Yes, But What Did You *Do*?

True story, the one that I am about to narrate, although both the person in question and the firm will remain unnamed.

A firm had come on campus for placements, and I happened to know one of the people who happened to be on their recruitment team that day. Midway through the recruitment process, said person came to my office for a chat.

He appeared to be rather frustrated. And when he was halfway through the cup of coffee that had been offered to him, he spoke about what was frustrating him so.

It was, he said, the same story with all of the candidates he’d interviewed that day. When the interview reached the stage where they asked the candidate about their internship or projects they’d worked on while in college, the same conversation played itself out.

“Tell me about your internship at xyz”

“I interned in the abc department at xyz.”

“Ok, what did you do there?”

“I worked on project pqr”

“Yes, but what did you do in that project?”

“I worked with lmn”

“Yes, but what did you do?”

“I submitted a presentation on def”

And on and on, round and round the mulberry bush. It was frustrating, he said, because it was mostly the same story in most of the colleges and universities where they’d been for recruitment. Now, I’m sure (or hopeful, at any rate) that the story will be not quite as bad in the very top tiers of academia. But based on my own experience of interviewing candidates, his experience rang true.


Interviewers don’t ask you about your internship in order to be impressed by the firm you interned in, or to be impressed by the title of your project. They’re interested in the following:

  1. What skill sets did you have to use to complete your part of the work?
  2. Which of these skill sets did you pick up on the job?
  3. What appreciation have you gained of that skill set as a consequence?
  4. Are you aware of where you fell short, and if so, what are you doing to get better?
  5. And as a coda of sorts to all of this, what would you do differently if you got the chance to do the internship/project again?

And so when interviewers ask you about what you did in an internship, you have to answer the unsaid questions. What they’re really asking, what they really want to know, is whether you are have acquired the ability to apply your learning. Whether you have the self awareness to know where you’re lacking. Whether you have the “fight” to acquire those skill sets you don’t possess. And most importantly, are you able to assess work you’ve done, and figure out how to do it better the next time around.

When interviewers talk about “attitude”, “willingness to learn” and “jigar“, this is what they’re talking about.


Which brings me to the most important part of this blogpost. There are two ways to react to what I’ve written so far if you’re a student preparing for job interviews.

The first is to train yourself to tell a story like this better, and more convincingly, in an interview.

But that’d be the wrong approach.

The second is to actually apply all of this in your next project. Actually doing all of this makes talking about that much easier, wouldn’t you say?

And as a consequence, writing your CV becomes that much easier.


The bottom-line: doing the work makes talking about it convincingly that much easier.

How to prepare for interviews, you ask? Simple.

Do the work.

Noah Smith Interviews Marc Andreessen, Part II

We pick up from where we left off yesterday:


My partner Alex Rampell says that competition between an incumbent and a software-driven startup is “a race, where the startup is trying to get distribution before the incumbent gets innovation”.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Please listen to that podcast episode about Dominos thinking of itself as a tech company that happens to deliver pizzas. From another episode from that same podcast, this gem of an appropriate example:

In February 2013, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told “GQ,” “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.”

https://www.delltechnologies.com/en-us/perspectives/podcasts-trailblazers-s01-e01-disruption-entertainment-industry/

As time passes, I am increasingly skeptical that most incumbents can adapt. The culture shift is just too hard. Great software people tend to not want to work at an incumbent where the culture is not optimized to them, where they are not in charge. It is proving easier in many cases to just start a new company than try to retrofit an incumbent. I used to think time would ameliorate this, as the world adapts to software, but the pattern seems to be intensifying.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

I hope he is wrong, for my sake, and for the sake of my alma mater, which is where I have chosen to work. But, um, I increasingly fear that he’s (surprise, surprise) right. Introducing technology has been hard in my workplace, but the fault lies with the culture of the workplace, not with the technology.

But as I pointed out in yesterday’s post, the regulatory capture and the cultural conformity of the higher education space in India means that most students (and their parents, or should it be the other way around) still prefer a “top” college.


A good test for how seriously an incumbent is taking software is the percent of the top 100 executives and managers with computer science degrees. For a typical tech startup, the answer might be 50-70%. For a typical incumbent, the answer may be more like 5-7%. This is a huge gap in software knowledge and skill, and you see it play out every day across many industries.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

Incumbents in higher education in India – the percentage of folks with computer science degrees? Let’s move on.


