What is it like to work in Silicon Valley? Interview with Ellen, former intern at Paypal

  • 11/03/2016

Ellen Yuan is a senior at Duke University double majoring in computer science and statistics. She has had experience working with several big-name companies like Paypal, Google, and Bank of America.

Despite being super busy with school work attending one of the most elite schools in the world, she was kind enough to answer some questions that our TECHRISE students had for her.

Q1. When I look at students abroad, they seem to be getting better education in the IT field and actually start learning coding or designing from a very young age. For a developing country like Nepal, many people couldn’t access the internet when they were young. Even for me, I could only access the internet after 12th grade. How can we compete with the young, talented and more practiced student in the IT field if we have to compete with them?

I honestly didn’t have any computer science background before starting college. I think what matters more is having a passion for IT. There are a bunch of resources online to learn coding, and whenever you are stuck you can just Google it. If you have a passion for it, then you’ll naturally try to learn more. So I don’t think it really matters when you start, it’s more about having a passion for it and building the ability to solve problems on your own.

Q2. What got you interested in computer science in the first place?

I attended Google’s Computer Science Summer Institute in 2013, and learned Python, HTML/CSS, and JavaScript from Google engineers - it was a lot of fun! We created an application kind of like Instagram and it really inspired me to pursue a computer science degree.

Q3. What is the life of a person working at Silicon Valley like?

I’m honestly not the typical Silicon Valley type of person - I play a lot of sports. I wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, come home, go to the gym or play sports, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to sleep. I played a lot of sports over the summer and I had a lot of fun.

But a lot of Silicon Valley people catch up with tech news before work and are really passionate about that kind of stuff. I have a friend who interned at Facebook this summer, and he would go to work at 6:30 in the morning to catch up on tech news, and come back home at around 7PM. It really depends on who you’re around, but it’s definitely a lot of fun to be in the valley.

Q4. What are the skills required to intern in a well-established company like Google?

In the interviews, they’ll test you mainly on data structures and picking out the most optimal ones to solve algorithm challenges. So you have to have a good understanding of binary trees, linked lists, hashes, heaps and so on and so forth.

They’ll also see if you are a good fit for the company culture - would you fit in the company or not? It would also be best if you have a passion for the company’s products as well.

You also want to have things that you have worked on to show potential employees that you are really passionate about whatever you do. I usually talk about my experience as a teaching assistant, because I feel that demonstrates that I’m really passionate about computer science.

Also another thing to be careful about is to not list technologies you’re not really familiar with. One story I heard was about a person who listed that he was proficient in Ruby when he actually wasn’t, and when the interviewer asked a question about Ruby, he was in big trouble.

Q4. What has working for big companies taught you, not only in technical/work related aspects but also in real life?

It has taught me that connections are really important - if you work at Facebook, it’s easier to work at companies like Google, because a lot of people are connected. Also, if you want to work at Facebook, it’s basically impossible to get even an interview unless you have a referral from an employee there. So connections are super important.

Q5. Is it possible to be selected as in employee in a company such as Paypal without having any contacts or connection within the company?

To be honest, it’s pretty difficult. It’s not impossible, but you really have to know someone. For me, companies came to my college to recruit students, so that’s how I was connected with them. If you don’t have any connections, it’s really tough because these companies get so many resumes sent and they don’t have time to look over all of them.

Q6. How can we prevent ourselves from hopping from one framework to another?

I would say work on a project using a specific language or framework. The main thing is that you have to like it - so if you don’t like whatever you are using, then try another one until you find one that sticks.

Q7. What does an IT company look for when hiring fresh candidates?

In general I think companies look for people who have a solid understanding of computer science, so like I said before, data structures and algorithms are really important. If you can’t solve these, you can’t really move on to the next step in the interview. And again, another thing is culture fit - would you fit into the company or not. You also want to show that you are really passionate about technology, so as I mentioned before, it’s important to work on projects or engage in some kind of activity that shows people that you really care about it and spend a lot of time on it because you like to do it.

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Ellen! We really appreciate your time!

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