getting the “x” job

Areena Akhter
8 min readJan 16, 2022

january 16th, 2022

started on r/uwaterloo, now we’re here
Before I applied to the University of Waterloo, the word “reddit” meant nothing to me. By the end of my junior year as a software engineering student here, my search history has been dominated by threads from r/uwaterloo with titles like “WaterlooWorks Spring 2021” and “High School Admissions Chances.” The uWaterloo Reddit serves as an only slightly unreliable news source that competes with our academic faculty to deliver the latest updates on online schooling and more.

It’s here, inescapably, that Waterloo’s computer science and software engineering culture is bred. And if I had to guess, it was the birthplace of a phrase most of my peers have heard at least once — “cali or bust.”

en route to the promised land

cali or bust?
Universities with ‘coop’ (internship) programs like to promote the flashy companies their students land during their five years on campus. I, too, was drawn into the promise of “putting those skills to work at leading companies like Snapchat, Facebook, or hot new startups.” As a result, most CS students have wondered, at least once, what it would take to reach the “promised land” of a California coop, or a FAANG internship, or a Big N name on your resume. Some also wonder if getting this internship defines their success. Personally, I’ve found the reality of recruiting to be harsh and at times hollow. What does it mean to follow the mentality “cali or bust?” And do you even want it in the first place?

the “x” job
What follows is my honest perspective of how to achieve the “x” job, where “x” represents your career goals as a university student. More importantly, I’ll share how to preserve your sanity along the road to the treasure box that is your “x.”

A disclaimer — this won’t be a formula to your career success, nor will anything you read online. I am aware that I’m nowhere near career success yet (I’m only two decades old.) My goal is simply to share how I believe I got my software engineering internships at Uber and Formlabs, hopefully reframing my career journey as a personal one along the way.

[Editor’s note: apparently, this journey is longer than expected, and I’ve been forced to reduce scope creep. I’ll be following up on this post with Areena’s guide to cracking the coding interview (if you want to) next week.]

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I believe that internship recruiting in tech, particularly recruiting for underrepresented groups, suffers from a catch-22 that is rooted in a lack of knowledge. Underrepresented groups lack the resources, financial and network-based, to know how to “get past the recruiter screen” or “game the interview.” How will you get your first job (and build experience) when you’re starting so far behind peers who have interned for free since high school, or have connections in the industry? The Yale Daily News published a revelatory piece, which I’d highly recommend reading, on the toxicity of internship culture that elaborates on this concept.

I want to acknowledge my own privilege as a Waterloo student and with parents in the tech industry, and hope to contribute by sharing what I’ve learned so far. So, here’s your first lesson on the lingo that your peers might enjoy throwing around as proof that they are truly software engineers:

excerpts from my dictionary of recruiting acronyms

  • SWE — software engineering. Encompasses roles that most computer science, electrical engineering, and software engineering students would apply to.
  • FAANG — “Facebook (now questionable?), Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.” A placeholder for big tech companies, sometimes replaced by “Big N” in general
  • SF — what us Canadians like to call San Francisco (although I’ve heard that real Californians don’t call it SF nearly as much, nor do they refer to their state as “cali”)
  • recruiting season — who knew recruiting was a full time job? Just like applying to university, internships have peak seasons when the following year’s jobs are posted, and quickly filled. In tech specifically, this season starts in August of the year before your internship starts. ex: if you want a summer 2023 internship, you would be applying to jobs in August 2022!
  • “grinding” leetcode/LC <easy/med/hard> — represents the class of data structures and algorithms-based coding questions that are asked in technical interviews. Leetcode is the most common website to practice questions that might be asked during your interview, but there are many similar websites out there that might be better suited to your learning style. More on this later.

