expLog

Interviewing at Facebook

Having cleared a few phone interviews, I was invited to Facebook headquarters for on-site interviews. This, dear reader, is my story1.

27th February 2011

On 27th February, 2011, around 12.00 IST—somewhere early in the morning—my fairly worried2 parents dropped me off at Indira Gandhi International's newly built Terminal 3. Admiring the airport—both the decorations and the building itself—I checked in fairly comfortably; traveling Business class, Emirates on this route I was allowed to wait for boarding at the ITC lounge.

A brief description is in order at this point—all around me were people dressed elegantly in suits, sipping their single malt whiskey glasses, looking impatiently at their watches and futilely trying to connect to the Airport Wi-Fi. Faintly bemused at the surroundings, I settled in, got my laptop out—happily sipping my first cup of coffee3 and nibbling on a sandwich to pass the time. Having managed to enable WiFi, I Facebook'd and Tweet'd my time away.I also met Professor J.4 at the lounge; he was a bit surprised to find a not-yet-graduated student sitting there.

Being a bit anxious about missing the flight, I heard an announcement that had my flight number in there somewhere and I—finishing my second cup of coffee—left the lounge and sat down next to the boarding gate, hogging the sole functioning power point (the ~5 other points, sadly, being dysfunctional). I passed some time looking at the expressions of people who—1. Saw that my laptop was connected; 2. Decided to charge their own electrical paraphernalia; 3. Tried their hand at each of the plug points; and 4. Realized that only the one I was using worked. My only excuse for not saving them the effort was that I had been a bit, ah, miffed at realizing that the announcement had been about a delay in the flight—not a call for boarding.

As this was the first of two flights I would be taking, I was a bit worried about missing my connecting flight—luckily enough, we took off and reached an hour before the second flight took off—but I'm getting ahead of myself here. The flight to Dubai was pretty amazing. I cannot move ahead without describing my seat in some detail.

Business class seats involve a completely automated chair that stretches out to a fully horizontal bed at the press of a button. It was also possible to adjust how far each specific part of the seat goes up and down—allowing rather interesting postures. Each part of the seat seemed to have a vibrator that could be switched on for a massage. At a comfortable distance, a rather large touch-screen viewing screen with an in-flight entertainment system loaded with a few hundred movies, songs, television shows and radio channels—my only grouch being that they had very few rock songs; no Iron Maiden for instance.

The most interesting part about the seats were the controls—I believe I already mentioned that the screen was touch enabled; apart from that there was a remote that could be used to switch channels, adjust volume, switch on lights and a small touch panel that could be used to manipulate everything all over again. Considering the redundancy involved, you'd think that the functionality involved was critical5.

Food was good, though I didn't recognize most of what I ate; particularly in the starters portion. Coffee was fine, and I think I had just a cup or two of almost black coffee on this particular flight. I whiled away most of the time listening to music, reading a novel on my Kindle6, and preparing a bit for the on-site interviews.

Dubai airport was a pleasant experience, though I had very little time to spend there during this part of the journey. The flight to SF was on time, so I had just about an hour to go ahead. Surprisingly enough, even those who were just transferring from plane to plane had to pass through another security check. Where you had to remove your belt, shoes, anything metallic, pass through the scanner and move ahead.

The most interesting part was the extraordinarily large number of connecting flights at the airport—all Emirates, leading to many different gates spread along an extraordinarily long building structure. I arrived at my gate on time and boarded the next flight more or less painlessly.

The plane, the seat were just about exactly the same. I had an aisle seat in the center row again, though on the opposite side of the plane this time. Settling in for a long haul, I kicked off my shoes, handed over my jacket, got my faithful old Kindle ready, along with the copy of TAOCP I was carrying for last minute preparation and settled in comfortably.

Unlike the other—saner—passengers I decided to stay awake throughout the flight—my half-baked plan being that as I would be arriving at some time in the afternoon at Palo Alto, I'd rather exhaust myself completely and stay awake till night time (PST) and have a good night's sleep to be fresh for the interview. I had my faithful Kindle, a ridiculously well stocked inflight entertainment system and all the coffee in the world—there was no way I was going to sleep.

I know you're expecting me to say something along the lines of—"And then I immediately nodded off"; but I didn't. I completed the novel, watched a few movies, drank 4-5 cups of bitter, sugarless and milk-free coffee. I even worked out a few problems of TAOCP before deciding that solving exercises on a flight might just be much too much, even for me.

