Cracking a Startup Interview

A Job at SV

(Photo by Ken Banks)

A startup job interview isn’t too different from that of a bigger company, so a lot of the tips you’ll find around the Internet apply without reservations. Startups however have a different culture, and focus on the combo of individual productivity and team fit a lot more than on processes and guidelines. Here’s a few pointers I’ve noted in candidates who have aced interviews at MobME:

Be comfortably dressed & not too formal. Inspired by the Google formula of “You don’t have to wear a suit to be serious”, most startups dress down. Wear a comfortable shirt, and perhaps put on some pants or a dress skirt, but even a jeans and T-Shirt is A-OK. This is not a license to come unwashed, unkempt or in mini-skirts though: most great startups ask their employees to look smart.

Open the conversation with smiles, be affable and open in your responses. Most good startups have a Don’t be an Asshole policy & tools to detect this early and often. When working in a close-knit team, it’s better to be around positive people who contribute than around energy drainers. Note that when I explain this to some people, they take it as an insult & a bias against introverts. Introverts are some of the best people on earth (and some of the greatest programmers), but you can be quiet and unassuming, and yet pleasant and positive.

Be confident. A better word would be assertive. Talk in short, brisk sentences. Communicate precisely. Try not to uhm and aah instead think a bit before speaking. Ask for clarifications when you don’t understand the question. When you don’t know stuff, just say that you don’t. Don’t ramble & distract the attention of the questioner away into areas that you have expertise in. If you have confidence in your skills, that really comes across, and it’s the biggest “gut factor” when I hire folks.

Brush up on what they seem to be looking for. This is a no-brainer, but most often even when you are good, you don’t get hired because it’s been a long while since you worked with the stack. It’s okay to explain that you’ll need a few weeks on the job to get up-to-speed, but it’s better to brush up before going in. Most startups hire immediately and don’t have scheduled yearly hiring rounds.

Stress that you are a generalist. Ideally, you should be. Startups value specialists when they are consultants. When you’re on the team, you are expected to pitch in everywhere required. A small team that follows an Agile development model like SCRUM always will have slack for non-core contributors to pitch in. Show them a broad spectrum of expertise.

Show them code that you’ve written. For a programming interview, this is a must. Ideally you have some uploaded to GitHub already.  If not, start contributing to open source today. It isn’t as hard as you think and there are events dedicated to lesser-represented groups.

Understand the question before answering. This is such a common problem that I’ve put it in a separate bullet point. Wait for the interviewer to complete the question before starting up. When needed, ask for clarifications, and make sure you understand the question properly. Don’t shoot from the hip.

Don’t appear too eager to get the job. Be interested and earnest but don’t compromise too much for e.g if you have a target salary.

Show an interest in their business. This is last, but this is perhaps the most overlooked and most important bit. Ask them questions about how the company is run, what the team size will be, ask if you can meet the team, et. al. Remember that an interview always goes both ways. At MobME, we’ve asked a few people who were interested but didn’t seem qualified enough to apply for an internship.

This was adapted from a mail I sent to a past colleague who is looking for a new job. Pitch in below if you have more tips!

Amateur Fiction at its Finest

Home Library

I picked up my reading habit from my mum. I read everything from Sheldon, Christie, King and the like to Yeats, Whitman, Neruda, Donne, Dickens, et. al. It sure helped that mum had a huge library of her favourites (yes, that’s the picture above) and I read most of them twice over before I left school.

It was also in school that I started to write myself. When you’re an amateur author at that age, you really like having somebody read your work. These other people more often that not turn out to be amateur authors themselves, and then of course there’s a quid pro quo. That’s how I started started to read unpublished writing, and while over the years I’ve lost the muse, I still read a ton.

