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What a last-minute interview for APM at Google taught me about failure

In five short lessons.


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Jameson Zaballos

3 years ago | 6 min read

February 2019. I had just completed a completely solo backpacking trip around Europe, or, as I refer to it for Americans hoping to vacation there, “Off -by-one American culture.” I had just finished my undergrad in computer science at UW-Madison, and taken a bit of a gap before starting work in Austin, Texas: the queso capital of my heart.

I’d taken my last internship in summer of 2017. Interview season hadn’t gone quite as I had hoped. I had great interviews lined up, and made it to the final round at some top-notch companies, but for one reason or another, didn’t make the cut. I tell people I took it in stride, but for a few weeks, it killed me. It’s crushing and exhausting going through the interview gauntlet, especially with your whole life ahead of you, and your own expectations for your success.

The only thing that kept me going, at times, was my supportive, amazing network of friends and family. I can’t emphasize that enough.

I made it out with an offer, just one. It’s why when people ask “What made you choose Dell?” I’ll probably answer “Well, they were the only company that took a chance on me.” But it didn’t matter.

I was lucky to even have a job.

I reflected on this a lot during my backpacking trip, and came to peace with it. As such, I was excited to return to the US, and start my next adventure. I boarded the plane, connected to the free WiFi, and prepared for a long, difficult-for-people-with-long-legs flight home.

Then, probably 20 minutes into the flight, this email appeared on my phone.

At first, I was very, very bitter. I had applied to this program in September, and had radio silence for months. I figured it was one last middle finger, one last “you tried, and you failed” before I started my career. But since I couldn’t, for some reason, activate the paid WiFi on the flight…I had no idea what it could be. All I could see was the subject.

I landed at JFK, quickly opened my laptop, and found it was an invitation to interview.

Reader, to say I was ecstatic would be a vast understatement.

I had an uneasy feeling interviewing for one company after accepting a job at another. It burns bridges, and is not a great reflection on mindset, integrity, or priorities.

I made this one exception, and knew it would be punishingly hard to simultaneously prepare to start a new job and interview for another. But I had to be certain that I was exploring all of my options out of school.

This was unequivocally, 100% my dream job. Google’s failure-encouraging (Google Glass, Google+), human-centered (Material Design), autonomy-driven (20% project) culture was where I aligned my values as a young techie. Not only that, but APM is pretty much the apex of job titles fresh out of college.

As such, I got my hopes astronomically high. I told my parents immediately, blew the dust off Cracking the PM Interview and Decode and Conquer, and started preparing for what I hoped to be the final boss of interview season.

I even bought a brand new shirt, just for this interview. That’s how excited and confident I was.

Pause.

I could theoretically write multiple articles on the interview process. And boy, do I remember it like it was yesterday. Given there’s an NDA, and that’s not the point of this article, I’ll just plot my levels of excitement over the few weeks it took place.

You’re probably thinking “Wow, I didn’t know I was reading an article by a Google APM! !”

Well, as you can probably guess from the multitude of hints I’ve dropped throughout this article, I didn’t get the job. I found out on a mellow early spring day in Austin. I felt like a deflated balloon. Nay, a balloon inflated to near-burst, and then deflated to nothing.

But I survived. And these are the lessons I took away from one of the most impressive failures of my career to date.

1. It’s okay, and human, to get your hopes up. Just don’t let disappointment ruin your goals.

What was I supposed to do, not be excited? This entirely human reaction wasn’t wrong, unfounded, or misplaced. But in a career, what goes up must be prepared to come down. I was prepared this time. Failure had taught me that I emerged smarter and more persistent. I could regroup, learn, and adjust goals accordingly.

Reaction B would have been to accept that I was a failure, resign myself to a life of mediocrity, and get started on my inevitable beer belly. Goodbye, amazing intersection of technology and fashion that I would carve out for myself.

I chose reaction A. My failures would not define me, but how I emerged from them would. I’m proud of how I emerged from falling flat at this one.

2. Always be prepared for whatever opportunity might come up.

Yes, even if it’s right after a backpacking trip to Europe. Had I not been prepared, I wouldn’t have made it past the first screen, and I would have been filled with “what-if’s.” Being prepared, and keeping skills sharp, is half the ingredients list of those who you might call lucky. The other half is timing, and timing awkwardly aligned for me right before I started a job.

This could (and probably will) be the topic of an entirely different article. Being prepared doesn’t mean constantly interviewing. It means staying fresh, learning constantly, and zeroing in on what makes your career your career, so you are always prepared to defend it.

3. Reflect hard after a failure, and learn from it. Don’t let a learning opportunity go to waste.

There was a reason I got invited to interview.

Despite my failure, despite falling short of what I had built up so much hope for, there was a reason I stood out. I decided I wouldn’t let that reason, whatever it was, go to waste, and I took what made my career unique and vowed to focus on it.

Why didn’t I get the outcome I was hoping for? What were my weak points? Where did I think I performed well? Who could I ask for advice on those areas I need improvement on? What could I do to improve those skills?

I reasoned that one of the ways I fell flat was not proving myself enough technically, despite my degree. I’ve now held jobs in both product and software engineering to bolster that. Not for Google, but for whatever team I’m lucky enough to work with in the future. They deserve that best version of myself I’ve worked towards.

4. You cannot. Cannot. CANNOT. dwell on “What if?”*

*with one small exception.

It’s been a year and a half since that interview. What kind of person would I be if I dwelled on that failure? Moping, brooding, and most importantly, not growing? It was tempting at first, but dwelling on that past version of myself only got in the way of who I wanted to be.

The exception to this rule is if you’re trying to model your job and your work after the dream job you almost got. For example, Google has 20% projects. I took on a 20% project at Dell, because there was nothing holding me back from doing so. If you don’t get the dream job, that doesn’t mean you can’t have some of the experiences it offers.

5. Finally, sometimes just be proud you gave it your all.

No matter what happens in my career, I can walk away proud from each interview knowing I did my absolute best. If you leave every opportunity without that doubt, you’re going places.

This article was originally published by Jameson zaballos on medium.

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