When we hosted Startup Life’13 with Zach Brock from Square and Paul Osman from SoundCloud about what life is really like interviewing and working at a startup, there were a couple of questions from our student viewers that we couldn’t get to. Lucky for us, both Zach and Paul spent some time answering those questions offline. Here’s a little more Q&A from both of them – if there’s still something on your mind that you’d like to have them answer, just leave a comment below. (Also, if you missed the conversation, don’t worry you can view the whole thing here. )
Q: I’m not much of a graphics programmer. Is that a problem for my project portfolio, or is showing a strong engineering aspect in my programs good enough?
Zach: Not a problem – cool libraries, Project Euler solutions or open source contributions are great examples of your abilities.
Paul: More important than a project portfolio is having a strong presence on sites like Github. It’s okay if you don’t focus on front end technologies — there are still tons of projects or libraries you can contribute to (or create). Github is a great place for prospective employers to see your activity on these.
Q: Are there online resources that provide industry-level code examples in the different languages that startups and big companies use?
Zach: Yes, check out open source projects that companies have released. You can find a list of all of Square’s open source projects at: square.github.com
Paul: A good exercise is to take a look at the source code for open source projects you find interesting. The ones with the most active communities should have pretty good code. Another thing worth doing is to track projects and take a look at pull requests or patches that are submitted. Often community members will discuss changes and you can see some of the smells that often tip experienced developers off to bad code.
Q: Is it better to pursue a startup first or a long established company first? How does each option affect career paths?
Paul: I think it’s entirely up to you! It also very much depends on the company. There are established companies out there that you could learn a lot from (Google, Facebook come to mind). The one thing a startup will almost definitely offer differently is the ability to learn a lot of different things quickly (you’ll get to wear more hats typically).
Zach: I would recommend beginning your career at a startup. In my opinion, startups give you more opportunities to learn and grow early on in your career, as long as you’re self-directed and self-motivated. If you need more structure to thrive personally, you may want to start out at a bigger company.
Q: Is there a sample listing of programming questions/problems that an engineer candidate for Square may be expected to know during the coding part of the interview?
Paul: I’ll let Zach answer that :)
Zach: Not currently. In our interview process we focus on working through problems rather than the traditional Q&A interview format. Candidates spend the day pair programming with several Square engineers, writing in the language of their choice. The goal is to give each candidate a chance to work and collaborate with engineers from several different teams so they have a better sense of the people they might be working with one day. With these interviews, our goal isn’t to stump people but to see how they solve realistic problems.
Q: As a marketing student, how can I better prepare myself for a tech company? What types of skills would a non-technical student need to know in order to interact with different sectors of an organization?
Paul: I’d recommend being as familiar with the industry as possible. Read tech blogs, pay attention to marketing stuff thats happening in the tech industry, etc. Of course, being at least programming literate would also be a huge asset too, but not strictly necessary.
Zach: Have a friend who’s a programmer? Sit down with them for a few hours, observe, and ask questions. You’ll start to find patterns in their code and understand how programming languages result in actions. Also, get involved in the tech community – read tech blogs and reddit, stay up-to-date on the latest apps, and meet with people who work at startups.
Q: What about business students? What are you looking for when interviewing non-engineering students for internship/full-time positions?
Zach: We often say that we’re looking for T-shaped people – people who have breadth as well as depth. The ideal candidate is strong across a number of areas, but at the same time has an area of expertise so they can have a big impact.
We often ask many of the same questions to both our business and engineering candidates: Are you capable of working in a fast-paced environment? Are you flexible? Do you understand and believe in our mission? Can you think of creative, simple solutions to complex problems?
Q: I don’t have much extra time for side-projects. Should I spend a few months trying to shore up my side project portfolio before bothering to apply at startups?
Paul: The only thing I’ll say here is that students who have extra-curricular work to show definitely do stand out.
Zach: Side projects are the best way to prepare both for the interview process and working at a startup. Any side project, no matter how small, is valuable. The experience of turning an idea into something real is the best education a software engineer can get. Remember that your project doesn’t have to be world changing to help you grow as an engineer.
Q: How can a college student refine and demonstrate the soft skills needed for success in an evangelist role?
Q: Any ideas on retaining startup culture as a company scales?
Paul: I have tons — probably enough for a whole other series of blog posts :-)
Zach: Maintain transparency, encourage collaboration, and stay sharply focused on your mission.
Q: How does attempting to start and work on a personal startup over the summer rather than, say, an internship look on a portfolio when you are hiring?
Zach: The question you should ask yourself is: where will I learn more? If you will learn more from the trial-and-error that comes with tackling your own project, go for your startup. If you’ll learn more by surrounding yourself with people who have a lot of great experience, an internship might be better for you.
Try not to think too much about what a company is looking for. The truth is that you can learn a lot from both experiences, and at Square we hire students from all kinds of backgrounds. Spend time on things you’re passionate about.
Paul: Depends on how successful you are working on your personal startup :) Honestly though, if you can get an MVP shipped as a new grad, that’ll definitely help you stand out.
Q: What’s the benefit and risk of moving from a large, established company to a startup?
Zach: At a startup you can make decisions quickly. You’ll often find fewer layers of management, an open workspace, and more transparency. Startups are inherently collaborative, which is a great way to learn really quickly from the people around you.
On the other hand at a startup you’re probably going to have a lot more individual responsibility and opportunities to fail. Personally I love having the freedom to make a big impact, but I think some people find it overwhelming.
Paul: The only risk I can think of is stability, and this largely depends on the kind of start-up you want to move to. If you’re looking at an extremely early stage start-up, there is of course the risk that they won’t last longer than your planned tenure there. These days there are plenty of viable start-ups that have long runways, so you can easily spend a few years working at one without worry. The benefits are too many to list :)
Q: What is the best way to create a network with professionals in the Silicon Valley area to help with opportunity searching if you are not located on the West Coast?
Zach: Here are a few ideas:
- Contribute to open source projects. Showing is much more powerful than telling.
- Alumni networks: Many career centers offer access to online alumni databases. This is a great way to identify alums in Silicon Valley and beyond working for companies of interest. The best way for a company to grow is through referrals. You can help your chances by identifying a “champion” who can advocate for your candidacy and pass your resume directly to recruiters.
- Attend conferences: But don’t just go to listen, be an active participant by introducing yourself to attendees, following up with speakers, etc.
Paul: This depends on where you live. While the Valley is still a huge centre for technology companies, most major cities have pretty decent tech scenes nowadays. If you’re in a city with meetups, technology groups, etc, then I’d recommend getting involved in those as a first step. It’s also worth noting that open source knows no city boundaries, so wherever you are, you can get involved in online technology communities which can help a lot.
Q: You have recommended doing side projects a number of times. Where can one get ideas about side projects?
Paul: I think the best side projects come out of things that bug you personally. If there’s an app that you wish existed, go ahead and build it. It’s also worth mentioning that not all side projects have to be fully functioning user facing products. Often times you’ll end up using open source tools or libraries in your day-to-day work. If you encounter bugs in any of these, go ahead and fix them.
Zach: Engineers in particular have the ability to solve the problems and pain points they run across in everyday life. Any time you find something annoying or frustrating there’s probably an opportunity to make it better through software. For example, my roommates and I were frustrated at the manual task of settling up bills at the end of each month, so we wrote an app to help make it easier: www.billcrush.com.
Want to have another StartupLife conversation?
Tell us in the comments who you’d like to hear from.
To connect with Paul from SoundCloud click here.
To get connect with Zach from Square click here.
To read more from Square’s blog click here.