When I started the MBA program last fall, little did I realize the amount of stress and trauma that I’d have to endure over the course of the next 15-18 months (Reminds me of the title of one of Wodehouse’s short stories featuring Pongo Twistleton,”tried in the furnace”). It all began well – especially academics – A string of ‘excellent’ grades in the first term and I thought it was a path strewn with roses. Come october 08, it all hit the ceiling (Or fan), as they say. Companies cut down their interview slots, borderline-case companies suddenly started closing their doors to international students, some pulled out of campus interviews and some even rescinded offers. At the end of Feb 09, three on-campus interviews later, I had the none too familiar feeling of staring down a barrel. After that, I did a couple of telephonic interviews (Let’s face it….I am not a phone interview person…I am at my best when interacting with people face-to-face;). I worked part-summer with a silicon valley start up, and the second half, with a well established Health care IT firm.
Fast forward to Oct – 09: Full time on campus placement season – I dreaded the prospect of going through the whole song and dance once more. At the same time, I wanted to avoid the ‘self-directed job search’ ordeal. The first half of the on-campus recruitment season sprung up a few unexpected successes, in terms of obtaining interviews. I was close-listed by a couple of consulting firms. Unfortunately, I had lost all interest in consulting by then (First off, the lifestyle was going to be a challenge; secondly, based on my interactions with consultants during the internship recruitment process, I realized that consulting was not for me). Add to that the fact that I really enjoyed my summer stints with the start-up and the health care IT firm, my heart was no longer in consulting. So, while other consulting hopefuls in my class case-in-point’d till the cows came home, I whiled away my time reading mashable, techcrunch, gigaom, etc. I still could not just ignore these consulting interviews – after all close-lists were like free interviews, and when they were so hard to come by, there was no sense in giving up without a fight. So I ended up investing some time in preparing for these interviews; but the ROI was 0 (As with so many things in life) – one thing that MBA teaches you is to learn to tag such wasted investments as ‘Sunk costs’ and move on.
The good news about those close-lists (Or at least I thought so – Only later did I realize that I had never been wronger), was that ‘if consulting firms found my hi-tech internship experiences attractive, then the hi-tech firms would too, most probably’.But when tech companies started coming out with their close-lists (And my name was conspicuous by its absence from every single list) the sinking feeling started coming over me once again. So, Two weeks before the major ‘hi-tech interview week’ – I had zero close-lists from tech companies (Which meant that I would have to wager all my points on one of the 4 major hi-tech companies which recruited internationals)! The options were – Microsoft, Amazon, Intel and NVidia. There was no point in bidding for Intel or NVidia (There was competition from people with strong semi-conductor and other h/w backgrounds). MS and Amazon are both great companies to work for, and I would have loved to interview with both of them (Ideally, I was hoping at least one of them would close list me, and that I could bid for the other – But that was not to be). Eventually I decided to go with Amazon (The number of interview slots from the two companies was an indication of how many they were likely to recruit, and the hence the competitiveness).
I did fairly well in the first round (Comprising two interviews). I thought I tried my best to demonstrate some of the traits that Amazon is known to expect from prospective employees – a. Exhaustiveness (In terms of – factors to consider in making a decision, solutions to problems and the implications of such solutions). b. Taking a firm stand and not backing down under pressure.
Having gone through so many interviews in the last few months, I guess I’ve lost my ability to gauge my performance – There were times when I thought I’d done very well, but the interviewers did not think so, and vice versa. So, I wasn’t really sure about the result of this i/v (And then, history was against me – At least statistics from the past couple of years indicated that most people who eventually received offers from Amazon were the ones who were close-listed; very few people, if any, had managed to bid their way into the company). The suspense ended at 6 in the evening, when I received the dreaded phone call (My hands trembled mildly as I picked up my cell phone and saw the area code 206)
Other end of the line: “Hi this is xxx, from Amazon. Am I speaking with Jyothiprakash”
Me: (In a weak voice) “Yes, this is Jyothi. Hi”
xxx: “This is about the second round interviews…..(Something about the venue, which I hardly paid attention to; I was expecting either a “congratulations, we’re happy to invite you to the second round”, or “Thank you for taking time to interview with us…”; a matter-of-fact ‘here’s the second round i/v schedule’ was the last thing that I expected)…….OK. I’ll see you at 9:30 AM tomorrow”.
Me: (Still in a weak voice) “Sure. Thanks a lot. Bye.”
