Cold Calling

When I got into colleges, I called a friend of mine from Mathcamp who was completing his first year at Harvard. I asked him for advice. What courses was he taking? What were his peers like? More than my experience visiting campuses, this correspondence painted a picture of collegiate life and informed my decision to attend Harvard. In addition, his recommendations about specific professors and textbooks enabled me to plan for freshman year.

When gearing up for a new experience, the first thing I often do is contact someone who has had that experience, someone who is in a position to help me prepare. For instance, if I want a job at Facebook, I will try to find someone who has worked there and who I can talk to about the company and the interview process. This is straightforward if I have a friend who worked there the summer before, but what if I don’t? Well, there’s a good chance that one of my friends knows someone who did. Or my computer science professor can put me in touch with a former student. The point is, if you can find someone’s name, you can ask for an introduction. Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons from Bananagrams

Think of Bananagrams as a fun version of Scrabble. You fit letters together without a board, you have to use all the pieces, it’s a race. Here’s a common scenario. You have everything arranged neatly, and you are particularly pleased with yourself for spelling the word “stochastic.” Unfortunately, you have one remaining letter, a “Q” more often than not, that just won’t fit anywhere. So what do you do? The difficult truth is that, if you want to proceed, you have to undo your work. It requires a certain mental fortitude to tear down what you’ve built up, to sacrifice the progress you’ve made in the hopes of stumbling upon a better arrangement. But Bananagrams is a game of all or nothing and sometimes you have to make that sacrifice. I’ve seen player after player grow attached to their words, refuse to give them up, and lose as a consequence.

Life is a lot like Bananagrams. From your choice of partner to your choice of career, when you find yourself at a relative maximum, it is tempting to settle. It is difficult to take a step in what you know to be (locally) the wrong direction, even when you do so in pursuit of a better outcome down the road. Are we willing to leave someone, a boyfriend or girlfriend, whom we care about very much and whose company we enjoy, because we want to know what else is out there? Are we willing to trade guaranteed satisfaction for uncertainty? The answer is and should be highly dependent on where you are in life. But it is never easy. Read the rest of this entry »

Have it Your Way

A classmate and close friend of mine was interviewing for a job at a Manhattan-based hedge fund. After making it through to the final round, she was abruptly informed that there were no openings left but that she should apply again next year. She was crestfallen. But where most other students would have thanked the company for the interview and accepted the rejection, she was indignant. She knew they had made a mistake, and she told them so. The company could try to hire other students who knew more about economics and finance, she explained, but those same students would never be able to solve math problems like she could. The HR representative relayed the message, and the company agreed to give her another interview, this time with one of the co-founders. He was blown away by her analytic ability, and she landed the job. By shamelessly advocating for herself, she got her way.

If you are in the market for dates or for jobs, you can’t sit around and wait for people to notice you because chances are they won’t. Be direct. Be blunt. Develop and articulate your preferences. As incredible as it may seem, my friend’s story wasn’t an isolated event. The year after that incident, I interviewed at a Bay Area tech company. I was asked some brain teasers and some algorithm questions, and at the time, I thought it went pretty well. I found out a couple days later that my interviewers felt differently; I was turned away. Surprised (though in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been), I somewhat ridiculously asked them to interview me again. To my delight, they agreed. The lesson is that it generally doesn’t hurt to ask, and if you do ask, you may be surprised by the results. Read the rest of this entry »