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How to stand out when applying for ML engineering positions at high-profile companies?

Senior Software Engineer at Taro Community profile pic
Senior Software Engineer at Taro Community

Hey everyone,

I'm a senior ML engineer (~4.5 years exp) working at a medium-sized company. My educational background is a BSc and MSc in computer engineering from a not super fancy university in Europe. I wrote a few papers during my university years and as a result of hobby projects, but these were published in mediocre conferences (so not Neurips/ACL-level).

I tried applying to a few ML engineering jobs in the past couple of months (Spotify, Apple and Amazon) but did not hear back. I searched through Linkedin to see the backgrounds of ML engineers working at these companies in my area just to get an idea of the situation. My impression was that a vast majority of these people went to top-tier universities (significant number of people have a Phd), interned at FAANG during their university years, wrote (or contributed to) papers in top ML conferences etc.

I know that ML engineering positions are very competitive at these companies & also the market is very tough now in general, but it got me wondering:

What should someone like me work on to increase my chances of joining one of these companies as a ML engineer? The patterns I see from people working there is hard to achieve at this stage in my life as:

  • I already have a MSc degree and doing another one at a better university does not really make sense
  • Since I'm working as a senior engineer, I don't know if applying for internships positions (even if it's FAANG) is a sensible choice
  • Writing top-tier papers is incredibly time consuming and hardly possible with maintaining a full time job. To be honest, I tried to do this in the past (since I know publications at top-tier conferences matter a lot in these situations), but it really affected my personal life. This is almost like trying to do two full-time jobs, which messed up my WLB.

Some things I was thinking about focusing on that could help me stand out:

  • Writing technical blogposts to our company's engineering blog.

  • Apply to meetups or conferences as a speaker.

  • Certifications (I was thinking of something like or )

  • Focus on promotion to staff/principal MLE. It may be easier to step into a higher tier company by down-leveling.

  • Keep trying to do research/writing papers as a side project, but need to figure out how to do this without burning out.

I honestly don't know if the above sound sensible, so I'd love to hear your opinion on this or if you have any additional ideas.

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Finding Your Identity in a Role that Doesn't Quite Fit (while everyone else seems to be growing faster than you)

Entry-Level Software Engineer [SDE 1] at Amazon profile pic
Entry-Level Software Engineer [SDE 1] at Amazon

Hey everyone,

I've been abit lost in my job recently and feel disappointed by own performance. I'm part of an infrastructure team, and while the primary force pushing me forward is my personal engineering growth, I can't shake the feeling that the domain itself doesn't resonate with me. That said, being an average l4 I'm not in a position to switch teams.

What's keeping me going is the goal of self-improvement, which is helped from being surrounded by my incredibly talented colleagues, each bringing their unique strengths to the table. For instance, our senior engineer is an incredible communicator, teacher of concepts and general problem solver, another engineer is a coding machine and works extremely hard, and an L4 who joined at the same time as me is very customer-centric. In particular, it was through observing the L4 leveraging his strengths, while almost neglecting his weaknesses (he doesn't care as much about code quality and is quite argumentative) that I felt uncomfortable with my own trajectory. I've been so busy with trying to improve all my weaknesses that I'm now reflecting on whether I should focus on my strengths.

All of that said, I've been here for a year, and I'm struggling to pinpoint where my strengths lie. I'm willing to put more hours than others but for obvious reasons that should in no way be considered a strength (my manager described me as a hardworker, which i don't want to be known as haha). I'm also a very enthusiastic person and very open to feedback, but it leads me to being pulled in different directions. I don't think I can be an engineer that does it all and I think Amazon wants you to focus on your strengths through their conflicting leadership principles (e.g. bias for action versus insist on the highest standards, deep dive versus thinks big). I've been reading this book called Atomic Habits recently and it really focuses on the idea of identity and how that shapes your habits. It seems like everyone in my team has built an identity based on what they're good at, how can I find mine? And are there certain skills that provide higher ROI over others that I can perhaps focus on, given that I don't really have any strengths right now?

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Onboarding Successfully To A New Semi-Chaotic Engineering Org

Mid-Level Software Engineer [SDE 2] at Amazon profile pic
Mid-Level Software Engineer [SDE 2] at Amazon

Context Of Company

This is a really well funded company (Bank) that underwent a large scale leadership change. The company's primary source of revenue was never it's tech capabilities, however with the new leadership change they're looking for a large scale revamp on how the existing systems work and are working on setting upto a FAANG equivalent engineering environment. This is vision is consistent across the leadership upto the CEO. This org currently consists of multiple Staff engineers from Twitter, Meta, Amzn and Google leading big initiatives.

