Niall’s virtual diary archives – Sunday 8th April 2012

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Sunday 8th April 2012: 2.01pm. Continuing my last post about interviewing with North American companies, I have to say that my impressions of Silicon Valley startups has generally been uniformly good with a few dark exceptions. Some good points:

1. They put effort into writing their job adverts and tell you lots of useful information in that advert. Try comparing any multinational's job adverts with any startup's. The former look like they were written by a HR bod who could not care less about the position, and some multinationals seem to go out of their way to make their roles look as boring and undesirable as possible (sorry, I have to mention a name here: Microsoft has consistently the most off-putting job adverts out there). Startups are generally good at writing useful adverts, some are outstandingly well written. I've even applied to a few IT sectors I normally wouldn't (e.g. finance) just because their advert was so well written.

2. All but one of the startups I've applied to are open source orientated. This doesn't mean they have their market positioning right, or that they've fully thought through their hiring strategy, but it's a huge difference from a decade ago when perhaps only 10% of startups embraced open source (note, by embracing open source I mean that they embrace that their workers will be contributing to and using open source as part of their daily work practice. It doesn't mean the company releases anything to open source).

3. Almost all of them incorporate a real code programming stage near the start (either before or just after the first phone interview). About 80% will accept a github or sourceforge repo containing your contributions in lieu of having to write code. This is good, because the other 20% want you to invest a day of your time solving something fairly hard no matter what your background (in my case, I've contributed something like 50k+ lines over ten years).

To those companies I say this: if I have a spare day for programming, I'm going to spend that day on my open source projects, NOT doing model solutions for you which are useless to the community. Judge me on my contributions, not on programming exercises. Besides, if every company I applied to insisted on a day's effort in such hoop jumping, it would rapidly render finding a job a full time job in itself. And I do own and run my own consulting firm, and that firm does not work on other people's problems for free except as a case of charity or returning a favour.

I've had to withdraw my application in a few cases due to a company not budging on the model solution requirement, which is a shame as you'd think startups would know better. But there you go!

4. Out of all my applications, just two stood head and shoulders above the rest. Here's what they asked for, in order:

a. The link to your Github/Sourceforge account
b. A link to an example of technical writing (e.g. a howto guide)
c. A link to an example of non-technical writing (e.g. a blog)
d. A link to an example of academic writing (e.g. your thesis)
e. A cover letter not exceeding 200 words on why this role/company excites you.
f. Your resume (two pages maximum).

One of the companies also asked for two answers to StackOverflow questions, but by that stage you might as well use Stackoverflow's Careers 2.0 service :)

Now those two companies I really think represent the gold standard for IT recruitment. They asked six questions which are very easy and quick to fill in for the right kind of candidate, hard to fill in for the wrong kind of candidate, and deliver hard to fake information. That saves much time their end, saves time my end, and filters out most of the time wasters. One company - a very well known internet property - I applied to had no less than an eight page, 56 mandatory element form to be filled in. I gave up after twenty entries when I saw they wanted my entire academic and work history filled in and min. 2000 words on why I want to work there - it reminded me of applying to a university. It also gives serious misgivings about working for a company so anal about precise detail it can't cope with reading a CV.

Despite the generally rosy experience above, there have been as I mentioned a few dark exceptions. I'll mention a few of those tomorrow I think, as at least the two worst quite shocked me.

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