How do I prep for a Google Technical/Programmer Writer interview?
June 18, 2017 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Got through some initial screening with the Google recruiter and my writing exercises and samples were approved, but what comes next? How should I prepare and balance the technical part with the writing part?

Backing up a bit, I'm in the greater Seattle area and looking to work at either the Seattle or Kirkland Google campus as a technical or programmer writer. A friend who works at Google currently got my resume to the right folks, and with that, I took a writing test and sent that back in with some of my previous technical writing samples. I just got word from the Google recruiter that they liked what they saw and I might be talking to someone in a phone screen next week.

Here's what I'm hoping the greater MeFi community can help with - a lot of info online is outdated or pretty focused on the technical interviews for software engineer types who want to work at Google, but there isn't a lot of current information out there for Google technical writer-specific interviews. I'm hoping that folks here have some anecdotes or other information from the current hiring process so that I'm better prepared for the next steps.

Can anyone share some tips for preparing myself properly for interviewing as a technical/programmer writer?

Thanks all.
posted by Irony to Work & Money (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
So I probably don't have the direct experience with full-time tech writer interviews that you're looking for, but I was a contract tech writer at Google in London for about six months (until a few weeks ago) and I was once (many years ago) a tech writer intern in Mountain View. I've been through phone screens for full-time work a couple times and got good feedback, but ultimately never progressed to final interviews because of hiring freezes. I don't have any experience with a regular, full-time onsite interview, though I've heard they're like phone screen and contractor interviews, just longer and more involved.

Here's some things that made an impression with me or that I got subsequent feedback or details about:
  • The number one thing interviewers are looking for "googleyness" which is a goofy made up word that means intelligent enthusiasm and curiosity. Interviewers will try to find the limits of your knowledge and experience and figure out if you're the kind of person who's going to shut down or if you're going to make educated guesses and ask useful questions.
  • Interviewers will ask you about things you don't have prerequisite knowledge about or give you questions that are sort of vague or underspecified (or ask sequences of follow-up questions that have a similar effect). Be prepared to ask for additional information when you need it (though you will need to actually attempt to answer questions, of course).
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your writing test, samples, and resume. For samples, be able to talk about the context, problem, process, and your exact contributions. For your resume, be able to expand on literally anything on your resume. If you list some obscure technology, bet on someone asking about it.
  • Be prepared to read code samples and talk about what they do or how you might use them in documentation. You're unlikely to be asked to write any code from scratch (I heard it was actively discouraged on tech writer interviews).
  • Be prepared to talk about process, such as what you'd do to get information from a software engineer or to revise an existing document or start a new document from scratch. "Eh, I guess I'd just start writing" is not going to cut it. These questions may be pretty explicit ("what's your process for writing a new document?" or "Tell me about a time when…") or scenario-based ("Suppose you need to write a new document about…").
  • You may be asked to explain or describe some technology (a web browser, a compiler, etc.) that you don't have any expertise with. They're not looking that you know the technology (you probably won't, in fact, and you can say so), but you'll want to be able to demonstrate an ability to reason about software systems (e.g., "I'm not exactly sure how it works but maybe it…") and make use of new information that the interviewer provides after you've started to answer.
  • Be prepared to ask good questions about the role and what it's like working at Google. It's not perfunctory and they're not offering to answer your questions to be polite—they're using that time to evaluate you. It's a good chance to demonstrate your curiosity.
Overall, I don't think Google technical writer interviews are out of line with the rest of the software industry, though I find that Googlers tend to be well-prepared to do interviews (they receive some training). You'll progress pretty quickly from some warm up questions to genuinely challenging situations.

Google's an interesting place to work that's not like other companies (for mostly good and sometimes weird). Best of luck to you!
posted by ddbeck at 3:29 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]

I literally just did an interview at Google's Seattle office for a technical writer position a week ago. I probably interviewed with some, or even all, of the people who will be interviewing you, probably in the same conference room(s). (I was in Possum Kingdom most of the day.) I was initially told I would be doing a remote interview with someone at headquarters, but it turned out to be all in person.

A big part of the interview process is the "reverse interview." I interviewed with five people and two of them wanted me to interview them about a topic they were a subject matter expert in, as if I was going to write a document about it. One of them just wanted to be interviewed; the other wanted me to actually write out a high-level outline, which he kept (so write legibly). Tip: make sure you know the audience you are supposedly writing for, by which I mean ask explicitly. Also, you won't have much time for this, so be quick and decisive, as if you are well-practiced in interviewing SMEs. I don't do much of this ordinarily (I tend to read the source code and play with the software, then have SMEs look at drafts, rather than interviewing them, if I can) so I was weak in this, especially in the first reverse interview, where I misheard the name of the technology I was supposed to be interviewing about. (Maybe familiarize yourself with at least the names of Google's offerings.)

I was asked to look at some Java code and some Python code and walk through each, identify the algorithm they were implementing, find any problems, etc. I misidentified one algorithm, but corrected myself later.

I also got the "explain what happens when you do task X on the computer" question. I won't say what task X was because, first, you might not get the same one I got anyway, and second, if you did, they don't want you have a prepared answer but rather listen to your thought process.

As a practical matter, be sure to arrive quite early to find parking (assuming you are interviewing in Seattle). It's in Fremont and there is basically no parking. There are "Google guest" spaces in the parking garage under the building, but they will probably be occupied. I ended up parking in a space reserved for Union Bank employees: there were lots of empty ones and I figured, since I was coming in at 11, everyone who was working at the bank was already there. I was fine, but I recommend not taking the chance if you can avoid it. There is also street parking around the corner, but you will need cash for this, so bring some singles just in case.

If you get a chance at lunch, ask about coffee. They have a really nice coffee bar in the building across the street from where you will be interviewing and they make a mean mocha. Don't be shy about bathroom breaks and/or drinks when you need them.

I did not do well enough in the interview to proceed further, so sadly I will not be one of your colleagues. Fortunately, I got an offer for another job literally as I was leaving the Google interview. Good luck!
posted by kindall at 10:19 PM on June 18 [2 favorites]

Oh, and I did not get any questions or comments about my writing samples or exercises. For all I know the interviewers had not seen them. It was obvious that one interviewer had not read my resume very closely.
posted by kindall at 10:26 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]

Thanks for your help everyone, but it was as tough as advertised and I didn't make it in. Overall, the interviews felt like they went well, but they definitely were looking for someone with "more" (maybe I lacked the Googley-ness mentioned previously). It took about two weeks after my interview to get the word back from my recruiter, who was an awesome partner through the whole process.

The best answers were on target, and future folks reading this should follow their advice.
posted by Irony at 5:26 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's a very tough interview. It doesn't seem so tough when you're in it, necessarily, because the Googlers seem to sincerely want you to succeed and will help you out to the extent that they can, but it's hard. They are looking for very specific things. I'm hoping that my current contract will give me experience they will find appealing and plan to apply again when this contract's up (if I don't get a full-time nod where I'm working now).

If you are still looking for work and open to a contract at Microsoft, I can refer you to my Aquent recruiter—just drop me a MeMail.
posted by kindall at 10:27 AM on August 7

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