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Choose a project for "most challenging project" question for me?

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Software Development Engineer II at Amazon2 months ago

My latest position was SDE II at Amazon, backend. I was laid off. I have not worked for 2 years. I find myself struggling with which project I should talk about in my interviews. Here are the projects I had worked on.

  1. A project where I investigated how to create and analyze the right data to optimize something. This was at a previous company where we shipped highly technical software, and the software had nothing to do with the web. The project wasn't one where I built much of anything; the result was just an independent Python script. The technicals were in the weeds though. But I would say I spent more time on the project than the work needed me to.
  2. A React Native side project. I did not launch the app, but the app worked on testing. My favorite project, as I learned a lot about planning, learning a new stack, and structuring my code. However, it's a side project and the stack is not related to what I mainly worked on at Amazon.
  3. My 1st project at Amazon. A high level design of the project was done for me. The project was very simple technically: move a module from one service to another to support the deprecation of the former service. There were some choices of wiring where data goes in the new setup, but that was about it for the complexity. I worked with another team to discuss the data flow. I also broke down the project into small parts for a new grad SDE to do. I personally saw through the project to its successful launch.
  4. My 2nd project at Amazon. I was working under another SDE II and he was the one who had done all the design, assigned me the parts to work on, and drove the successful launch. I remember the end business product well, but what I do not remember is the key high level code logic behind the scenes that make it work. As a consequence, even though I remember some parts of what I personally had worked on, I cannot drive a coherent narrative about them.
  5. My 3rd project at Amazon. It was the first project at work I designed from scratch. I communicated with the technical project manager to get clear the requirements and thought about all the cases to cover to make a working design. I do not remember all the details of the cases I needed to cover but I can talk about them at a high level. The biggest downside of this project is that it was cancelled mid-implementation since another project it depended on was cancelled for reasons outside of my control. So this project never launched.
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Discussion

(4 comments)
  • 5
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    Staff Eng @ Google, Ex-Meta SWE, Ex-Amazon SDM/SDE
    2 months ago

    “Most challenging” doesn’t always mean the most successful or impactful but it would be nice if you had an example that happened to check both boxes.

    From there, I would try to orient these on both of those axes (maybe a few more):

    1. which had technical challenges you’d never faced before, and that you successfully overcame? Rating is how complex or how far afield of your current knowledge it was.
    2. Which had leadership/comms/interpersonal challenges you’d never faced, rate same as #1.
    3. How much did your actions in overcoming the challenges above improve the outcome? If someone with less experience or lesser abilities were in your place, how much worse would it have been?
    4. Which did you learn from, and allowed you to be more effective in the future? This is normally in the form of “what would you differently if you were doing this again now?”. Something that changes how you delegate work, lay out an execution plan, etc. can show higher level learning and leadership.
    5. How impactful was your work? When you’re doing implementation in a larger project this can be hard to quantify. The incremental value you add versus someone a level below you, etc can be a useful metric but may still be hard to quantify. In your first example it sounds like you added automation when the ask was investigation. I am not asserting this is the best example, but it shows how your involvement solved a bigger problem.

    It will not be straight forward to “score” for these dimensions, and when you get a result it may still be ambiguous, but hopefully this exercise can still help you index.

  • 1
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    Tech Lead @ Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero
    2 months ago

    Argh, this one is tricky - All of them have caveats.

    #5 was the clear winner as I initially read it, but that the fact that it never launched is awkward. You can spin that as a semi-positive by sharing the learnings you got from it and ideas you now have to derisk projects in the future.

    After that, #3 maybe? #4 seems decent but if you don't remember enough to deliver a solid narrative about it, that's a no-go.

    Since you are SDE 2, I am personally looking for strong independence and ownership. That's why #5 stood out to me; the other projects didn't have as much of that.

  • 1
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    Tech Lead/Manager at Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    2 months ago

    Start with the ideal feeling you want for the person interviewing you. I'd argue that you want them to think not only "This person has handled technically sophisticated products" but also "This person was resourceful with their people and learning to handle large scope."

    From that perspective, I like #4 and #3. IMO it's important that you had some form of launch or completion in the project as well.

  • 1
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    Eng @ Taro
    2 months ago

    For me, #3 stood out the most for the following reasons:

    1. You were responsible for the execution of the project from start to end. Your teammate may have done the high level design, but I wouldn't downplay the work it takes to actually carry out the project to completion, which I would argue is even more important.
    2. If there was another team who consumed the service, you had to communicate with them to let them know about the new changes so everything worked seamlessly during the migration. Without your work, the service migration would have been blocked.
    3. You were able to break down the task into smaller parts for a new grad to work on. This demonstrates mentorship ability. it shows that I can trust this person to lead a project with multiple stakeholders involved.

    Technical complexity can be low, but the business impact can be high. When the prompt says "challenging", they didn't necessarily specify technically challenging.

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