The Technical Interview Prep Cottage Industry

In writing about the software engineering gold rush, it was mostly through the lenses of my own career, observations made:

  • As a college student during the boom and bust of the dotcom era,
  • Through a career as a software engineer in Silicon Valley across various startups and public companies, big and small,
  • Eventually leading to management through the current software development boom.

In other words, with a career arc spanning 15 years, the perspective is largely shaped through major events and trends at those times, along with my own evolving roles along the same timeline. And now that I’ve viewing the dynamics of our industry with the expectations of a hiring manager who spends most of his time recruiting and evaluating candidates, I’ve been admittedly been detached from what the experience of “making it” as an entry-level software engineer looks like in 2020.

By happenstance, I found a forum frequented exactly by these folks looking to enter the field, the /r/cscareerquestions subreddit1. As I noted in a prior blog post, software engineering has enjoyed a decade-long gold rush, and most of the folks coming in are now really just looking for great salaries. Given the recent dominance of tech companies atop the stock markets and their propensity to offer top compensation2, these candidates end up spending a lot of time and effort studying and learning to pass the companies’ interview processes.

And where there’s demand, supply will rise to meet it. Cracking the Coding Interview is a classic book that, in hindsight, portended this cottage industry of software engineering interview prep. Today, sites like Leetcode and HackerRank which can cater to both hiring managers and candidates at the same time: offer a service for candidates to practice and improve their ability to solve challenging programming problems under time constraints, and then facilitate actual interviews between candidates and prospective companies as a recruiting service.

More amusing is the crop of pseudo-celebrities who have carved something for themselves in this very peculiar niche. I found two—Joma Tech and TechLead—who have made names for themselves as some combination of software engineer and YouTube personality. Better still, they hawk their own interview prep subscription services to the unsuspecting masses, leveraging lofty titles and big company names3 to awe impressionable undergrads. It’s essentially test preparation applied to engineering job searches, and reminds me a little of the elevation that a select handful of superstar tutors achieve in places like test-obsessed Hong Kong.

Here’s the thing: the advice doled out from these services and people are wholly informed from a particular perspective, usually that of a participant in the process with some knowledge of the inner workings—at best, an incomplete picture. Hell, I’ve committed this sin myself: one of the first posts on this blog did exactly what I’m railing against, leveraging my own status as an interviewer at Google to lay down a bunch of half-baked advice on how to score an interview there. I will say, though, that it got a ton of views on Hacker News.

Of course, those who are truly in the know about what’s happening, the decision-makers and process-setters within companies and our industry, aren’t going to sell that information for a monthly fee. As cliché as it sounds, networking and knowing the right people—the hiring manager, for instance—will get much closer to understanding the wider purview; it also happens to align well with the actual goal of employment at the desired destination.

  1. Next to it is the /r/ExperiencedDevs subreddit, though that one feels closer to standard discussions of corporate America.

  2. On a side note, the set of “tech companies that are big and pay a lot” often gets referred to as FANG, which totally misuses the term—it originated as a shorthand for a set of major tech companies that drove outsized investment returns.

  3. Spoiler: it’s usually Facebook or Google.

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