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For Anyone Who Has Been Turned Down by 38 Companies, 120 Interviews

Alibek Datbayev’s journey to helping build the future of travel at Booking.com

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Nearly 38 rejections in the span of 2-3 months sounds rueful to the average person. But for great software engineers, such resilience is a common trait. All too often, great software engineers pass through traditional resume screenings and freeze during the whiteboard coding interview.
If you think about it, coding on-the-spot in front of 3-5 different people multiple times isn’t a great reflection of your coding skills. You don’t get to use to your own IDE, you have an absurdly limited amount of time and you’re in an incredibly high-pressure environment.  

Job interviews are inherently difficult. But for Alibek Datbayev, landing a new job proved to be a test of a whole new level of willpower. Not only did he interview at about 40 companies, each of those companies had 2-4 rounds of interviews.
In about two months, he calculated a total of 120 rounds of interviews, resulting in 10 final rounds and 2 offers.
Here’s the thingDatbayev is an exceptional coder. He’s not only built geo apps, online ticket booking systems and an online ecommerce store from scratch, but also worked on cutting-edge new tools like back-end reward points systems and developed the largest blogging platform in Central Asia. But, like many coders, crushing job interviews just wasn’t one of his strong suits. Job interviews are difficult by design.
We sat down with Datbayev to learn more about his journey navigating through over 100 job interviews, and finally achieving a highly coveted opportunity of helping to build the future of travel at Booking.com.
So, how did you get to where you are today?
I’ve always been passionate about coding, starting from my early days at Olympiad teams in high school and ACM teams in college. This involvement, and consistent practicing, has really helped me master my technical skills.

I’m originally from Kazakhstan, where the tech scene is burgeoning, but it’s of course unparalleled to Silicon Valley. I’ve always dreamed of going abroad to other tech hubs and build cool technology. I had the opportunity to do that in 2014 when I was referred to Ipsy, the beauty product retailer, helped me get a job in San Mateo. But after my Visa expired, I had to return to Kazakhstan for a couple months to find another job. That’s when I interviewed with about 40 companies.
Wow, you interviewed at 40 different companies. What was going through your head as you went through so many job interviews?
I mean, of course it’s tough. There were several reasons why the job opportunities weren’t working out. But I know that I’m confident in my skills. It was just a matter of time. Many of the companies I was interviewing at were just not the right fit. For other opportunities, I simply didn’t do well enough in the difficult coding challenges. Many other companies didn’t want to hire me unless they met me in person. This was difficult because I was in Kazakhstan, and there was a 9-12 hour time difference. I would often do coding interviews at like 1 AM or 2 AM.
For instance, I got into the final interview for an extremely high-growth human resources startup. That was exciting, and

I really thought I was going to get an offer. But, eventually, the last round of the interview was super hard. I just failed.

But I just kept going because I knew it would happen eventually. I have the right skills, but it’s hard for companies to see that easily in the way most coding interviews are set up.

amsterdam
 
And how did you succeed and land a job at Booking.com’s engineering team?

Booking.com was hosting an online coding competition through HackerRank in September 2015, and I entered the contest. This changed my life.

I wouldn’t be here in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, where Booking.com HQ is based, if it wasn’t for this CodeSprint, or online hackathon.
I actually didn’t particularly score very high on those challenges (editor’s note: his rank was 305/435), but since I opted into the job opportunity after successfully passing the phone screen technical interview, the recruiters and engineers invited me for an onsite interview and they liked the way that I approached the problems.

This interview process was great because I was able to get my foot in the door by in just a day, in my own computer from my own home.

Booking’s culture is all about opening doors to the best talent internationally. So, after a couple more interviews that focused on culture fit, they decided to relocate me, which was incredibly helpful. So, I just started working on the engineering team at the headquarters about two months ago. I’ve been loving it so far. I’m really happy I participated in Booking’s online hackathon, and I’m grateful for that opportunity!
Any advice for other people who are struggling to succeed at coding interviews?
Even though algorithmic challenges aren’t really used on the job much in production, it’s still really important to keep revisiting your fundamentals. It’s just like a muscle–if you don’t train it, it’ll become weak. Keep practicing code challenges, and don’t give up. If you fail 10 interviews in a row, go for the 11th interview. But take a look at all the variables, and see if there’s anything you can do differently to improve. Take the pressure off, and work through problems routinely to keep your muscle memory in shape.
At some point, I mastered my skills, and practicing code challenges helped me fill in spaces in my knowledge.

