Our Path to Benchling

Hello! We’re Neehar and Alex, two engineers here at Benchling. We both started last September and recently graduated from Stanford with Computer Science degrees. Neehar is on our Lab Automation team and Alex is on our Developer Platform team. We definitely had a lot of questions about the interview and onboarding process when we were […]

Hello! We’re Neehar and Alex, two engineers here at Benchling. We both started last September and recently graduated from Stanford with Computer Science degrees. Neehar is on our Lab Automation team and Alex is on our Developer Platform team. We definitely had a lot of questions about the interview and onboarding process when we were considering joining Benchling (especially virtually!), so we wanted to share our experiences.

Note: Every Benchling strives to embody our leadership principles, many of which we’ve included throughout this post with #hashtags. Based on our experiences, these principles are clearly embodied here at Benchling, even as early as the interview and onboarding stages.

How did you first hear about Benchling?

Neehar: Around May 2020, my post-grad plans changed dramatically when it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to last more than just a few weeks. After graduating in June, I faced the tough task of re-recruiting for a new position completely virtually.

I first heard about Benchling from a friend who recently joined as a software engineer. I also had some friends who went through the interview process, and even though they didn’t end up joining, they only had great things to say about the folks they met along the way. They all spoke highly of the company’s collaborative culture, friendly interviewers, and important mission.

When I did my first round of job interviews in Fall 2019, I was interested in companies that were growing quickly, tackling challenging problems, and had enough structure for me to thrive as a junior engineer while still having a real impact. As I re-evaluated my priorities in Spring 2020, I realized I had a new parameter: how was the company responding to COVID-19? I was now asking myself:

  • Was their industry stable given the circumstances? More specifically, had their product(s) lost a significant amount of activity due to the pandemic? Were they performing layoffs or struggling to get funding?
  • How had they pivoted to remote work?
  • And were new hires still having a great experience?

Benchling checked all of these boxes and happened to still be interviewing for new grad positions!

Alex: Like Neehar, COVID-19 forced me to re-recruit for new grad positions (while I was living in my parents’ house). Over the course of my Computer Science Master’s curriculum, I had become particularly interested in Biology and Bio-Computation. For that reason, Benchling’s mission statement, “accelerating the pace of life science R&D,” felt like a perfect fit when I first read it at a (virtual) career fair in the Spring of 2020.

My priorities had also shifted since Fall 2019, but not in the same ways as Neehar’s. My original priority was to land a job at a company with a well-known product and a strong engineering brand so that I could develop as an engineer. However, after COVID-19 caused my job at a huge FAANG to be deferred, my perspectives on stability and brand had completely shifted. I decided that I wanted to join a company with the following criteria:

  • The ability to make a large impact. This requires a company small enough that even junior folks can tackle business-critical problems and lead projects.
  • A place with enough structure to train a junior engineer in engineering best practices. This requires a company large enough that there’s enough time and energy to train new employees.
  • A culture that really values mentorship and learning. This is completely unique to each company and is (mostly) independent of size.

After my previous experience at a huge company, I realized that Benchling, a growth-stage start-up, is a super exciting place to be. After a year, Benchling has far exceeded all of my expectations.

Interview Process

What was the interview process like?

Benchling’s technical interview process consists of several stages, including an online coding challenge, a phone interview, and a (currently virtual) onsite interview. Each of these stages has a slightly different format and covers different content, but candidates are evaluated along the same axes (outlined below) each step of the way.

Stage One: Coding Challenge

The first step is an online coding challenge that can be done on your own time in any language.

Stage Two: The Phone Interview

After passing the coding challenge, we spoke to our recruiter, who laid out the main axes that Benchling uses to measure interview performance. This impressed us; we consistently went into technical interviews knowing exactly what we were being evaluated on. At other companies, we were given general guidance to explain our thought process and propose an efficient solution, but Benchling went above and beyond by providing these details — we could already see how Benchlings #recruit-and-develop-the-best.

Performance Axes:

  1. Problem Solving: How do you use data structures and algorithms, iterate on designs to come up with a solution, and evaluate tradeoffs?
  2. Programming Productivity: How do you translate ideas into code, debug, think about edge cases, and move through a technical problem?
  3. Architecture: How do you pick up on and implement clean abstractions? How do you isolate each piece of a problem?
  4. Technical Communication and Collaboration: How do you communicate your ideas to fellow engineers, talk through your thought process, and incorporate hints along the way?

During our phone interviews, we worked through an hour-long problem with an engineer at Benchling.

Stage Three: The Onsite Interview

During the onsite interview, candidates solve technical questions, participate in a behavioral interview, and get a product demonstration. All the problems presented emulate real-world challenges that Benchling engineers tackled as they were building the product (#unite-around-the-mission). The same axes as above apply for evaluation.

The product demonstration is not an evaluation of your skills; this time is just for you. This part of the interview is super valuable to see the product in action! We were able to put ourselves in a scientist’s shoes and understand the real world applications of the Benchling product.

In addition to a few technical interviews, you’ll also participate in a behavioral interview, which really stood out to us as candidates. We were impressed that we had a chance to showcase some of our behavioral skills, such as collaboration, communication, and humility by talking about our past experiences. The fact that Benchling creates the time and space to evaluate interpersonal skills in addition to technical skills speaks to how much they value these traits in potential team members (#think-and-communicate-clearly).

What stood out about Benchling?

