June 22nd, 2020Ethan Ding

Fireside with Google SWE Alex Krentsel

A Quick Bio

Personal Website Alex's LinkedIn

During this week's fireside chat, our co-founder Kevin spoke to Alex Krentsel, a 2019 graduate of UC Berkeley in Electrical Engineering Computer Science (EECS) and Music. Alex currently works at Google as a software engineer, and held internships at Google, Youtube, and Facebook. While at Berkeley, Alex was also an active teacher in many computer science courses, including internet architecture and machine learning. In his spare time, Alex is also and avid violin player, see some of his performances on his website!

Software Engineering Recruitment

Alex’s professional experience started at Google’s freshman program, followed by an internship with Youtube in Switzerland in his sophomore summer, a junior internship with Facebook, before returning to the Youtube team in California. As someone who’s both been on the side of the interviewer and the interviewed, Alex attempts to demystify the recruitment process of top tier tech firms and breaks down his advice into two stages:

Resume Screen

A recruitment team in Austin, Texas screens all the resumes and decides between interview and no-interview piles

  • Your only job at this point is to get into the interview pile
  • They only spend a time amount of time looking over each resume
  • Explain any shortcomings you have, never use paragraphs, make it readable
  • Personal projects are where you stand out; build a simple app and put it on the App Store, just stand out
  • If you get an interview, your school, grades, etc. stop mattering

Interviews

Phone screens and on-sites involve being interviewed by an engineer the company, like Alex

  • This is when you get asked to solve a whiteboard coding question
  • Clarify to the interviewer that you understood the question
  • Make sure you talk through your thinking, don’t focus too hard on getting it right
  • Even if you answer the question incorrectly, the interviewer is looking for a cogent thought process
  • You can’t get any hints if you don’t talk through what you’re thinking
  • Practice actually solving it in front of a white board
  • Practice with friends, take turns interviewing to see what kind of mistakes get made

Working at Google / Facebook

Skip to the bottom to get the summary takeaways!

Company controversies

Alex and Kevin talked about today’s hot button topic that involves both working at Facebook and Google: what is it like to be in engineering at a company that’s wrapped in a ton of political and public controversy; it’s sure to be on the minds of a lot of young undergrads considering a career in the field. Alex’s response was pretty simple: as a software engineer, his role is very much shielded by the PR and marketing teams, and most of the people around him are similarly able to focus on the engineering work.

Company cultures

On the subject of how different it is to work at Facebook vs Apple, Alex discussed how Facebook’s culture was very aggressively metric focused, and sometimes felt even shortsighted. Often, decision making structures like that push the work towards local maximums, but fail to arrive at global maximums in efficiency and effectiveness. However, Alex admitted, it did pay very well to work at Facebook! Google’s engineering culture is much more engineering driven; despite working on a very product facing team (on Youtube Premium), Alex still feels that a lot of the work is significantly engineering driven.

Different types of Software Engineering

When asked about how the world of software engineering ended up feeling, compared to when he was still in undergrad, Alex and Kevin both discussed how as a student, it seemed like all their internships would fall under the title “Software Engineering Intern” and it seemed like everything was the same, but that feeling couldn’t be further form the truth. A network engineering working on the ensuring low latency does a very different job from a someone on the infrastructure team working with Google’s massive databases. Both of them also contrast greatly Alex’s product focused engineering teams, which are focused on attracting users. The best advice they have for current undergrads is to take a little bit of everything, class-wise, and figure out which niche you truly enjoy the most.

Career Progression

Alex talked about the initial excitement of getting into Google, which laid the pathway for him to succeed at his subsequent internships, eventually giving way to a more realistic realization that once you’re in one of the top companies in the world, you’ll have to work even harder to stand out from your equally talented peers. At Google, getting promotions and vertical experience was actually fairly rare, and if your interest is in climbing through the corporate structure pretty quickly, Alex would advise any young readers to consider looking at high growth rate startups, since if you’t join a team that’s doubling every quarter, within a month you’ll be in the top 25% most senior people at the company.

Engineering Practices

Another contrast between working at startups like us and Google is the freedom to start hacking away at certain aspects of the company’s code right away. Alex personally loves writing design documents, which can often be up to 20 pages long, but he also recognizes that a lot of people might find that prospect daunting. Ultimately, you’ll want to be exploring all the engineering cultures for yourself before you pick something that you want to stick with.

Takeaways:

  • Engineering teams at big tech companies are shielded from the controversies their employers often get into
  • Facebook’s engineering culture is very metric driven, while Google’s is much more vision driven
  • There’s a huge variety of roles a SWE can play, from networking to cybersecurity, from front end development to database infrastructure, and exploring them all is key to working in the right place
  • Career progression is slow at big tech companies, and the best way to get management experience is to work at a high growth startup
  • Big tech companies will also hold you more accountable to design documents (which Alex loves!)

Rapid Fire Questions

  • Fun things to do in quarantine?
    • Love to go to the symphony, play int he google orchestra, learning to read Russian
  • Favorite book?
    • The Magus by John Fowles
  • Do you use Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music
    • YouTube Music
  • Do you use Google products?
    • Had pixel buds, but they don’t work as well as AirPods

Who's Next

Tune in this Thursday when we're speaking to Max Liu, a mentor on the platform working as an analyst fellow at McKinsey. Hope to see you there!

Ethan Ding

Edith Fellow. UC Berkeley IEOR. Incoming PM at Tackle.

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