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Breaking into big tech w/ Dylan Israel

Big tech is as booming as ever, and it does not look like it is slowing down anytime soon. Even during the COVID pandemic, the FAANG companies, that is Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google with Microsoft being an honorary member, have grown their revenue by 50% during that year. And even while every other business was shutting down, they were hiring fast.
Dylan Israel

Staff Front End Engineer, ClickUp | X-FAANG

Big tech is as booming as ever, and it does not look like it is slowing down anytime soon. Even during the COVID pandemic, the FAANG companies, that is Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google with Microsoft being an honorary member, have grown their revenue by 50% during that year. And even while every other business was shutting down, they were hiring fast.

It is a very popular place to be. After all, you get to work with some of the smartest people in the world on some of the most exciting problems and you get a nice bit of compensation while doing that.

As a quick example, as a software development engineer at Level 2 at Amazon, you are making around $240,000 per year; and as a software development engineer, 3, that is the senior level, you are making around $330,000 per year.

Of course, it is not entirely straightforward to get one of those jobs. The interview cycles are extremely long and out of over 3 million applications that are submitted to Google each year, they only hire about 20,000 people.

We are seeing that on MentorCruise as well. People book a lot of interview practice with FAANG mentors, and they are looking to navigate those long, long interview cycles to get into those companies.

We are talking to Dylan Israel today who was kind enough to lend us some of his time to talk about his way into FAANG and Amazon specifically, and what it took for him as a college dropout and self-taught engineer to make it into that big industry.

We are here with Dylan who is self-taught and got his way into Amazon to tell us a little bit more about what it takes to get into a big tech company and also what the process is like to interview for one of these.

Dylan is not only an excellent software engineer, but also a conference speaker, podcaster, YouTuber, and of course, a top mentor on MentorCruise with a smooth 5 stars from over 30 mentees.

Without further ado, Dylan, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dylan Israel: My name is Dylan Israel. I have had quite a few side projects, YouTube and podcasting being one of them. I put those on hold to do more mentoring and build courses on platforms, like LinkedIn Learning. One of the ones that are kind of really cool that I am passionate about is Sneak Peek. I do not even know if I am supposed to talk about it, but I am actually doing the TypeScript section of W3Schools right now, which is really fun.

Dominic Monn: Nice.

Dylan Israel: Just as somebody who grew up on W3Schools, somebody who started doing tutorials on there, learning, and still to-this-day for basic stuff going on - that is right. Right now, I work at Amazon as a front-end engineer 2 on a project called Explorer. If you go to www.amazon.com/explorer, you can check it out for some shameless promo, but really just to check out what it is I am doing - where we are digitizing travel and experiences. It is a web RTC real-time streaming app, a pretty fun thing, different than building your traditional e-commerce platform or component library that I have done in the past.

Dominic Monn: That is super cool. Especially with W3schools, it is like part of internet history, right?

Dylan Israel: Yeah.

Dominic Monn: It is like that one site that everyone went to when they started coding.

Dylan Israel: Those guys are great. They have been great to work with. I do a lot of video tutorials. It is the first time I have done a text tutorial. It has its own challenges. It is always rewarding. It is one of the things I like about mentoring, just rewarding to help other people and one of the cool things that I like speaking at conferences is you get to actually meet people and they come up to you and they are like, “Hey, I remember you doing that coding tutorial in your closet and it really helped me.” That’s all fun.

4 years to ‘overnight success’

Dominic Monn: Humble beginnings. What was kind of the transition that you had from going to pick up coding to obviously then working at Amazon to doing all those different things in content creation and education? Did you just kind of ease into that or was it a decision that you took?

