Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Startup Interviews

I spent almost 6 years at Google interviewing nearly 300 potential Googlers. That inteviewing career started with an interviewing class and some shadowing of fellow engineers before diving in solo. At Google I focused my interview on trying to figure out if the person I was interviewing would have a good shot at being successful at Google. My requirements for Google success changed a bit over time but in general I looked for:
  1. Raw problem solving ability. I generally checked this by asking basically a math/problem solving question disguised as a coding question. It usually required almost no knowledge of any coding beyond what someone might learn in the first few months of coding.
  2. Ability to quickly see multiple solutions, weigh them, verbalize them, and select the most appropriate given the conditions that I've put forth. I'm constantly surprised at how rarely applicants verbalize the different options for solutions to a problem, outline the pros and cons of the solutions and then proceed.
  3. A substantial level of curiosity for anything they have spent time on. "If architectural decisions were made before you joined the team or without you, did you figure out why they were made, how would you have done things differently?", "How much time do you spend looking at library source files to really understand the technology you are using?", etc.
  4. Communication skills. This one is a bit trite but must be mentioned as it is as important as the others listed here. During an interview, the candidate's ability to articulate their thinking process, their background, and their goals is key.
  5. Ability to contribute to overall team happiness. If you are going to spend over 60% of your waking life during the week working, hopefully you enjoy what you are doing and who you are working with. When someone adds to that enjoyment, the result is a happy team, and happy teams are generally more productive, more communicative, and in the end, more successful.
At Adku am I looking for anything different? I'm looking for every one of those qualities and more. The more:
  1. A self starter/entrepreneur personality. "Do you have side projects that you've worked on outside of school/work?", "Have you thought about starting your own company, why didn't you?" I believe the best hires for a startup are entrepreneurs or almost-entrepreneurs.
  2. A coding fearlessness of the unknown. A startup generally won't have an entire team devoted to just one slice of the entire stack. Because of this, it is likely that anyone hired will have to dive into any part of the stack and be extremely productive. If the person can't pick up a new language and/or technology and get a Hello World working within hours, then they are likely the wrong person.
  3. A level of self awareness and honesty. Being a part of a startup is a wild and amazing ride. Efficiency is built not only on the ability to code and code review quickly, but on the ability to recognize issues and course correct as fast as possible. Being successful is based on many things, including your ability to be honest about your mistakes. Accessing this in an interview is difficult and subtle, but it can be done. Applicants, shouldn't "gloss" over details that you are unfamiliar with in the hopes that the interviewer won't realize that you don't have a deep understanding; admit what you understand and what you don't.
  4. Product strategy/tech business curiosity. Product discussion is a very good thing and having every member of the team engaged is that discussion is important. The ability to have a healthy discourse on product/company strategy, both from business and technical point of views, is key.
Does this sound like you? If so, we'd love to talk to you!


  1. Great post! I would call out one point specifically:
    > 5. Ability to contribute to overall team happiness.

    Generally speaking, in a startup stuff will go wrong, stress will be high, opinions will be different - if you are around people that you like, it is a lot easier to deal with all of this. In a larger company you can just ignore someone or get out of their way. You do not have that luxury in a startup.

    A culture fit is one of the most important things to look for in a startup recruit. At Google we called this the "airport test":