Want to practice your coding skills? Join 30 Days of Code

Comments (24)

  • Love this! Incredibly inspiring and a great reminder of why I love coming to work every day.

  • This is recent feedback from a failed interview: “You barely have 3 years of experience and you act as if you had 15!!!” You get rejected for all sorts of strange reasons. It is difficult to find employers who will judge you on your coding skills.

    • Jacek Podkanski
    • March 30, 2016 at 7:09 pm
    • Reply
  • Nearly every silicon valley interview is based on whether or not you are as hipster as the interviewer. Keep your head up and don’t subscribe to the culture.

    • Jonathan Fisher
    • March 30, 2016 at 7:56 pm
    • Reply
  • this rebounds so much of what is wrong with all pretty much all current interview processes. Ugh. Makes so many talented people leave tech….

    • dhmspector
    • March 30, 2016 at 11:23 pm
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  • …this recounts so much of what is wrong with all pretty much all current interview processes. Ugh. Makes so many talented people leave tech….

    • dhmspector
    • March 30, 2016 at 11:23 pm
    • Reply
  • Much of the gnashing of teeth is due to misunderstanding engineering. Coding skill is an extremely minor part of an engineer’s job. Understanding the whole stack and effects of changes to the stack, debugging, interfacing between people’s desires and machine’s demands, advising courses of action that would reduce cost (eg, design in conjunction with product designers), and generally interfacing with your would be coworkers are all major considerations.
    I would estimate that 25% of a person’s fit is their raw coding ability.

    • M G
    • March 31, 2016 at 1:52 am
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  • Quiz != Interview

    • 4thaugust1932
    • March 31, 2016 at 5:28 am
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    • This is my favorite reply. Haha

      • Daryl Shy
      • February 1, 2017 at 1:04 am
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  • Interestingly. I am another Computer Olympiad candidate. Having similar situation. It seems the only way I can find a new job is through people who I have worked with! One particular problem I face is that I ruined my memory in childhood by just paying attention to problem solving techniques and refusing to memorize anything! Having a horrible memory is perfectly OK in current era with online resource and google but makes me very unhirable in traditional interviews. I can imagine your case might be similar.

    • kavehmz
    • March 31, 2016 at 5:49 am
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    • Turn off your auto-complete. Both muscles and mind only develop under pressure.

      • John Mark Isaac Madison
      • April 17, 2018 at 7:59 am
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  • About a decade ago, when working at a startup, we had this process where *everyone* would interview a potential candidate. There were only a few of us, so it didn’t take too long. In the end, we would only hire someone if everyone gave a thumbs up. I’ve transplanted this approach later when running my own company and we hired some amazing people that stayed with us for years. Ideally you want people to be technically competent (so a coding exercise would be in order), but at the same time you want them to be nice and easy to get along with – if you’re gonna spend more time with them everyday than you would with your spouse, you wanna make sure you’re going to gel, hence the all-thumbs-up approach. Not every amazing programmer is nice to work with, and not every cool person knows how to code.

  • I accepted an offer on Monday after 28 sequential rejections. Ironically booking.com was #7

    • Tjorriemorrie
    • April 1, 2016 at 11:47 am
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  • Couple of years ago I travelled to Amsterdam to be interviewed by Booking.com, and… I was declined. 😀 The Russian guy was mean and he didn’t seem to like my humor. 😛 Anyway, I was there for a front-end dev position, and they asked about A/B testing a lot, which I wasn’t very excited about anyway. Overall, it was nice though, I’m glad I was there.

    • michalstanko
    • April 1, 2016 at 2:40 pm
    • Reply
  • Couple of years ago I travelled to Amsterdam to be interviewed by Booking.com, and… I was rejected. 😀 The Russian guy was a bit mean and he didn’t seem to like my humor. 😛 Anyway, I was there for a front-end dev position, and they asked about A/B testing a lot, which I wasn’t very excited about anyway. Overall, it was nice though, I’m glad I was there.