Dylan Israel: It is from day one to Amazon. It is about a 4-year process. Sometimes people think it took 4 years to be an overnight success. It is one of those types of things. For me, I was doing the traditional college path and for many years, I was half-assing it. I really was unhappy. It was not an environment I thrived in, but that is the thing that you get hammered in, at least in my family. You go to college or else you will be a drug addict on the streets. That is the thing you go to college. So, it never worked for me for whatever reason, and finally, I was like, you know what? I can be a software engineer on my own. I dropped out. I took some job where I was working 50 hours a week as a technology trainer - it was a kind of a cross between a business analyst and a technical writer. I just studied 4 hours on the weekdays and 12 hours on a Saturday and a Sunday, just knocking out courses on code academy, free code camp, and sort of the way YouTube started was. I just wanted an interesting side project that would catch people’s eyes and then also that maybe I could make some money in the best-case scenario. That is kind of how I got started with YouTube, and I started throwing it out there, and then it did exactly that. Employers were really like, “Oh cool!” They got to see a little bit of me, got to see that I was growing, and eventually, I took a job about 3000 miles away from California to Florida, where I am now, and I have just been grinding and doing all these things ever since.

Dominic Monn: Wow. Amazing! But what is your system for, I guess, accountability, but also maybe energy when you are saying that you studied for hours on end and you are kind of grinding on a side project and everything.

Dylan Israel: I really am a believer in hitting rock bottoms. I think sometimes people hit a rock bottom, and they keep digging and that is fortunate. It is okay to hit a bottom and be like, that is unacceptable. There is a couple of times where my girlfriend at the time and I were grocery shopping, and we did not have enough money for food and basic essentials, like underwear, I remember that was one thing where I was, weighing that. That was something that may sound silly, but it really impacted me where I was really frustrated that this was a scenario in my life I was dealing with. I was sleeping on floors and doing this and sleeping on couches and my mother was bringing me groceries because I just could not do it all. Even though I was working full-time and I was not living this extravagant lifestyle. These are just things where I generally think at the time where I was just upset with what was going on. I did not get my first dev job until I was about 28 and I did start making a full-time transition and dedicated it until I was about 26, 27. I just wasn’t happy with that and I allowed that to fuel me to a degree. Sometimes I jokingly have said on a Livestream – “poverty and hunger are great motivators,” but that they were for me. I knew I could do better than what I was doing and I wanted to do better and the going all-in was really kind of a mentality as well as like, “Hey, I am dropping out of school.” My parents are not going to be happy about this. It is not a matter of “If I am going to be an engineer, it is a matter of “when,” because I am putting in the time, the effort, the energy. I am tired. I am cranky, studying whether I want to or not, one step forward mentality every day. And I just didn’t think there is any other alternatives. Going back to what I was doing before was not working. I was miserable and, at least, I will be miserable here doing it my own way.

Dominic Monn: That’s amazing. Now, that you have reached those goals and you are an engineer and you are successful, where do we get the motivation now?

Dylan Israel: It is very strange that as you progress in your career, you get paid more to do less, it feels like. I do not know if you get better and it is easier to do or if that the expectations are just less. It is very strange. I find that my work is less stressful than at the start and that might just be that I am faster. In these things, you have years of experience and the other thing is you have kind of find what works for you. One thing I think people are really uncomfortable doing is quitting things that are not working for them. We have a very negative culture, at least in America about quitting. You do not want to be a quitter. I actually encourage you to quit things. I think too often we hold on to things that are not good for us, and what also stops us from doing, is trying things that are new and stifling things and people stay in toxic dynamics because they do not want to be a quitter. Like some things I mentioned earlier, I did YouTube for 5 years and podcasts for about 3 and I stopped those because I was like, “okay, that served a point in time” and now I am moving on to other things that are going to progress me in other ways rather than continuing doing something that I am no longer passionate about or that maybe I am more passionate about other things because there is only so much time in the week and you have to juggle your time. My girlfriend, I have been dating for a year and I have never let mentoring interfere with that or coding interfere with that. I have healthy boundaries of when I start something, when I stop something and that it is not going to impact our date nights or family events or things like that so that I can sort of enjoy the best of both worlds, which leaves me refreshed to go and continue the stuff outside of work. Because you are working here 40-45 hours a week, and then you are doing another 20 plus on top of it in side projects, and to be able to do that, you have to enjoy it.