I don’t know what I was thinking, but since finishing the first round, I’d watched a couple of episodes of Blackadder and worked on an assignment….Which meant that I had very little time to prepare for the second round!!! In my first round interviews, I claimed that I wanted to work in AWS (Which incidentally, I really do!) but hadn’t done a whole lot of research on AWS or cloud computing in general (People who’d interviewed in the past said that the first round questions were not likely to be division specific). Ended up spending another sleepless night. (The only silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud of first and second rounds on back-to-back days is that, you probably don’t need to shave again for the second round – or at least, not if you’re someone like me, whose facial hair usually requires 3-4 days to regrow)
The first interview in the second round was fairly intense (A combination of business and technology questions – Some things about products, some about target segments, etc.). I thought I did a good job of asking questions at the end. Since I knew from the phone call that my interviewer was from AWS, I prepared a couple of business questions on AWS. A few words of advice (I’m sure, a lot of you would have done something like this already):
a. If you cannot think of good questions to ask about a business/company, read a couple of Gartner/Forrester reports, and you’ll have enough fodder for thought. One of my questions was around something mentioned in one such report. My interviewer’s initial response made me regret having mentioned the analyst report at all. He said that most analysts didn’t like Amazon, and that they usually tried to downplay Amazon’s achievements/strengths; but then, because he was so passionate about AWS, he almost relished the opportunity to counter the analysts claims, and justify why Amazon did what they did. So that was OK.
b. Try to think of stuff that you have learned in class and apply those principles to this company/business. Does anything seem out of place? If so, you have your question. Thanks to Prof. Ahuja’s ‘six pointed star’ (Sources of competitive advantage), I could think of at least two reasonably good questions to ask about their AWS strategies. In addition, Prof. Ahuja’s repeated hammering of feedback loops, network effects and n-sided markets, had left me with enough stuff to talk about, in response to some other specific questions that could be expected during the interview.
The second interview – with a senior director – was much more relaxed. The customary, “why do you want to work for Amazon?”, followed by “A challenging problem solved by you” , and then the case. The interviewer’s body language and facial expressions were encouraging – As I went through each point in my analysis, I could note a nod of approval (Followed by some quick note-taking). Then came the bomb “If I were to ask your previous supervisors for three areas of improvement for you, what would they be”? One, I could think of, two maybe, but three? I blurted out two of them (Which were not substantial, but could be passed off for weaknesses) and thought I could get away. But my interviewer gently reminded me – “So that makes it two. Can you talk about another one…”? After this it was time for questions from me. Again, I’d done my homework. The interviewer worked in the Kindle division, and I had a couple of high level strategy questions on this product. I also got a chance to express my passion for e-books (Given that I was an early adopter of ebooks – The desktop variety, not kindle though – I could wax eloquent about how I was the only one among my friends, who had embraced desktop e-books as far back as the late 90’s; and that, even back then I believed in the business potential of e-books, when most of my peers scoffed at the idea. Their argument was – “I can never read a chapter on the desktop, let alone a book; So this concept will never take off”. My line of reasoning was the diametrically opposite POV – “I can read (And have read) multiple books on the desktop; There are likely to be others like me; So there is a market”. During the interview, I even went so far as to say – ‘So when Amazon announced the Kindle, I said to my friends – “See, I was right” ‘. The interviewer seemed amused and said “Isn’t that a lovely feeling – To be able to say that?”. The best part about this conversation was that it was totally impromptu – None of this was rehearsed (At least the kindle part).
I came off with the feeling that I did really well in the two interviews with the people up top: The above mentioned 4th i/v with a director and my first round i/v, with a VP – What helped me in the first i/v was structured approach – The interviewer, in fact complemented me on how clearly I had written down whatever I was saying – and a little bit of creativity:When he asked me for examples to illustrate some of my arguments and claims, I brought in Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and a bunch of other things that are bound to touch a chord with anyone working in book/movie retailing. However, there were nagging doubts, especially about the grilling AWS interview. Anyway, what was done was done. The wait for the final results seemed almost interminable. I spent the next few evenings staring at the laptop screen, and continuously refreshing my outlook mailbox – Hoping NOT to see an email from them (In the past, the convention was this – If you were selected, you were usually informed via a phone call; in case of a reject, it was an email). On day five, I finally received the much awaited email from the recruiter. One look at the subject line (“Amazon full time offer information”), and I started dancing (Not physically, but mentally).
I owe a lot to my house-mate (Who fittingly enough, received an offer too) – For it was he who suggested that we prepare together (Two heads, they say, are always better than one) and took the initiative to start the discussions. So, the last couple of nights leading up to the interviews, we brainstormed for hours on possible questions, responses, and experiences of people who’d interviewed in the past.
In Blackadder’s words, ‘while fortune constantly farted in my face, and vomited down my eiderdown during internship recruitment, lady luck decided to smile on me, this time around’. All of a sudden, things were back to normal again (And I was no longer ruing my decision to do the MBA, every other waking instant)