First, COVID is the ultimate cover for restructuring — what my friend and former CFO Peter Currie used to call “shake and bake”. It’s an opportunity for every CEO to do all the things he/she may have wanted to do in the past to increase efficiency and effectiveness — from fundamental headcount resizing and reorganization, to changing geographic footprint, to exiting stale lines of business — but couldn’t because they would cause too much disruption. The disruption is happening anyway, so you might as well do everything you’ve always wanted to do now

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

75% minimum attendance, or else we reserve the right to say that you haven’t learnt enough to write the semester end examination. All classes in offline mode, only. Rote memorization tests in examination halls, with no textbooks/supplementary materials allowed. Laptops/tables/smartphones may not be used in class.

Here’s my question to those of us who work in higher education in India. Do we expect all these things to come back once the pandemic is behind us, or are we having thoughtful discussions about how the post-covid higher education field will look in India?

Today, because of the pandemic, we are at an extreme end of the spectrum which describes how learning is delivered. Everybody sits at home, and listens to a lecture being delivered (at least in Indian universities, mostly synchronously).
When the pandemic ends, whenever that may be, do we swing back to the other end of the spectrum? Does everybody sit in a classroom once again, and listens to a lecture being delivered in person (and therefore synchronously)?
Or does society begin to ask if we could retain some parts of virtual classrooms? Should the semester than be, say, 60% asynchronous, with the remainder being doubt solving sessions in classroom? Or some other ratio that may work itself out over time? Should the basic organizational unit of the educational institute still be a classroom? Does an educational institute still require the same number of in person professors, still delivering the same number of lectures?
In other words, in the post-pandemic world…
How long before online learning starts to show up in the learning statistics?

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/01/28/the-long-slow-but-inevitable-death-of-the-classroom/

And finally, Marc Andreessen’s response to Noah’s question about what advice he (Marc) would have for a young 23 year old American:

Don’t follow your passion. Seriously. Don’t follow your passion. Your passion is likely more dumb and useless than anything else. Your passion should be your hobby, not your work. Do it in your spare time.
Instead, at work, seek to contribute. Find the hottest, most vibrant part of the economy you can and figure out how you can contribute best and most. Make yourself of value to the people around you, to your customers and coworkers, and try to increase that value every day.

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/interview-marc-andreessen-vc-and

The last sentence in that excerpt is another way of saying that the world is a non-zero sum game.

And I couldn’t agree more!


Does Language Matter?

When you’re appearing for an interview, how important (or not) is your grasp of the English language?

  1. It is a factor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. I have worked with colleagues while in the analytics industry who couldn’t speak English very well – but their knowledge of their domains was far better than mine would ever be.
    Being insanely good at your core skill set is more important then being good in English. Being insanely good at English is not as important as being good at your core skill.
    But that being said, being 8/10 in both is best of all.
  2. Being good at communicating well is different from being good at English, and many people do not appreciate the difference. Here’s the non-negotiable bit: you should be able to explain yourself clearly and concisely. Given the world that we live in, it is best if you can do it in English. But no matter what language, clarity of thought and expression is table stakes.
  3. In an interview, my recommendation to candidates is that they state up front that they are not as conversant in English as they are in x/y/z language. And to state that they’re trying to get better at it, but it is an ongoing process. Think of it this way: if they are going to reject you for not being good at English, how does it matter whether you tell them or not? And if they aren’t going to reject you for your English, your candor and honesty is a plus for you.
  4. But to go back to pt. 1, being good at your core skill becomes even more important. For example, if you are applying for a job in the analytics industry, your knowledge of statistics and econometrics must be beyond reproach. Your knowledge of R or Excel or whatever must be beyond reproach.
  5. If you want to get better at English, I have three suggestions for you:
    1. Translate English reports (try the executive summary of a World Bank publication, if you want me to give you something to get started with) into whichever language you are comfortable with. You learn how to write professional English through this exercise (if only indirectly), and you add a line to your resume. There is no downside!
    2. Read this essay, not more than one paragraph on any given day. Read that paragraph thrice in one day, but never more than a paragraph a day. Don’t worry about how long it takes, but savor each sentence. Only try translating it once you’ve read the entire essay at least thrice. Your English will improve, but so also will your thinking and your writing, regardless of which language you end up using. Again, there is no downside.
    3. Force yourself to write ELI5 summaries of topics from your core skill. For example, explain what the Gaussian distribution is, and why it matters, to a 5 year old using simple English. Absolutely no downside!
  6. Bottomline: when the corporate world is telling you that it wants you to be good at English, it is really saying two things. First, it wants you to be a good communicator. Second, it wants you to be reasonably good at the English language. Trust me, the requirements are in that order. Trust me on this too: I know a lot of folks who are good at the second bit, but not so much at the former. (Hell, I’d put myself in this category).
  7. Bottom bottom line: practice becoming better at communicating clearly. That is much more important.