Dominic Monn: So you were motivated and studied hard to become an engineer and obviously, you did that, but when was the idea coming up of, I am going to go for one of the Big 5 or the big 6, in the industry?

Dylan Israel: I think it has always been there. Obviously, I think I am very career-focused and working very hard on a lot of side projects, not only because I enjoy them, but I generally want to progress my career and grow and learn and I am a very basic software engineer type that people look for in that way. Part of it might have been like a chip on the shoulder of being self-taught - there is one comment I remember from YouTube. I like taking these negative moments and using them to motivate me. I remember this one comment and thank you to whoever said it to me, even though it was not meant to be supportive, but something along the lines of, “even garbagemen can call themselves sanitation engineers,” and I always remember that and basically, the comment was like, “Hey! self-taught engineers will never be engineers” or something like that. Part of it was maybe a chip on my shoulder and being like, “listen, I can work anywhere and I will prove it to you, and am going to Big 4, big tech companies.” There are not too many places above FAANG. You are kind of there. Part of it was that and part of it is just basic stuff like money is great. I recommend everyone work at a big tech company. It is good for the bank account, good opportunities, good growth, good everything, and I just want to work with some of the best engineers in the world. I tend to believe that they exist in places at big tech companies, and I can tell you that from my experience at Amazon is that I have worked with very high-quality engineers and it has made me better because of that.

Dominic Monn: I feel like big techs are such booming companies that you cannot really go wrong with them, especially now. If we have times like COVID, you are super safe with a company like that, and obviously, you always get to work on the cutting edge of things and stuff that gets used by millions around the world, which is amazing. What was your start once you had that ambition or you really took that goal to your sides? What was the process like? Did you apply right away, did you go and study specifically for the interviews?

Dylan Israel: When I finally got accepted, I had about 3.5 or 4 years of experience, and I spent about 6 months to around 2 years and I interviewed at I want to say Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft.

Dominic Monn: Nice.

Dylan Israel: I bombed down each one of those interviews. I did not put in the time and the energy into the things. I still do not think are all that important, which is like data structures and algorithms. So that was my first pass and I sort of got a realization of what it would actually take to grow. It is a kind of challenge to myself a bit there. Which is oftentimes what I do is I go and I challenge myself and I fell and I take L’s and then, you pick yourself up, you learn from it and you move forward. I have a couple of colleagues who have interviewed once and failed and never have tried it again. I interviewed at Google, I bombed out and, now I am terrified of ever doing it again, which is kind of goes to the quitting thing. It is okay to fail and it is okay to quit things. You just use them as learning experiences and grow and for as many L’s I have taken in my dating life, taking them in professionally is much easier, I assure you, you built some character that way. But, it was a rough year because of COVID. It is just the months leading up to getting the Amazon job, which will be a year this month, I had a 10-year relationship end and then COVID was going crazy and it was just me all the way across the country. It was a very rough year. It was very depressing and it was just like dealing with a whole bunch of mental health issues. Towards the end of the year, I started feeling better. I have gone through this whole like you go through this breakup montage or eating healthy or exercising and all that sort of stuff. I started studying and had a recruiter reach out to me and finally interviewed and passed. I always want to be able to point to a couple of things that are like big wins for the year. It was looking like a big whole L, there were not any big financial windfalls and there were not any big career moves and the Amazon thing came through and that was the big checkmark at the end of the year. About a month before that recruiter reached out, I was getting back into the rhythm. I dropped everything. I was figuring out, just getting into the right mental space, right health space. I dropped like 30 pounds and everything was going in a good direction and I started studying and the recruiter reached out and I said, “Sure let’s go. Why not? What do I get to lose?” Then 2 weeks later, I interviewed, and then 2 weeks after that, I had the job.

