Monday, April 1, 2013

Interview at Vietnam's most successful internet company

There are tons of rumor about top tech corporations in Vietnam, but how is it actually like in the nutshell? I got tired of rumors already so I decided to take a look into that world by myself, I applied to the most successful Internet company in Vietnam.

The recruitment information on the Internet in general was very smooth. From the website I was able to learn about open vacants, benefits and perks, and the hiring process. However the sheer size of a 2000-people corporation shows signs of departments stepping on each other foot. The company favors project teams over feature teams. Each team is then responsible for its own vacants. This ends up in numerous job descriptions with the same title "Senior Software Developer" and different human-incomprehensible ID such as 12-WBM-1369 or 13-WTE-1504. Perhaps for insiders, these two codes are as different as e-commerce and social game development, but what I perceived was a confusion (and I didn't fully understand there were different IDs until after the interview).

The application required a CV and a cover letter, which are pretty standard. Mine were written 3 years ago and had never been actually used before (I got my first job via, uhm, word of mouth network). I quickly revised them and submitted the application around midnight. Late afternoon the next day (Thursday), I have got my interview scheduled and confirmed for 9AM next Monday. My phone was accidentally out of battery and I really appreciated that the HR girl patiently tried to reach me 4 times before I could pick up. Though it wasn't a job hooping season, I was still pleasantly surprised.

The night before the interview, I got unconsciously excited. Given that I had interviewed close to a hundred of applicants at the point of time, the excitement was hard to understand. In fact, I got too jumpy that barely could I sleep and that upset my stomach the next morning. 

Couldn't enjoy my breakfast much I came to the company 15 minutes early. When I arrived, the motorbike park and elevator were both crowded. I guess these people don't start a day at 10 like I do. I managed to find a place in the elevator. Standing in a box with other strangers, don't know what to say and what to do with your body was really awkward. I never enjoy sharing the elevator with strangers and I would have took the stairs if the appointment hadn't been on the 13th floor. As the elevator went up and people got in and out, I could see the company offices occupying not one but several floors in this building.

The half of the 13th floor that I was in seemed to be a big meeting area, it was packed with multiple glass-wall rooms named after major rivers over the world. Mekong was the first and Yangtze the last. The company logo and slogan printed on transparent decal were on every walls. I proceeded to meet the receptionist and grabbed a chair next to a few coffee tables in the hall, waiting for my interviewers to come. A big monitor was showing latest K-Pop hits meanwhile. Brochures and posters were scatted every where around the hall. They look really professional. Yet it reminded me of Valve's employee handbook. Of all organizational artifacts, an employee manual served as such a compelling form of global PR for the shift from an industrial biz model to a knowledge management/humanistic model. Brilliant awesomeness was still hiding.

When I was about to finish the third brochure, one of my interviewer, Ms. Tuyen, showed up and took me to a meeting room. It was a little room at the end of an lobby running across the hall. Walking down the dark lobby, I asked whether I would be interviewed in English. "Vietnamese", she replied. "So why the email was in English?". Many Vietnamese companies, most of them, practice this half-baked communication style, English for writing and Vietnamese for the rest. People ended up with some sort of Vietlish that I am allerged to ("Khang oi, can you help me", "Regards em nhe", etc.) Tuyen redirected my question elegantly, but I could tell that Vietnamese was the only language here. I wasn't surprised. In fact it reminded me of Summer, my former employee who couldn't blend into Cogini English-speaking culture.

There were places for 6 in the room. The first impression was the noise of the AC attached to the outer wall of the room. I don't think the noise was that bad, but when I am worried, every external signal seems to be amplified ten fold. The AC was no white noise generator and somehow I started to like the waiting hall better. There was instruction to use VoIP for conference in the room, but I didn't find any devices. The room has a good view over the main street and flower boxes on the pavement but I wasn't left alone in the room to explore the view. The interview happened right afterward. 

Tuyen was an HR staff, she needed someone else to test my technical skills. So she started the interview by talking about the potential project that I would join if hired. "Not launch yet", "Similar to what is happening out there". I couldn't help but think about an e-commerce system, which this corp hasn't succeeded yet, despite of its number of attempts every year. 

Before she finished her last sentence, two men entered the room. The older looked quite casual, actually his outfit looked a bit slipshod and his hair obviously needed some touch. The other guy had tan skin and looked quite sporty. He was very quiet during the interview, in fact, he didn't ask me a single question.

I was asked to give a short talk about myself. Ha! Just like Cogini! And yet I managed t deliver a below average introduction. Knowing the question and listening to countless answers don't make your answer better. The interviewers showed concerns when I expressed my interest in getting a masters degree and being a lecturer in the next couple of year. For a moment I saw my reflection from the other side of the table. 