Graduating in 2021

Until this year, I used to think batches graduating in 2009 and 2002 would have found the employment market tough going.

2021/22 puts all other years in the shade, and that is an understatement.

One of the students graduating this year from the Gokhale Institute, Devansh, asked if I have any advice to share for their batch.

Here it is, make what you will of it:

  1. A quote that is usually attributed to Mark Twain goes something like this: swallow a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day. We don’t know if he actually said it (probably not), but the one good thing about graduating this year, of all years, is that the same principle is at play. Might not seem like it now, but in the long run, graduating this year will stand you in good stead.
  2. If the future is about working remotely, you stand half qualified already. We have had lectures, examinations, seminars, job interviews all move online, and we’re now veterans when it comes to having your work be online. Exploit this fact to your advantage while landing a job, while in your job, and for moving across jobs.
  3. At the margin, you’ve probably (and hopefully) learnt that there is nothing especially sacrosanct about learning from us professors in offline classrooms. In fact, you’ve probably confirmed a long-held suspicion: learning online is actually easier.
    A healthy dose of “what gives you the right to tell me?” isn’t a bad thing to have at the start of your career (please don’t ignore the adjective in this sentence!)
  4. You’ve also likely learnt how to hunt down the answer to your question online. This trend has been around for a while, but the pandemic has accelerated it. Get better at it than you already are, and try and do this everyday.
  5. Think like an economist. Understand that the supply of certificates for having completed online courses has gone up, and that exponentially. Therefore, there is a reduction in the value of those certificates. Get them if you must, but there is not much value in flaunting them.
  6. Continue to think like an economist. What is in short supply is work experience. There is a glut in showing that you have learnt. The doing, in other words, is in short supply. So do! Take publicly available data and crunch the numbers in MS-Excel. Put it up for public consumption. And that is just one example – there are literally millions and millions of things you can do.
    I’m not buying the “But I’m not Professor Damodaran!” argument. There is only one Musings on Markets, and nobody is expecting you to be as good as him. But begin by recreating his files, if nothing else. What works for writing works for spreadsheets as well!
  7. This year will teach you to think like a hedger, rather than a speculator. There is a lot of merit to taking care of the potential downsides first. Remember this lesson, for it is a valuable one.
  8. Your batch will, more than any other, appreciate the value of a face-to-face meeting. It’ll be that rarest of rare years where folks (eventually, not right now) will want offline meetings to take place. I look forward to learning from all of you about the underrated aspects of meetings. And I mean that quite seriously.
  9. Pay it forward. Cast your mind back to the start of this academic year, July 2020. Think about how daunting this year has been, and think about how you could have done with a steadying hand on your shoulder. Your juniors are going to be in the same boat a couple of months from now. Reach out to them, mentor them, and let them know that there’s help available if its needed. Who better than you to know the feeling? What better way to build out your network?
  10. Finally, all the best! God knows you guys have earned all the luck that will come your way.

What about an MBA, then?

I opened a rather large can of worms with my post about whether or not one should do a PhD last Friday, for the most popular question I have gotten since then is whether one should do an MBA – is it “worth it”?

