A Tennessean Coder’s Tale of Beating Bots to Land a Bay Area Tech Gig

Don Tennant
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Finding the Right Employer: 6 Interview Questions

Earlier this year I wrote about my interview with Tigran Sloyan, founder and CEO of CodeFights, a coding competition platform in San Francisco that challenges programmers to coding duels with bots trained by high-profile companies that are looking for programming talent. If you beat the bot, your foot’s in the door with a company whose attention you likely wouldn’t have otherwise attracted. Last week, I spoke with someone who did just that.

James Johnston is a native Tennessean who’s now working at Thumbtack, a San Francisco tech company that links people with experienced professionals to accomplish personal projects. With a four-year university degree in computer science and plenty of work experience in Tennessee under his belt, Johnston certainly didn’t need CodeFights to find a job. In fact, he only went to the CodeFights site on a whim.

“They were advertising on Facebook, and it looked like a fun little thing to try,” he said. “I didn’t necessarily think it would go anywhere, but I thought I would try it. It reminded me of programming competitions back when I was in college, so that got my adrenaline going a little bit.”


Johnston ended up challenging the bots from Asana, GoDaddy and Dropbox.

“Basically the way this works is, you’re given some kind of problem statement, and with the company bots it’s actually kind of cool, because the questions are applicable to the company you are trying to beat,” he said. “If you compete against the Dropbox Dropbot, one of the questions it asked had to do with calculating estimated time remaining for downloading a set of files, with some additional complexities added in there. GoDaddy asked a question related to solving a DNS-related problem.”

Johnston said CodeFights supports several programming languages, and you can compete using whichever language you’re most comfortable with. He opted for C++.

“So they’ll give you a problem statement, and you have to write a function that solves the problem,” he said. “One of the nice things I like about their platform, vs., say, HackerRank, is that they don’t make you waste time doing mundane crap that’s annoying. On HackerRank, you have to parse standard input, and write your formatted output. CodeFights doesn’t do that — they provide all the boilerplate code for you.”

Johnston ended up beating all three bots he challenged. He must have beaten them fairly handily. A few days after knocking out the Asana and GoDaddy bots, he was contacted by Sloyan himself, Johnston said, “to find out what I might be looking for so he would know what companies to circulate my information to.”

Johnston said he got as far as onsite interviews with Asana, but never heard a peep from GoDaddy or Dropbox. He ended up at Thumbtack without ever challenging the Thumbtack bot.

“My impression is they use [the competition] as a filter to see who knows something about programming,” he said. “Once that’s proven, there’s no reason Thumbtack should avoid me, just because I didn’t beat the Thumbtack bot. That would be stupid. I beat three other bots — I proved that I can program.”

Johnston said that while he didn’t need CodeFights to get a job, landing a cool job in San Francisco would have been tough for a guy in Chattanooga without that lead.

“In terms of coming out to somewhere like the Bay Area, where I’m at right now, I knew almost nobody,” he said. “So it would have been more of a challenge to get myself seen and noticed out here, without that personal connection.”

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.



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