    • michalstanko
    • April 1, 2016 at 2:41 pm
    • Reply
  • I am still struggling, I got 100 interviews include coding part and I don’t know why I am still got rejected at step two or three (programming) although I got the correct answer. Nice share anyway.

    • rheno
    • April 2, 2016 at 4:51 pm
    • Reply
  • Congratulations, Alibek, on landing the position at Booking.com. It is obvious that one needs resilience and staying power to make it in life and you have shown that you have these qualities in
    spades! It is amazing that you managed to learn as much as you could from each rejection, from each setback, and this helped you to better your prospects for the next big challenge, i.e., interview, etc.
    Life will always have its ups and downs and as they say “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” When the chips are down, one has to just stay the course and not let the negatives overpower the positives.
    At KBTU, we are all so proud of you, Alibek, and look forward to more professional achievements and successes in the future.
    All the best
    Ramesh

    • Ramesh Kini
    • April 4, 2016 at 8:00 am
    • Reply
  • As senior feelance software developer I am often called to help on projects that have gone really bad. Lack of coding skills have NEVER ever been a problem there.
    In the contrary: Most often problems have been due to teams, where the only skills they have got has been coding. When even teamleaders and management have never done proper project- and requirements management, do not know tools nor processes, do not communicate efficiently and have never been on really BIG projects, their way of problem solving is reduced to … guess what … finding coders who code faster and better than what they have already on board (but do not need to solve their issues). It is the classic hammer-nail problem.
    So my problem as a coach and turnaround manager quite often is to convince staff that “coding” ist not the problem and therefore looking for students and first-graders with enough time to do code competitions in their free time is bullshit.
    Quite often I had to fire the best coders. Not because they are not useful, but because they are demotivated when they are forced to do other things besides coding. When things are becoming big and complex, more than average coding skills will not be the first things you will most probably need.
    And just because coding skills are easy to test and quite often, recruiters are not real recruiters but just IT-students interviewing other IT-students, I personally would refuse to work for a company, that still thinks that coding under time pressure proves anything substantial!
    If you are looking for a bus-driver, nobody will check tire-changing speed first.
    In a nutshell: We must not discuss about how to compete on such coding-test. First question must be: Does such tests make sense. And when not, what does it say about the company still doing such tests and behaving more like schools than enterprises with years of practical, hands-on experience.

    • realB12
    • July 20, 2016 at 1:10 pm
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    • Hi realB12, you have translated very well my current emotional state, frustration. Still companies, or individuals that work on these companies, doing so much damage and stupidity test(s). I did not pass on one toke at HackerRank.com.
      What bother me most is I can definitely see the value of HackerRank’s challenge for training. But for a very specific scenarios where have isolated an issue and want to apply a code refactoring to drop from 3 seconds to 1 second or less of response, but having in mind quality and readable code. Someone down the road will need to be able to read and maintain due to a business changes. There is a cost not very well discussed on all that.
      For more than 30 years coding and I have met brilliant guys on different areas and 98% of all programmers that I met they do not develop having in mind the the way we used to code using assembler or macro or even during the electronic class on my graduation. Many of those guys are brilliant software engineers/architects. But they will miserable fail on those tests. Not because they do not understand Queue paradigm, math model, Compare the Triplets, or even Circular Array Rotation. They have saw it during the graduation during the first years. But after they started working and passed 10, 20, 30 years this kind of knowledge become part of the past as student and it’s not part of daily work as software developers.

      • lminas
      • February 20, 2017 at 5:17 pm
      • Reply
  • Really inspiring…

    • Naga
    • January 20, 2017 at 4:48 pm
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  • Nice journey of your for getting job that satisfied you, we all also try like that search jobs until we satisfied our-self, our skills and if we search job from different places we stay we should go through the Online Interview and Eteki.com is one of the Platform of the Experts, Thank You.

  • Great spirit! I have quite the same ideology. Sometimes, it’s just not happening in your life but you have to keep doing it. Success lies in the consistency.

    • Khawaja Farooq
    • July 24, 2017 at 2:37 pm
    • Reply
  • Great experience, Alibek!)

    • Askhat
    • January 4, 2018 at 5:04 pm
    • Reply
  • Thank you for those inspirational words. I was about to give up. Its been my 8th interview and I did not succeed.

    • Sounak Basu Roy
    • September 8, 2018 at 8:07 pm
    • Reply

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