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Just did the Y Combinator interview: here are my notes (checklyhq.com)
253 points by tnolet 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 67 comments



> Order your thoughts. Keep it short. Communicate one idea in one sentence. etc. etc. etc.

This is true in general. I remember when I did consulting interviews you needed to talk like that and the feedback I got was that I didn't do enough of it.

Funnily enough, I could clearly tell that whenever I had a programmer job interview, everyone was always really impressed with how 'structured my thinking' was.

Other than being impressed the biggest benefit that you also describe in your blog post is that it is simply very clear what you are about! And people seem a lot happier when listening to you feels like a simple thing to do.

Here's an example of how I do it. The following that I wrote down was typed as quickly as possible.

---

Interviewer: So tell me about yourself

Me: Alright, there are three perspectives I'd quickly like to touch:

1. Personal

2. Educational

3. Professional

With 1. personal, I'm all about fantasy and curiosity. Understand that and you understand me.

Educational: I studied to become the bridge between the business world and the computer world while also trying to become an expert in both. Therefore, I started of with business informatics. Upon graduation I immediately started studying psychology - people, and computer science - computers. And I studied game studies to merge them back into one topic again.

Professional it's rather interesting: the past 8 years I saw my university as a playground and I just applied to any job that didn't feel like work. This resulted in me becoming a teaching assistant, a coach for teaching assistants, a bootcamp instructor and a programmer/web developer. In total I have about 2.5 years of work experience, 1.5 on teaching development and 1 on development.

---

It was a huge improvement compared to my standard 15 minute answer. This answer above is just told under 1 minute.


> Interviewer: So tell me about yourself

> Me: Alright, there are three perspectives I'd quickly like to touch:

> 1. Personal

> 2. Educational

> 3. Professional

That seems so forced and unnatural that it makes me cringe. 'Tell me about yourself' should be a natural conversation starter, not an exam that you did your homework for.


(haha, that's a fun username, kamehame... okay I'll show myself out O:) )

I am right in the middle of interviewing right now (I'm open for any interdisciplinary business/dev/get things done role).

IMO when you interview you're always on the spot and always being judged. I've done it the other way. I am the type of person who likes to just drift away and associatively talk about things (hmm... the very astute reader could've inferred this given what I said in "1. Personal" :P). It has never done me any favors when I did this in a job interview.

The issue you run into is (quote from the article):

> "So, yeah, like, we're like working on this thing, but then my cofounder quit, and now we have this customer who's really loving the product but then we hit a bug with Docker because it uses React in the Kubernetes and now, you know, I'd like to know if you reimburse travel cost when I do the interview and stuff"

It's better to make the mistake of being too formal at an informal moment than the other way around. And honestly, I have been surprised to what extent I should not have been informal in the first place.

Moreover, people will somehow signal to what extent you're being too formal. I can tell from their body language. However, when I'm too informal I can't actually tell to what extent I'm too informal.


It's futile to keep trying to force fit an interview to a natural conversation. It simply is not.

"Tell me about yourself" is simply not the kind of thing normal people ask each other for breaking the ice. It's a stressful question that puts people on the spot and forces them to 'create' a first impression.


Same here. If I heard this in an interview I'd feel like I'm being fed a presentation deck instead of an honest answer.

Now, I do think that one should do a little bit of homework to give a somewhat structured answer to "Tell me about yourself", but there is such a thing as too perfect, at which point it becomes jarring.


Do interviewers really want an honest answer, or just enough to label you? And if you don't want canned responses, maybe not ask such open-ended and really a bit weird questions. Be more specific. I have no idea what the interviewer want out of a question like that. Small-talk or just get warmed up with me saying my name and where I'm from? Or my life-story so far? What if I don't define myself as what I do for a living, would it be weird omitting the fact that I'm a programmer and instead tell about my hobbies? Should I divulge information about myself that you aren't allowed to ask (discrimination etc), but that I feel is me?


Nothing about behavioral interviews are honest. Any person who has practiced interviewing knows canned answers to the popular ones and any person who has interviewed enough has canned questions.


Interesting, since it is the honest answer. It's just condensed by trying to cut out superfluous info.

And as another person argued correctly, I probably didn't fully succeed at that.

Just because an answer is structured, doesn't mean it's dishonest.


Have you tried Amazon interview questions? They expect you to follow the STAR method.


