Edward Kandrot is a self-proclaimed "performance guy." A software engineer who studied chemical engineering, Kandrot specializes in making code run faster.
"The only thing we are born into this world with is time — one can make more money, but not more time," he told me. "If I can make a program used by millions or billions of people a few seconds faster, then I've saved the equivalent of many people's lifetimes."
It's that philosophy to work and life that has made 49-year-old Kandrot arguably one of the most valuable software engineers in the country. We scoured LinkedIn to find anyone who had worked at five or more of the Top Attractors — our data-backed list of the most sought-after companies — and discovered only two people, including Kandrot, who fit the criteria.
Kandrot says that just like people, companies have distinct personalities that you can only really get a feel for once you are hired. While Microsoft is a very competitive environment, Kandrot describes Facebook as more like working with family.
Google couldn't be more transparent internally with what people are working on and why, whereas Apple trusts no one and most product details are kept under lock and key. In an interview, I asked Kandrot to pick apart the differences of working at all these top employers and his advice for the millions of job applicants who would love to follow him through their doors.
Caroline Fairchild: When you think back on your career, what has been your strategy when choosing where to work?
Edward Kandrot: I try and pick something that I haven't done in the past and I can learn, but I also want to bring a skill set where I can solve the task and deliver it for more than what they are paying me. After all, a company at the end of the day is in the business to make money. I also want to find a company where I can contribute and feel like I am having a positive impact.
CF: The first big company you worked for was Microsoft. How did you get in the door there?
EK: I worked for Microsoft 16 years ago. I knew some people there and submitted a resume online. They contacted me once and I turned them down, but then two years later they contacted me again and that was it.
They had an interesting project working on Windows 2000 and they had a really good interview process [at the time]. They had everything all paid for — you showed up at the airport and there was a ticket waiting for you. You show up at the hotel and there is a room paid for you and food as well. It is a really nice process.
CF: After interviewing at all these companies, what is your general interview advice?
EK: Knowing someone within the company is key. I have only ever gotten one job where I didn't know someone and that was Facebook. I recommend practice interviewing as much as possible. When I was looking, I scheduled as many interviews per week with as many companies as I could.
I spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Apple interviewing with different teams for seven or more hours a day. Most interviewers ask the same questions, so the more interviews you do, the better you do. You'll also feel more comfortable with the format, which most likely is standing at a whiteboard — something that will almost never happen once one is hired.
CF: What do you tend to ask the interviewer during the interview?
EK: What I try to get out of the interview is what the company is like, what the team is like, and what the people are like. What kind of engineering practices do they have? Source control? State of the source code base? Project shipping criteria? Which languages do they code in or allow? What hours do people normally work? Do they eat lunch as a team?
At Apple, for example, because of the levels of secrecy, you can't talk to anyone else within the company about work except your team, so teams tend to eat together. At places like Facebook with free food all of the time, people tend to eat by themselves or with some friends they make there. How the company does things will determine how you will interact with people in general.
CF: What companies have you worked for that had the most contrasting cultures?
EK: Companies have personalities just like people do; usually it is similar to the founder's. Just like there are some people who you might not get along with, the same is true about a company. There are places like Facebook where the executives swear casually in any meeting, or other places where that could get you fired or at least a meeting with HR.
Some companies want everything to be perfect. Adobe was all about pixel accuracy, while Facebook is all about getting something done now quickly, because it might not be used for long and there are tons of other projects that need your help and time. Adobe was all about individual growth. They have two weeks of classes per year they encourage you to take from a vast catalog of useful categories like conflict resolution, career planning or about the latest technologies.
CF: What would you say makes a successful employee at one versus the other?
EK: At Facebook, you have to be willing to be thrown in and find projects to do yourself. There is a lot going on, and you find time to help. At Adobe, you are assigned a project and you're supposed to work on that and nothing else. It depends if you want to do something yourself or do something that the company wants you to do.
With Facebook, it is very much still like a start-up where you and a few people get together and create something. At Adobe, everyone likes projects, and unless you can show in the business plan that it is worth $10 million, you are not going to spend any time on it.
CF: Did you feel like any of the companies you worked for were similar in the way they approached company culture?
EK: Google and Facebook are very close. They transfer people back and forth quite a bit because the cultures are very open and similar. They both have open-office environments where everyone has a desk and that's about it. They believe in sharing and getting stuff done and shipping quickly.
CF: Is Apple really as secretive as a place as people say?
EK: I was really surprised at the level of secrecy at Apple. I interviewed for three different projects and they couldn't even tell me what project I was accepted for until I had been there for a day. I wasn't really expecting that type of culture. Internally it is very closed and team-based and you don't know what you are focused on and that is it.
When I was there, I was working on the internal OS, but I didn't know what else was going into it besides what I was working on. I had no communication with other teams. There was a website where you would type in your name and the name of the person you wanted to talk to and it would tell you the topics you could talk about.
CF: Your last job was at Facebook, but you are no longer there. What's next for you?
EK: I always have a lot of projects going on and [Silicon] Valley always has a lot of stuff going on, but a lot of it doesn't come to fruition. I worked for some projects that fell apart because the funding didn't happen. Now, I need to decide if I want to continue pursuing something on my own or find the next company I am going to work for.
For more on the list:
Suzy Welch: What it takes to get the best people to work for you
What investors saw in top talent before they hit it big
Most attractive employers in the world
The 25 most attractive employers in the UK, according to LinkedIn
The most attractive employers in Australia
The 40 most attractive employers in America, according to LinkedIn