After my adventures running my startup, Pave on one of my co-op terms, I was faced with a tough decision when I had to return to school. It was my second semester of my 3rd year at the University of Waterloo in the fall of 2015. The courses I was preparing to take were very challenging which meant I couldn’t continue to try to grow Pave. As a result, I decided to park the project and kept the website and android app live as a demonstration on how I took a product from Idea to execution.
For the first time in over a year, I would be returning to the job market to secure my remaining 2 co-op credits required for me to graduate. This time, I wanted to be well prepared for the job market. I had learnt so much from my experience running Pave and I knew exactly what I was looking for in a job. My role at Pave allowed me to wear many hats and interface with a lot of people. Moving forward, I wanted to learn how to do that better but I also wanted to be challenged like never before. I decided to make a detailed plan to get me where I wanted to go.
In Waterloo, there is this huge obsession to go to California for a co-op term. We always hear so many stories of how great it is in the states and how everyone is missing out by not securing an internship there. There is also the inferiority complex that students often feel if they never make it to California and sadly I felt this way too. The hype was real; especially when majority of my classmates already worked in California and swore to never work at a company in Canada ever again. I spoke to a few of my friends that interned in California the previous term to provide any advice that led them to the states. The common thing I heard was to “focus on your interviews, don’t go to class, stay home and study for interviews”. I knew the interviews would be challenging; if they weren’t, everyone would have an opportunity to work for the bigger companies in California. This didn’t really give me enough context on how to land an interview from a California company, let alone a job. However, I did appreciate the advice on trading off on school work for a bit to study for interviews, it came in handy later on.
I knew the task ahead would be a challenge but I encouraged myself to focus on landing a great job in California. I now needed to do something that could get the attention of any company in the valley to get an interview. Following that, I would skip class and study as hard as I could to answer any technical questions I was thrown at the interview stages to secure the job. I realized that I just spent the last year of my life working on a startup. I learnt a lot about what it took to bring an idea to life; that had to count for something. I proceeded to update my resume by emphasizing the major points I was able to achieve while working on Pave. However, there was no guarantee that employers would look at my resume. I also wanted a product management job where I could work on bringing an idea to life. I really enjoyed problem solving and the intrigue of finding product market fit by examining the core causes of the problems people faced. These roles were very few and competitive and I wanted to make sure I stood out from other candidates.
Landing an Interview.
The first step I decided to take was to make my online presence more notable. I decided to build a website that highlighted my experiences and projects. This would be my virtual identification and I could demonstrate several ways I thought outside the box to do things outside of school. This also meant highlighting the extracurricular activities that showed how much of a productive thinker I was and an entrepreneur at heart. During the first few days of school I quickly designed and built my website in a hacky way; it wasn’t mobile friendly but it had;
- A description of myself and what I was looking to do
- A detailed description of my previous work experience
- My side projects
- My extracurricular and volunteer activities at school
- A brief overview on my passion for photography
It was quick and good enough to get the message out there and seemed like a decent package to get started. The reaction I was looking for from employers was a motivated individual who knew what he wanted for himself and knew what to do to work towards that. That was exactly what the website communicated.
I then returned to my resume and boldly highlighted the link to my website next to my name to urge employers to pay it a visit to see what I was about. This also didn’t seem like enough; I needed to highlight my major achievements. Some of which I already had but felt weren’t as technical/applicable. Fortunately, a couple friends and I registered for a hackathon that was scheduled to occur during the first week of school. This was Canada’s largest hackathon, Hack The North, happening for the second year in a row. There were over a thousand attendees and several cool projects and potential start-ups came out from the event. I saw this as an opportunity to network with recruiters and make something cool. We then set out to build a password manager that helped users log into their online accounts with the use of their finger print via touch ID called Hash.
We created an iOS application, Mac OS application and browser extension to seamlessly create the experience we were hoping to provide by helping people log into their online accounts quickly and safely without compromising any of your passwords. We built this in 36 hours and I was able to pitch and demo the idea to a panel of judges. To our surprise, Hash was pick as one of the 12 winners of the hackathon. This was exactly what I needed. It was a major headline and this allowed me to introduce myself confidently to potential employers. It came with a great feeling to be able to express myself and my desire to learn to the recruiters that attended the event.
Shortly after, the deadline for our internal job application board was approaching and I needed to finalize the jobs I wanted to apply to. I proceeded to shortlist majority of jobs in the US with a few Canadian alternatives. I spent a bulk of my time reading about the companies and the posted job descriptions then tailored my resume to each of them. In addition, I also wrote cover letters to further express my interest. I wanted to make sure I stood out. I didn’t want to have a generic template that I would send to all employers. I wanted every employer to know that I was genuinely interested in them and would work for them given the opportunity to. And I indeed felt that way. I only applied to companies I felt were doing things that interested me and would provide a great learning experience for what I wanted to do with my career.