I did attempt to sleep, but only succeeded in watching around half of Dabang on my neighbour's screen. Watching a muted Hindi movie with English subtitles is far more fun than it ought to be.

Finally, when we were just about an hour or two away from landing, I had the brilliant idea of shaving on the plane—Emirates had provided a full shaving kit, and I thought I might actually enjoy shaving for once—considering that I avoid it as far as possible when the bathroom happens to be stationary and not a few hundred meters in the air. The results of that particular experiment can be summarized as—Don't Shave in an Aircraft.

The landing was comfortable and we disembarked easily, immigration forms in hand. I comfortably waltzed through the various checks, with the immigration officer being surprised at the total amount of time I would be spending in SF—and commenting that my interviews would probably take lesser time than I had spent waiting to clear immigration (this prediction would turn out to be Not True—I had waited for as long as one interview would be).

Sole suitcase in hand, laptop in my backpack I was in for a pleasant surprise—some ladies from Emirates were standing outside with a board welcoming First Class & Business Class passengers; on inquiring I found out that I was eligible for a limousine ride to wherever I was headed (yay!). My limousine was scheduled, and as I waited outside I chatted with a Google engineer on her way to office—she had apparently been on the same plane. Discussing Google hiring procedures, we caught our respective limousines—and it was time to reach the hotel.

The ride was short and pleasant—and as I happened to mention before—it was in a limo. The Palo Alto Sheraton was a nice hotel, highlights of my room involving a nice and fast internet connection7. Another interesting incident was that I was supposed to provide a credit card which would be charged for incidental expenses; of course, I handed over my GSoC card; the hotel clerk was perhaps a bit surprised to see me grinning madly as I handed the card over—but then, I did find it rather amusing that my stay was sponsored by Facebook and the incidentals were covered by Google.

I unpacked, set up the laptop, called home the nth time to confirm that yes, I was fine, and no, I had not been eaten by sharks or rabid dinosaurs. I spent some time revising basic algorithms (network flow, Ford-Fulkerson—stuff I was weak on) and then feeling too sleepy to be productive, decided to explore the nearby market.

A short, 5 minute walk away there was a rather interestingly built market—bookstore, cafes, coffee shops, etc—I don't remember the name exactly. After roaming around for a few minutes and seeing all the options there were in that area, I had another black iced coffee, picked up a copy of NatGeo and returned to the hotel. Spending some more time revising stuff, watching TV and surfing the net—I accidentally fell asleep around 8.00 pm—I woke up with a start at around 10.30, which was just in time to be able to order room service8.

Finally—roughly 36 hours after my journey began—completely exhausted and extraordinarily nervous, I fell asleep.

28th February 2011

For once, I didn't oversleep—there was no way I was going to risk missing the interview. Up and about fairly early, I got ready fairly quickly; gulped down breakfast and decided to wait for the pick up—someone from Facebookd would be picking us up at around 10.30am.

I must admit to a faux pas at this point. The interview invitation letter had explicitly mentioned that a suit9 was not required—instead, business casual would be perfectly fine. I did what any self respecting nerd without a dress sense—or understanding of what business casual actually meant—would do: I searched Wikipedia:

A combination of collared shirt (such as a dress shirt or polo shirt), cottontrousers (such as khakis or blue, green, brown, or black trousers) with a belt, and modest shoes (such as loafers) with socks is generally acceptable. A blazer or business jacket can optionally be added.

Accordingly, I dressed in—you guessed it—blazer, trouser and a shirt. Suffice to say that I was more or less horribly overdressed and let's leave it at that.

As I waited down in the lobby, I found that there were quite a few other people who seemed to be students—my first assumption was that they, too, had come for interviews—which, as it turned out, was correct. We had coalesced into small groups by the time S. arrived to pick us up from the lobby—a few short introductions later, we were off.

As we all were rather nervous, there wasn't much in the way of conversation—understandable, but something I would regret later. We made a few more stops along the way, picking up other candidates who had come via the shuttle. Finally, we reached.

12410 km later: 1601, S California Avenue, Palo Alto. Facebook headquarters.

A few short formalities involving visitor passes afterwards, we got a guided tour of the Facebook campus—beginning with a physical wall where we were allowed to scribble10 we saw where everyone worked, passed Mark Zuckerberg's glass office—and saw him too—the lounges where you can work when you get bored of your normal desk, the basketball court, bbq area/roof, the laundry dump, and finally reached the dining area.