When I say this to other readers, they often look at me mystified. Amateur writing, seriously? Is that like fan fiction? Where do I get to read them? Don’t most of them require a spell check & a good editor? To the last: well, yes. But amateur writing is in an electronic format, and that brings about with it some unusual advantages. Let’s banish the negatives from our mind, and take a look at the upside:

  • Let’s take length first. Who decided that a novel should be 40K words plus? How about a 500K mammoth saga? Or a 300 word scene? Some of these lengths bring about some wonderful stories & different ways to consume them.
  • Controversial & sidelined genres such as polyamory, serious examinations about bending legal age, or even religious & political writing find a place in amateur writing. There is nobody to judge.
  • Unusual genres, such as self-insertion, mind-control, time-travel, and gender-bending novellas are cool. Who doesn’t need more 70s SciFi?
  • Crossovers: because of copyright, this has been largely unexplored in a mainstream genre. But wouldn’t you, as an author like to build upon the worlds of Tolkein & Rowling? Perhaps combine them, mix and match?
  • Alternate timelines: just this: imagining redoing the travesty that is the Harry Potter finale.
  • Serial writing: just like TV shows, writing doesn’t have to be published all at a go. Amateur authors regularly publish a story a chapter at a time.

Having said that, the proof of the pudding is in the reading: these are five good stories written by unpublished authors that I’ve read over the years:

Delenda Est: a Harry Potter and Bellatrix Lestrange (!?) alternate timeline story, an incredible pairing that somehow Lord Silvere manages to turn into an amazing story. Lots of plucky Bella here. This could have the Bella all of you panted over.

The Book: a mind control story: what happens when a middle-aged guy picks up a book that has symbols in it that gives him the power to control other people’s minds? Blackie weaves a tale that has the usual vagaries that come with mind-control, but also a surprisingly intelligent & coherent story behind it.

The Adventures of Me and Martha Jane: probably one of the books that has influenced me the most with its ideas of love, longing and blurred relationships, SJR’s Martha will stay with me forever. Forget the warnings on the page and dig through the story, worth it.

HPMOR: who says Harry Potter has to be irrational? LONG, good Harry Potter fan-fiction.

Sennadar: this should have been published. It’s as good, or if not better than a lot of what goes for fantasy now. A classic coming-of-age fantasy novel, but with a were-cat twist.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m both excited & worried about the future of amateur writing. Excited, because efforts such as Amazon’s Kindle platform have provided a level playing field for a lot of budding writers out there. And worried because while the platform is egalitarian, it’s also commercial, which means a ton of potential authors will write stories in genres that are more popular & more acceptable. Amateur fiction until now has never been about making money, it’s about an author slogging away at a computer somewhere writing something that just needs to be written. But maybe that’s just the old-man in me speaking. There has never been such a time where there’s been such a low distinction between a “published” author and an amateur one. That, in my books, can only be a good thing.

The Malayalam Movie Comeback

Thoovanathumbikal

A big loss as a movie enthusiast was that when I was growing up, the Malayalam movie industry was in a formulaic rut. While local movies still used to bag critical awards, most “popular” & “commercial” films casted Mammooty, Mohanlal (please don’t click that link) or other A-list stars and had the usual Dhamaka Dishoom fare. The movie revolved around the actor, who always had labels that were prefixed with Super, Mega, Ultra & so on, and the films resembled caricatures of superhero movies.

It’s only much later & very recently, when Uma & her friends introduced me to an older generation of movies that I… simply lost my breath. Padmarajan & his colleagues’ movies were stunning in its breath & simplicity and casted real people who portrayed everyday situations but in a fashion that elevated the craft to art. These movies didn’t shy away from controversial topics: pre-marital sex, rape (not the dastardly erotic treatment of it that came later, but a serious examination), family trouble, relationships that didn’t have labels, what not. Even if you don’t understand Malayalam, I urge you if you are a movie enthusiast to watch subtitled versions of some of Padmarajan’s classics: perhaps Thoovanathumbikal (Dragonflies in the Rain), or Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (Vineyards for Us to Live). And this in the 80s! What happened to Malayalam cinema in the 90s, in contrast, can only be described by one word: tragedy.

What I see now, perhaps starting 2010, is a revival. Talented new directors have emerged who have broken the deadlock an older generation of actors had on the industry. Perhaps, more importantly, there have been several good movies, and dare I say, a few great ones. These directors are courageous as well, and have tackled contemporary topics head on: 22FK was the first movie that I saw in a Kerala theatre where a female lead received a standing ovation (regardless of its contentious conclusion, the movie can’t be faulted for not having courage); other movies such as Manjadikuru & Philips and the Monkey Pen give a serious treatment to a previously unexplored genre.