Applying was only the first step, next came the dreadful wait to see if my applications were rejected or I had been invited for an interview. I already spent a few days out of class to tailor my online presence and perfect my resume points. I went back to classes with some mixed emotions of fear and excitement. After a week, the interviews started coming in. I received interviews from Yelp, EY, Canon, Zynga, Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and more. I was very surprised that I got responses and even felt more nervous knowing I would have to prepare for these interviews and more.
Preparing for Interviews.
Interview preparation time was challenging. I took the advice from friends and decided to stay away from class for a while, with the exception of labs because those were mandatory. I felt the pressure of assignments and lab reports as well as thorough technical interviews from the companies above. I took a step back and made a plan once again. I focused my attention on the goal I set at the beginning of the semester; to get a great work experience in my next co-op terms. The time away from classes allowed me to practice interview problems and read books that would prepare me for potential questions. The ones I found very helpful were cracking the coding interview and cracking the PM interview. Before every interview, I would learn what responsibilities were requested of me and dissect how their product worked to find areas of improvements I could suggest. In addition, I prepared for the technical requirements of the job by practicing coding challenges. This was the general pattern of the Product related roles I was applying for.
After 3 weeks and 13 total rounds of interviews I received 5 internships offers. I was very excited to be rewarded with this after all the hard work I put into securing a job. I was glad things went the way I wanted and now I was faced with the tough choice of where to go. Like I said earlier, I would have loved to work for any of the companies I applied to, I believed in their mission and I would learn a lot working for either of them.
Microsoft went a step further and told me what team I would be working on and the manager of the team reached out to me directly for a phone call and tried to convince me to take the offer. I really appreciated this gesture as it showed the interest the company had in me. He explained to me the several cool projects other interns worked on and what I would be potentially responsible for on the team. He assured me independence in my project, thus giving me full control on how I would make a case for my project and influence the support of other team members. It already sounded like a challenge! Microsoft was not in California but at this point I was more than blown away with the opportunity to join one of the biggest companies in the world.
As a result, I accepted the offer from Microsoft to join the Smart Connected Peripherals team in Redmond Washington for a 4 month internship as a Program Manager in the winter of 2016. Thankfully the job search ended for me at the halfway point of the term. I spent the other half catching up on all my courses and preparing for my finals after a disappointing performance on midterms. Getting that job was worth it and I also felt much better when I passed all my courses at the end of the term, whew!
The internship at Microsoft was very challenging. I was working on an early stage Internet of Things (IoT) project. I got the opportunity to work on problems majority of people had not encountered yet and then solve them in creative ways through cognitive processes. I was forced to think of numerous ways people could interact with said products as well as figuring out what needs could evolve from that and then prioritize what would be shipped. I learnt how to be resourceful and was able to build upon my skills to progress as a forward thinker. I was working with the smartest group of people I had ever met and was motivated by my team to work very hard. I was more than content with this internship experience and living in the Redmond area was fun. There were other interns present from Waterloo as well as from Argentina, Brazil and Columbia. It was a good time because after a stressful day at work, there was always something to do and people to hang out with. I made great friends and met a lot of people across the company.
After Microsoft, I had one last internship opportunity and I wanted to make that count. I had gained a lot of confidence and wanted to go above and beyond for my last term. While I was still at Microsoft, I made a list of places where I’d potentially want to work in the fall. I took a trip to San Francisco with some friends to go around some of the major tech campuses and network with other interns. This led me to see what life was truly like in California and what other companies had to offer with their internship programs. I wanted to secure my next internship before returning to school so I wouldn’t have to stress balancing school and interviews. I arrived at my top 4 picks and I decided to go after them. My preference for a fall co-op would be between Apple, Uber, Facebook and Ideo.
Back to Job Hunting 😩
I managed to reach out to recruiters from Uber and Facebook and to my disappointment, I was told they didn’t offer any Product Management internships in the fall semester. I started to get worried but I kept on searching for my last 2 options. I didn’t know anyone who had previously worked for Ideo and I had no connection to a recruiter. I decided to apply online for an internship posting they had on their page and patiently wait to see if I’d get a response.
I returned to school to join majority of students who would be applying for jobs from the University’s internal job postings. I wasn’t happy about this because fall was also the most challenging term for jobs. All the 4th year students were competing for the same jobs and my class had tripled in size when the other class sections joined us for our 4th year classes. To my surprise, there were even fewer jobs posted than the last time I had to apply. I didn’t feel discouraged though and decided to focus all my energy on my number 1 pick, Apple.
After going through the Apple job postings, I didn’t see any position I was particularly interested in and didn’t bother applying at that time. Instead I followed the advice of my friend Cindy who previously worked at Apple in the previous term and attended the employer info session they held on campus. This session gave students the opportunity to network with the teams across Apple to find a fit. I came prepared with copies of my resume and rehearsed my introductory speech that summarized who I was and what I wanted to achieve. There were insanely long lines with so many students who wanted to show their side projects to the teams present. With limited amount of time available I went to the HR representatives and told them what I was looking for, they were able to quickly point me to the teams that seemed like the right fit. I had a more direct path now and only had to speak to 2 teams. I waited in line and was able to speak to the representative of the iPhone operations team named Bob (not his real name). I gave my quick intro and spoke to him on how passionate I was about Apple, I emphasized how much of a huge fan boy I was. We had a cheerful conversation about my experience and other similar interests we had. I handed him my resume and he said we’d speak soon but I didn’t know what that meant.
