Rod Hilton's rants about software development, technology, and sometimes Star Wars

My Interview With Google

Update: Apparently this site (talking about the ways in which people blew their Google interviews) links to me. They highlighted my mention of the guy with the thick accent, implying I blew the interview by not understanding him. I’d like to clarify, that part of the experience was just a relevant part of the story, which is why I shared it. I blew the Google Interview not for that reason, but because my algorithm skills simply were not up to snuff at the time. Blaming the rejection on having a hard time with accents would be petty and silly. I was rejected because I wasn’t good enough, plain and simple.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Google. It was very exciting, as I’ve wanted to work for Google for quite some time, and they opened up a branch near my home through an acquisition recently. I wanted to share the process of interviewing with Google, not because it was particularly noteworthy, but because I wondered about interviewing with Google before I did so, and I figured others might. I’ve had to sign an NDA, so I’m going to be pretty careful about what I share in this post.

Me, excited

The position I interviewed for was a Software Engineer position in the Boulder, Colorado office (near where I live), but they still conduct their interviews from the California office. Because I’m not in California, I had to go through two phone interviews first. The questions Google asks are pretty interesting for a number of reasons. I think the best word I could use to describe the questions is “fair”. I didn’t get any tricky puzzle questions. Nobody asked me what I would do if I were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender. Not a single question was an “a-ha!” type brain-teaser. Pretty much every question was a good question for figuring out if someone can write code. Even though I was interviewing for a Java position, I only had one Java-specific question. I could really feel from the questions that Google wasn’t concerned with me being good with a specific language; they really wanted to know if I was just a good coder.

When I was first told by the recruiter that the questions would be algorithm-based, I was worried I’d have to reproduce quicksort or something. In fact, the questions were far, far more reasonable (though reviewing sorting algorithms WAS a good idea). Most of them involved manipulating data in an array for some purpose. I’d give an answer that worked, and they’d ask me if there were any corner cases. I was asked to solve the problem in a way that avoided those problems. Then I was asked to improve the space efficiency or running efficiency of the solution. A solution that “worked” was never enough, the interviewers always pushed me further, trying to squeeze out performance. I had to say the runtime complexity for nearly every solution I suggested. I would NOT recommend interviewing with Google without a Computer Science degree. You need to be able to look at a function and know the Big-O for it immediately. Specifically, you need to look at YOUR OWN functions and know the Big-O immediately.

Me in San Fran

After doing well with both of these interviews, Google actually flew me out to California for a weekend for an all-day interview on the Google campus. They paid for my plane ticket, hotel room, rental car, and some food. I bought a second ticket for my fiancee and we did touristy crap around San Francisco. Overall, it was a lot of fun, but I couldn’t help but keep the back of my head occupied with the thought of an all-day interview.

On Monday, I went to the Google campus. In the main lobby, they have a projector with a scrolling list of Google searches. I sat in the lobby waiting for my interview to begin, happily watching the searches scroll by. Lots of female celebrities were being searched, and someone searched for “vista crack” which made me laugh out loud, ensuring the receptionist thought I was an idiot. I sent my fiancee a text message telling her to search for “Rod is awesome” but it didn’t show up. They also had a neat visualization showing where people were doing searches on a spinning globe.

Pictures of Googlers with celebrities adorned the wall next to the new Google whiteboard. For those that don’t know, Google has a giant whiteboard which was finally erased not too long ago. Before being erased, someone took pictures and posted them to the internet. The new board was already mostly full by the time I saw it, and a large section of it was devoted to complaining about the board being erased.

Some random Google building

I also had lunch in one of the cafes on campus. The Google cafes are all buffet-style, and completely free. You simply walk in, grab whatever the hell you want, and leave. My “lunch-date” was one of my phone interviewers, and he took me to the health food cafe. Salads, tofu, bean sprouts, and similar food items filled the buffet. I searched desperately for some meat and filled my plate when I finally found it. I’m definitely NOT a California person. People looked at me like I personally killed a cow in front of them.

