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:
What skill sets did you have to use to complete your part of the work?
Which of these skill sets did you pick up on the job?
What appreciation have you gained of that skill set as a consequence?
Are you aware of where you fell short, and if so, what are you doing to get better?
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.
I really, really feel for the interviewer here. I can’t imagine what he must have gone through, and I do not share this video to poke fun.
But this video is such a great example of the merits of using simple words and phrases that I just couldn’t resist:
I have learnt this lesson the hard way, and regular readers of this blog might well be right in saying that I haven’t learnt it well enough. But please, always remember: keep things as simple as possible! 🙂
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.”
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
Every now and then (and I wish it was more often), I like reading something so much that I don’t just take notes, I put them down here rather than in Roam. It forces me take more careful, structured notes, and the act of writing it all down allows for more thoughts to bubble up – which is the whole point, no?
Before we begin, a quick aside: most of my thoughts and reactions to the interview are because of what I do, and where I’m located. I am in charge of one course at my University, and am also in charge of placements. This University is located in India. So my excerpts, and my reaction to those excerpts are contingent on these two things.
We’ll follow the usual format: excerpts, and then my thoughts.
Consider the three primary markers of the American Dream, or more generally middle class success — housing, education, and health care. You have written at length on how all three of these success markers seem further and further out of reach for many regular people. I think — and you would agree? — that these three deficits are not only causing problems for how people live and how the economy functions, but are fouling our politics quite dramatically.
Education, in India at any rate, can either scale, or it can maintain quality. It has never been able to do both. How to increase scale without losing quality, and how to maintain affordable quality without gaining scale – both of these are really, really difficult questions to answer. The impossible trilemma of higher education in India, as it were. The BSc programme at the Gokhale Institute is (in my opinion, and it is of course a biased one) affordable quality. Far from perfect, I’ll be the first one to admit, and could always be a whole lot better, but I genuinely do think we’re doing good work. But scaling is impossible. And we all know of educational institutes that have managed to scale really well, but don’t do so well when it comes to quality.
And when I say quality, it is very much a “you know it when you see it” definition I am going with. Not NAAC reports or percentage of students placed.
Housing, education, and health care are each ferociously complex, but what they have in common is skyrocketing prices in a world where technology is driving down prices of most other products and services.
The Archimedes reference is obvious, but that’s not the reason I want to focus so much on just this one sentence. How exactly is software a lever on the entire world? Marc gives the examples of Lyft and Airbnb in the interview, but they’re the outcomes for having deployed software. The inner mechanism (I think) is that software goes a very long way towards reducing transaction costs, search costs and therefore overall friction in economic transactions.
The guy driving the rickshaw, and waiting for a customer at a traffic intersection isn’t aware of the person two blocks away who is outside their apartment building, waiting for a ride. Search costs. These are minimized because of the app.
The whole “bhaiya, xyz jaana hai” – “Itna duur, itna late, double bhada” – “kya bhaiya, itna thodi lagta hai” song and dance is avoided (although not always in a way that is fair to the rickshaw driver). Transaction costs. These are minimized because of the app.
And so more transactions take place than they would have if Uber/Lyft/Ola had not been around. And the same is true for Zomato, or Swiggy, or Airbnb or… you get the picture. This (I think) is the lever at play. More gets done because software is involved.
There are legitimate worries about whether the system is always fair, always perfect – and the short answer is always “no”. A better question to ask is if the world is better for these services being around – and the short answer (I think) is “yes”. The best question to ask is how these services could be made better – and Andreessen has suggestions later on in the interview about this.
Software is alchemy that turns bytes into actions by and on atoms.
A lovely way to think about what software does, when used well.
Everywhere software touches the real world, the real world gets better, and less expensive, and more efficient, and more adaptable, and better for people. And this is especially true for the real world domains that have been least touched by software until now — such as housing, education, and health care.
The Baumol effect has some potentially disturbing implications:
When we recognize that all prices are relative prices the following simple yet deep facts follow: If productivity increases in some industries more than others then, ceteris paribus, some prices must increase. Over time, all real prices cannot fall.
