[21] Interviewing in Silicon Valley

As you may recall, I’ve been struggling with the whole stay-at-home vs. working thing. Having flown solo since Cam started work in December, I am now the walking dead.

Regardless, faced with the choice between work and being a stay-at-home parent of three not-yet-school-aged kids, I’ve decided that my sanity – as well as our rapidly declining bank balance – will be greatly improved if I get a job.

Folks, this is the story of my Silicon Valley job-hunting journey, and the things I’ve learned so far.

Lesson 1: Be comfortable flaunting your credentials

Silicon Valley is a crazy place, almost mythological in its uniqueness. Of course, like many humble Australians, Cam and I had heard of its grandeur even before we’d had the opportunity to set foot here. It’s a place where people come from all over the world to pursue their start-up dreams. Quite literally.

Of course, this means that everyone you meet in Silicon Valley is amazingly intelligent and well educated (usually at tier-one institutions):

Oh, you have a Quantum Physics PhD from Harvard? And you’re head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA? And prior to that you were a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs? You lecture at Stanford part-time too, just to keep your brain active?

Holy cr*p, right?

But here we are. I mean, while I can honestly say I think that beautiful Cam is still the smartest (and wittiest) person I’ve ever met, I still can’t believe we’re here. As Australians, we’re not really trained to talk the talk… I mean, Tall Poppy Syndrome is totally a thing, right? Especially when we move to places where it’s part-and-parcel to be open and direct about your experience and strengths.

I remember Cam’s coming home from his first week on the job and telling me how insignificant he felt amongst his colleagues:

“During the four-week bootcamp, n00bs have to decide which of the many open Data Scientist positions around the company we’d like to work in, and then apply for our top three preferences. To get things moving, we were invited to to a series of meetings with each of the major business units where various product and data science managers would pitch their “hi-pri” roles to us.”

I enjoyed these sessions a lot. We heard about the (usually crazily audacious)  objectives of the organisation and the problems that people work on each day. Each problem was more interesting than the last. Plus, it was very flattering to be wanted so badly by so many clever, capable people.”

There was one part of the process that I did not enjoy, however. At the beginning of each meeting would inevitably come: “Why don’t we go around the table and introduce ourselves? Staff can talk about their roles and the n00bs can say a little about where they’ve come from”.

Well. I sank into my chair. I’m not ashamed of my career nor of the places I’ve worked, but I wished I could have passed on my turn. I was both the oldest and, being honest, had the least impressive pedigree. “I was head of analytics at Pinterest”. “I’ve moved over from New York where I’ve been working on Wall Street doing high frequency trading”. “I just finished a PhD in cosmology in England. I was trying to detect dark matter but, after 5 years, I just got tired of it”. “I was doing data science at Twitter”. I dreaded my turn. “My family and I have moved over from Australia. I’ve been doing analytics in retail banking for, well, a long, long time. Credit card transactions and stuff like that… in banks in Australia. Regional banks. Regional Asian banks. I think “regional” sounds more impressive…”

Really makes the nerves hit home, right?

But you know what? We had to keep reminding ourselves that there was a reason why we were here. These companies actively seek people from a huge variety of backgrounds and histories of education. Diversity – in the truest sense of the word – is what makes these devastatingly successful tech firms tick.

You don’t need to have the same credentials as the person next to you. If you did, you probably wouldn’t be interviewing.

Anyway. And then, there’s little old me. Someone who has a really mixed bag of experience and education. A law degree. An arts degree in Latin and Mathematics. Work experience in generalist roles, mainly in banking and finance. If I want to work here in this crazy, hectic beast-of-a-place, where the hell am I going to fit in?

Lesson 2: ‘Casual and informal’ does not mean ‘casual and informal’

Despite my work permit’s still being months from ready (that’s a whole other story in itself), I decided I’d job-search anyway. I’d be selective and target companies that I really wanted to work for. If I’m going to live in Silicon Valley, I want a ‘real’ Silicon Valley job!

But I really do laugh when I consider the first few ‘cold call’ applications I put in. Automated rejection email every time, I kid you not. As you can imagine, every company here is swamped with applications almost every moment of every day. Remember, too, that every single one of those applications comes from an outstanding individual with top-shelf credentials.


Cold call applications are most definitely *not* the way to do it. Nope. It’s your networks that are key to scoring an interview. Here, in the most intimidating, competitive work environment possible, you need people who are willing to back you, and whose support can get you in the room.

Back in January, I met some incredible, awesome women through a drinks event I organised in Palo Alto. One such woman, the ‘you got me at wine’ friend who set about organizing my San Francisco-based 40th birthday celebrations, has been key to helping me professionally. This wonderful woman has set up incredible meetings for me in an effort to help me connect. This is despite the fact that one of those meetings was perhaps the biggest debacle I’ve ever experienced.

(No, I mean it. Seriously, grab your popcorn and let me enlighten you).

It was an ‘informal’ coffee catch-up with someone to talk about possible roles at a very large, tier-one tech firm. A coffee catch-up, right? Informal. It was scheduled for thirty minutes, you know, so I was, overall, feeling pretty relaxed about it all.

I turned up, on time, at the café. I shook hands, made good small-talk, built rapport, and sat down to talk about my experience and what I was looking for. Things were going well. The guy I was meeting was super smart and we got along well. And then, when I thought we were about to wrap up, he comes out with this gem:

“So, do you have some extra time? Maybe we could walk across to my office and whiteboard some stuff to test the depth of your knowledge?”.

Sh*t. Like, seriously. SH*T.

I am not a technical person and I knew for hell-bloody-sure that this person was. I’m also not hugely visual in how I work things out either, so ‘whiteboarding’ technical processes is pretty much my worst nightmare. Plus, I knew what he was going to ask me to whiteboard, and I knew there was no way in hell I could do it.