The on-site interviews were much like the phone interviews. I had one-on-one meetings with a handful of people, one after another. Each person asked me algorithm-type questions. I did some whiteboarding, but was mostly able to write the answers in my notebook, which was better for me as I could keep up with my brain much more easily on paper than on a whiteboard. It was sometimes difficult to focus on the questions while “OH MY GOD I’M INTERVIEWING WITH FUCKING GOOGLE” whizzed by in my brain over and over. Luckily, pretty much everyone was extremely friendly, which helped calm my considerable nerves.

The biggest difference in the questions between phone and on-site interviews was how my answers had to be presented. On the phone, it was sufficient that I explain, at a high-level, how the solution to a problem would work. On-site, I had to actually write it out. Of my four interviewers, two actually wanted it to be valid Java.

I finished early with one of my interviewers, and he asked me a joke question: if a Stormtrooper shoots a red-shirt, does he hit? It was comical how universal this seemed. Of course I’d know what he was talking about, I write software. Luckily, I was familiar with the term redshirt from being a film nerd, and I was able to come up with a joke answer that didn’t let him on to the fact I’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek in my life.

Center of the campus outside the cafe

The worst part of the process was my fourth and final interview of the day. The guy was from Moscow, and he had a very thick accent. All of my life, I’ve had immense trouble with accents, even slight ones. My project manager at work has a thick accent from Italy, and she basically sounds like Chewbacca to me. I’m not complaining that Moscow Guy had an accent (all tech companies have folks with accents), but it sure made the rest of the interview process challenging for me. My interview with the Moscow Guy resembled one of those satellite interviews on the news. He’d say something to me, and there’d be this long pause before I responded. To make matters worse, he told me his first question was going to be “an easy one”, so when I barely understood what he said at all, I imagine I looked like a complete imbecile. “What was that? You want me to WHAT two numbers together? Mo de ploy? Mah dah bu? Oh, multiply! Right, two times two is four. I’m obviously an idiot.”

To make matters worse, the Moscow guy was the only person I talked to the entire day who wasn’t friendly. He wasn’t a complete jerk or anything, but he definitely wasn’t as warm as my other interviewers. Right before the interview ended, he asked me what I’d work on for my “20% time” project. Each Google employee gets to devote 20% of their time to a side project, which is why so many of the Google Labs projects exist (like Gmail and Movie Search). I actually had an answer to this question, since I thought about it on the plane ride out to California. There’s been a side project I’ve been wanting to work on at home, but I haven’t had time. I figured, if I got the job, I’d just make that a Google Labs project and do it there. I explained my idea to him, and he told me it sounded interesting, then proceeded to write it down right in front of me. All I could think was “I hope I get this job so I don’t regret that.”

I imagine the four interview feedback e-mails looked like this:

  1. “Candidate knew his stuff, but seemed awfully nervous.”
  2. “Candidate knew his stuff and seemed relatively comfortable.”
  3. “Candidate kept joking around like I was his friend. Clearly was not nervous enough, given that he was interviewing at FUCKING GOOGLE.”
  4. “Candidate seemed to have the brain of a chimp. Was surprised he could speak without forgetting to breathe. Interviewer confident candidate eats glue.”

The lobby where I waited

I flew back to Colorado feeling pretty good about the whole thing. As it turns out, though, I was told over the phone (while trying to push a car out of the snow during the Denver blizzard) that I didn’t get the position. I need to work on my algorithm skills, so I guess I got docked for not thinking of the best solution right away. The Google Recruiter told me it wasn’t the last guy that did me in, but I can’t help but wonder how close I was to writing this blog post from a desk at Google.

Considering how much I wanted the job, I admit I’m pretty bummed about this. I’m allowed to re-apply in a year, but I can’t imagine improving my “algorithm skills” without more information on where my problem areas were. What’s really unfortunate is that I know if Google had hired me, I’d have done a good job. If I see my idea appear on Google Labs any time soon, I’m going to go nuts.

All in all, it was a pretty pleasant experience. I’m disappointed, but I’m proud of myself for at least being considered seriously by Google. It was honestly kind of fun answering their interview questions. The questions reminded me of my undergraduate work, and it was nice to think about that kind of material again. I’m bummed that my progress into the world of Google came to such a screeching halt, but the journey has definitely been fun and interesting. And hey, I got a free trip to San Francisco out of it.

comments powered by Disqus