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And now, some real talk about recruiting:

timing is everything
Big tech companies hate freshmen, dislike sophomores, and would bend over backwards for upperclassmen. Unless you’re applying to a role that’s marketed for inexperienced, 1st and 2nd year CS students (which you should be), most internships are filtered by graduation year. The closer your graduation date, the higher chance your resume has to be noticed by a recruiter. In 2020, first-year Areena didn’t even get rejected by companies she applied to; she was ghosted on the daily. Meanwhile, she was hopelessly watching 2021 grads announce not one, but two back-to-back internships like it was nothing.

your time will come
We need perspective on the timeline of in tech recruiting. Your underclassmen years are for building who you are as an engineer, and searching for opportunities that’ll help you do so. I’d recommend applying to any of the big tech 1st/2nd year programs, which include Microsoft’s Explore Program, Facebook University (FBU) and Google STEP. However, you should concurrently be building proof of your interest in tech — maybe that’s through hackathons, volunteering for a student org or design team, or working on a side project. This allows you to substitute your lack of technical experience with demonstrated technical passion. I met the founder of the startup I would eventually intern at through a social impact incubator I worked at after-hours in my first coop term — proof that all your hard work will compound eventually, I swear.

your resume is a work of art
Tech resumés go against every standard your career centre will throw at you. Like everything else we build, our résumes should constantly be iterated on, and reevaluated for whomever is reading it. I want to share concrete tips in a future post, but your first step should be to attend a student organization run résumé critique, if your university holds one. At uWaterloo, Tech+ UW, Software Engineering Society, and many more orgs run these at the start of each term (early January, early May, and early September.) Run, don’t walk!

quantity >>>> (to begin with)
Most universities like to advertise their internal job board as the source of high student employment rates; talk to any upper-year student (especially during COVID), and you’ll hear the opposite. Pitt CS publishes a list of SWE internships to apply to every term. Personally, I applied to my internship at Formlabs through LinkedIn. You should also leverage any communities you’ve joined (in step one, remember) to look for referrals or community-based application pages. Some of these are Technolgap, Rewriting the Code, and the Greylock Techfair. Your school’s job board is just one of many baskets you should be placing your resumé in, to maximize the chance that someone will buy into your story. If you’re starting out, you should target to apply to 100+ companies in August to October and then again January to March.

I applied to at least 200 companies in 2021, and interviewed with maybe 20? Out of them, Formlabs and Uber were the companies who took a chance on me. I often meet students at other universities who are surprised by the scale uWaterloo students apply at, and I get it. But if you treat recruiting like a course, with goals you want to reach by a deadline, and ask for help when you need it, I truly believe you will eventually succeed.

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Famous last words:

big tech is only maybe a big deal.
Something I heard too late in my internship search was that certain startups are actually more competitive than a lot of FAANG internships, because startups don’t always use the “formulas” for recruiting you can expect in big tech. As an IB and then UW Software Engineering student, I often feel inclined to aim for whatever seems the hardest to achieve; somehow, I rarely stop to ask myself why. That’s why I want to end this first article on getting the “x” job by sharing my criteria on how I decided what my “x” job should be.

For me, big tech roles represent the opportunity to build credibility as a software engineer and learn about scaling systems, before I try to aim for startups where I’d want to bring to the table a wealth of software engineering knowledge. Startups will face hyper growth challenges where your big tech experience can only help. They’ll also respect engineers who have some big tech experience, because they’ve passed the big tech screen process. At this point, I’ve only worked at <600 people companies so far, and have never made technical trade offs based on scale or considered a user base as large as Uber’s before. Also, I’ll be learning from some of the smartest engineers out there, and I can eventually leverage that network when I’m ready for a startup. Finally, I get to work on a product that I use everyday, something I’ve dreamt about every time I took an Uber ride and asked the driver about their experience using the app.

Your internships will be the only time that you’ll experience 4 to 8 months of a company’s culture with no strings attached. Treat your university recruiting journey like you’re Goldilocks and the entire tech industry is the home of the 3 bears (does that make sense?) Reddit, your parents, and most likely your friends will try to tell you what you want, but I think personal fulfillment will only come from building a framework for how you define your success, and staying grounded in pursuit of it. Own what you want. Don’t be ashamed to pursue the “x” job, if you really want it.

Will I like California? That’s TBD (but I hope you stay tuned to read about it.)

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If you’re reading this and have more questions about recruiting, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or Twitter! If you specifically identify as a woman in tech, please join a Slack community I run called Technolgap where we share advice on recruiting, school, and getting through this industry that can feel very homogenous sometimes.

Finally, don’t forget to breathe. We’re barely twenty. Life will go on.

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Areena Akhter

thinking about people, computers, and the space in between them 💭 computer science @ uwaterloo, she/her