I landed at LAX on a Sunday night, just a few minutes shy of midnight. I’d been bouncing from airport to airplane for the last 10 hours. When I turned on my phone, I got a notification. It was time to check in for my flight back to Maryland, which would take off in approximately 20 hours. In that 20 hours, I needed to sleep, eat and sightsee. But most importantly, I needed to do well in four hours of interviews that would determine if I would get a job at a self-storage start-up in Los Angeles. And, if I had a few extra minutes, study for an algorithms quiz.
There is a kind of in-the-moment exhaustion that comes from hard work with no immediate results. It is, in my opinion, the primary emotion of college. We all work and study, paying for the privilege to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very lucky to have the opportunity and financial resources to go to college, but sometimes it feels like you’re trying to break through a brick wall with your forehead.
For seniors, that feeling is only compounded by the uncertainty, effort and rejection brought on by the job search. Last semester, I applied for almost 50 jobs. I completed more than 25 interviews, some on campus, some over the phone and some, like the L.A. interview, on-site. After weeks of practice, months of worry and years of study, I got two job offers: the culmination of 16 years of education, even more so than my upcoming graduation.
And after that graduation, I’ll be moving 3000 miles away to begin my career as a software engineer at Microsoft.
There are a few standard responses I get when I tell people my plans for after graduation: “You’re so lucky” (yes), “you must be so smart” (kind of), “so, are you just really good at coding?” (definitely not). None of them get at the real reason I got this job. Yes, I was really lucky. And yes, I’m a pretty good computer scientist (but nowhere near the best). Being smart and good at your major can get you a good job, but to go the extra mile, you need stamina, the ability to not take anything personally and enough preparation to take advantage of any luck you might have.
The Microsoft interview process moves much faster than you might think. My first interview was on campus at the end of October, I flew out to Seattle for a day of interviews in the middle of November and I signed my offer letter before Thanksgiving. It’s still a little hard to believe it happened. But I’m going back to Seattle over spring break to look at apartments, all because I impressed five people over the course of a few hours. Not that the interview process is easy — far from it. But compared to the years of work it took to get in the room, answering a couple algorithms and data structure questions were a walk in the park, the final push in the last mile of a marathon.
On the day of the Microsoft interviews, I arrived before the sun came up. I’d already finished interviews at the L.A. start-up and Google, so I basically knew what to expect. There was a corral of other students wearing various interpretations of business casual attire. They fed us a breakfast of various pastries and cut fruit as interviewers came out, calling the names of their targets.
Each interview took 45 minutes. After you finished, you were returned to the holding pen to nervously look up answers to things you thought you got wrong and drink a little too much caffeine. Then, a 15-minute break passed before you went back again to a slightly different room and a slightly different interview.
Once everyone had completed their four interviews, they gave us each a slightly-too-large branded hoodie and released us back into the wild. We all ate lunch together and speculated about jobs, trying not to get our hopes too high or imagine what our lives could be if we got the job. We wandered around Microsoft’s campus, through walking paths and woods, gardens and green spaces. In some places, you could barely see the tops of the glass buildings over the redwoods. The sun was shining, and we were in giddy limbo.
After we’d all said our goodbyes and gone our separate ways, I went back to my hotel. It was only four in the afternoon. I should have gone out. I should have walked around the city, found a nice bar, sat and had a drink in the place I was hoping to call home. Instead, I went up to my room. I changed into sweatpants and wrapped myself in a bathrobe. I ordered $50 of room service (thank you, Microsoft travel allowance). I sat and watched the sunset over Lake Washington, demolishing a massive burger, a plateful of fries and a drink more expensive than my usual daily food budget. I may or may not have cried at the sunset over Lake Washington. I was completely and utterly exhausted. If I didn’t get the job, I wasn’t sure if I would have the energy to keep at the interviewing grindstone.
In the days after, my only other offer expired. It was from the start-up in L.A., the one I spent 48 grueling hours traveling to secure. I let it. By all accounts it was a stupid move. I had no promise of an offer from Microsoft, but I knew L.A. wasn’t the place for me and a start-up wasn’t the job for me. I was back where I began, with many, many rejections and no clear job after I graduated. It was quite possibly the most anxious time in my life. I could have accepted the start-up’s offer, but instead I forced myself through the final push. I’d come too far and worked too hard to compromise.
Three days later, Microsoft called with the offer. For the first time in years, I relaxed.
I did a few things that gave me the tools I needed to take advantage of the luck I had. First, I practiced interviewing like a skill. Throughout the summer I met with other computer science majors and we took turns interviewing each other, using practice interview questions we found online. Next, I applied to jobs like crazy and made each application count. For two months, I applied to five jobs per week, tailoring each resume and cover letter to each job. I made it a goal to get 30 rejection letters instead of a job, reframing what could be demoralizing and turning it into something to work towards. Finally, I researched the company before every interview I had. I learned what projects each company had recently launched, the market share of their products and the structure of their engineering teams. If they had open-sourced code, I did my best to understand that too.
All three of these things boil down to one key trait: I put in the effort to show I cared about every position I was applying for. I used all the discipline and skills I developed over the course of my degree, and it worked.
UMBC has been a wonderful home for the past four years. I’ve made friends and grown into an adult, all while building the portfolio I needed to move on to the next stage in my life. But I’ve also sat crying in front of my computer, typing away at a project because I don’t have time to take a break for a panic attack. I know starting a new job will be an incredibly stressful experience, but I’ve reached a place where all that delayed gratification is beginning to catch up to me. My work was validated. I get to move to an exciting new city and start a job I only fleetingly dreamed of getting, in large part because I had the will to keep trying my hardest till the very end.
Emily Hobby is a senior computer science major and creative writing minor graduating in May.