Throughout the phone and onsite interviews, we were impressed with everyone we met along the way. All of our interviewers were engaged, helpful, and friendly. We genuinely felt that they wanted us to succeed and that we were working through a problem together, as opposed to them just watching us (#show-empathy). Our interviewers were also forthcoming about their experiences at Benchling. They were comfortable answering questions about what it’s like to be an engineer here — both what is going well and where there’s still room for growth (#admit-mistakes-and-shortcomings).

We also appreciated that all the questions asked were relevant to the Benchling product. We weren’t being asked convoluted questions just to reach an esoteric solution and never felt that we could have performed better if we’d just practiced the “right” set of questions the night before. Our recruiter prepared us by letting us know what a successful interview looked like.

Reflecting on our experiences, we can now confidently say that the people were the strongest signal for how great working at Benchling would be. You should pay attention to how the interviewers make you feel, because no matter what problem you’re working on, your coworkers will always have an outsized role in your success and happiness.

Team-Matching

How did you choose your team at Benchling?

Neehar: I started the team matching process a few weeks before my start date. I knew that I wanted to be on a product team because I enjoy thinking about where my work fits into the product as a whole and how customers are going to use it. To kick off the process, I met with our Head of Applications Engineering, Vineet, to discuss my technical interests and where they fit into Benchling.

Currently, Benchling has three engineering pillars: Applications, Platform & Infrastructure, and Data & Analytics. We decided that I best fit under the Applications pillar based on my interests. Once Vineet proposed a potential team, I was able to set up a meeting with my future manager. This was helpful to get context on what the team was working on and what her management style was like.

Alex: As a new grad, I had a limited understanding of how an engineering organization functions. Because I had just finished my Master’s degree in machine learning, I was seriously debating between machine learning or software engineering roles.

I decided to prioritize joining a team that would push me to grow across the stack. I also wanted to collaborate with product and design teams to learn how to build a great product.

I realized that starting as a generalist engineer would help me accomplish these broader goals, compared to a more specialized ML role. Further, because Benchling is a smaller company, I knew I would have the opportunity to switch teams. Looking back, every skill I’ve learned in my first year at Benchling will be critical if I ever choose to move back to machine learning.

The Developer Platform team was a great fit for me because it allowed me to achieve each of my goals while providing a huge focus on learning and development.

Onboarding

Company Onboarding

Benchling has a structured onboarding process. There are a variety of activities including:

  • Presentations from the executive leadership team. This was a great opportunity for us to learn about departments we may not interact with regularly, such as Sales, Marketing, and Customer Experience.
  • Founders’ Chat. This was a small setting where our new hire cohorts had our own Q&A session with the founding team. This was a fantastic way to learn more about the company from the founders’ perspective.
  • Cohort bonding sessions. We had several meetings with our new hire cohort, which helped us start building relationships across the company.

Additionally, every Benchling goes through a science certification curriculum, which is a series of modules that cover biology fundamentals and how Benchling works as a platform for life science data. This is a helpful starting point to gain both product and domain context. It’s great knowing that everyone at the company has the same baseline level of knowledge in these areas, particularly because many folks don’t have a biology or biotech background. It was also helpful to understand how customers use Benchling in the lab to improve their workflows (#obsess-over-customers, #show-empathy).

Engineering Onboarding

In addition to the Benchling-wide onboarding, there’s also a curriculum designed for new engineers. During their first six weeks, each new engineer has a dedicated onboarding buddy, who designs a personalized onboarding plan. This plan walks the new engineer through the Benchling stack and sets concrete goals to achieve each week.

Throughout the onboarding period, new engineers get the chance to dive into the codebase with small starter tasks at first, and end by planning and implementing a small project. They are also invited to several engineering-wide workshops that focus on Benchling’s technical architecture. This is a hands-on way to dive into unfamiliar parts of the codebase and quickly get up to speed. New engineers also get to participate in monthly bug bash days, shadow customer calls, and participate in an annual company-wide hackathon.

The onboarding plan set us up for success; having structure and a dedicated person to go to with questions made onboarding less daunting, particularly since it was all remote. Even when our buddies were in different time zones, we were able to meet with them daily to ask all sorts of questions.

And Beyond!

Continual Learning

We’re always learning something new at Benchling! We’re constantly working on challenging problems, but we know we can count on Benchlings to jump in and support us whenever we need. We also have an annual learning and development stipend that we’ve both taken advantage of to further our professional growth through books, courses, and conferences.

Opportunities for Personal Growth

Alex: At Benchling, I’ve been able to take on challenges that are at the edge of my comfort zone, like managing a large cross-team project and mentoring an intern. Because of our supportive culture, I have a network to coach me through each of these projects and to make sure I can accomplish them. When I identified a personal goal to better understand large codebases and writing professional code, I led a reading group for a famous book called “Clean Code”.

Neehar: Just like Alex, I’ve had the opportunity to go beyond my day-to-day engineering work and contribute to larger projects and initiatives. I’ve started a book club and set up bonding activities for our women in engineering affinity group, helped drive our summer intern program, and (meta) wrote this blog post!

Company Momentum

Since we’ve joined, Benchling has experienced tremendous growth, which makes it an exciting company. We’ve built new products from scratch, spun up new departments, and hired a ton of fantastic new Benchlings to help us accomplish our ambitious goals — and we’ve barely scratched the surface of all that we want to do.

If you’d like to learn more about the Benchling product, check out our post about what Benchling is. We are always hiring across every function and team! We just raised our Series E and we’d love to have you on board.


Our Path to Benchling was originally published in Benchling Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Benchling