Tag Archives: interviewing

Detecting Signal Among the Noise

When I tell my friends that I talked to over 50 companies, most of them are understandably shocked. Seeing this number at the end of my process, I’m a little daunted myself, even though I didn’t kick off interview processes with all of them. There are countless companies that are solving meaningful problems, so I needed to figure out which ones I wanted to learn more about. How would I validate that these companies aligned with what I was looking for? In case context is helpful, I wrote about why I started recruiting again in the first place here, which elaborates on my goals.

Building the List

When I started interviewing, I already had a list of companies that I was interested in. “Interested” here means anything from “I ended up on their website and thought it looked cool” to “I knew a friend who worked on a team with open headcount who seemed really happy.” I keep a running Notion page of the companies I think are cool, so when I started recruiting, I already had a pool of close to ~40 places to start with. Not many of them were in the three areas I wanted to work in (climate tech, health tech, and fintech), so I had to do some extra research to put companies specifically aligned with my interests on the list as well. There are a few things I did to source interesting companies:

  1. I turned on the option to signal interest and expose my profile to recruiters and hiring managers on LinkedIn. Prior, I’d been getting a few outreach emails a week about joining a company. Once I did this, the amount of inbound increased to a few emails a day.
  2. I reactivated my profile on Work at a Startup. I was surprised that most people I spoke to didn’t know about this job portal for all YC companies, but it was an underrated resource in my search (full disclosure: I know the person who is building it, and have a lot of respect for him). While YC isn’t the only place to look for promising startups, it’s still where many successful ones have gotten their start. The profile I filled out was a lot more intentional than LinkedIn and prompted some healthy reflection on my part, and it was clear that most people took the time to read through what I was looking for. I had a lot of strong leads from the product and recommend it to a ton of my friends who are looking for new opportunities.
  3. I reached out to a few friends in the investing and startup space to ask if they knew of anything interesting. Any of my friends having confidence in a company is a really strong sign to me.
  4. I looked at companies with founders and investors who’d had a good track record of success. YC, Sequoia, a16z, Greylock, and First Round are a few portfolios I perused to see if anything aligned with my interests, and I looked at individual investors I respected to see what they’d invested in. I was also actively looking for female CTOs and leadership.

Detecting Signals Among Noise

I think what I really want to communicate is that a compelling narrative and a good reputation made a big impact at the beginning of my job search. At this stage, it was the difference between me pursuing or not pursuing a role because I didn’t have firsthand interactions to draw from, and limited time to interview. So while these signals are imperfect, publicly available information was all I had to work with at this point. Tangentially, a recurring theme of interview processes that I noticed was there was no single factor in my job search that could commit me to a job; it had to be a combination of the right things coming together. However, there were some things that could cause me to quickly lose interest, and I imagine some of these are true for when companies do due diligence on candidates too:

  1. Words of warning from anyone I trusted
  2. Employee reviews on Glassdoor and Blind. Blind gets a bad rep (some of which is deserved), but I found it useful to see unfiltered discussion from employees about their own companies and how they felt about the future outlook. It also gave me insight into the types of people who worked at various places (as in, were they assholes in anonymous forums?).
  3. Companies who seemed to be endlessly embroiled in Twitter drama.

On the flip side, here are a few unique things companies did that really piqued my interest in talking to them:

  1. Documented engineering values: As someone who believes in the power of documentation and writing, I really appreciated when an engineering team published their values! I usually ask about these in the interview anyways, so it was great to have a lot of my questions answered up-front.
  2. Public roadmaps: Similar to documented engineering values, some companies published their roadmaps for everyone to see, which I thought was awesome. It gave me a clear sense of how prioritization worked, and how the company viewed transparency.
  3. Transparency around the interview process: Many companies (yes, even tiny startups) have internal documents that detail their interview format, timeline, expectations, and example problems, which is then sent to candidates at the beginning of the process. This is a signal of effective organization and candidate empathy to me, and I wish more companies would share these publicly so others could see good examples of well-run processes.
  4. Examples of team socialization: I really liked seeing pictures and videos of team members and hearing them describe their workplace. It was a nice personal touch to put faces to names in remote times, and to see a slice of different personalities that I might get to work with.

