Being lucky

Getting an engineering job as an international student

BinHong Lee

February 10, 2018

Ah, you’ve graduated. Now what? Oh right, still no job offer! *panics*

As an international student, I have come across hundreds of guides on “how to land an interview”, “how to get a job”, “how to solve DSA questions” etc but almost none of them were specifically written with an international student in mind. I’m not here to dismiss the quality of such guides but rather, to be an add-on (or plugin if you will), to help international students understand their challenges better.

You’ve got a lot more to prove

Let’s face it, with all the hassle for potential visa sponsorship or even losing you due to the visa lottery program, you have got a lot more to prove of being worthy of that extra investment. If they can hire someone to do the same job without all that hassle for similar or even slightly more expensive prices, they would hop on that right away. It just doesn’t make sense financially to invest in you when you have a higher chance of deciding not to or not being able to continue working for them 3 years later (after training you from a raw talent to a solid engineer).

I have people around me who constantly complain about this. I do too sometimes but then I thought, I’m not ‘top of the class’ smart or ‘winner of multiple hackathons’ smart. Also, complaining about it won’t help your case. A job won’t fall from the sky randomly just because you complained hard enough. If you are just an average graduate (like myself), there is really very little incentive to think you are irreplaceable (technologically speaking) though that doesn’t mean you won’t be in 3 years time.

“Two books on a desk near a MacBook with lines of code on its screen” by Émile Perron on Unsplash

Going for the big four

The big four in tech usually refers to Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple (or Microsoft). Of course, anything in this paragraph also applies to most of the larger tech firms. These companies usually don’t take ‘the need of visa’ too much into consideration (if at all) as part of their hiring process but they also have higher barriers of entry than the smaller or more traditional companies.

This means that you don’t need to worry so much about your application getting thrown out immediately after you check the ‘will need visa sponsorship in the future’ box. That said, you will need to be better than an average graduate. Spend some time on HackerRank, build some side projects, diversify your skill sets and most importantly, building connections. In the ocean of resumes that companies like these receive every year, it is really hard to stand out. One of the easiest way to get to the front of the line is through referrals.

Go on LinkedIn, GitHub, local hackathons or your local developer meetups to chat and get connected with some engineers or even product managers. In many occasions, they would be more than happy to provide you with a referral since it would also net them some sweet bonuses. Before asking for referrals, make sure to do your own research through the company job site and shortlist about 3 positions you are interested in. Depending on the company and its referral system, this will probably make the job a lot easier for the person referring you.

My 3 months of OPT unemployment is almost up!

The most popular way of extending this is to look for a professor you enjoy working with to help with his/her research. Alternatively, you can also look for a local super early stage registered startup or open source organization that might interest you and volunteer to provide free (or paid with equity) work.

While the general consensus is to never work for free, you should be very clear with what you are getting back in return. For example, you might be interested in helping the cause of what the organization is working towards or that you really want to work with the CTO and learn from him directly. Things like this might become an asset (or as Cal Newport calls it, career capital) in the future.

Remember, the requirement is to work at least 20 hours a week. Since you’re working for free in many occasions, it’s definitely possible to negotiate your hours and reserve the rest of the time devoting it towards your job searching effort.

The first job is always the hardest

Don’t take this from me. Take this from almost every other person in the industry I’ve ever met. Get an internship whenever you can! Even if this means you might have to go back to your home country or work on some shitty project. If you are like me, only realizing the importance of this in your senior year, start working on side projects or open source projects. Develop niche, specific skills and people skills. Few months ago, I wouldn’t have known that my experience in developing an Alexa skill (because why not?) would helped me that much in my interview. If you know you won’t be able to impress recruiters with your experience, grades or anything, you’ll need to make it up with something else. Remember, you’ve got a lot more to prove, more than your peers with no visa issues.

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Being lucky

I was lucky. I got a phone call from a recruiter asking me if I’m interested in this position. After taking forever to schedule an interview, it turns out the team needed a few more engineers (who knows about ML and speaks Malay ‘natively’) so I was pretty much hired right away. The job offer fell from the sky. It came from somewhere I least expected.

This is not just me. Almost every time I come across an international student getting an offer for a position at a tech giant for the first time, its always about ‘I was lucky’ somewhere down the story. When people hear that, they rule out that entire story as anecdotal but I think this is a consistent pattern worth exploring. Everyone gets lucky once in a while, but are you ready when your luck strikes? If you aren’t, no matter how many final round interviews magically fall onto your lap, you will fail all of them.

One could argue that if you are good enough, luck is irrelevant. That’s probably true. But then if you are that good, you are probably just sitting at home debating which offer to pick up instead of sitting here reading this piece of article from some random guy on the internet. It’s not just about being lucky, its also about being ready enough to fully utilize that moment of luck.

This article was originally published on my personal Medium publication.