Twice, other than that no. In most behavioral programming interviews I haven't been structured in my answers as being structured came a bit later when I was also applying for consultancies. I was a lot tougher to follow when I wasn't structured.

When I was structured I did use a variation the STAR method when they expected me to. Having a method like that makes things quicker to go through, as long as you make it your own and own it. I adapted the framework a bit by swapping the T (Task) for P (Problem) as it sense to me why you'd need to emphasize the task as opposed to the problem you'd be trying to solve. In rare cases I also adapted it to the SPARAR method, since the result made the problem smaller but didn't fully solve it yet.

I prefer to structure things on the fly though without a pre-defined framework.


“Tell me about yourself” is lazy, unnatural conversation. “Tell me about <thing you did on your cv>” is way better, especially if it hints at some other interests.


This.

How would I describe myself? Three words: hardworking, alpha male, jackhammer, merciless, insatiable.


Whether is sounds forced or comes across as someone who has well structured thinking will depend on the delivery.


Great you already cut your normal 15 minute one to this. But honestly, it’s still quite long.

Of course, context matters and the context of a YC interview is an elevator pitch.

In that setting, the “tell us a little about yourself” question should probably be one or two sentences.

I’d probably answer. “My name is Tim, from the Netherlands living in Berlin with my long time partner. Second time founder in the tech space. I have a computer science background and enjoy playing the guitar.”

As always, YMMV.


Ok let's try.

My name is Mettamage, from The Netherlands. Living in Amsterdam with my girlfriend. I studied: psychology, business informatics -- both bachelors -- and computer science and game studies -- both masters. I have worked as a teacher/bootcamp instructor and programmer. I enjoy running.

When I'm reading it, I think I see this working better in some situations but not in others as my profile simply invokes a lot of questions. And when it does invoke a lot of questions, then my way of talking about it saves time.

People are going to ask: why did you study so many things? With my answer they don't. More importantly, I don't like that question. I can't stand it. I've heard it too many times over in my life. I'm a bit burned out with people their tone on that question. I'm fine with if you're surprised. But a lot of people simply find it weird in a negative sense, and I'm tired of hearing it.

My profile in what I did as work is rather broad, which leads to questions. Interviewers, being the conservative munchkins that they are, they can't pigeonhole me into a role. In my particular answer I pre-empt the most important one which is: why did you do so many things in such a short amount of time? Oh, you did it as side jobs during your study for fun. And now you're looking for your first long-term job.

And most importantly, it's all true. Or at least, I believe it is.

Also, I don't want people to know that I enjoy running. I want people to know that I'm a curious fellow that loves to use his imagination and if you understand the essence of that you can kind of infer a lot about who I am (in one of my other comments there's an example of this).


No, first question I would have: Why are you talking so much about your education?

It feels like profile from a guy who just finished school. I do not thing that education is that important in startups or business generally.


A good education helps you to understand the state of the art. My education helped me to do this with security, especially when it comes to reverse engineering binaries and hardware security.

Ideally, it should do it for a lot more topics but that's where reality sets in.


> I can't stand it.

You cannot stand when people ask you "why study so many things" question?

Your "cannot stand" attitude hints that you resist evaluation of your potential mistakes.


I can't stand people that feel negative towards curiosity and taking ownership of your education. That's what I hear in a good chunk of people their tone.


Mand!


I think the content is there, but you could keep the structure without making it too explicit.

Something like this should set the tone up for an interview -

Hi I'm ... studied business informatics because I'm interested in the intersection between business world and the computer world. Upon graduation I realized I wanted to understand human psychology better so took that up formally. This eventually led me to game studies. I'd say that makes me come across as a curious person which I identify with.

Over the past 8 years I became a teaching assistant, a coach for teaching assistants, a bootcamp instructor and a programmer/web developer. In total I have about 2.5 years of work experience including 1.5 on teaching development to others.

P.S. Based on my experience, "applied to any job that didn't feel like work" is something better left out from an introduction for a job interview.


You have a point, thanks for the tip!

Also, I feel that you're right with:

> P.S. Based on my experience, "applied to any job that didn't feel like work" is something better left out from an introduction for a job interview.

But I wouldn't be fully to explain why. IMO if something doesn't feel like work but play, it means your energy capacity of it is really high.

I feel that the message is being misinterpreted for having a lack of responsibility or something, but that's not the case.


I like to break down my resume in three parts, too:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-7BORF4J4Y


is this satire? because if not, you wanna short it to 1 to 2 sentences.