Dominic Monn: There is this concern, right? That in order to get into big tech, you really need to study for the interview process and not necessarily be a great engineer, right? You need to study all the whiteboard exercises, but maybe your background is not as important at least to pass the technical interviews. Did you experience that in the same way?

Dylan Israel: Yeah. I think every interview process is slightly different. There are definitely some theoretical aspects of the Amazon interview process but also a little bit more front-end focused. The front-end role at Amazon has only existed for about 3 years and so traditionally they’ve only had a software development engineer role. They spun off this other one because of how important it is. Now, it is kind of interesting because I think a lot of times what ends up happening is the practical and like the side projects and work experience that kind of bring them to the table to be interested in you and that goes sort of out the window and then you get tested on this other thing. So it does not make a whole lot of sense at a lot of these interview processes. It was like we are interested in you because of this. Alright. Here’s data structures and algorithms, which is kind of how it goes.

Standing out

Dominic Monn: You said that your side projects and basically your portfolio brought you to the table. Is that really what kind of made you stand out from the masses or was it like a top-notch experience and resume?

Dylan Israel: I think especially when you are going from a non-big tech company to big tech, that has to be it. There are so many engineers that are interested in, but you also have to pass the interview, right? It is like, “Hey, we want somebody who brings something different to the team and it is going to make the team better” and pretty much all of these big tech companies are going to throw you through a 4- to 6-hour interview loop. For the recruiters to reach out, they have to see, “Hey, maybe this person knows what they are doing and is a very passionate engineer, and let us give him a shot.” Right? I was at a big company, but I was not at a big tech company. I was working at Price Waterhouse Cooper, which is one of the sorts of big 4 auditors and they do a bunch of consulting and stuff like that. But they are by no means a tech company. I guess it is relevant resume experience, but the thing that really gets people interested in me, at least, is all the stuff I do outside of work. Because everyone that is going to be interviewed has work experience. So you have to take it at that baseline of, “okay, everyone is going to be a software engineer that they are looking at for the most part,” unless you are coming out of your first dev job for out of a CS program, all big techs are looking at other software engineers. How am I different than other engineers? Well, I build courses, I do YouTube. I have podcasts. I spoke at conferences. How are these things that support that? And then they were, great! we found our diamond in the rough type of guy.

Dominic Monn: Alright. It is almost a little bit like personal branding, but just instead of calling it that name, it is doing great work kind of in public.

Dylan Israel: Yeah. Personal branding is kind of a cringe term, but there is some truth to it, right? For instance, when it comes to mentoring, when I get a very nice review, I will share it on LinkedIn and some of my social media platforms, because one, I think it is cool and it makes me look good to my bosses and things like that.

Dominic Monn: Right.

Dylan Israel: But it gets people that are looking for that sort of support to know, “Oh, here is somebody who is highly rated and that people respect or enjoy” or at least the people who have signed up for me have said, “Oh, Hey, like I got my value.” I give an example of - I shared this literally this morning seems like you got some values – “Investing in mentorship with Dylan was one of the best decisions I have made for my career this year. His candid feedback, season advice, and actual assess were invaluable. I really can’t imagine where I would be if I had not worked with him. In a crowded often toxic industry, Dylan is a lighthouse to guide you through the storms.” That last comment is why I shared it.

Dominic Monn: That’s a great one. Yeah. That’s awesome.

Dylan Israel: But it is like those little things that you can share and that sort of personal branding space that makes you stand out, right? Make you be like, “Hey, we’re looking for engineers who are a mentor and do these things and will make our team better.” Here you have experience when people are quite literally reviewing you on having a positive experience in growth. If you take everyone at a baseline of - Everyone is going to be an engineer, how are you different? What do you bring to the table? And that is where that extra time outside of work comes. Everyone is working 40 hours a week and you are working 60, then you are going to pass them up really quickly.

Dominic Monn: Especially, when you are coming from that, I guess, untraditional background, right? And you feel like you need to, maybe not make up for some of that, not make up for the experience, but maybe make up for the actual degree that kind of convinces the first set of hiring managers. It really makes sense to have yourself out there.