Actual f**k.

So although my brain was telling me to make excuses about how I had to leave, or how I might quickly pop to the loo and Google some answers, or perhaps even go to the loo and never come out (preferable), I found myself saying sure, let’s do it.

And so, I walked with this guy to his office (and I swear it felt like my last walk on death row), all the while trying to suppress this black-as-tar dread that was filling up my chest cavity. I felt disastrously, uncontrollably out of my depth.


It went exactly as I knew it would. I couldn’t even pretend to muddle my way through it. I froze. I held the whiteboard marker like a rabbit in headlights and basically just came out and said I had no idea what I was doing. He pushed me to try. He even gave me hints. I was literally speechless. I could feel the blood rushing to my face and managed to find words enough to babble look, I don’t think I’m the right fit for your team, and I don’t think your team is the right fit for me.

He eventually agreed.

And even though, honest to god, I’d never before in my life had such a terrible meeting, I quickly took it on board as a (massive, embarrassing, unrelentingly shocking) learning opportunity.

I should have known better! I should have been prepared! After all, I know how much effort Cam put into studying for and preparing for his interviews. These Silicon Valley interviews are never walks in the park. These people are looking for serious talent. They’re ruthless. Uncompromising.

But at least now I know from first-hand experience.

Lesson 3: Prepare

Here’s what Cam had to say about his application process:

“I had one internet interview. There was live SQL coding but the hardest part was establishing a rapport with someone who barely looked up at the camera. I was surprised to hear they wanted to fly me to California for interviews onsite. The recruiter explained that there’d be five interviews, each one thirty minutes in duration. I had six weeks to prepare.”

Never before have I been given so much guidance on an interview. The documents I was sent described in detail the subject of each interview, gave sample problems, and suggested study material. The recruiter said that they wanted to give candidates the best chance of succeeding. I really did feel encouraged by that.”

I spent the first week making a study plan. I dug out my old probability and stats textbooks. I ordered some books on internet business analysis. I signed up to a website that sent me daily problems to solve. I even studied when I was meant to be working. I took sheets of probability problems to bed. On Sunday afternoons, I went to the local library and drew concept maps on A4 sheets of paper.”

The day finally came. Once I arrived in Cali, I agonised over what to wear. In major corporate, it’s easy: you wear a suit to an interview. Facebook’s prep materials stated “…you can leave your suit at home”. So I decided to go for business casual with a playful twist: slacks, a business shirt, and my favourite dinosaur jumper.”


I spent most of the day in a tiny room, with one small window on the door. This is how it went: every half-hour, the door would open and in would come somebody new. They would be young, wearing jeans, and carrying a MacBook Pro plastered with stickers. They were always very friendly, but got quickly to the point. They’d introduce themselves and tell me a bit about what they did, set me some problems, and leave the last five minutes for questions. I was convinced they were at least (if not more) interested in thought processes as they were in getting the right answer, so I said everything I was thinking.”

Most of the day went pretty well; that was, despite one interview. I had spent more time preparing for the probability interview than any other. I must have done thousands of coin-flipping and card-selecting problems. But when the time came, and the problem was stated, I knew immediately that I couldn’t solve it. I had no idea where to start. The interviewer was very nice, and tried to give me clues. But, in the end, I knew it was hopeless and I had to tell him I had no idea. I asked him if he had any coin-flipping or card selecting-problems. But we were out of time. It was a joke but I don’t think it came across that way.”

When the day was done and I walked out, it was that interview that haunted me. How could an interview go any worse than being forced to admit I was stumped? And still, my biggest regret was that I’d forgotten to get a tour of the campus”.

Yeah, I feel ya, Cam.

I mean, knowing all this, I should have done better. But you know what? I still used my very sh*tty interview as a learning experience. I went crazy doing research and making sure that my peripheral knowledge was stronger. I was writing things down. Drawing things. Learning to be more visual. Trying to talk through processes verbally and in a more confident manner.

And so, when I had my next meeting, I was absolutely, nail-on-the-head prepared.

I headed back to this same tech giant, to a different team this time (thank god), for more ‘informal’ meetings. I met with more intimidatingly smart people. I had good conversations. I was able to talk confidently through my experience and provide good examples. I was learning. And I was invited back to meet with more people. And more.

And then the interview process got more serious. I was invited to present to five senior directors on a complex topic, within an industry that was entirely new to me, utilising their proprietary software. Of course.

I knew that they wouldn’t just be testing my knowledge, but – perhaps more importantly – my ability to use their software and my ability to present well. And so I had to practice, like physically practice, speaking my presentation out loud. This is no easy task when the only chance to do that is when Cam was around and the kids were in bed. I was too embarrassed to practise at home but it’s not like I could practise in public either, so each night I’d sit in the car, in our driveway, with my laptop on my lap, reading, talking, presenting. To myself.

At first it was messy. Like, seriously messy. But over time it evolved. I got better. I learnt my lines. I really began to know my material.

And just when I thought I’d convinced myself I’d be okay, on the morning of the presentation I nearly vomited several times. I couldn’t eat anything. I forced myself to sip water. I was jittery and absolutely terrified of things going awry.

But you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I presented clearly and succinctly. I was able to answer all questions asked of me. I was able to generate discussion and interest in the topic. I didn’t mess up the technology.

Um… I think I actually survived. *checks pulse* …yep!

And so now it’s time to play the waiting game. Patience is a virtue, they say. It may be ‘a’ virtue, but it’s not one of mine, that’s for sure.

Hmmmm. I think this experienced, passionate, albeit shockingly modest and victim-to-Tall-Poppy-Syndrome Australian is going to have to stand just a little taller here in Silicon Valley.

clare x 1


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