I’m cautiously optimistic about this “new wave” of Malayalam cinema, more so because unlike Padmarajan and his coterie, there seems to be a broader cross-section of directors, producers and artists this time around:

  • A lot of women in control: Ustad Hotel is written by Anjali Menon & the Monkey Pen is produced by Sandra Thomas, amongst others.
  • A ton of good actors: the new heartthrob Fahad, Malayalee’s serial kisser, who has made even baldness cool (beat that Bollywood!), a 50-something Lal who acts his age & who honestly has been a revelation for his portrayal of characters on screen, and good & refreshingly sexy female leads like Shwetha Menon, Rima Kallingal, Nazriya, et. al.
  • Some “counter-culture” movies, like Kili Poyi, or Idukki Gold, where the actors openly smoke up.
  • And the fact that this energy has infected the older actors as well and brought out their long dormant mettle, see Drishyam for a long awaited director’s movie starring Mohanlal, and Mammooty was brilliant in Pranchiyettan.

Instead of more reviews & critiques, let me leave you with a list of movies you can watch yourselves & decide. Here’s to a great future for Mallu cinema!

Download plain text Wikipedia links to these movies here.

[For people in Hindi-land who are reading this and becoming bewildered, yes, there’s a better movie industry outside Bollywood, and no, for a lot of us Indian cinema doesn’t revolve around SRKs, ABs, PCs and their tribe. This is your opportunity to upgrade to a better experience, take it!]

Relief India Trust, the Scam NGO, Files a Legal Notice Against my Blog Post for Defamation

Relief India Trust Google Reviews
From when I wrote my last blog post on Relief India Trust, there have been consistent efforts to take my site down through dubious legal means, the latest of which is a defamation legal notice against me by the Relief India Trust folks. Here’s a factsheet:

  • I received a mail on 9th February, 2013, and also a ton of calls earlier to this date asking me to donate to a charity named Relief India Trust. The people on the call were extremely pushy and while initially I thought it was because of the urgency of the case, I quickly became suspicious. When I started asking them about their NGO registration number, their 80G registration etc. they hung up the phone and stopped responding.
  • I wrote the blog on 13th of February, and it immediately started accumulating comments from lots of folks who had similar experiences.
  • I forgot about all of this until somebody else at the organisation called me up again. I replied that I knew this was a scam, and they hung up immediately.
  • In June, I received a call from a journalist working for The Sunday Guardian asking me further details about the Trust. She also visited their office and informed me that there weren’t any kids there, “only a lady who gave us a long brief about the ngo and so forth”.
  • August 5, I received an email from a person claiming to be from RIT and claiming that somebody else was calling on their behalf. I don’t understand how this can be the case because they ask us to donate by going to the same website. Unfortunately I was so disgusted that I did not reply to this message. That mail is available here.
  • In September, another person emailed me saying they had received a take down notice.
  • In Nov of 2013, I noticed that my blog was not loading. When I contacted my hosting provider (wordpress.com), they said my site was under a DDOS attack. Please see my conversation with my hosting provider.
  • In the Jan of 2014, they filed a DMCA complaint against me with my hosting provider and took down my site until I could file the counter notice. As many of you would know, DMCA notices are used to report copyright violation, so this was definitely a tactic to take my site down.
  • The latest action from their end is this threatening legal notice I received this week.

India’s defamation laws aren’t exactly the most progressive, but in the interests of not letting such dubious “Trusts” get away with anything, I asked around on Twitter for any lawyers willing to provide some legal advice. Anoop reminded me about my school senior Aju who now runs MyLaw.net and he in turn connected me to Apar of Advani & Co who is now representing me. My initial interactions with Apar were through Twitter, and he’s been a pleasure to talk to. Find Apar’s response here, wherein he manages to quote Arkell vs. Pressdam 🙂

Will keep you folks updated.

Update (October 27, 2014): I haven’t heard back from them after the notice was replied to, but wanted to update all of you on certain new developments thanks to comments on this post:

  • Read the official AIIMS policy on donation & abide by it.
  • Relief India Trust now has a listing on the NGO registry, to reach this page yourself, go to the NGO home page and put in 0081349 on the home page. This however, doesn’t mean a thing, as we should ask for audited financial statements for authenticity. Anybody can start an NGO.
  • Please find uploaded here a list of fake documents they send across when asked for proof. Note that most of these are outdated, and some are outright photoshopped.

Update (Nov 6, 2014): Sanjeev, one of the commenters on the original post has provided a far more detailed info of the operations in his comment.