I now had a list of about ~60 or so companies, and ordered them by how much I thought I wanted to work at that place. The guiding question I used to rank companies against each other was “Based on what I know right now, would I be more excited if I woke up tomorrow and worked at company A or company B?” which is a very personal thing! There were a handful of companies where the answer to this question ended up being “Eh, I think I’d want take a few more hours of sleep instead”, and I cut them from the list. At this point, I was back to ~40 companies, but over the course of my recruiting process, I added a few more that reached out and seemed interesting.

Leveraging Warm Intros

I perused LinkedIn to see who I knew at these companies, or if I’d had contact with them in the past. If I didn’t know someone at the company, I found people who knew people who knew someone, and asked them for intros so I could make a direct connection with the company. I also reconnected with recruiters from these places who had emailed me in the past, as a way to get my foot in the door. This brings me to the next point I want to emphasize: there were only 4 companies I cold-applied to, and I didn’t end up interviewing with any of them. All of them responded several weeks later, when I was well into my onsites. Warm intros have always been the most effective way for me to recruit, especially because I neither studied CS, nor went to an Ivy.

What I’d Do Differently Next Time

No process is perfect. Throughout mine, and since it’s concluded, I’ve been reflecting on what I’d do differently in the sourcing stage next time around:

  1. I think I’d be more strict about adhering to my non-negotiables. When I started sourcing, I had written down my non-negotiables, but I was also spoke to companies that didn’t sit exactly at the confluence of these three things (they were usually lacking in one), so I accumulated an unmanageable volume of interviews. I ended up with offers from a few of these places, and realized that the hesitations I’d had from the start never resolved themselves throughout the process because my non-negotiables were simply that: crucial pieces I needed to feel really excited. Someone once told me that I should feel more and more excited as I go through the interview process and gather more signals, and that definitely resonated with me.
  2. I would quit my job and recruit full-time. I didn’t do that this time around because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to land any offers (hello, imposter syndrome) I felt really excited about, and that I’d be left stressed and jobless, in a poor position to negotiate or push for what I wanted. In addition, I think the context-switching between work and recruiting multiple times a day contributed to the feeling of total burnout by the time I’d finished. On top of that, I didn’t like having to keep my process secret for 3 months so my team wouldn’t find out. Stealth recruiting limited my ability to freely talk about my process and interesting opportunities on public channels like Twitter and LinkedIn.
  3. Next time, I actually don’t plan to cold apply to any companies; it’s never been a tactic that has worked out for me. I think this is one of the core issues that makes designing an effective recruiting process challenging: how can candidates and companies who would be a good fit for each other connect with each other? Unfortunately, I don’t have a great proposal; some of the ones that come to mind all have their own tradeoffs that I think companies need to test out and wrestle with depending on what type of skill they’re looking for.

If you read this post, let me know what you thought on Twitter @chrystalzou, or leave me a note in the comments, especially if you have thoughts about how to improve the discovery process among candidates and companies!

Special thanks to Rochit Gupta and Sharon Xie, who gave me a lot of support in my previous role, and provided feedback on this post 🌱

How I Started Recruiting Again

I’ve been thinking about how I want to go about sharing my most recent recruiting experience, which I’m documenting for two reasons: 1) posterity – it’ll be interesting to look back on this the next time I do recruiting to see how things have changed, and 2) recruiting is this whole mysterious black box, and I think that interviewers and candidates would both benefit from a more transparent process. We can’t really do that unless we’re willing to talk in detail about what happens, so here’s me trying to shed some light onto it. My hope is that someone reading this might learn something that they can apply to their recruiting process, regardless of which side they stand on.

In total, I talked to 52 companies, did 30 technical phone screens, 10 onsites, and received 6 offers. The full process from starting to study to signing an offer was about 3 months. My pass rate was ~98% for recruiter screens, ~70% for phone screens, and ~60% for onsites. It’s worth noting if you’re doing the math yourself, these numbers won’t add up; I dropped out of some processes at each stage for various reasons (more on why and how this in a specific post coming later).

This is also probably a good place to include a disclaimer that I’m not making blanket recommendations to anyone to copy paste my process expecting the same result (I ended with 6 offers, but the process was very taxing to get there). The role that career plays is different for everyone; I’m sharing my personal goals and experience, and there may or may not be stuff that folks find interesting enough to do due diligence and exploration on!