There were rather interesting posters spread out throughout the office: apparently you're allowed to decorate however you want to. A recurrent theme was "The Son of Man" painting's variations spread out everywhere. Of course, I didn't recognize the painting as such—but found out about it when I saw it somewhere on the interwebs after returning. Apart from the hacker-culture posters encouraging making and breaking code, there were also snack areas spread out throughout—various types of coffee vending machines (which is what drew my attention) amongst other things.

The workspace was extremely democratic—large tables with huge monitors for everyone: no cubicles or offices—apart from the one I referred to earlier: Zuckerberg's. Macbook Pros seemed to be the standard laptops, with a few lenovo laptops looking sad, forlorn and out of place here and there. The general impression was of bustling, informal busy ness.

The theme for lunch that day was Johnny Cash—ribs, fried chicken, pinto beans and baked carrots. Not wanting to fall asleep during the interviews to be held soon—I ate lightly, looked around and had yet another cup of black, hot coffee. We were joined by a few FB engineers, but all conversation was a but muted.

Up next was a conversation—group discussion with 2 Facebook engineers—anything we wanted to ask about how Facebook worked, behind the scenes technology, culture, etc. A rather interesting, hour long discussion—mainly centered around the advertisements and performance reviews—later, it was time.

We split up, each assigned an interviewer—us undergrads and grads went through 3 interviews of around ~45 minutes each, followed by 15 minutes breathing space—the sole PhD student—M.C.—had to suffer through 4. Finally, after 3 hours—and almost falling asleep in the last interview—it was over! I managed to inhale another cup of black Columbian coffee somewhere in between interviews—indeed, I almost fell asleep while sipping it.11

I spent some time talking to M. and D.—who had also come during on campus placement and had arranged interviews and referred me, respectively—and disappointingly, it was time to go. I had sincerely been expecting that results would be immediate, and that my 3 month nail-shredding-ly long wait would finally be over. It was not to be.

I met quite a few other guys outside the office—where we decided to wait for the final interviewee. We just about ripped apart every single question, discussing the solutions we could get at from every possible angle; and niggling at the ones we couldn't. A short bus ride back to the hotel, and a quick change of clothes later it was time to explore downtown PA!

We were a rather eclectic group—the jetlagged Indian Civil Engineer, the Serbian PhD from Illinois, the married Brazilian MS student from Cornell and the two Canadians—one of whom also happened to be a diver.

The Sheraton is pretty centrally located—so everything was pretty much walking distance. Having a look everywhere, we found a nice restaurant where I had miniature burgers (sliders?) of a sort while we again discussed the interviews. It was pretty much the only thing on the top of our minds at that point. Dinner and discussions over, we headed back to the hotel—and decided to wait out in the lobby as one of us was catching the flight back to Cornell that night itself.

After returning to my room I found that I was not sleepy—and that I really wanted to visit Stanford—both to meet a classmate (R.) and see the place where Knuth teaches. Calling her up, the conversation was along the lines of "Hey—Kunal here! … the one from India … XII L … yes, that particular Kunal … can I come over?". I rather inconsiderately intruded as she was working on her assignments, but again—I assuage my guilty conscience by the fact that I didn't have any other time to visit before leaving.

Catching a cab, I reached Stanford, where I promptly managed to get lost. A few minutes worth of conversation about directions and signs later I managed to catch up with R.—who took me on a tour through the awesome Stan campus. Starting from the houses, to the main institutional area—we covered quite a bit of the main campus area.

1st March 2011

Chatting, and walking around campus, I kind of accidentally also caused R. to miss a work appointment with someone. See reference to excuse above. Finally, at around 2 am in the morning it was time to catch a cab and return to the hotel (there's a limit to how much of someone else's time I can waste).

As luck would have it, the cabby on the way back was interested in chatting. On finding out that I had been interviewing at Facebook, he kind of opened up and told me about how he had once ferried Sean Parker and just about discussed his life history with him. He dropped me off within a few minutes and left happily (I had by then understood the nuances of tipping in the US—a fairly different experience than in India).

Exhausted, I returned to the hotel room and jet lag finally caught up with me. I absolutely could not get to sleep. Thanks to free and rather fast net access, I managed to pass the time (I even filled out Google SF's application form during that time!) till around 7-8 in the morning; after which I packed, dressed and got ready to leave.