Dylan Israel: Yeah absolutely. Whenever I do something, I always look at it from a lens of, how can I get more than sort of a one-to-one value, right? With mentoring, right? It is like, not only am I doing good as promoting my career, but I am also making money. So to me, that is a one to three value. I always look at it from that lens - Is there some way I can financially achieve this so that I enjoy doing this because every minute I am taking outside of my life is a minute and I am not spending with friends and family or enjoying it in a traditional sense. And then, is it progressing my career? Because that’s one of my sort of goals and am I doing good? Right? Do I feel good about what am I doing? So I don’t really do anything anymore unless I feel like it is going to have a positive impact, just doing things outside of work you have to really have the motivation and those are the things that motivate me to keep doing it.

Dominic Monn: What else does it take to pass the interview? I reckon there are a lot more steps with other hiring managers that are looking for other things than just algorithms.

Dylan Israel: Yeah, I think you have to be able to be confident and clearly articulate your expertise. So often, when I am working with mentees, I can see that most of them are quite brilliant individuals that are actually very skilled. It is just that they do not really believe it themselves and that they are, maybe they are just tired and exhausted and beat down from a negative work environment or whatever it is. If you do not believe in your own skillset, people are going to pick up on that and they are not going to hire you. If you do not think you can do the job, then they are not going to think you can do the job. Be able to have those communication skills, I consider myself an introvert for the most part which is kind of weird when you put videos of yourself on the internet but that is a separate conversation. You have to be able to sell yourself. You have to be able to answer questions, interact. So much of any job is not only the technical part. Do people perceive you are going to be easy to work with? that you are going to be fun to work with? and that they are going to ask you a question and you are not just going to grunt back at them, right? So, I do not think you need to be an extrovert by any sense of imagination, but you have to be able to communicate your experience and be confident that you can, for some of those behavioral questions. I am of the belief that big tech companies are making a slight tweak to how they are hiring from what I have seen or what I have been told and I think that is going to become more valuable over time.

Dominic Monn: I guess it is a skill or maybe more of a soft skill of selling yourself or marketing yourself. Is that something that comes with experience or is that something people can actually practice for the same way that they would practice for an algorithm interview, for example?

Dylan Israel: Yeah, that is an interesting thing. One book I recommend reading quite a bit is “The Clean Coder,” which is about mentality as a software engineer. I think that is just as important, like what is your mentality, right? Are you going in there? being like, “I am the guy.” You just need to figure it out and you are able to sort of point to examples or you going in there nervous and anxious. When I first started interviewing, I would throw up before my interviews, when I first started in my job interviews and that is how nervous I was and over time, it gets better. I think part of just getting comfortable is just doing it enough that you stop caring. I think having a level of indifference makes it much easier to be successful or at least feign confidence. But I think some of it is just practice. Some of it is getting comfortable. There is a level of confidence or it is arrogance, right? But I do not think people go hard enough in the confidence range that they are worried about being arrogant, which I do not think is really all that feasible for most people. You want to show up, you want to be confident, but I think that the threshold is much higher than people think.

Accepting failure

Dominic Monn: It kind of ties back into the talk that we had at the beginning of the recording, which is that failing is in many cultures, but in the US and definitely in Europe as well as is unacceptable and maybe that fear of failing is what is really kind of a big pressure point, right? in these interviews?

