Tiffany Wang: Hackathons, Landing a Google Internship, 80/20 Learning Rule

|| Jenny Kim

Tiffany is a front-end guru, hackathon queen, and a 3rd year electrical engineering student at McGill University. I first met her at QHacks where she had come with her 4-person powerhouse of a team. While QHacks was now my second legitimate hackathon, they had already been to almost 10 and developed countless hardware/software apps in under 48 hours. Despite being intimidatingly experienced developers, her entire team was so supportive and humble. I instantly warmed up to Tiffany because of her welcoming demeanour and sweet personality. I was really excited to hear that she had landed a front-end development internship at Google in San Francisco, but even more surprised when she told me that she had learned everything in 2 weeks before her interviews.

I probed her on this further and we had a really interesting conversation about learning effectively using the 80/20 rule, amongst some other topics.

You’ve competed in a lot of hackathons, what have you learned from them and what advice do you have for someone who wants to go to one?

John, Nabil, Frank and I have been to 8 or 9 hackathons. My first hackathon was Hack Harvard. I didn’t know Javascript or anything really, but we ended up creating an app in 48 hours. After a while, we realized that we had strengths in different areas: I’m always front-end, John and Nabil are back-end, and Frank glues everything together. During really intense hackathons, we play to our specialty but for chill hackathons, we’ll switch around and work on different areas. Something really important I’ve learned is that during a hackathon, everyone is knowledgeable in some areas but not so knowledgeable in others. I shamelessly ask other teams for help and everyone is really nice - even if it’s a competition, no one really takes it as a competition. You just have to be open to asking people for help and there will always be someone out there that is better than you and willing to teach you.

Tiffany and her Hackathon crew

What was your motivation for applying to Google? What was the whole process like?

I did a Nokia hardware internship last summer and I worked with PCBs for routers. I would have to read the schematics which were HUNDREDS of pages long – it was a pretty boring thing to do. After that internship, I decided not to pursue a hardware career and I transitioned into software. I applied to Google through their portal, thinking that nothing was going to happen. But I received the coding challenge a couple of weeks later and surprisingly, I passed. During the 2 weeks leading up to my interview, I studied everyday and I was constantly practicing coding questions. During the summer, I built a website using my main stack so I went through its software architecture and the recipe. I also read 2-3 hours of Leetcode everyday and watched a lot of Youtube videos on how to do coding interviews.

I’m getting the sense that you’re able to process large amounts of information and learn complex concepts in a very short period of time. What’s your thought process when you’re learning?

I like to reverse engineer everything. In school, I don’t like the process of studying the theories, class notes, and then doing practice questions. Honestly, I never go to class so I never know what’s happening. I start by reading the assignment questions and practice problems so I understand what the professor wants. I then go through class notes to find the solutions and try to link them together using a common thread. Once I have a better understanding of what to retain, I’ll make my own notes and thoroughly go over them. When I was studying algorithms for my Google interviews, it was difficult to answer the questions at first because I didn’t know what to do at all. After reading through a couple of solutions, I realized that each of them were just a tweaked version of one of several patterns.

I realized Tiffany essentially uses the 80/20 rule when she learns. Here’s my take on what it is and how to use it.

A Quick-ish Intro to the 80/20 Rule

The 80/20 rule was first studied by an economist named Vilfredo Pareto who discovered that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. In general, the rule states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. Over the years, this distribution has been applied to a variety of circumstances – 80% of your fitness results should come from 20% of your workout exercises, 80% of a business’ sales comes from 20% of its clients, so on and so forth. This concept makes sense because mathematically, it roughly follows the power law distribution which shows that anything beyond the 20% will still give you results, but at a decreasing rate.

Power law distribution

Source: Better Explained

In Tiffany’s case, she is able to learn so efficiently because she determines the 20% of the concepts that are crucial to know while going through assignment questions. Only when she has a firm understanding of what she needs to know, she goes back and deeply studies the 20% of the concepts. In this way, she has done most of the preparation for doing assignments and writing exams.

I’ve personally tried to incorporate the 80/20 rule into various aspects of my own life and learning. I’ve realized that when it comes to reading non-fiction books, I find it difficult to absorb every single detail and often when I do so, I don’t retain as much. Instead after I finish a book, I’ll try to grasp a couple of main points that resonate most with me and transform them into frameworks that I can easily apply to my life. For example, I read a book called “Pitch Perfect” written by a communications coach, Bill McGowan. An important lesson that I gleaned was how to answer questions on the spot. I chose to focus on this lesson because thinking quickly on my feet is an invaluable skill to have. I summed up this lesson into a 4 step framework:

1. Start thinking about your answer as soon as your counterpart gives you a cue/word to signal what response they are expecting.

2. ‎What is your main argument?

3. ‎How will you illustrate it (common methods: personal example, anecdote, data)?

4. ‎What are the first five words that will come out of your mouth?

Cutting out all of the additional information in this book and extracting this framework amongst a couple of others, helped me find the 20% that was most worthwhile to me.

This rule seems common sensical – you’re just prioritizing your work/learning/content. However for me, having the question of “what is the 20% that will give me 80% of the results?” helps me better prioritize in my head and not waste time on unnecessary tasks. Pinpointing the 20% can be a challenging task in itself, but I’ve found that third party perspectives are often helpful in those cases. If I’m having difficulty identifying the 20% because the subject is foreign to me, I’ll usually ask a subject matter expert what he/she thinks the most important points are.

For Tiffany, her expert/mentor for software was her friend, John.

Since first year, my main interest was hardware. I did a hardware internship and I realized I hated it, but I was really behind in software. John took my hand and laid out the things I needed to know for software. This was 2 weeks before my Google interview, so I went from 0 software knowledge to knowing everything. John is definitely my biggest mentor.

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