Monday, September 12, 2011

Resumes to interviews to offers - Part 3

The Onsite interview

The undergraduate qualifying interview that is held on-campus(my experience is from India) consists mostly of one round of HR (Human Resource) and one or two rounds of technical interview depending on the company. The onsite interviews that I faced in the US for all the technical positions gave me a whole new perspective on interviews. So, in this part I would like to share my and some of my friends' experiences during onsite interviews.

Follow up after the phone round typically takes anywhere between a week and two. However, there are abnormal cases which can extend upto a month even. Some companies do not bother to let you know the result of your interview at all (even if you try asking them).The last statement is true even for the result of some onsite interviews. I was asked to give a list of three references after 10 days after one of my onsite interviews and never got any news after that. Recently, one of my friends told me that the onsite interview that had already been scheduled, was cancelled at short notice because of the company's decision to go on a hiring freeze for a few months.

Companies, especially smaller ones and startups look for the local candidate pool in order to avoid spending on travel and relocation. So, if you are in a situation where there is very little local job availability and you know friends who are staying elsewhere, then you can mention their addresses on your resume to get a call. This really is helpful since smaller companies do not consider you even if you are ready to relocate at your own cost. However, the profitable thing to do in that case would be to accumulate at least a couple of interviews in that locality and visit the place later to face the interviews.

If you are scheduled to have the onsite interview in a place other than yours, then the company books the flight tickets, hotel and rental car 1 week in advance. I must say, they seamlessly do this for the candidates. In fact they can give you a pre-loaded debit card later on to compensate for your expenses during the stay.

Now on to the interview.....

Typically, the interview is scheduled to anywhere between 4 hours  to 8 hours consisting of 4 to 8 rounds. Not many companies however have 8 hour interviews. There is the other extreme. One of my friends had 12 rounds from morning 9 am to evening 7pm at Apple.

I am writing all of the following from an electrical engineering interview perspective but I think much of this might overlap with any other engineering discipline too.

Some companies give the schedule of the rounds before hand. If that is the case, then you have lesser hassles. You have a good idea of what kind of questions might be asked. It is good to be abreast with what your friends/seniors are facing in interviews. For example, in a round consisting of Circuits, one can expect with a good degree of confidence questions about set-up, hold times of flip-flops, comparison of different logic families, dynamic logic etc. Even in these kinds of subtopics it is easy to know the kinds of question usually asked, by reading the textbooks thoroughly and asking others. Do not go unprepared for fundamental questions. Some students might have the impression that onsite interviews mostly involve  advanced questions. This is a myth. I have often been asked basic questions in many rounds of onsite interviews. And if you mess up these, then you end up maintaining the status quo (of unemployment) for a long time. You cannot be sure of the result.

Team members sometimes frame a nice question reflecting a problem that the team might be trying to solve at the moment. It can also be a block level description of the fundamental environment that will be encountered during work. If such a broad open-ended question arises, then try to  use all that you have studied and gathered to give the best possible answer. My friend was asked "what is a computer?. Can you explain me the basic blocks of a computer? We can proceed from there". Candidates might get stumped on hearing such questions because not everyone is really prepared beyond exam-type questions. Having an overall knowledge of the systems involved in your area of specialization is a very good idea.

One interview tip (especially for onsite) --- State and explain your answer even if you are very doubtful about it. This helps the interviewer gauge your thinking process. One interviewer was leading me to one small problem after another in the scheme of a big problem. At one stage, I had an answer in my mind but was just not telling him that for I felt that would look stupid. Eventually, he explained the solution and that ended up being the same thing that I had thought of. When I exclaimed that "That was exactly what I was thinking" the interviewer snapped back saying "I can't give credit to you for that. No matter what you say  now, it can't change my mind ".  Not everyone gives you that sort of reply. However, it might very well be the thought in their minds.

Be truthful when replying to questions that seek the level of your knowledge in a specific area. If you blow your trumpet now and fail to answer even basic questions later on, that could be the end of it. One interviewer was happy with my performance because I had told him earlier in the round that I had only a theoretical knowledge of a particular topic and he tested me on the fundamentals alone(This was a round on the PERL language).

