By: Joy Harjanto
For Gilbert Ichwan, his fascination for iPhones that started in the early 2010s was life changing. The product caused him to develop a strong affinity towards Apple and its founder Steve Jobs. Beyond its sleek design, Gilbert was fascinated by iPhones’ user friendliness and company motto.
Gilbert thought he wanted to pursue the world of design. But his first coding experience in community college caused him to change his path for good. For most individuals, computer science is a far cry from design but in retrospect, there is a lot of overlap. His interest for design and usability helps him in his pursuit of computer science. As a software engineer, he wants to make products that are useful and user friendly while also implementing his background in ethics and liberal arts.
Gilbert graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Data Science spring 2019. Before transferring to Berkeley, Gilbert spent two years at Diablo Valley College. He will be joining Microsoft as a software engineer in their Artificial Intelligence Development Acceleration Program.
Question and answer has been edited for clarity
How did you develop your interest for computer science?
I did not program at all when I was in high school. I started coding when I was in community college and was then introduced into the world of computer science.
A lot of people think programming is hard. What do you think?
At first I did not think it was that hard but when I entered Berkeley I was introduced into a complexity I never thought before.
For people interested in computer science, what is the most effective learning method?
The most effective method is learning by doing. In community college, they ask you to do one or two projects but in Berkeley in one class you have four projects.
How did you overcome the difficulty at Berkeley?
In community college, we wanted to get perfect grades as possible in every class. In Berkeley, I adjusted my standards. My mentality shift to focusing on learning. As long as I learned, the grade will follow.
Why did you decide to start your career in the United States?
My ideal plan is to have experience here since most of the companies here are established and have the best practices. Afterwards, I want to bring back what i learn by joining companies or creating my own startup in the aviation industry.
How was your job search process?
It was actually very long. It started in my junior year when I was trying to find that internship here in the United States. Since if you have an internship here you usually get a return offer. I applied to almost 300 companies and didn’t get offer from any company here. Because of that I went back and interned at a startup in Indonesia as a software engineer.
Why software engineer and not data science?
A lot of data science roles are focused on masters and phD students so there are not so many opportunities as an undergraduate. I would like to open as many opportunities as possible.
How did you land your current job at Microsoft?
During my second semester in Berkeley, I took a class about blockchain (a new technology that lets users make transactions through blocks). There were no Indonesians so it forced me to make friends with other people from different backgrounds. One of my group members was a senior who got a job at Microsoft, he gave me a referral and several weeks later I got an interview.
What was the interview process for Microsoft like?
It started with a phone interview in October. I thought phone interviews were behavioral, (technique used to assess employees based on past performance), but for Microsoft only 5 minutes of it was behavioral. I was quite nervous since I never had a coding interview before. After answering the first question successfully, he followed up by changing the problem a bit. I was confused and I panicked. Consequently, I didn’t successfully answer the question well. I emailed him saying thank you and I could’ve done better. I heard nothing for over a month so I thought I have been rejected already. But I got in touch with my recruiter in December after reaching out.
How did you prepare for the on site interview?
I reviewed all the LeetCode questions the night before. I thought I couldn’t do it the next day because I blanked out many times as I wouldn’t know how to approach the question at all. But I kept thinking to myself I should at least try to answer them.
Note: LeetCode is a platform used by individuals interested in the computer science industry for technical interview practice
What was the on site interview like?
I had four interviews during that day. I couldn’t really successfully solve the questions in the second interview but I tried to speak out what I was thinking and derive all the steps needed. My last interview was actually my favourite part. We started with a coding interview but made a conversation where we chat about my interests and favourite courses. I talked about my human course and ethics classes where I learned about the importance of data ethics.
Can you tell me more about this ethics class?
Not a lot of people know what happens behind the scenes in the world of data and technology but a lot of engineers work on these things and impose biases (Altering the data according to personal view and background). In the world of data science, we need to process the data in a way that is unbiased (unaffected by engineers’ view and background) and alter the data as little as possible.
How do you stay calm especially after you feel like you’ve done poorly in an interview question?
It is very important to try to stay calm in the process since you will blank if you panic. Work with your interviewer as they are trying to help you. Try to speak out your thought process and the interviewer will help guide you to the answer.
Ultimately, what kind of impact do you want to have in the future?
I want to create a product that will benefit the customers, meaning it is easy to use and the impact significantly improves lives.
As a fresh graduate coming into Microsoft, do you feel intimidated?
I got a good job with a good culture. I know some of the people going to the same program are masters and PhD students from all these prestigious universities. In Berkeley, I am not a 4.0 student I am just ok. It is quite intimidating going into Microsoft. But I know work is different than school. It requires the technical depth and the human complexity issues like communicating well with other people. I think I will be fine.
What is your advice for individuals who were in your path who want to be in the position you are in?
For students looking for jobs, just keep applying and trying. For students transferring from community college, don’t be surprised when you find university to be hard. Just do your best. You will be able to do it and learn a lot from these struggles.