We moved on through some technical questions, from data structure to database and web server engines, and scaling techniques. The questions had nothing to do with my CV. I didn't mention these skills in my CV and technically database was the only part I know thoroughly and put into my CV (rule of thumb, only put what you really know into the CV). My technical interviewer clearly was asking his concerns, not checking the skills I possessed. I couldn't help but wonder, how can these people detect a candidate that doesn't fit for the position he is applying for (due to the confusing job descriptions) but a true gem for another team right within the company.

The questions were randomly selected, I think, because he didn't have any note with him, just paged through my CV. That gave me an impression that he didn't read my CV before hand. Despite of his randomness, all questions and explanations focused on only one single thing: scalability. For every question, he wanted to know if I knew the implementation and algorithm beneath. Having its success root in online game distribution, the company has a vast number of loyal users. So focusing on scalability make a perfect sense to me. Though, my interviewer had the tendency to go a bit too extreme, I believe he knew what he was talking about. Anyway, not being a big fan of revert engineering, I must have passed 3 questions that related to things behind the curtain. However, after all the interview that I did, I developed a thick skin and defended myself through his questions quite well.

As prospect products and vision are important assets here, we weren't allowed to talk much about those. We went on to have some discussion about software development process and daily activity. The point of view of my interviewer was that processes (he didn't state which) are helpful for outsourcing companies as they indicate what are the steps and what need to be done in each; for in-house projects, processes served little value and yet seemed to create too much bureaucracy overhead (?!). He then went on explaining why multitasking is normal. Their work come from multiple sources, on-going projects and support for live products. The code base also goes through constant rework as "This is the Internet, thing changes fast. The right user experience is unknown and experiments are needed", he said. As we continued to talk about technical work, it appeared to me that his team biggest achievement was to be capable of implementing their own version of world-class libraries and frameworks such as SQLite or jQuery. Couldn't restrain myself, I asked for his opinion about the open source community, about Q&A platform like StackOverflow and Quora. The situation sounded just like the movie "300" to me, just that the Spartan were no better than Persian.

The last couple of minutes at the end of the interview was some casual chit chat about working environment and job description. As far as I could understand, engineers are only given really technical work. My seek for a position with the balance of management and technical work was blocked by the bureaucracy of the 2000-people organization. There weren't many new facts in this last minute talk, but enough for me to confirm that the most successful Internal company in Vietnam has a firm hold on its human resources. Though my time to work for a corporation hasn't come yet, I wish it live long and prosper.


  1. Dude, did you take note everything you see in the room? ;)
    my guess: fpt?

    1. No, I didn't. But I came to the interview to learn something about the company so thing was embossed into my memory quite well. And FPT isn't this good. It sucks very hard.

    2. No, from the conversation and the location note, it's clearly VNG.

  2. Hehe, Khang, I know which company this is. Big building that begins with F.

    Good writing man (I guess that RMIT education was effective, hah!)

    I can only comment that this company, if nothing else, is effective at incorporating thousands of developers into their system. That's not going to be the ideal environment for many kinds of developers, especially the pickiest ones.

    1. Haha, yeah I guess it is easy to guess for those who have been in the industry for a while. I was impressed that the company manages to employed many good developers. But besides that, they are recruiting way too many bad developers to remain lean and flexible. The whole structure that supports 2000+ employees is slowing them down.

    2. Hi Khang,

      I really appreciate your insights. I work for Zalo and I can assure you that your would have had a better interview experience with my team. You were right, bureaucracy could kill off innovation but the 2000-people company clearly has its own advantages, i.e. flexibility on human resources and better supports among teams. You also raised the right concerns: the recruitment process should serve well in order to hire the right people.

      On a side note, not all 2000 people are all "developers". In our team, we define developers are those who know the foundations well and have deep understandings about the basic things, not those who are tools/SDKs users. Because people can learn tools/SDKs to go fast but if they don't get the basics it's really hard for them to go far.

      Just curious, how did the result come out? Have you changed your mind about working at VNG, more specifically, at the core team of the most important internet product of the company? ;)

      - DN

    3. Hi there,

      I am glad that this article finally reached an executive at VNG.

      My original purpose in the interview was not an employment opportunity, but for the sake of being interview itself. When it comes to recruitment, I am a picky person. While it is true that VNG possesses projects that have the power to alter life of millions of people in Vietnam, there seem to be too many mismatches between my vision and that of the corp.

      I believe hiring is the most important decision a manager can make. VNG though values talent, does not place this as a first-class activity. And as far as I have figured, upon joining VNG, an engineer-manager like me will have to choose to be either an engineer or a manager, not both, which is a bit sad. Scope of effect that one engineer in VNG can make is also so trivial, compared to the model that I have been pursuing: Google. Compared to the freedom I am enjoying, joining VNG might not be a step forward. This is a question of fulfilling people's calling VNG needs to answer if it wishes to compete with Vietnam's current vivid startup scene.

      Time has changed and even if I am given the honor to join VNG, I wouldn't have time to contribute much. But keep in touch, I will keep an eye on VNG.