Dylan Israel: I will be the first one to tell you that failing in an interview and failing anything sucks. It is not fun. I will not tell you it is fun or easy, but I will tell you that it is like those cringe memes you see where the paths to success are not a solid line and it is sort of ups and downs. That is 100% true. If you look at it objectively, I had 5 FAANG interviews before I got my first FAANG job, right? And that is not a fun process to go through by any means, right? That is probably 30 hours of just interviews that did not amount to much of anything other than a learning experience. It absolutely is worth and it absolutely has made me a better engineer and has had a positive impact on my career trajectory and growth and all this other stuff that comes along with that and I fail all the time. Now I am trying not to fail as much as I learned from these things and repeat my mistakes and every time I would go through one of these big tech interviews and I would “Oh, I would go and be like, okay, why did I do that?” And be like, okay, well, you know, maybe I needed to understand closures better because that was the question. I usually have a pretty good idea of what it was that I did not do great on. I go and I try to fill that gap in and then maybe it’s enough, maybe it’s not, maybe there are other things, but you just keep on learning from it and doing better and then eventually, if you are stubborn enough and you are putting enough hard work into it, you will accomplish what it is you are trying to do. I have no doubt about that.

Dominic Monn: That is a super inspiring thing about it, right? That you need to just kind of work it and grind it out, but in the end, hopefully, it is worth it. Do you think it was worth all the work of going through that?

Dylan Israel: Yeah, absolutely. It was challenging, it was frustrating at times, and it has been a 3-1/2-year journey to get there with about a year and a half of dedicated focus. The growth that I have had as an engineer, the opportunities that I will come as a result of it, the compensation, the networking, and future things, I think working in any big tech company is a great thing for anyone’s career. If you are a career-driven individual, I would highly recommend it. Unless you have probably a traditional CS background and you are studying a lot of data structures algorithms or maybe just like competitive programming and a lot of times that is a harder transition because these are not the day-to-day things that I have ever done. Maybe there are some front-end jobs out there that are doing that and I do not think there are, but that is kind of the name of the game for most orgs.

Dominic Monn: It seems like you are on top of everything. You have your side projects which are working out great. You are a top mentor. You are at one of the biggest companies in the world in a very successful position. So what’s next for you?

Dylan Israel: That’s an interesting question. Right now, it’s just saving money and buying properties. It is about leveraging current success. I am building courses and I am growing at work. I am doing a lot of studying right now to become a top 1% JavaScript engineer. So I am doing hundreds of hours of courses. It is kind of a balance between doing stuff that is going to pay off in the immediate future, like W3Schools TypeScript stuff and building courses for LinkedIn Learning. So I am always going to have something like that going on, and then growing my skillset as an engineer that will have major payoffs. I would say - what is next for me - is really to get to that next level of engineer. If you go and look at like www.levels.fyi, you will see that every big tech organization has its own - it is not just like junior, mid, senior. My goal is really to get to that next level every couple of years. To get to the final levels, people usually have 30 years of work experience. Right now, I am fairly in terms of years of experience where I need to be about 5, going on 5 years, at sort of L5 range. So the next would be L6, at least at Amazon, the next year up. And that is kind of where I want to go. I am doing that in a couple of different ways outside of work, but eventually, you have to play the game at work and sort of go through the hoops there. But my goal really is just to keep getting better and keep progressing my career.

Dominic Monn: I love that the growth never stops.

Dylan Israel: Yeah, it is one of those things where, at the moment, the final boss looks so overwhelming and intimidating, and you are like this milestone, but the human condition is a very powerful thing where you say, “oh, if I just do X, Y, and Z, and I tackle this, I will be happier, that will be it.” And then you go and tackle it and it was just so epic at the time. But now, it is just something in the rear window and you look at what is next and you are like, “oh, now, that’s actually what I want.” You just keep on, you keep one up in yourself which is the dangerous yet fun way to live life, I guess, for me, anyhow. So, Just that constant progression. Sometimes it is hard because one thing I have talked to my significant other about is - it is hard for me to be content. I do not know if that is like – content is kind of a dirty word where you can enjoy what you have and what you are doing, I kind of feel once you are content, then you are at a point where you have said enough is enough. I feel like there is quite a bit of runway to go, so I am not quite content yet.

Dominic Monn: We are looking forward to seeing what you are going to do in the next few years, at which levels you are going to reach. I want to thank you so much for taking the time and tell us a little bit more about your journey into the big tech industry and your career journey.

Dylan Israel: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Dominic Monn: Thank you. I appreciate you.



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