with their entire pre-screen, flight booking and hotel reservation process. They had me impressed.

Zynga was more than gracious to agree to reimburse all my cab rides within the city, especially to and from the airport. They also offered up to $60/day for food. To top that, they agreed to pay for the wireless internet at the hotel too. I couldn't have asked for more.

444 De Haro, San Francisco, Calif.
Fri, November 6th 2009, 9:30 AM PST

We were greeted with a limo to take us to Zynga's head office from the Clift hotel in downtown SF. After a quick breakfast and welcome message by Zynga's CEO Mark Pincus, we sat down for interviews. Being a game company, the expected attire was jeans and t-shirt. In addition to providing us with a great breakfast, we were provided with lunch as well half way through the day. Later that evening, after interviews, the Zynga team took us to join their Friday night happy hour where we were fed burgers, pasta, and drinks including beer which I didn't have. I hung out a bit, played some ping pong with some of the full timers, then headed back to the headquarters where we were given free t-shirts and Ghirardelli chocolates.

After that, we took a limo ride back to the hotel and a bunch of us had a great time at the classy bar downstairs known as the Redwood Room. After an hour or so of free drinks (which I did not have), we were given free movie passes to go watch any movie we wanted at the nearby Metreon theater. I was too tired to be keeping my eyelids open, so I skipped the movie, and instead, went upstairs, wrapped up a couple of homework assignments, and slept.

That evening, I was supposed to squeeze in another interview with Dropbox too, but I couldn't manage it. I scheduled a phone interview with them instead for the following week.

495 Geary St., San Francisco, Calif.
Sat, November 7th 2009, 9:00 AM PST

After the most regal buffet breakfast ($25/head) inside Asia de Cuba, the in-house restaurant at Clift's, all the future grads and a bunch of super cool Zynga recruiters embarked on a 3-hour private bus tour of San Francisco. Having lived there for eight months already, there was nothing new for me to see. Nonetheless, I enjoyed being a tourist for a while, a luxury I had deprived myself of during my previous stay in SF from Jan-Aug '09.

At around 12:30pm, we had a complete 3-course lunch at Boudin's by the bay facing the beautiful blue waters of San Francisco. We had so much sour dough bread there, I don't think I can eat any more bread for the next week or so.

Because we weren't being fed enough, Zynga decided to take us to Ghirardelli's after, where we were bought ice cream, chocolates, sundaes, milk shakes and cup cakes. My stomach was almost exploding.

At around 3:30pm, we were taken back to our hotel in downtown and dropped off. The fun interview weekend was finally over. At least the Zynga part. Little did I know that I had so much more in store for me the next two days.

At 4:30pm, the three of us Zynga candidates from Waterloo roamed around downtown SF for about 4 hours. We did some crazy window shopping in San Francisco's famed shopping district, and then visited the Ferry building at Embarcadero to take some scenic night-time snaps. It was fun getting to know 2 other people from Waterloo a little more closely.

At 9:30pm, a bunch of us headed out to a nearby bar for drinks and socializing. We got back at 12:30am. For those 3 hours, what happened in San Francisco stays in San Francisco.

235 Dore St., San Francisco, Calif.
Sun, November 8th 2009, 11:00 AM PST

The shower at Clift's was perfect. I'm very picky about my showers, the design of the shower head in particular. Clift's had fine-tuned controls for all 4 crucial parameters for a great morning shower: pressure, temperature, volume, and nozzle angle. Their architects had clearly thought this thing through thoroughly. They were indeed my kind of perfectionists.

Heyzap is a 4-member startup with its headquarters at 235 Dore St. The second you walk into their makeshift "office", which is essentially a bunch of desks and Dell desktops in what seems to be a kitchen attached to a pseudo dining room of sorts, you get the vibe that this is an extremely high-throughput place. These guys probably have the highest amount of output per day per person than anyone else I've met before. When you get 4-5 smart, driven, and over-motivated guys working together in harmony, the results can be quite astounding.

After talking to the 2 founders for a bit, we got started on some coding challenges. You see, startups know that the only way to know how good a person really is is to work with them together on a real-world problem. Asking conceived puzzle problems and unrealistic coding puzzles, on the other hand, aren't exactly the best way to determine someone's true potential. The big companies still rely on this strategy because it allows them to interview way more people in a short period and gets them fairly decent people. I doubt if the big companies would be able to get stellar programmers using this approach. The startups, on the other hand, have the selection, hiring, and interviewing process figured out pretty well since their very existence depends on the quality of the first couple of employees. So they're pretty much forced to use the best strategy available to them.

That evening I got into a cab and headed towards Palo Alto with the funniest Vietnamese cab driver of all times. He kept swearing every three seconds about the traffic on the 101, about how his cell phone battery had died prematurely, about how he couldn't get in touch with his wife as a result of that, about how I would not let him use my cellphone because of roaming charges, and about how his business was real slow that Sunday. But he was still kind of a cool guy in his own wright.

1601 California Ave., Palo Alto, Calif.
Mon, November 9th 2009, 11:30 AM PST

After gobbling up a quick plate of scrambled eggs with hashbrowns and fruit at the Sheraton's trendy-looking restaurant, we hopped on a shuttle that took us to Facebook's headquarters on California Ave. There were 5 other really smart people interviewing with me from top-notch computer science schools like MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. I was the only one from Waterloo there and I hadn't taken a single computer science or programming course in my life. I felt like an outcast.