I returned home and right before bed I saw a text message from Bob inviting me for an interview the next day.
Once again, I was blown away from being able to secure an interview from a conversation. This is why I always advice anyone to try to speak to someone who works at the company you wish to join rather than applying online. At this point I was excited and confused. Yes, I got the interview, but I didn’t have a job description that could accurately tell me what I needed to prepare for the job. All I remembered was the conversation we had in person. I knew the role had some form of product and project management. He also talked about a more technical aspect to the job involving python and some failure analysis. I knew I couldn’t sleep that night. I stayed up and refreshed my knowledge on python and continued to practice for as long as I could. I also skipped class that entire day and resumed studying after a quick morning nap. I did all the research I could in various topics relating to potential interview questions and practiced as much as I could.
I went into the interview as confident as I could be and met again with Bob. I was the last guy he was interviewing that day and so I wanted to make sure I left an impression. I always try to make all my interviews conversational no matter how technical it could be. I always took a step back to understand the problem at hand and I talked through my thought process and engaged Bob as a means of prompting if I was on the right track or not. I also smiled and made some jokes where appropriate to make Bob comfortable throughout the process. I always find that when an interviewer can be comfortable around you and can relate to you to some degree, it makes it easier for them to picture working with you. This also comes with being yourself and maintaining confidence throughout the interview. The interview went well and I was told that I would be contacted if I made it to the next round.
The second round was very brutal! This was an hour-long phone screening with another person on the team. He was more senior than Bob and I could tell from his tone and questions that he was looking for someone very specific to fill the role. I was thrown all sorts of questions in all areas of engineering and design to test how much breath there was to my knowledge. I began to sweat and at this point was questioning how I could make an impression. Nonetheless, I stood my ground and maintained my confidence. I assured him I was a hard worker and was ready for the role! I demonstrated my willingness to adapt to changing circumstances as he occasionally altered the scope of the problems he gave me to solve. I also emphasized my ability to learn new concepts and apply them immediately once taught. At the end of that interview, I had no idea what to expect, I gave answers to every question I was thrown without much confirmation that I was right or wrong. At this point I couldn’t help but pray hard about the decision they were about to make.
Thankfully I was given the offer to intern at Apple for the iPhone operations team in Cupertino California for the fall term of 2016. I MADE IT TO CALIFORNIA!!! I was very happy, I mean who wouldn’t. I just went from Microsoft to Apple, that was a big dream come true. I remember back in first year of university in 2012 when I first started applying for internships, I looked to a friend of mine and said “How cool will it be to intern for Apple”. Fast forward 4 years later and that was about to become my reality.
One Infinite Loop.
Working at Apple was one of my most memorable experience. I got to interface with many teams across the company due to the nature of my role. This allowed me to deeply appreciate all the effort that goes into making such amazing products. It was amazing to see that the same amount of effort Apple placed on marketing their products transcended with the values everyone had in the company. Majority of employees were deeply invested in the company and I could feel the significance of every role that had to be played to make these products a reality. At Apple I worked with the most creative sets of people I’ve ever met and the work ethic of the entire company was incomparable. During my internship, I worked the hardest I had ever worked before in my life and managed to pull insane hours of overtime to get the job done. It felt rewarding when I was able to contribute my efforts to the team and see my work make a difference. I loved the team I worked for and it just felt like a very hardworking family. I also loved being in the Bay area and would regularly make trips to San Francisco to have chicken at waffles at Rheas Café, it was amazing every single time I went there.
Internships were a great opportunity for me to try out different things to really see what I enjoyed doing. I’m more than grateful that my university gave me such an opportunity to explore different career paths and I tried my best to use it to my advantage. I’ve learnt so much working for the 2 biggest tech companies in the world and that experience has opened many doors for me as I start my professional career. Key advice to anyone searching for a job is:
- Know what you really want! Do not prioritize a city for your internship placement but the experience you’ll get from it. Identify what role you want and then the companies that can make that possible for you.
- I recommend writing cover letters and tailoring your resume to a specific job posting, it shows you are passionate about the company and you have a higher chance of getting in if they can see that from the start.
- If you have the opportunity, go for company information sessions and talk to recruiters face to face. This will give you the chance to make an impression before the start of the interview process.
- Keep working hard! Nothing comes easy. If you really want something, go get it by all means, don’t give up. If you believe you have the skills for a job and you a passionate, I see no reason why you shouldn’t do everything it takes to get someone from the company to talk to you.
- Always network with people. Build a network starting with your friends and then continue to expand and connect to people who will be valuable to your growth.