Nope, I'm afraid it isn't. This is literally how I am, pretty comprehensive and summarized.


I’m sure other commenters here will comment on the substance of what you wrote.

I’ll, however, just toss a complement: You’re a fantastic writer. Pithy, funny, informative. Nice work here.


Thanks. I try. Some come out better than others.


Haha, I thought I am the only one who joined the startup school this year mostly for the AWS credit, honestly the credits helps, being from African developing country, AWS charges are a bit expensive for us to expirament with and build a startup. I am glad we are not alone in the AWS credits wagon.


>I have no idea if Checkly is "in" yet — I'll find out within a week or so

Is this delay only for interviews outside the Bay Area?


Honestly, I don’t know. I thought 5 days to a week was pretty good already.


3 interviewers in a single 10 minute interview, correct?

Surprised they don't have 2 for 15 or 1 for 30 min.


They want to avoid the unconscious bias of a single mind, and non decision due to conflicting opinions of even number of interviewers.


Presumably there's more to this than comes across in your comment.

After all, you don't avoid the unconscious bias of a single mind by adding more minds. That just gives you three sets of unconscious bias and adds biases caused by group dynamics.

Do you have a link? I may be googling the wrong terms.


You can still avoid most of the effects of a worst-case bias by adding two additional measurements.

Rather than 1 person, 30 minutes (one measurement), given 3 who all had the same experience, you are less likely to have all three have an impression unconnected with the substance of the conversation.


> You can still avoid most of the effects of a worst-case bias by adding two additional measurements... given 3 who all had the same experience

You're right that it's an advantage, but it reduces noise, not bias.

Bias by definition skews systemically in the same direction so the positive effect of taking multiple measurements is minimal.


Each bias skews the same direction for each person, but not every bias is in the same direction for individual people. (Some people are biased in favor of Harvard/Ivy League graduates. Other people are biased against those exact same candidates. Bias is not by definition unidirectional for all people.)

The YC partners are trying to be similarly biased against entrepreneurs who (they believe) will not be successful in the program.

They are much less likely to be similarly biased against irrelevant factors like accents, mannerisms, backgrounds, etc.


> They are much less likely to be similarly biased against irrelevant factors like accents, mannerisms, backgrounds, etc.

They're not less biased, they just average out their biases over the group.

Your assumption is that three people chosen from a fairly homogenous pool are going to cancel out each others biases, which is... optimistic.

I don't know from this conversation what they're actually doing, but what they should be doing is using a diverse set of opinions to create a fixed set of questions and a fixed marking scheme, and then sticking to it for that round of interviews. Then looking back over time at every interview question and analysing how well it predicted later outcomes.


If you think they're sub-optimizing because of biases and a poor process, maybe that represents an opportunity for you or someone else to use your method to outcompete them.

Their track record suggests they're doing pretty well.


So your argument is that they should be above examination of their interview process because their investments are doing well? Come on, you're just arguing for the sake of it now.

Multiple independent assessments are great at reducing random noise. Bias is noise, sure, but it's by definition not random so you need other forms of intervention to counter it.


A huge part of it is resulting discussion that happens between different observers which puts the onus to check for biases and map the signals on objective parameters.


If I understand you correctly I think this is misleading.

Discussing candidates after an interview allows social dynamics within the group to distort the signal so you reduce the value of taking independent data points. Not only will it not reduce bias in the way you seem to suggest, but you'll also lose some of your ability to reduce random noise as the noise from more dominant interviewers will be amplified.

I don't have time to dig out citations, but a good starting point would be "What Works - Gender Equality By Design" by Iris Bohnet. She's one of the world's leading academics studying how biases are affected by different hiring techniques.


You seem to have made some (incorrect) assumptions based on very little text. Let me explain the process in somewhat more detail.

In my last company ($100B, publicly traded, extremely data driven), we interview candidates in a group of 2 (or more, but rarely) on clearly defined criteria to look for signals - in either direction.

During interview each of the interviewer looks for evidence to gather the signal - stronger the better and the purpose of the interview process is for all the interviewers to gather signals (preferably all criteria, preferably strong in either direction, but ofcourse bound by the realities of limited availability of time).

Once the interview process is over each interviewer jots down the signal strength and the related evidence on the scorecard independently and suggests the result of interview.

