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Why I'm Not Psyched to Go on Tech Interviews as a Unicorn Frontend Developer

How I've stopped fearing DS&A questions & embraced my own unique talents.

Stuck on Ideas illustration
Stuck–illustration by Rob Levin
Ok, so I'm going to be transparent and admit that I am not super psyched to gear up for my upcoming technical interviews. Here's why:

  • I'm a self-taught developer so I didn't just recently go to school for a CS degree and take DS&A class just a few months ago.
  • Historically, frontend specialists didn't get asked a lot of these types of questions (but this appears to have changed a few years ago from what I can tell).
  • Now, frontend developer skill requirements require something along the lines of “frontend dev, but with full-stack skills”.

In a way, this is understandable, given so much of an single page application's logic has been moved into to the frontend.

  • Kids straight out of college (and really many techies in the early stages of their adult life), are now willing to lock themselves up for 6+ months to solve 500-1000 leetcode problems and make DS&A textbooks their nightly bedtime reading.

Don't get me wrong here, I do respect the willingness to put in this level of effort. It's just that I don't see myself realistically being able to do this unless I'm willing to alienate my wife and kids with some sort of narcissists' self-absorbed declaration of “Hey guys, so this is just what it's going to take, 6 months of dad disappears into his studies. Y‘all are on your own.” That would be an absolutely ridiculous decision for me to make and could put my whole family dynamic in jeopardy. Really, I'm already obsessive enough with self improvement and tech, so, if anything, I need to unplug more for my family…not less!

  • Although I have been studying DS&A after realizing it's become a part of this new set of frontend requirements, I'm noticing some areas are going to require an insane amount of study before I'm really “interview ready”.

For example, it takes much more then just learning something like breadth first search traversal to be prepared for many of the types of questions that involve bfs. Likely, such questions will come with a twist or two that requires you to have an inate facility with bfs traversal, so that you can focus on the nuances of the question itself.

  • My plan was to study DS&A on the side for 2 years before I considered myself “ready” (whatever that means) while I'd have my reliable Ethos gig (or so I thought).

Since I'm in the parenting stage of life, this sort of longer term approach seemed most sensible. But then I just recently got laid off just 11 months in. So, while I definitely did some DS&A prep, I'm no where near as prepared as I'd need to be for, say, a typical FAANG interview (at least from what my research on the matter tells me).

Am I whining? Why yes…yes I am. But, perhaps you can relate.

¯\
(ツ)_/¯


Lesson learned

As I contemplated my interview loathing feelings, I started to realize that I may be approaching the whole thing wrong–maybe I needed reconsider how I allocated my time. While some DS&A prep time would be needed, perhaps carving out more time for things like:

  • creating a nice blog to show off my hybrid develop to design talents
  • putting in more effort in filtering down my search to opportunities that are more of a match for my unique skills and interests

Obviously, you're seeing the fruits of the first bullet point, and I hope my blog is enjoyable to read—readability was my single design requirements when I did my initial Figma explorations.

As for how to filter searches for my specific niche skills, I'm still tinkering with this.

So, what actually makes me unique anyway?

Ok, if I haven't lost you yet, let's talk about what factors besides DS&A might help someone like me (and perhaps you) differentiate themselves in the frontend interviewing arena…

Reaching out to a mentor

I had a chance to talk to a long-time confidant, friend, and former manager of mine Tricia Spoonts about this matter. I was suspecting that I may be overly psyching myself out on the whole DS&A preparation thing, and perhaps I should diversify the focus of my studies a bit.

Two main reason why:

  1. As I studied complex topics like dynamic programming and graph traversal and backtracking and bfs/dfs and, well, all the other mandatory topics you'd need pass hard technical interviews, I started thinking:

    Um, wait, it won't be enough for me to generally understand a particular topic like backtracking, bfs, etc., and only solve a few problems. I'll likely need to solve more like 20-30 of such problems to have the sort of facility required to think through an unfamiliar problem set within the allotted interview time. How the heck will I be able to set aside enough study hours to be ready for that?!?

  2. I started creating this blog which led to the rediscovery of my love for creative coding and design. I've always been a bit of a "Unicorn" developer/designer after all, hence the name of this site developtodesign. It led me to the realization that–although I should continue my longer term studies of DS&A, I shouldn't do so at the cost of working on the things that make me…well, me!

So we had a video call…

The wonderful gift of feedback

As someone who leads teams from frontend to UX to Design, Tricia is often involved with interviewing and hiring for those team. Often, she'll have to wade through piles and piles of resumes, conducts several interviews a week, and then evaluate those candidates and discuss in a panel settings. So, her opinion is absolutely relevant.

When I contacted Tricia to ask her to ask her opinion on the matter, she asserted that folks really need to focus on things that make them unique, authentic, and interesting. Focus on the things that make you passionate about your vocation in the first place. She further pointed out, that unless you're absolutely the best at something as general as data structures and algorithms (in which case you're probably on the backend or involved in data science or something similar anyway), that you're not actually going to leave much of a memorable impression just from that alone. It's more likely that there's something more intangible about you that will make the biggest difference when it comes time for discussion amongst a panel regarding if you're a fit.

Disclaimer: for highly technical roles (especially backend or data science ones), absolutely killing DS&A and Systems Design interviews WILL make a huge impression. But, for those of us that straddle the intersection between frontend development and UIUX, it's more nuanced.

Reflections

After speaking with Tricia I felt a sense of relief. It confirmed my outlook and I've since decided that I will not worry about being passed over this time out if I need some more DS&A time that's consistent with a longer term study plan. Further, I'll take some straight up frontend interviews to get my feet wet, but, I'll also spend a bit more time filtering for roles like UI Architect where my generalist develop / design skill overlap is likely most valued. Perhaps, filtering for best matches should be part of the time allocated if you're more of a "Unicorn Developer / Designer" type.

I've always been "that guy" they pull in when the feature just isn't looking like the design spec, or the rapid prototyper that can help the UX team quickly do some napkin A/B testing, or, even called "the CSS guy" from PMs. So I suppose that's my strength and I need to remember to play to it when I'm out selling myself.

Conclusions

So, to recap, my conclusions are:

  • I certainly must continue to study DS&A. But it's fine if I'm on a more reasonable longer-term plan. If I can't pass a FAANG interview it's not the end of the world.
  • I can't forget why I fell in love with tech in the first place. I must continue to put time into my strengths too

I'm not sure if this sort of meandering rant resonates with you, but I have a suspicion it might. Certainly, if you have the time to sign up for one of the many interview prep resources and literally focus for 6 months straight on preparing for interviews I applaud your will power and drive and if you get that job you deserve it. However, for me, I'll take my time and do this over the long haul (even if it means going back to another startup or mid sized company to continue studying DS&A on the side).