Breakfast was interesting, and rather heavy—again, something I didn't recognize but involved scrambled eggs, burritos and strawberries. And of course, even more coffee. All packed and ready to go, I reached the hotel lobby and met up with M.C. again—he had his flight at around the same time, though his would be domestic.

We had both booked the same super shuttle, and ended up being 2 of 3 passengers on the way to the airport. A short discussion—and exchange of contact details later—it was time to fly back! I had been a bit nervous about the much talked about TSA security procedure, but it merely involved standing with my hands up in a machine that looked like it would teleport me somewhere (Beam me up, Scotty!) — which was cool.

I had some time to burn at the airport, which I spent having lunch, reading the kindle and getting thoroughly bored. Sadly, the shops at the airport were pretty much useless and full of touristy junk that I would never touch—so they were not much of  a distraction.

Again, the same old routine—boarding, getting a place to sit, hanging up the ol' jacket—of course, this time I was travelling economy so the experience was not that luxurious—but still pretty comfortable. Thankfully, the flight was just about three-fourth empty and I switched to two adjacent empty seats once we took off and spread out comfortably.

By this point my body had just about had enough with my delinquent behaviour and coffee over-indulgence—and I was about to be punished. Most of my memories of the flight back are of flashes of lucidity between a state that could be charitably referred to as "passed out" but perhaps more accurately referred to as "dead". I somehow managed to wake up in between in time for meals and watched the odd movie in a vegetative state, but mostly spent the time recovering.

Another interesting coincidence was that around half the flight crew on this flight was the same as when I had been flying in the reverse direction. One of them recognized me and pretty much was amazed that I was returning from SF so soon—I really wanted to ask him how he managed to stay awake with such a horrible schedule but missed the chance.

2nd March 2011

The only notable part during this particular day was the switch over between flights. The same routine in the reverse direction, though I did get to explore Dubai Airport. I also happened to run into another Civil Engineer who was coming to IIT Delhi soon—for a conference. Mandatory shopping (chocolates) completed — and stuffed into the bag, it was time to board and return home!

3rd March 2011

At somewhere around 3 in the morning—I was back in India. This particular flight had been spent watching movies. Disembarking comfortably, I was welcomed at the airport by an excruciatingly long wait at the baggage belt—though the luggage from Dubai to Delhi was rather interesting—microwaves, televisions, the occasional bedroll—and of course, the families discussing how to pass through customs without paying duty.

Add a rather large number of irritated, grumpy and drunk men to the mix—and you know the wait wasn't exactly something I want recall in detail. Finally, my suitcase arrived and it was time to go!

My parents had come to pick me up, and the drive back home was me relating just about what this blog post covered. While I could go all recursive and loopy and re-type everything in this post and then again loop back and once more and once again after that and … I'll restrain myself.

Finally home—it was time to sleep! My ~100 hour long adventure—which involved spending ~40 hours suspended in the air in a metal cylinder—was over.

PS: 8th March 2011

M. had told me that the results would be out on Monday—and I stayed up Monday night—beyond midnight, thus the /8th/—waiting eagerly for the results. At around 3.00 am I mailed her asking about what happened—and immediately got a reply asking if she could call me.

I immediately replied in the affirmative, feeling that I had been rejected and she was calling me just to let me know in a politer manner than an email—'cause of the long flight etc.

Well, her first words were—"I have good news!".

Happiness ensued.

1

This post is as much for memory as it is for posterity—excuse the length; or perhaps skim the post if you want. I have a chronic inability to take photographs on vacation/journeys—I'd much rather enjoy myself in the moment than record it for faint memories in the future. This is also (most probably) the longest post I have ever written.

2

This was the first time I would be traveling alone. Of course, their reaction would have been more appropriate if I had been traveling on foot. With a large stick to ward of wild animals and some gold coins to buy passage on pirate ships.

3

Keep a count—you will be quizzed after the article is over.

4

I had worked for him, once.

5

Of course, if the channel in front of you was stuck on, say, a K-serial or perhaps IndiaTV I can understand the need for having 2 backups for changing the channel. Particularly in 16 hour long flights.

6

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, for those interested in fantasy.

7

The fact that the internet connection is what I remember most vividly about my room says a lot about my overall personality.

8

A club sandwich, for the hungry.

9

Incidentally, I did end up wearing a suit for my Visa interview.

10

I refrained in the hope that I would get a chance to add my name later.

11

For those of you expecting a detailed, blow by blow account of the interview procedure, questions and detailed answers—that won't be happening here. Move along.

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