Later during a calibration, the signals and the evidences are presented to the interviewing peer group (recruiter, hiring managers, interviewers from other rounds), and pretty much disallows for any unconscious bias such as "I don't think Alice would be a good team lead (because she is a woman, and woman are not good managers), or "We should not hire Amit (because he is an Indian, and Indians write poor code").

Again the examples are too in-your-face, but unconscious bias is unconscious, and in the absence of having to defend your perspective to external parties with the support of evidences, which does not happen if there is only a single interviewer.

Think of it as the rubber duck for interview and biases, to keep your own unconscious bias as interviewer in check.


> Later during a calibration, the signals and the evidences are presented to the interviewing peer group (recruiter, hiring managers, interviewers from other rounds), and pretty much disallows for any unconscious bias such as "I don't think Alice would be a good team lead (because she is a woman, and woman are not good managers), or "We should not hire Amit (because he is an Indian, and Indians write poor code").

You've explained that your interview process has a predetermined scoring system which is a good start. I'm curious what the effect of this calibration stage is... did your company do predictivity and bias analysis on it?


Calibration is a meeting to discuss the gathered signals and evidences to arrive at a decision.

People are allowed and encouraged to change their individual decision after getting more insights and evidences gathered by other interviewers.

> did your company do predictivity and bias analysis on it?

Recruitment, HR and leadership conducts it to tweak the process, but I am not privy to those studies.


I get the impression from reading stuff like this, there have been several I have read, that for some people start ups are a fashion or a "thing to do". I find this very strange as though some people have money and time to burn without the stresses of daily life of things like a demanding job or children.

To me a startup makes amazing sense when you have an original disruptive idea and the passion to unload all your time and energy into the spirit of that idea knowing you will probably fail. That is the anti-thesis of a fashion.


OP here. Fair enough, but I’m 100% all in. I’m as far away from a startup fashionista as they get: trust me. I just like sharing this stuff for catharsis reasons and because I genuinely think it’s interesting to read for some.

On the disruption part, I disagree. There are markets that are just old or aging. Fairly small improvements and a rethink of the market can already make a new product viable.


A startup is fundamentally disruptive. That's what a startup is: something that grows until it can't be ignored.

I just tried to think of a single successful startup that wouldn't be classified as "disruptive" and couldn't do it.


I think you’re confusing a startup with a startup unicorn. You can start tomorrow a niche SaaS, e.g. a debt collection CRM for French market, and become a startup.

Are you successful startup? Yes (e.g. you turnover $20k a month solo). Are you disruptive? No.

Truly disruptive startups are in two digits range. Successful startups that “made it”, whether it’s revenue, money raised, or profit, are in the hundreds of thousands/millions.


According to YC (at least Paul Graham's classic definition) a startup is something that grows very fast.


It might be a startup in the colloquial sense of the word, to friends, family, etc., but I and many others here would argue that it's a small business rather than a startup.


Tons of people have non-demanding jobs and no children. In fact you start out life with neither of them!

I'm a university drop out who works non-technical jobs that earn less than most first year programmers would be on and whenever I'm employed full time I work 40-45 hour weeks and save over half my income without really trying.

Dependents come with enormous opportunity cost. So does a high standard of living.


I didn't get that feeling from this article, but I share your feelings about doing a startup as a fashion.

It's definitely real. I used to coach at a bunch of startup events, and many people were definitely drawn to the hype. E.g., the fresh college graduate who was trying to decide between going to grad school or doing a startup. The people who were sure they had the "next Facebook". [1] The people who want to be the next Steve Jobs, or whoever the press is lionizing these days.

And really, I think a lot of the "Uber for X" wave was of that style. How many of those really had plausible unit economics? Versus just being a bunch of people playing disruption dress-up with a tide of VC money behind them?

It is my fervent hope that WeWork's the peak of that bubble. That with less hype and froth, we'll see more companies focused on serving users and creating long-term value.

[1] In my view, there will be no "next Facebook": https://www.quora.com/Is-it-foolish-to-go-to-Startup-Weekend...


There are a lot of people who dream of being a musician, or an actor, or an artist, or an athlete, or some other prestigious and fun profession. It's the same thing with startups.

There is virtually zero chance they will be successful. It's not that they have time and money to burn. It's just that they are living a dream/fantasy.


No, this is not the reality for everyone.

You do not have to get married to an idea to make money or require capital to make a return for shareholders.

