Ever wondered where Siri gets her answers from? What it takes to get into Apple? How to really prepare for a tech interview? iX alumni, Vera Xu has the answers.
While not the 'voice' of Siri, she certainly powers a fair portion of the brains behind the bot as part of Apple's Siri Search team. But it wasn't always this way. Vera explains how she carved her own path to success (with a little help from iX).
I went to school at Duke University where I studied Biomedical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering. However, I made the change in my after-graduation career planning during junior year of college. Instead of doing hardware design and biomedical instrumentation design, I switched to the software/tech industry. I made this conscious choice after a previous summer spent in Tanzania as biomedical technician, fixing medical equipments for a small village hospital. I realized the scale of impact is limited at my level for hardware design and maintenance, while software engineering is a field in which it’s easier to have scalable impacts. I wanted to work on something that positively impact people’s lives everyday, and software technology seemed to be the way to do that.
There was an info session at my school by iX, and while I didn’t have time to drop by, I checked out the website that showcased this all encompassing experience – both a learning opportunity and a hands-on opportunity to practice real skills. It sounded like exactly like what I wanted. Plus, I’d never been to Cape Town and wanted to explore an exotic new city!
iX alumni, Vera Xu, in a Cheetah sanctuary in Cape Town
I did the Full Stack course which gave me some very practical knowledge of frontend development. The TAs and professors all have lots of experience working in the tech industry, so they taught us what it is like to design to fit the industry standard, as well as what it is like to deliver a product and collaborate as a team. All of them were, at the same time, mentors and friends to us. We’d occasionally have dinner together, and would talk over specific parts of the tech industry that interested us most, and they would share what they knew about how to break into each field, and what to learn to do so. They also did some great technical interview workshops, which I really appreciated.
From this experience, I learnt so much about what it's really like to be in tech.
It’s not only about your technical skills and your visions on software architectures, but also your ability to communicate and learn and be a great mentor to others.
I learned that I would like to get better in this field and more importantly, help and mentor kids who feel doubtful about whether tech is for them. iX is a community that gave me reassurance, and similarly, I would like to help many more figure out their paths.
iX motivated me to always stay curious, and be prepared to learn fast. After the 4-week course of development, I was able to build a full-stack dynamic website by myself. It proved that if I really want to learn something fast, given the resources, I can. To this day, in my spare time, I make it my goal to learn something valuable each month. It doesn’t have to always be technical, but it will be beneficial somehow to my long-term personal development. For example, I’m taking non-degree, part-time courses from Stanford on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (ever since I joined the industry full-time, I can’t help but realize that this is a new wave of powerful technology that nobody should miss out on, so I was very glad to hear that iX is doing a course on that too.) At the same time, I also learned to skate board. :P
Apart from constantly learning, another focus of my life is to mentor college girls who want to learn about technology or dive into the tech industry, but have doubts about whether this is the right path for them. The tech industry, to this day, is still dominated by men. Many college women doubt if they should go for the really technical positions, since they don’t see very many female engineers who could act as role models and mentors. It creates unnecessary barriers for women to break into the tech industry, and this situation should be changed. I try to participate in as many of these mentorship programs as possible. In a way, as a woman, I find technology very empowering, and I hope many more will feel that way too.
In essence, big tech companies always have at least one round of a technical phone screen and many rounds of in-person interviews that take place onsite. For the onsite interviews, you will have to be prepared to write code on a whiteboard. Logic and good algorithms are the most important in these interviews, and they can be prepared for.
My recommendation is that when you are stuck, don’t remain silent and look puzzled. Walk the interviewer through your thought process. That will at least show them your approach to a difficult problem. While you are speaking out your thoughts, sometimes you might be surprised to find out that you will figure it out while you are speaking. If not, it’s always good to show your logic.
I’m working for the Apple Siri Search team now. We are Siri’s knowledge base and if you ask Siri a question, it most likely goes to us. We also handle queries from Spotlight, Safari and Lookup. I’m in a more backend position now, and I’m excited to learn more about this part of the spectrum. Apple is quite secretive as you probably know. But I will say that Apple is a company that pays great attention to detail and really values user privacy, which I found rare and very valuable in the industry. On top of that, I’m glad that the product I’m working on is reaching out to millions of people everyday.
I realize that there’s still quite a lot to learn. I definitely plan to stay in the industry for a couple more years, learning while I still can, and building up my network. In the long-term, I think that while I’ve achieved much breath in my explorations of technology in the past couple years, it’s time that I choose a field to specialize in and dive deep. I’m currently still making that decision, but when I do, and if it’s necessary, I’m always down to go back to school to learn more!
I think iX is great fit for many students at varying stages in their career decision-making journeys.