As a society it appears that with greater wealth we have wanted to consume more of the goods like education and health care that have relatively slow productivity growth. Thus, preferences have magnified the Baumol effect.
But I think what Marc Andreessen is (in effect) saying is this: sure, even accounting for the Baumol effect, are there ways to reduce search and transaction costs in education, healthcare and housing? And if yes, can we drive down prices in these sectors while maintaining (or even increasing!) quality? That’s the power and potential of software.
And yes, each one of us will react with differing levels of skepticism to the proposition. That’s fine, and I’d say desirable. But the idea is worth thinking about, no? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)
It’s more the importance of communication as the foundation of everything that people do, and how we open up new ways for people to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Like software, communication technology is something that people tend to pooh-pooh, or even scorn — but, when you compare what any one of us can do alone, to what we can do when we are part of a group or a community or a company or a nation, there’s no question that communication forms the backbone of virtually all progress in the world. And so improving our ability to communicate is fundamental.
Remember the “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room” quote2? The potential advantage of Clubhouse, Spaces (or whatever it will be called on all the apps that copy the concept) is that it solves for the geographic constraint when it comes to your menu of rooms to choose from. That’s what makes Twitter so great too – you never have to worry about being the smartest person on Twitter (and I mean that in the nicest way possible!).
It is a great time to be young and angry about the quality of the education system, because the internet can solve some of your problems better than was ever possible in the past.
It’s so striking that in our primarily textual technological world, people are instantly enthusiastic about the opportunity to participate in oral culture online — there is something timeless about talking in groups, whether it’s around a campfire 5,000 years ago or on an app today
At the Gokhale Institute, we were lucky enough to listen to a talk by Visvak where he spoke about some of the positive aspects of Clubhouse during the recent elections in Tamil Nadu. The ability to listen to, and possibly chat with, people with skin in the game who are actually Doing The Work, is truly remarkable. And again, what we have isn’t perfect, and it could be better, and there will be problems. The question to ask is if the world is better with Clubhouse (and it’s imitations) or without? And the better question to ask is how to improve upon it. But when I have the opportunity to listen to Krish Ashok talk about food on Twitter Spaces, and I see people just straight up ask Krish Ashok to host a Spaces about chai – well, what a time to be alive. No? (And if you say no, it’s not, I’d love to hear why you think so.)
Substack is causing enormous amounts of new quality writing to come into existence that would never have existed otherwise — raising the level of idea formation and discourse in a world that badly needs it. So much of legacy media, due to the technological limitations of distribution technologies like newspapers and television, makes you stupid. Substack is the profit engine for the stuff that makes you smart.
I don’t exactly disagree with Marc Andreessen over here; but I have a lot of questions. I’ll list them here:
Substack is a substitute for blogs or newsletters, but with the additional ability to charge payments from subscribers for some (or all) of your posts. Is that a good definition of what Substack is?
Not all Substack writers will initially get enough paying subscribers. In fact, I think it is safe to say that most will never get (enough) paying subscribers. If the first sentence in the excerpt above is to be agreed with, what other incentive is at play for “enormous amounts of new quality writing” to come through? This is not intended as sarcasm or implied criticism – I really would like to know.
Especially in India, I completely agree that legacy media makes you stupid. It is the middle part of that sentence that I am not so sure about: I do not think it is just the technological limitations of distribution technologies that is at play. It’s a much broader question, but what other factors would you think are at play, and how does Substack help mitigate those other problems?
Is bundling inevitable on Substack? Shouldn’t it be? How will this play out? Will Revue stand a better chance as a bundle because it can be combined with so many other offerings?
This isn’t a complete list of questions, and I am not sure of the answers. But this is the part of the interview that I understood the least, for sure.
