Getting into Software Part 5: How to get your first job

I started focusing on Programming for my career after my sophomore year of college. My attempts to get a physics internship had failed and I was at loose ends for the summer. That summer I spent a good amount of time working through a Ruby on Rails (RoR) tutorial that walked me through building a twitter clone web app. This was early in my time as a programmer so I was just following the tutorial and experimenting with changing the html/css, writing views and models etc. My application didn’t branch very far from the tutorial I was following, but it did look clean and allow people to post ‘tweets’. While it wasn’t particularly impressive it proved useful in the fall when I interviewed for a contract web developer position. I was a bit unqualified for this job, which was to write a companion web application to a mobile app being developed by another student at my college. I managed to write a basic prototype using PHP, MySQL and some javascript charting. But I wasn’t able to write the application with my skills at the time. I ended up quitting that job because I was struggling in my Physics studies. Still I had more experience coding and was several thousand dollars richer.

You might think that it was easy swimming from there, but it wasn’t. My real challenge was getting a formal internship after my Junior year in college. I applied to dozens of companies and ended up doing over ten interviews, went to the career fair at my school and had a difficult time finding any summer internships that wanted me. I interviewed at a bank and a small financial firm focused around trading electricity. I have to assume I looked pretty dorky in my suit, and the software engineers that interviewed me were of course wearing shorts and t-shirts. The finance firm I interviewed didn’t even have me interview with a programmer, their programmer was on vacation that day. I ended up interviewing with their manager and then the CEO, who was 45min late for the interview. That was one of the few interviews where I was asked for references and then didn’t get an offer.

### Interviewing strategies / Tactics

Programming interviews are hyped up as being very difficult and involving complex algorithms. I have found that the hype is not accurate. Maybe in Silicon Valley itself they really do ask complex graph solving questions, but in my experience depth-first and breadth-first search were as deep as the graph questions have gotten. One of the harder questions I have encountered was in a phone screen for Google were I was asked a question along the lines of “find the set of three numbers in this list that sum to less than x”. It stumped me at the time but nowadays I know that the solution involves building up a map that caches the sum of two of the three numbers in the set.

Now lets say you have done 20 practice problems on leetcode and still feel like you can’t possible by reading to solve all the problems they throw at you in an interview, well lucky for you its not really about solving the problems. What you want to do is demonstrate that you have a good amount of knowledge on algorithmic problems and that you are good at talking your way through problems. In your day to day you won’t be solving these types of problems by yourself, you will be working with a team and discussing possible solutions. Many of the problems won’t even be algorithmic in nature they might be around business logic or maintainability. The team wants to know if you will be able to contribute to the discussion around problems that arise and that are good enough at talking about problems that you can ask for help when you need it.

Go into your interview and do your best. Afterwards take notes of all the questions they asked that you did not know the answer to. Do some research and find the answers to the problems that stumped you. Interviewers tend to use the same questions so after a few interviews you will recognize almost all the questions you get.

Understand that its a numbers game. Unless you are a top candidate you will need to do more than 10 in-person interviews to get a job. If you interview with 5 people and one of them didn’t eat breakfast, you might not get the job. I have been in interviews where I really liked the candidate and thought he would be a huge win for the project, but the other guys on the team hated him. You will do interviews where you just have a great time, everyone likes you and you have an offer by the end of the week.

### Conclusion
This post dragged out a lot and its still not quite where I want it to be. I will come back to this series later when I am better able to articulate the ideas I wanted to express here. I hope it can help someone get into software programming.