Against the tide of Silicon Valley’s job layoffs, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quoted late August 2009 — in a number of media outlets that referred to a Bloomberg report — as planning to hire as many as 500 new staff members in 2009. While the number hired din’t turn out to be that much, I was one of the fortunate people who managed to snag a series of interviews in Q3 & Q4 of 2009. Here’s a summary of my overall interview experience.
Job Details, Interview Experience, and Speculations
First off, I’m not sure how many people Facebook actually hired in 2009, though I do not believe they were anywhere close to their reported quota. But they hired at least one person, and it wasn’t me. Now, it would be foolish of me to reveal too many details about the position I was interviewing for, but I’ll reveal what I’m comfortable with:
- The position was contract-to-hire, roughly six months, with a possible extension afterwards but no guarantee of a full-time position.
- During that period, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to create my own outside Facebook applications. However, my would-be-colleague didn’t know the answer and the HR person didn’t answer. So I suspended working on my in-progress apps and doing any writing about Facebook for my clients for most of the latter half of 2009, losing out on earnings I badly needed.
- The position was NOT for a software engineer. I would be joining a team of one, despite the need for a small team, at least from my perspective as a Facebook user and developer (hint hint). I would have worked with numerous engineers and product managers as necessary. I didn’t officially need coding skills, but it wouldn’t hurt.
My work background in tech is quite varied — a necessity of the market (Toronto, Canada) that I spent most of my career in — a market that did not necessarily subscribe to the idea that having multiple skills is a bad thing. As such, I am fortunate to have a combination of coding, database, business analysis, writing and inbound/social media marketing skills. The career culture here in California seems quite different than even the rest of the USA (what I know of it), let alone Toronto. I’m also used to “asking for the job,” if the interview is going well and the job would be exciting. But that’s not easy to do here given how many layers of interviews there are. Needless to say, it didn’t work out at Facebook, despite being told by the HR person that I was “still in the running.” (Several friends and family members telling me they felt I was being strung along, I didn’t want to believe such a thing — and still don’t. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons for my experience.)
My Facebook Interview Experience
I can only speculate as to why so many layers of job interviews seem to be required here in California — possibly because this is an “at will” state. That means you can quit a job without notice, and also get fired without notice. Given the cost of hiring and training a new employee to fill a vacancy, it’s understandable that potential candidates are given a gauntlet of interviews. I’ve heard of colleagues going through as many as eleven sets of interviews with some of the older web-based giants — especially for manager roles — and even waiting as long 8-12 months for an offer. I’m just not used to that.
Thankfully, I only went through about 3.5 months of waiting overall, though the last six weeks was a period of radio silence, followed by an email that said something to the effect of “thanks but we’ve filled the position.” No other pleasantries, not even a “we’ll keep you on file for future opportunities.”
How did I get an interview in the first place, when so many people are out of work and not even getting interviews? I’d like to think that it’s due to my extensive and varied skills, but admittedly, I have a “network” connection to a Facebook employee. This person, whom I know in real-life, saw the position listed, sent me a message via my Facebook inbox, and asked if I was interested. He then submitted my resume internally. That got me into the interview process a lot faster, though my resume (i.e., collective skills & experience) is what kept me in the running. Here’s a summary of the experience:
- Started with a half-hour phone interview around mid-August 2009, ending with the HR person saying that they thought I was what they were looking for, and that they’d be in touch.
- Was given a relevant coding and writing assignment, from my would-be teammate, to be completed within a week.
- Got a longer phone interview a few weeks later with my would-be teammate and an engineer who didn’t know that he was supposed to ask me any questions. Despite the role in question (non-engineer), the latter person asked me quite technical questions, some of which seemed irrelevant to the position. (Speculation by friends and colleagues is that I was asked simply because my resume shows a great deal of technical background.) This phone interview also involved a surprise quiz, via a special web page. I had to type in the algorithm (aka “pseudocode”) for a coding problem, via a special web form. The interviewers could see my code simultaneously and test it (had it been real web code).
- Waited for weeks and weeks, with my would-be teammate answering my emails the best he could and the HR person barely answering anything.
- Finally got a three-hour, in-person interview with four people in early October. This seemed to be going fine for the first few hours, but one interviewer (non-engineer) seemed intent on finding on some sort of flaw with my personality.
- After six more weeks of waiting, I received a “thanks but no thanks” email. During that time, I was told to be patient while they did “due diligence” with other candidates. (I have no idea how many people I was up against.)
After the three-hour interview session, I became pragmatic, knowing that I had positives to takeaway from the whole experience, even if I didn’t get the position.
What I Learned From My Facebook Interviews
I recently discussed the California work culture with a young colleague whose parents work as managers at a big tech company. Between their advice and my experience, here is what I learned:
- Even if a certain skill is not going to be required for role you’re interviewing for, you might still get asked related questions. That’s especially true if the skill is listed on your resume. The positive way to look at this is that you might be considered for another position.
- Some interview questions are designed to get you to say “I don’t know,” and that is actually the right thing to say. That’s a far better response than lying or making something up. The fact is that in a real work situation, you would have various resources available to you that wouldn’t be present in an interview, and interviewers generally understand that. (I stated that my coding skills needed refreshing, that I was limited to responding in pseudocode rather than real computer code, and they agreed albeit subtly.)
- Not all HR people have their act together, no matter how pleasant they are. In retrospect, I should have continued to work on my Facebook apps and writing. Lesson: Don’t wait. Continue on with your life.
- Months of waiting for an offer or even any answer is the norm, not the exception, in Silicon Valley. Maybe I’m even lucky I received a response?
While the free meals from the Facebook cafeteria in Palo Alto — and all the other perks — would have been nice, I’m not sure the perks would have been offered to a contract-for-hire. Overall, I’m probably too old for the Facebook culture, who mostly seemed to be in their late 20s/ early 30s. (My would-be-teammate seemed the only exception, though it’s not like I met the entire staff.) Participating in their Hackathons doing all-night coding (or whatever) is something I might have done during college or a select few years afterwards. Now, I like to have a life outside work.
My greatest takeaway: I learned a great deal about the Facebook APIs, which I studied fairly intensively during the 3.5-month waiting period. I’ve used the knowledge gained to continue working on numerous Facebook apps of my own — many of which support other projects non-Facebook projects in progress — none of which I would not have been able to do were I hired on at Facebook. building. Despite that some of the APIs have changed recently, the net result of the interview process is that I have a deeper understanding of how Facebook.com functions, and that helps me both as a user and an app designer and developer.