This will be written as a series of blog posts over a few weeks; I tried condensing everything I learned into a Twitter thread, or a single blog post, but found that it was too difficult to condense without omitting things I found important. This post will focus on the first part: namely, how did I know I was ready for something new, and what did I want in my next role?

Assessing my readiness

There are a lot of frameworks I’ve encountered that are supposed to help pinpoint the inflection point at which I feel like I want a change, but the one that has held most effective for me over time is how I viscerally and emotionally feel when I think about the work that I do. In particular, there are three guiding questions I’ve always found to give me clarity as to how ready I feel for a change that I’ve used for most of my career:

  • How do I feel about Mondays? When I find myself looking forward to Mondays, I know that I’m not ready for a change. It means I’m excited about the work that I’m doing and that I’m in a good rhythm of learning and feeling like my contributions matter, and I want to continue to ride out this wave! Of course, a bad week doesn’t mean I kick off a job search. I give the “I wish the weekend was longer” feeling about 2-3 months before I start thinking about something else.
  • How excited am I to refer people to my current company? I care about getting good people into good places, and I actively promote companies and hiring managers who I think would be fantastic to work with. Hopefully, this includes my own workplace! If I find myself in a place where I can’t confidently and excitedly shill for my employer, I interpret that to indicate waning excitement about where I’m at. Similarly, I’m curious about talking to employers who people I trust are excited about! This is less important than how I feel about Mondays because what may be a good fit for me, may not be a good fit for others.
  • How do I feel about the opportunities I have at work now? Put another way, if future prospects don’t work out in a specific way, will I wish I had left sooner? A lot of people stay at companies in hopes of something happening in the future – they may think that they’re close to a promotion, will get an equity refresh with another round raised, their boss will finally see they are a programming god, whatever. My personal philosophy on this is that the future is never guaranteed, so I usually don’t factor in future prospects in this decision unless there’s documented acknowledgement of the promise. In most cases, there are simply too many factors outside of my control to account for. The most common narrative I’ve heard is “I’m going to look for a new opportunity once I’m promoted,” but after the individual’s promotion is thwarted by a reorg, an overhaul of the promotion process, or a change in expectations, the individual is now understandably upset and feels like they were strung along for several months.

Distinguishing the non-negotiables from the nice-to-haves

When it came time to think about what I wanted in my next role, some of this reflection was done from the perspective of “What don’t I think I can get at my current company, even if I were to change teams or projects?” and some of this reflection was done from the perspective “What do I already have that I would never want to let go of?”. When I thought about the times I felt the most energized and empowered in my career, it boiled down to three non-negotiables:

  1. A mission or product that I could feel personally invested in: The world has countless problems to solve, and I still feel optimistic that a lot of these can be helped by software. When I thought back to places where I’d felt the most motivated, places that came to mind were those where I loved the product and felt connected to the mission (this cliche happens to ring true for me). Climate change, the healthcare system, and the financial system were top of mind for me because I see these as the three areas underpinning quality of life outcomes for everyone. I especially wanted to focus on companies who were building for underserved communities traditionally neglected by tech. Broadly speaking, the common theme across my interests has always been wanting to create positive impact for someone else’s life.
  2. Learning and impact opportunities: I wanted to give my intellectual curiosity room to flourish. As someone who has always biased towards action when I see a problem, I was looking for more flexibility and room to take ownership of opportunities to create impact, and to feel that others were energized about making things happen in the same way–even if that meant experimenting outside of our defined responsibilities. I was searching for that energy where people broke down silos and stepped over org lines to move promising ideas forward, or encouraged questioning of existing assumptions in pursuit of better outcomes. Naturally, I gravitated towards a lot of earlier-stage startups as a result of wanting less bureaucracy, although there were some more mature companies that embodied this type of attitude as well.
  3. D&I as an existing and internalized part of the culture, rather than a vanity metric to optimize for at the company level. I was the only non-male engineer on my former team of 12, and our eng org was <10% women. I’m lucky to have worked with really nice people, but I was absolutely yearning for a place where I felt more represented, especially in positions of power. I actively searched for startups with female founders, CTOs, and lots of diverse engineers, and discussed D&I in every interview to gauge how it was embodied by my potential coworkers.