Facebook's offices are located at 1601 S. California Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94304. This is the text found in every single email sent out by Facebook every second. Their offices were quite impressive. The amount of openness and natural lighting got me fairly excited. When we headed downstairs to the engineering quad, I felt, for the first time ever, the heart and pulse of all of Facebook. I could see an impressive array of 200-250 engineers, all hard at work, working feverishly to keep the site alive and/or engineering new designs and new features to be rolled out to production in a matter of weeks. The facebook revolution that has completely modernized the way we communicate and keep in touch with our friends was happening right here in front of me. And these 200 and odd engineers were responsible for that. It was quite a nerve-wracking feeling, and you just had to be there to feel it.

The tour around the entire building lasted 2 hours and culminated at the kitchen where hundreds of Facebook employees flocked to grab lunch. Even though there were large varieties of all sorts of food, salads, pitas, dessert, pies, ice cream, and what not, I decided not to eat anything. I was quite full from breakfast already, and I didn't want to risk falling asleep during the interviews that were to follow.

After lunch, we spent an hour with a single senior engineer who answered pretty much every single engineering-related question thrown at him by the six of us. He made us realize how much thought, effort, creativity, ingenuity and engineering goes into keeping the site alive and making sure the site is available to every single person in every single country in every single conceivable language and dialect there is out there. This isn't exactly an easy problem, but Facebook was somehow pulling this off with just 250 engineers when most other traditional companies would have unleashed at least 1500 to 2000 engineers to achieve the same feat.

After a grueling 2.5 hours of hard-core interviewing, coding, and problem solving, we finally headed back to our hotel. I then headed out into downtown Palo Alto along with one of the other interview candidates from Carnegie Mellon. I got a delicious appetizer of corn fritters and a dessert of lemon raspberry cream cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory. We returned to the hotel after a quick detour by the Caltrain station to look up schedules, and then I caught a cab to the airport with yet another interview candidate from MIT.

San Francisco International Airport, San Francisco, Calif.
Mon, November 9th 2009, 8:30 PM PST

We arrived early at the airport, and my new-found friend from MIT and I couldn't stop talking and kicking around startup ideas. We were much too excited about our futures, and we both realized how small a part Facebook was going to play in it. In between hunting for free wireless and locating kiosks to print our boarding passes, we kept challenging each other with interesting coding challenges that required creative algorithms. It was clear to us how much the field of algorithms had played in the making of pretty much all the computer systems we use today. Computer science is next to nothing without all the hundreds of powerful algorithms that accompany it. It made me kind of sad for not having taken CS 341 and CS 466, the 2 heavy-weight algorithms courses at Waterloo.

Toronto International Airport, Toronto, Ontario
Tue, November 10th 2009, 6:15 AM EST

5 tiring hours later, my red eye flight touched down at Pearson International. I got through customs swiftly and caught the Airporter shuttle to Waterloo. My driver had grown up in Nigeria and had spent many days doing road trips to and from Toronto and Florida. He had many interesting stories to share, but I found myself fast asleep amid the tight 401 rush hour traffic since I had had a grand total of just two hours of sleep on the flight.

C2-275, Chemistry 2, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON
Tue, November 10th 2009, 8:30 AM EST

A little over 2 hours later, I was back in Waterloo after a wonderful and eventful trip, back to my crazy nanotech world conducting a lab on near nanogram mass measurements using a quartz crystal micro balance.

6 hours after, I was back to my regularly scheduled study term. Quantum well lasers, Bragg reflectors, energy levels, band gaps, oh my. I wish the context switch was a little bit more subtle. It was like the last 6 days had never even happened.

At 4:00pm, I got back home, and wrote, in true iterative spirit, a hurried skeleton of this blog post you're currently reading. And then I crashed. I crashed like I had never crashed before. The last 6 days were perhaps the most eventful days of 2009 for me. They were to 2009 what skydiving was to 2008. And sleep wasn't exactly a top priority for me those 6 days. I've left out a lot of the details in my description due to the various NDAs I had to sign, but as one of my facebook interviewers kept saying, it's in the details where all the fun lies.

The Backstreet Boys Effect

Perhaps the smartest thing I did during these 6 days was to make sure I listened to one good song repeatedly through various high points during the trip, like immediately after waking up, after a shower, before going to bed, etc. After much deliberation, I deviated from my usual A.R.Rahman, and instead went with Coldplay's "Don't Panic". This turned out to be a very wise choice. In addition to helping me solve interview challenges twice as fast, what this allows me to do is re-live any memory of my choice from the last 6 days anytime I want in the next few years by simply playing that song over again.

People in their twenties sometimes call this the Backstreet Boys Effect, because listening to Backstreet Boys, to them as well as to me, involuntarily brings back refreshing and scintillating memories from the nineties.

We live in a beautiful world. Yeah we do. Yeah we do.

Update: I found out the day after I returned back to Waterloo that I was rejected by Facebook. But I did get the Zynga offer however. I still think the trip was worthwhile especially since my expenses for the entire week were a grand total of $0.

« What High Energy AchievesGoing All In »

[ about | all posts | subscribe | resume | contact ]