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

  1. Just like the PhD, so also with the MBA. You are doing it to get a job, or get more money in your current job. You should be clear about this. You are not doing it to get better at business, or to start your own business. 1
  2. The major difference between an MBA and a PhD is that one is a marathon, and the other is a sprint. There is some satisfaction to be gained from simply finishing the marathon – but the point of a sprint is to win it. You need to be faster than the others – or the others need to be slower than you.
  3. And if that is true (and I think it is), and if your job is likely to come from the placements process, then “winning” at the placement process becomes oh-so-important. Or, here is another way to think about it – if you think that you CV will look better by being able to say that you got placed in a “good” company while in college, then your MBA degree is about “winning” at the placement process.
  4. And that, unfortunately, makes the acquisition of an MBA degree a zero sum game. You only win by defeating everybody else. Because you don’t get the best job offer by making sure that the others get the best job offers – there’s only so many best job offers to go around.
  5. Walk into an MBA education with your eyes wide open: that’s why you are there, to be the best in a zero-sum game. By definition, the MBA game is a cut-throat game. If that is the world you want to inhabit, then an MBA is a great education to acquire.
  6. Remember, though, that the education isn’t what you learn in class. That education, these days, you can get for free online, and it’ll be better than the education you get in your college. The education that you get is learning how to be demonstrably better than your peers while being part of the same community for two years. You then have to apply these learnings to your career.
  7. That makes the MBA one of those rare degrees where the quality of the college really matters. Not because the faculty is likely to be better, or because you will get better facilities, or because the library will be better. All that is likely true, but the reason you want to get into a “good” college is because you need to show that you have beaten the best, twice over. You first beat everybody else by getting into this college when so many others couldn’t, and you beat everybody else who got in by scoring more than they did. It really is the ultimate zero-sum game!
  8. An MBA with prior work-experience is worth so much more than an MBA with no prior work-experience. Identify the gaps in what you know about the corporate world by working in the corporate world, and then do an MBA.
  9. You do an MBA for the job, for your peer group and for what you learn in the classroom – in that order.
  10. If you are faintly horrified by what you have just read, don’t even think about doing an MBA. If you can’t wait to get started, you should definitely do an MBA!
  1. I’m talking about the median MBA candidate here[]

Links for 9th April, 2019

  1. “What is not useful is the sense that measuring GDP is the problem, and measuring gross national happiness is the solution. Few societies have ever really focused on either. We should all be happy about that.”
    Tim Harford reminds us that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In this case, the article is worth reading for understanding how GDP can’t really be measured, and how that may not be a bad thing. In addition, please read the article to understand that Bhutan probably isn’t all that “happy” a country in the first place!
    ..
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  2. “Given the pressure on all unions to negotiate higher-than-average wage increases, using monetary policy to reduce inflation would inevitably aggregate spending to fall short of the level needed to secure full employment, but without substantially moderating the rate of increase in wages and prices. As long as the unions were driven to negotiate increasing rates of wage increase for their members, increasing rates of wage inflation could be accommodated only by ever-increasing growth rates in the economy or by progressive declines in the profit share of business. But without accelerating real economic growth or a declining profit share, union demands for accelerating wage increases could be accommodated only by accelerating inflation and corresponding increases in total spending.”
    Monetary nerds only, it should go without saying! David Glasner runs a blog called Uneasy Money, which is well worth reading, but only if you want to find yourself steeped in all things monetary. This post takes a slightly critical view of Arthur Burns tenure as Fed Chairman.
    ..
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  3. “Amazon’s economists game out real estate decisions, set the lowest prices that will deliver a profit, precisely determine what customers care about and whether advertisements are working — all using machine-learning algorithms that automate decision making on a massive scale. It’s the kind of asset that smaller companies can’t always pay for, allowing Amazon to pull further and further away from the competition.”
    Amazon has, in case you didn’t know, probably the world’s largest collection of PhD’s in economics. This article helps you understand what it is that they do once they’re in Amazon. A helpful read if you are considering building a career in economics.
    ..
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  4. “The White House explains why it’s predicting such big growth: the TCJA will cause a surge in business investment by “substantially raising the target capital stock and attracting increased net capital inflows.” And this rise in the capital stock will cause a surge in productivity. Except that there’s no sign of a surge in business investment: the report cherry-picks a few numbers, but overall orders for capital goods, probably the best real-time indicator, are showing nothing much (that 2015-6 slump, by the way, was about fracking, which fell off for a while when world oil prices plunged)”
    Paul Krugman is less than impressed with the 2019 Economic Report of the President, and provides data to show why he is less than impressed. The chart that follows the excerpt is worth looking at too.
    ..
    ..
  5. “There’s one biosignature that Seager, Guyon, and just about everyone else agree would be as near a slam dunk for life as scientific caution allows. We already have a planet to prove it. On Earth, plants and certain bacteria produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. Oxygen is a flagrantly promiscuous molecule—it’ll react and bond with just about everything on a planet’s surface. So if we can find evidence of it accumulating in an atmosphere, it will raise some eyebrows. Even more telling would be a biosignature composed of oxygen and other compounds related to life on Earth. Most convincing of all would be to find oxygen along with methane, because those two gases from living organisms destroy each other. Finding them both would mean there must be constant replenishment.”
    That’s just one of many, many excerpt-able pieces from a very long, but also very rewarding article about the search for ET. Take your time with this one – about an hour or so, and pay particular attention to the infographics.