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Julien Vehent on cloud security, risk management and web services engineering.

19 May 2019

Interviewing tips for junior engineers

by Julien Vehent

I was recently asked by the brother of a friend who is about to graduate for tips about working in IT in the US. His situation is not entirely dissimilar to mine, being a foreigner with a permit to work in America. Below is my reply to him, that I hope will be helpful to other young engineers in similar situations.

For background, I’ve been working in the US since early 2011. I had a few years of experience as a security engineer in Paris when we moved. I first took a job as a systems engineer while waiting for my green card, then joined a small tech company in the email marketing space to work on systems and security, then joined Mozilla in 2013 as a security engineer. I’ve been at Mozilla for almost six years, now running the Firefox operations security team with a team of six people scattered across the US, Canada and the UK. I’ve been hiring engineers for a few years in various countries.

Are there any skills or experiences beyond programming required to be an interesting candidate for foreign employers

You’re just getting started in your career, so employers will mostly look for technical proficiency and being a pleasant person to work with. Expectations are fairly low at this stage. If you can solve technical puzzles and people enjoy talking to you, you can pass the bar at most companies.

This changes after 5-ish years of experience, when employers want to see project management, technical leadership, and maybe a hint of people management too. But for now, I wouldn’t worry about it.

I would say the most important thing is to have a plan: where do you want to be 10/15/20 years from now? My aim was toward Chief Security Officer roles, an executive position that requires technical skills, strategic thinking, communication, risk and project management, etc. It takes 15 to 20 years to get to that level, so I picked jobs that progressively gave me the experience needed (and that were a lot of fun, because I’m a geek).

Were there any challenges that you faced, other than immigration, that I may need to be aware of as a foreign candidate?

Immigration is the only problem to solve. When I first applied for jobs in the US, I was on a J-1 visa doing my Master’s internship at University of Maryland. I probably applied to 150 jobs and didn’t get a single reply, most likely because no one wants to hire candidates that need a visa (a long and expensive process). i ended up going back to France for a couple years, and came back after obtaining my green card, which took the immigration question out of the way. So my advise here is to settle the immigration question in the country where you want to work before you apply for jobs, or if you need employer support to get a visa, be up front about it when talking to them. (I have several former students who now work for US companies that have hiring processes that incorporate visa applications, so it’s not unheard of, but the bar is high).

I have a Master of Science from a small french university that is completely unknown to the US, yet that never came up as an issue. A Master is a Master. Should degree equivalence come up as an issue during an interview, offer to provide a grade comparison between US GPA and your country grades (some paid service provide that). That should put employers at ease.

Language has also never been an issue for me, even with my strong french accent. If you’re good at the technical stuff, people won’t pay attention to your accent (at least in the US). And I imagine you’re fully fluent anyway, so having a deep-dive architecture conversation in English won’t be a problem.

And lastly, do you have any advice on how to stand out from the rest of the candidates aside from just a good resume (maybe some specific volunteer experience or unique skills that I could gain while I am still finishing my thesis?)

Resume are mostly useless. I spend between 30 and 60 seconds on a candidate’s resume. The problem is most people pad their resumes with a lot of buzzwords and fancy-sounding projects I cannot verify, and thus cannot trust. It would seem the length of a resume is inversely proportional to the actual skills of a candidate. Recruiters use them to check for minimal requirements: has the right level of education, knows programming language X, has the right level of experience. Engineering managers will instead focus on actual technical questions to assess your skills.

At your level, keep you resume short. My rule of thumb is one page per five years of experience (you should only have a single page, I have three). This might contradict advise you’re reading elsewhere that recommend putting your entire life story in your resume, so if you’re concerned about not having enough details, make two versions: the one page short overview (linkedin-style), and the longer version hosted on your personal site. Offer a link to the longer version in the short version, so people can check it out if they want to, but most likely won’t. Recruiters have to go through several hundred candidates for a single position, so they don’t have time, or care for, your life story. (Someone made a short version of Marissa Meyer’s resume that I think speaks volume).

Make sure to highlight any interesting project you worked on, technical or otherwise. Recruiters love discussing actual accomplishment. Back when I started, I had a few open source projects and articles written in technical magazines that I put on my resume. Nowadays, that would be a GitHub profile with personal (or professional, if you’re lucky) projects. You don’t need to rewrite the Linux kernel, but if you can publish a handful of tools you developed over the years, it’ll help validate your credentials. Just don’t go fork fancy projects to pad your GitHub profile, it won’t fool anyone (I know, it sounds silly, but I see that all too often).

Another thing recruiters love is Hackerrank, a coding challenge website used by companies to verify the programming skills of prospective candidates. It’s very likely US companies will send you some sort of coding challenge as part of the interview process (we even do it before talking to candidates nowadays). My advise is to spend a few weekends building a profile on Hackerrank and getting used to the type of puzzle they ask for. This is similar to what the GAFA ask for in technical interviews (“quicksort on a whiteboard” type of questions).

At the end of the day, I expect a junior engineer to be smart and excited about technology, if not somewhat easily distracted. Those are good qualities to show during an interview and on your resume.

My last advise would be to pick a path you want to follow for the next few years and be very clear about it when interviewing. You should have a goal. You have a lot of degrees, and recruiters will ask you what you’re looking for. So if you want to go into the tech world, be up front about it and tell them you want to focus on engineering for the foreseeable future. In my experience, regardless of your level of education, you need to start at the bottom of the ladder and climb your way up. A solid education will help you climb a lot faster than other folks, and you could reach technical leadership in just a couple years at the right company, or move to a large corporation and use that fancy degree to climb the management path. In both cases, I would recommend getting those first couple years of programming and engineering work under your belt first. Heck, even the CTO of Microsoft started as a mere programmer!

I hope this helps folks who are getting started. And I’m always happy to answer questions from junior engineers, so don’t hesitate to reach out!