A longish excerpt in a longish post, but a very important one:
M.A.: My “software eats the world” thesis plays out in business in three stages: 1. A product is transformed from non-software to (entirely or mainly) software. Music compact discs become MP3’s and then streams. An alarm clock goes from a physical device on your bedside table to an app on your phone. A car goes from bent metal and glass, to software wrapped in bent metal and glass. 2. The producers of these products are transformed from manufacturing or media or financial services companies to (entirely or mainly) software companies. Their core capability becomes creating and running software. This is, of course, a very different discipline and culture from what they used to do. 3. As software redefines the product, and assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture, the nature of competition in the industry changes until the best software wins, which means the best software company wins. The best software company may be an incumbent or a startup, whoever makes the best software.
So this is the part of the Domino’s story that struck me more than anything, when he simply declared for all to hear, we no longer think of ourselves as a pizza company. We think of ourselves as a technology company. I said, excuse me? Well, turns out, they’re headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’ve got 800 people working in headquarters. Fully 400 of those, half of their headquarters employees, are engaged in software analytics and big data. They really– once they finally got the product right, they really are, from this point going forward, as much a technology company as they are a food company. And many of the initiatives have to do with making it as easy, as convenient, as kind of natural and impulsive almost to order Domino’s, much more so than any other pizza company.
But, but, but – and this is where the “what I do and where I’m from part” really comes into play – has higher education in India successfully (or even partially) gone through Marc Andreessen’s three stage transformation?
Short answer, no.
Long answer: because “assuming a competitive market not protected by a monopoly position or regulatory capture” doesn’t apply in the case of higher education in India (yet). See this, this, this, and this from earlier on in EFE.
But especially see this! College, as I’ve written in this post, is a bundle. It sells you the learning (Coursera), the signaling (LinkedIn) and the peer network (Starbucks):
If you want to go up against college as a business, you need to sell the same thing that college is selling. And the college sells you a bundle. A business that seeks to do better than college must do better on all three counts, not just on learning. All of the online learning businesses – Coursera is just one very good example – aren’t able to fill all of the three vertices just yet. And that’s why education hasn’t been truly shaken down by the internet just yet: Because college today is more about signaling than it is about learning, and because when you pay money to a college, you are getting a bundle.
And partially by regulatory capture (UGC approved degree, yay!) and partly by cultural conformity (Sharmaji ka beta went to IIT. Whaddya mean, you will learn from YouTube. Kuch bhi!) we still celebrate getting into a “top” college.
Since “top” colleges know this, there is no incentive for them to change. And since ed-tech firms in India also know this, they design excellent software that is designed simply to get students into these colleges3.
And so we in the education sector in India continue to wait for the revolution.
Phew! That’s enough for today. I’ll be back tomorrow with Part II of my reflections on this interview.
that is a sweeping generalization, yes. I’m more than happy to be corrected on this. Please tell me more about ed-tech firms that are about learning for its own sake, not about entrance examinations[↩]
When you’re appearing for an interview, how important (or not) is your grasp of the English language?
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you want to get better at English, I have three suggestions for you:
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!
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.
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!
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).
Bottom bottom line: practice becoming better at communicating clearly. That is much more important.
Fridays have become gyaan sessions about employment, internships and jobs, and I suppose that’s a fine thing to keep going. Here are posts on the past two Fridays: On Interning, and “Cracking” Interviews.
Today is about what I would ask you if I was the interviewer, and I see on your CV that you claim to be proficient in MS-Excel. This post will hopefully help you figure out if you know Excel well enough – and by your responses, it’ll help me understand if I’m asking good questions!
Here are ten questions I would have asked about MS-Excel in an interview. I’ve tried to arrange them in increasing order of difficulty, so the first is the easiest one
Is it possible to work with text data in Excel? Can you give me an example?
What exactly is conditional formatting? Can you tell me about a time you used it in MS-Excel?
How would you password protect a file in Excel?
When are you better off using data filters instead of pivot tables? Whatever your answer, what is your reasoning?
I’m not a fan of pie charts. Do you agree with my opinion, or not? Why?
Give me your best guess about a keyboard shortcut in Excel that I’ll not be aware of.
Index and Match, or Vlookup – which is better, and why?
How would you go about creating dynamic charts in Excel? Or sentences that update automatically when new data is fed in to the sheet?
What is your favorite Excel add-in? Why?
