Operations Infrastructure Month in Review #3
What’s this about?
I attended the University of Waterloo years ago which even then had a relatively well known co-op program in Canada. The program is great. While it takes five years to get an undergraduate degree, you alternate school terms with work terms for the entire time. There are no summers off but you graduate with two years of work experience. In my case, my first work term was at Nortel in Calgary programming robots on an assembly line which was manufacturing telephones. I had other fantastic work terms including hardware verification research at the University of Calgary, automated theorem proving at a research company in Ottawa, image processing and pattern recognition in Cork, Ireland, and then subsequently for a company in Ottawa. At graduation I had practical work experience programming in C, C++, SML and Lisp.
Co-op was a great experience for me as a student and I feel like I made great contributions to the companies I worked for. This was a great incentive for me to build a great co-op/intern program at Remind.
Hiring students is a great way to get access to the best and brightest up and coming engineers. Once they enter the work force it becomes very difficult to hire them from their current employers. Benefits of hiring interns:
Our most recent job posting at the University of Waterloo had 151 applicants. We have all of them do an online coding test with HackerRank to pre-filter. This term 125 people took the test. 13 got a perfect score. 37 people got a score of 150/225 or better.
We don’t exclusively look for senior students. We’ll hire somebody with no work experience on their first work term. However, we are looking for raw programming talent and great side projects. Good marks often correlate with good students but not always. Bad marks in programming courses are generally a bad signal but the occasional bad course or even a bad school term are not disqualifications. We won’t hire somebody if they’ve never written any code aside from coursework even if they are top in their class. The students need to have built something substantial - either in their previous work experience or in side projects. You can usualy see this clearly in their github profiles.
We look at all of the following factors for the applicants:
Once we’ve reviewed all of the applications, we select 8 to 12 students to move to the next phase - a 1 hour live coding session.
We do a 30 minute group session for all of the applicants where we sell the company and the experience of working here. If an applicant misses this we can do an abbreviated version of the group session in the interview but I am generally unlikely to extend an offer to a student that doesn’t attend the group session. It is usually an indication that they are either disorganized or lacking motivation. I cover these topics in my group session:
Each student spends one hour coding with the interviewer. The hiring manager does the screen. Often, I’ll bring in another engineer to sit in on the interview to get a second opinion. We do a Skype video call and use CoderPad for the coding part. The advantages of CoderPad are that it lets multiple people collaboratively work on a problem in most popular programming languages and lets them execute the code. It also lets you record the session so other people can see it after the fact.
At the beginning of the interview I spend 10 minutes asking the candidate about their previous work experience and side projects. I want to know what motivates them and what they are looking for in their next work term.
Next, I introduce the programming exercise. We’ve found that the best types of problems can be solved in any language with minimal dependencies and most importantly where the problem starts out easy and gets progressively harder. We provide lots of hints and expect the candidate to test and refactor their code as they go.
I’ll provide boilerplate for the test code and explain how it works at the beginning since many students have never written automated tests before.
Most candidates should be able to get through the first step of the problem without any major difficulties. After this we make the problem more complex and see how they deal with it. If they are stuck, we provide lots of hints on what to do next.
CoderPad records the full session but I also take detailed notes as I conduct the interview so I can review later when I’m doing my rankings. If you interview 12 people, it can be difficult to remember the specfics of each candidate even a few days later. Don’t forget that you might get a student applying again in a future term and it’s good to compare how they did this time to the previous one. We’ve hired students who previously did poorly in an interview.
Here’s some of what we look for in the live coding interview:
We treat students the same as full-time engineers. They join a team that they are interested in and have some relevant experience with. It’s easy if they’ve done iOS or Android development. We try to keep one intern per team and keep the team composition as stable as possible through the term. We assign a senior developer to each intern as a mentor. The interns participate in all of the company activities such as workations and hackdays. There are no special projects for interns. Our goal is to have interns push code into production in their first day.
Our first interns came in Spring 2014. Since then, we’ve had 13 students. Right now we have 7 students working with us - five from University of Waterloo and two from Stanford. It’s been a great experience for us and the students.
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