Sometimes, the name of an interview round is misleading. For eg, I got my schedule for an onsite interview that had a round called "Architecture". Right from that moment, I nurtured a doubt in my mind that it could not be only computer architecture but might include something else too.  This was supported by certain questions that I had faced in the phone round and the requirements in the skill set. It turned out to be right to such a huge extent that there was no computer architecture(as we study at college) at all in the round. Instead, it was all about extempore thinking at a higher level of abstraction called transaction level modeling (that consists of blocks like Arbiter, generator,monitor, FIFO etc). I asked the interviewer at the end of the round about the absence of questions from the computer architecture area to which he replied that he did not want to ask  those questions precisely because students study them at college!

Interviews can be held in a dedicated conference room where the candidate is imprisoned, so to speak. The interviewers shuttle between the rooms in case of rush interviews where often there are more than five candidates being interviewed simultaneously. This was the case with all my onsite interviews except one which was conducted in the cafeteria. While this might evoke thoughts of a noisy environment, it would most likely not be the case as you would be asked to settle in a corner which is relatively isolated.

Though aptitude questions are generally not encountered in EE interviews, one team asked me to solve a few puzzles. So, if you are not a person who is naturally interested in brainteasers and puzzles, then it is a good idea to resort to these for relaxation during your interview preparations. It also generally helps you improve your lateral thinking and problem solving abilities. I was uncomfortable at first, when I saw a few sheets in the interviewer's hands that had "Algorithmic logic puzzles in C". However, I was relieved when he handed out the other sheet and I saw the monks, the eggs and the like on it.

There is another difference in questioning methodology. Interviewers can have a scratchpad or a laptop from which they ask you questions and you have to work out your answer on a sheet of paper or on the board(which looks funny if the interviewer sits there in his "formal shorts" and you write on the white board wearing your blazer). Alternatively, you can be given a sheet with questions and space for solutions.(It is advisable to carry a bunch of plain sheets along with at least 4 or 5 copies of your Resume to an onsite interview). You have to work it out while the interviewer 'supervises' and interrupts you to know how you arrived at a particular answer. In any case you are expected to be interactive. You must ask all the relevant questions in order to churn out an answer/solution. This in itself is a positive attribute. I can tell that with some confidence because I was told "Good. You did not disappoint me" at the end of such a round.

Finally, an increasingly important round in interviews. ie, Behavioral.  When I first heard this name, I thought it was related to behavioral modeling and verilog. However, looking at the other rounds, I found out that this was to check how the interviewee acted in specific employment-related situations. Some people like to call it 'an advanced HR round'. This round is important but not taken too seriously for engineering job offer decisions though. It asks the same old questions with which you have been uncomfortable all along, like 'Tell me about yourself' , 'what are your strengths and weaknesses' , 'Why should we hire you?', 'Why do you want to work here?', 'Where do you see yourself in 5 years?', albeit in a more polished way, old wine in a new bottle. Though the answers to these might be simple or straightforward or might not even exist , you are supposedly tested for your "attitude" here. So, take time to go over behavioral interview preparations on the internet. There are nut cases that can come up with questions like "Will you quit your job if you get $1 million in a lottery?" .

The Lunch hour is usually a relaxation time during the interview process. I say 'usually' because there are known cases of eat-as-well-as-answer-a-question Lunches. I was fortunate not to face one. Theories run around that you are being indirectly 'tested' during lunch hour for your socialization skills. Though I will not deny that there is some truth in that statement, it is ridiculous to put on an artificial 'attitude' during that time. 'An interview candidate who was smiling/laughing throughout the lunch time sealed his fate then and there' observed one of my friends. He probably put on the dunce cap unknowingly while trying to impress people. Just relax and be normal. Do not overact.

In conclusion......

The interviewers look for basic knowledge and analysis skills in an interview. They write out a detailed report on how you performed, what are your strong areas and so on. This along with your resume can influence what task you are assigned initially in the company. Therefore, take good care to present your answers and your thought processes. Also, do not think that an answer is too simple to be true. Just start answering and develop it. Just be. Tackle the moment. You will sail through smoothly.

All the best for all those people searching for jobs.

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