Walk me through the coolest project you’ve ever done in Excel. (This last one if I’m convinced that you are a proper, legit Excel ninja)
How did you do? How did I do? What are questions that I should have asked but didn’t?
I had written about maximizing soul the other day, and acing interviews is one of the best ways to think about minimizing time, effort and cost, rather than maximizing soul.
Because, in my opinion, cracking an interview is the same thing as saying that my work isn’t good enough to get me through the door. So what can I say, do or project in the interview that can tip me over.
The simplest way to crack an interview is to be good enough to be recruited.1
But, all that being said, and most probably ignored, here are some points to think about when you want to “crack” an interview.2
As a fresher, it is perfectly fine to not have any prior work experience. Don’t sweat it if you have no work-ex to show on your CV. At you age, and your level of experience, that is a feature, not a bug.
Given your lack of experience, and presumably prior work-ex, the interviewer is likely to focus on your CV. This is the streetlight effect: what is most easily searchable will be searched. Whatever is on your CV – the only piece of paper that the interviewer has to go on – is what they’ll focus on the most.
That’s why all the agonizing over the CV – it becomes your calling card during the interview.
Keep your CV as brief as possible, preferably less than a page. I still keep my CV to below a page.
The economics-y way of thinking about this is very similar to how a presenter uses a PPT. The PPT should be a complement, not a substitute. Since you’re the one giving the interview, and not your CV, your CV should be nothing more than a bridge for the interviewer to reach you. It should be short on detail, but as long as possible on sparking curiosity.
If your CV is able to spark said curiosity, it is up to you to turn that spark into a raging fire. To me, personally, your ability to speak English isn’t a deciding factor3. Your ability to communicate, to get your point across – in any mutually understandable language – that is very much a deciding factor.
For example, if the interviewer says “Tell me more about this project/internship/whatever” – that’s a spark.
Do not rush into a description of the project.
Tell the interviewer about skills that you used to do the project well. Make sure these skills are relevant to the job that you are interviewing for. (Example: “I used my knowledge of VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
Or tell the interviewer about skills that you acquired while doing this project. The second sentence in point 9 above applies here as well. (Example: “I learn how to use VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel to do xyz”)
Or tell the interviewer about skills that you become aware you were lacking in while doing this project. Again, the second sentence applies. But also, in this particular case, you should also be able to tell the interviewer stuff that you have done to begin acquiring these skills. (Example: “I learnt that I had to know VLOOKUPS in MS-Excel inside out in order to do xyz. I have learnt how to do this by doing abc”)
Now, all that being said, you should precede pts. 9, 10 and 11 by explaining in no more than three sentences the following:
What was the point of the project? (That is, was the idea behind the project to increase revenues for the firm, decrease costs for the firm, or increase speed to market for the firm?)
What was your specific role in the project? (That is, where did you fit in the big picture? This shows an awareness of both your own specific role, as well as the ability to understand how the whole project comes together, and why.)
Quantify the success of the project. (Overall, we were able to increase x metric by y% over z years.)
There is no way in hell you are going to be able to do this without writing it down. Please, spend the time and write down, in your own words, your answers to each of the three points above. Writing it down makes it clearer in your head. Trust me on this one.
If you’ve done pt. 12 well, followed by pts. 9, 10, and 11, congratulations. You’ve turned that spark of curiosity into a raging fire. You’ve done this by demonstrating:
A passion to learn stuff relevant to the task at hand
An ability to think clearly and cogently about the work that you do
A clear awareness of where you need to improve, and what you’re doing about it.
The ability to communicate your work and its relevance clearly4
Do this well enough, and you should be able to “crack” the interview.
“What if there are many people who are good enough?” is the response I usually get when I say something like this. Contradictory, no? If there are many people who are good enough, then you aren’t good enough to be better than them. Work on that first![↩]
This blog post is written assuming a fresher is sitting for an interview. Some points don’t change no matter what type of an interviewee you are, some do.[↩]
Again, the point is to not be Shakespeare, the master of the English language. The point is to be a very, very good communicator. Short, sharp sentences, and clarity of thinking – that’s what matters.[↩]