Personal Context

I'll be soon taking up an offer in this company and will be joining this freshly created Org, where I've opportunity to be among the first 10-15 engineers to join with potential of the org to grow over 100+ engineers. There are lot of existing tech that have been already deemed unscalable due to previous decisions and have been a known business blockers, these tech require either re-write or a large refactor or a completely different viewpoint on tackling this problem. This will involve me working with Engineers who've built this system (Not part of this new Tech Org, rather the old existing infra), I've been already given a heads up from my potential manager that there can be potential hesitancy that the existing engineers may feel and wouldn't be too open to provide all information necessary as our systems will be replacing their soon (Have been reported that this has happened). There isn't a concept of internal wiki similar to Amazon or other Big Tech, hence lot of this is just domain knowledge etc. Fortunately the leadership is aware of this and is taking steps to answer this, and takes into consideration when scoping for projects and setting up right expectations.

The following are certain concerns that I've, and wanted to understand what is the best course of action I can take up to make my onboarding successful.

This is my Current plan, given i'll be among first engineers to join this team.

  1. Understand domain, reach out to multiple PMs and document all pain points, problems we are solving in long term & Short term.

  2. Go through code base of relevant packages and start adding their UMLs, HLD etc to best of my abilities to a document to move towards creating a Knowledge base.

  3. Socialize with engineers from the related org and try to gain their confidence, and potentially get few KT sessions (Not sure how i'll go about this as the team is situated in different city).

  4. Work with manager to setup boy-scout rule, such that everyone onboarding will incrementally add more to the existing knowledge base.

Follow Up Questions :

  • I still haven't taken up the offer yet and still have a week before I can respond. The increase in pay and the growth opportunity in the new company is significantly big, I can see myself reaching Sr.SDE in < 2 years and Staff in < 4 years there due to the problem space being so fresh and getting a really early head start. However, I'm slightly concerned if the lack of co-operation from other org and lack of documentation, and the fact that the entire org is being setup fully freshly could be a concern. What's the best course of action i could take to minimize this risk?
  • Second, one would view moving out from FAANG to a not well known company as a downgrade, would this still hold true if the problem space and opportunities in the new company is more complex?
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Should I take a SWE job in government or keep trying to get back into tech after layoff?

Entry-Level Software Engineer [SDE 1] at Amazon profile pic
Entry-Level Software Engineer [SDE 1] at Amazon

Hi Taro. I got laid off in April from AWS. I interned at NASA JPL and I am considering going back fulltime and continuing to apply to tech companies. I don't have an offer but I am hopeful I would be able to connect with a team since I interned there one year and have 1.5 YOE at AWS. I have some concerns about joining JPL, because they are prototype and research focused.

  • They don't have many production systems or serve customer traffic.
  • They also operate mostly in small and independent groups so the engineering standards can differ a lot. The research group I interned at had poor engineering and code quality compared to AWS.
  • The engineering environment is different than corporate. Some technologies and experiences missing at JPL that are common in tech are pipelines (CI/CD), TPS, tickets, oncall, debugging large and distributed systems, customer traffic, metrics, operational reviews.
  • JPL pays poorly and has slow growth. You can be there 10 years and make less than an SDE-1 in FAANG.

I don't have any visa issues. Finances are not a problem. Currently I have very low expenses and good savings because I didn't RTO and I am living with my parents. I have 1.5 YOE at AWS and 3 years of internships before that. I see the market picking up so I am tempted to keep trying for a tech company.

Another thing to consider is that there is a lot of inertia when you join a job. I will have little time to look for other jobs in the first few months because I will be busy onboarding. I will also have less time to look for jobs and study for interviews.

Please give advice :)

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Manager offered me return internship rather than SDE position due to hiring freeze, but I would need to delay graduation for it. Should I do it?

Software Engineering Intern at Amazon profile pic
Software Engineering Intern at Amazon

My manager made it clear that my org is not offering return FT offers, but that he would put "incline return" for an internship position if I stayed another year in school (or somehow delayed graduation until 2025).

I could just take random classes or another major to extend my time in school. I also could do a 1-year Masters program which I have already been admitted into. But I am an older student and would rather not stay another year in school. I also feel like I am learning very little in school (I go to a small state school). Compared to the ridiculous amount I learned this summer in the industry, I feel like staying in school for another year would be a huge waste of money and time.

I could potentially work Fall/Spring internships for the next year (so basically a gap year) to artifically delay graduation by a year as well.

Becuase I go to a small state school, getting interviews from Big Tech is extremely hard. We send about 1-3 kids to each FAANG+ company each year and I was only able to get 2 FAANG+ interviews even with refferals to every top company, a 4.0 GPA and relevent experience. Even getting actual SWE engineering jobs is really hard with most CS grads getting jobs labeled "SWE" but that involve very little coding.

Because of that, my worry is this might be my only chance to break into Big Tech for a long time (if ever).

So is it worth delaying my graduation for a shot at big tech? Or should I just graduate and start my career, even if its at a non-tech company (with potentially very little actual engineering work)?

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