Things that were important to me, but not dealbreakers:

  1. I didn’t want to take more than a 10% pay cut in terms of total comp (salary + equity, even if it was paper money). One of the benefits of working at a startup is that early equity can generate outsized returns if the company ends up being successful, and I was more than willing to trade cash and RSUs for that, but not to an extent where I’d need to drastically compromise my existing financial obligations or quality of life.
  2. Work-life balance: I believe that I operate at my best when I have adequate space away from work, but the balance of time across rest and work is different depending on the type of work I’m doing, and the particular goals at hand. I love losing myself in hard problems, but am easily discouraged when I feel like it doesn’t make an impact, so I was looking for a place that had product-market fit (less thrash), prioritized effectively, and where overwork was an exception rather than the expectation.
  3. Interesting engineering problems: I wanted exposure to fun and complex technical problems that would afford me a big learning curve, but I’m the type of engineer who will gravitate towards work that has the most impact, rather than work that is interesting for the sake of interesting work. Documentation, testing, and direct customer engagement are examples of things I enjoy that don’t fall under the umbrella of ‘gnarly technical problem’ if I know that they can have an outsized impact. I know many other engineers who would qualify this as non-negotiable! We would bring different strengths to the table.
  4. A hub in SF, but with the optionality of working remotely. I miss physical offices for their collaboration and organic socialization, but I will admit that my output is higher when I’m working in isolation at home because I’m free of distractions. More importantly, I’ve always believed that companies should support flexible working arrangements because employees know how they work best (and because this disproportionately benefits URGs and parents).
  5. A business model aligned with the mission: I ideally didn’t want to work at a place that sold user data and ads as the main revenue model, though if I could easily see how much benefit the product created, it could be something that I’d overlook. This is perhaps naive, but I ideally wanted to work someplace where buying and using the product made the world better off.
  6. Coworkers I could see myself becoming friends with: A good portion of my friends are former coworkers, and if I’m going to be spending the majority of my waking hours with people, I want to feel excited about that. Though I wasn’t looking for a family cult feel, I did feel drawn to camaraderie and forming social bonds with colleagues outside of code review.
  7. A well-run interviewing process: The rest of the posts are about this, because I learned two very important things in my interviewing process, especially since I’ve been both an interviewer and a candidate now (I was in the midst of designing a summer intern interview process when I was recruiting, and everything I experienced as a candidate funneled into making it approachable and empathetic for candidates). 1) It takes a lot of thoughtful, thorough, and empathetic work to design a good interview process, and even then, it won’t be perfect. 2) From the candidate side, the process (and in particular, the onsite) is where the best signals reveal themselves for what it would be like to work with this company, and what they care about.

It was a helpful exercise for me to identify what my dealbreakers and nice-to-haves were because they formed some consistent principles for my decision making and allowed me to better compare opportunities against each other. Career decisions are important, and now that I’m almost 30 years old, I don’t want to blindly hop from one place to another without defining my goals up front. In contrast to the last time I recruited for jobs (straight out of a coding bootcamp and haphazardly praying that a few places would see enough in my shitty code to take a risk and pay me to get better), I ideally wanted to choose a place where I could see myself staying for at least full 3-4 years (which feels like a decade in software!), so I promised myself I’d make my search intentional and thorough. Spoiler alert: some of my priorities shifted slightly (nothing drastic) over the course of my interviewing; put another way, values I didn’t know how to weigh came into clearer view.

What to expect in coming posts

Here’s what you can expect in upcoming posts if you’re interested in reading about my interviewing experience! I’ll be including resources that I found helpful, as well some thoughts on what I’d do differently for each of these. It was particularly interesting being on the candidate side because I got to see a lot of wonderful, unique ways some companies ran their processes, and I also felt some unexpected pain points. I plan to take both of those in stride to immediately improve the process at my next company (although, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the reasons I chose them was because they ran one of the most stellar processes)

I’m going to try to hold myself accountable for writing at least one post a week, and I’d love to know what you found interesting or bland! If you catch me slacking or simply want to let me know what you thought, you can find me on Twitter @chrystalzou.

Thank you to Rochit Gupta, Cissy Hu, Katy Culver, and Girish Gupta for your feedback on the first draft of this post (in addition to your endless support through my process) 🙂