Many people have the luxury of trying multiple ideas without needing to top up their personal balance sheet by exchanging time for money. This allows them to rapidly iterate towards a market hit, and solidify the survivorship bias. Many other founders do only get one chance to blow all their savings and then go back to work for the next decade, increasing the likelihood that they encumber themselves with more life circumstances that prevent them from ever having the flexibility to not exchange time for food and shelter.


It is as if some people have money and time to burn because some people have money and time to burn. There are also people who operate at lower levels of abstraction than "original disruptive ideas and the passion." I'm probably not either. But my experience is only my experience.


>that for some people start ups are a fashion or a "thing to do"

There could be a vast array of underlying reasons for them simply wanting to try doing a startup.

Maybe working for someone else 40 hours a week isn't giving them sufficient purpose, and they want to try something that will? How many of us feel this but never act on it?

Maybe they believe that their skills and work ethic can gain them significantly more income than what they can get grinding 40 hours in other people's businesses, and grinding interviews every couple of years to get meaningful salary increases, and are willing to take on the risk to see if they can make that happen for themselves?

Maybe they see life as being short and want to try something different for themselves to escape the expected timeline of school -> university -> job(s) at compan(y)(ies) -> retirement -> death?

Some people seem to simply want to do it for the sake of it, but there could be many underlying motivators than making some sort of vacuous fashion statement which you're implying.

>some people have money and time to burn without the stresses of daily life of things like a demanding job or children.

Some people inherit money. Some people save like savants. Others may have got a payout from a previous company going public or being acquired. Some are money orientated and have built careers around it, and have a partner with similar traits who'll carry the income if they believe in the other's idea.

The main thing is that it's not your money, so why would you care?

>To me a startup makes amazing sense when you have an original disruptive idea and the passion to unload all your time and energy into the spirit of that idea knowing you will probably fail.

To you, maybe, and thankfully you're part of a tiny minority with such opinions. Stay-in-line, continue grinding at other's businesses and therefore lining other's pockets unless you've something "disruptive" to produce? Businesses should only emerge if they've a niche offering? Really?

The free market, and well-being of the consumer, relies on competition. Competition does not happen in a market comprised only of companies "disrupting" one thing or another. Starting a company on the basis of having identified something a product, or service, does already but you believe can be done better, is as legitimate as bringing something "disruptive" to the market.

The chains you've bound yourself in with in regards to the life choices you've made and the tolerance to risk produced by them shouldn't be the basis on which you judge the activities or choices of others.


that for some people start ups are a fashion or a "thing to do"

This is true, and I was expecting the same sentiment from the post but it was not there.

And as far as startups being a "thing to do". As opposed to doing what else? Working for a big company? What pray tell would be better and more meaningful? It probably wouldn't be in tech.


What’s “meaningful” working for a VC backed startup? Once you take enough VC funds, you are working for multiple “big companies” who decide your fate. It’s an illusion that you are working for a small company.


No one said working for startups is meaningful.


From the post I replied to.

“What pray tell would be better and more meaningful? ”


That doesn't mean startups are meaningful.


> I was interviewed by three partners

Who? They are people, right? I have a name, you have a name, the three partners must also have names. Who were they?


He probably doesn’t want to share that level of detail. Why is this important?


Thanks for asking.

The specific names of the three judging partners aren’t important (obviously) what is important though is that there is a tendency to provide those in position of power (generally, or in a given situation) with a layer of protection (by anonymity) that is not afforded to those whom they have power upon.

The omission caught my eye.

It reminded me that YC has this glaring asymmetry in other parts of the application process, specifically with the personal video they require people submit, but do not disclose who watched it.

I thought that if I say something, someone might ask a followup question, and I can bring that point above in a followup comment.

So again, thanks for asking ;)

P.S - the downvotes on the comment are worth it, obviously.


> The specific names of the three judging partners aren’t important (obviously) what is important though is that there is a tendency to provide those in position of power (generally, or in a given situation) with a layer of protection (by anonymity) that is not afforded to those whom they have power upon.

If the author hadn't posted about this experience, no one at YC would've made a public post saying they interviewed him.

Indeed, that would be a bit on the weird side if YC made a post saying "we spoke to someone from Checkly, his sense of humor was kinda funny."


[flagged]


Not sure if you meant it that way, but this comment comes across as very bitter.


Bitter times? For sure. Very.

(Not because of YC though. It was already a mess, why would they want to touch it?)

(BTW there was Can’t Wait at YC S11)

[1] https://www.google.com/amp/s/techcrunch.com/2011/08/19/yc-ba...

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2905104




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