I recently had to go
through the whole interview process which gave me an opportunity to look at
interviewing from the interviewee perspective after being on the other side of
the table for a long time.
I wanted to put down
my learnings as a reference for myself and friends who occasionally ask for
When it comes to the
details of some technical topics, I will reference good resources instead of
engineering interview will vary depending on the company but will generally be
composed of 4-5 whiteboarding sessions about an hour each. The bar for the
technical whiteboarding interviews will depend on how competitive/popular the
This post will focus
on the general software development interview which may differ a bit from
specialized interviews for specific roles like machine learning, computer
vision, or other specializations. Note that more junior interviews will be
lighter on design.
There are two parts
related to the technical interview that I want to initially get out of the way:
the behavioral interview and technical screen.
"The best predictor of future behavior is past
The behavioral part
of the software engineering interview varies a lot more than the technical part
depending on the company. Some companies won't even bother with it.
The idea behind a
behavioral interview is to probe into the candidate's past experience to find
examples that exhibit desirable qualities. Most companies will use the STAR
methodology to find examples. Some companies have a known list of qualities
they look for. For example, Amazon is famous for its Leadership Principles
. It's also
possible to get direct questions around team dynamics and handling difficult
difficult situations you maybe asked about include: tight timelines, ambiguous
requirements, customers, and feedback.
A few things to keep
- Have a story or something to
say ready for everything you list on your resume.
- Have examples ready of
challenges you have handled in the past. To make it worthwhile, it should
show some pressure or constraints.
"Seek to first to understand, then to be
understood." - Covey
Most big companies
will do a phone screen before the onsite interview unless there's an internal
referral or some other justification to skip the technical screen. The
technical screen is a company's first filter to validate the candidate can
write more than a resume or an online profile. The tech screen can be done in
person or more commonly over the phone. Recently, companies are employing
online exams for this purpose like the following which can also be used for
The tech screen will
generally focus on one or two coding problems that require problem solving. For
all practical purposes the phone screen is just another technical whiteboarding
session and the best way to prepare for it is the same as the onsite interview.
do you ace the coding interview?
I think the coding
interview skills can be broken into a few categories: problem solving, CS
theory, programming language, familiarity with interview questions, and design.
"The formulation of the problem is often more
essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or
experimental skill." - Einstein
This might be the
hardest area to prepare for. Your best friend here is practice. Aside from
practice there are some general patterns to notice and strategies to use. The
most common element to solving coding problems and to problem solving in
general is to approach the problem from a counter-intuitive angle or using a
method not immediately apparent. The following patterns and strategies should
help trigger such thoughts.
- Go through a couple simple
instances of the problem by hand. This helps verify your understanding of
the problem as well as allow you to notice any patterns that emerge from
- Iteration. When the problem
involves iteration, consider different ways to iterate. One of the most
common variations is to iterate using two indexes instead of one usually
using different paces. As you can see this is somewhat unexpected. When
generally working with collections, you use a single index or iterator so
this forces you think outside the box a bit. Other variations involve
iterating in different directions.
- Determine if a linked list
has a loop.
- Determine if a linked list
has a loop of a specific size.
- Array pairs with a given sum.
- Go through different data
structures and algorithms you know and see if any or a combination fits
- Combine multiple operations.
We usually get fixated on thinking in terms of a single operation at a
time. In some problems it helps to consider various operations even the
reverse of the operation you eventually need. For example using
subtraction when the problem is asking about summing. Another version of
this is to think through other problems that have some resemblance and see
if you can combine solutions or ideas from other problems.
- Rolling sum.
- Variations of popular
problems like variations on the Edit Distance problem.
- Preprocessing. In many
problems the input data is not immediately useful for the output. In these
instances, think about how would you want the input data to be to make it
easier to get the results.
- Find all anagrams in a list
The key is to
entertain thoughts for different possibilities and see how far you can go with
them. Solving puzzles and practicing interview questions helps sharpen your
problem solving skills. More on interview questions is below. Here are some
other ways to practice:
"A most important, but also most elusive, aspect
of any tool is its influence on the habits of those who train themselves in its
use. If the tool is a programming language this influence is, whether we like
it or not, an influence on our thinking habits." - Dijkstra
You need to have
mastery of at least one of the common programming languages: Java, Python,
any programming language background as long you show strength in the language
you use. This is because most software engineering concepts can be carried from
one language to another and a strong candidate will not have a problem in
picking up a new language.
In terms of
interviewing though, I have found that it is much easier to use the most high
level language possible during the interview. A language like Python makes the
interview experience much more pleasant because the expressive power of the
language allows you to focus on solving the problem instead of worrying about
low level primitives that are easy to mess up especially when writing on a
whiteboard or without an IDE.
The details for a
lot of the information mentioned here varies from language to language.
Whatever language you choose, make sure you understand its unique features when
it comes to OOP, concurrency, design patterns, and conventions.
A few things to keep
in mind for writing code in any language:
"Programs must be written for people to read,
and only incidentally for machines to execute." - Abelson
- The code should be as
maintainable and readable as possible. Avoid hacks.
- Use self-explanatory names.
- Think about how you can test
- Break functionality into
multiple small functions if needed, each with a single responsibility.
- Use the best practices of the
- Aim for self-documenting code
but add comments when needed.
is an excellent resource for
learning most of the common languages.
"If you find that you're spending almost all
your time on theory, start turning some attention to practical things; it will
improve your theories. If you find that you're spending almost all your time on
practice, start turning some attention to theoretical things; it will improve
your practice." - Knuth
theory or fundamentals has many components. I will highlight here the major
categories and their sections relevant to interview questions.
"Time is what keeps everything from happening at
once." - Cummings
- Asymptotic Notation: Notation
to indicate an approximation of the time a piece of code or algorithm will
- Polynomial Time: An algorithm
is said to be efficient if it can terminate in polynomial time.
- Intractability: There is a
class of problems that have no known efficient solution.
"Bad programmers worry about the code. Good
programmers worry about data structures and their relationships." - Torvalds
focused on data structures:
"When I consider what people generally want in
calculating, I found that it always is a number." - al-Khwarizmi
- Divide and Conquer
- Dynamic Programming
- Network Flow
focused on algorithms:
Courses for data
structures and algorithms:
Other DS and
"People who are more than casually interested in
computers should have at least some idea of what the underlying hardware is
like. Otherwise the programs they write will be pretty weird." - Knuth
- Process: A running instance of a
program with its own memory footprint.
- Multiprocessing: Using more than one
process in a program.
- Thread: A single unit of execution
of a program that occupies a core in a CPU.
- Multithreading: Using more than one thread
in a process.
- Coroutines: Cooperative flow control without returning.
"The key to wisdom is knowing all the right
questions." - Simone Sr.
seeing many interview questions, you will realize that most questions are variations
of other questions.
Solving as many
interview questions as possible builds your familiarity with topics and various
solution approaches which become part of your problem solving toolkit.
You can build this
familiarity by using online resources or books on this exact topic.
Of the online
resources I found the following to be the most useful:
There are also books
written specifically on this:
Most companies will
automatically reject a candidate that pretends to not have seen a question he knows. The point is not about memorizing answers. It's about being
familiar with many different problems and solutions. Not only is the familiarity
useful for coming up with a solution to a new problem, it also builds up your
confidence so you are not intimidated when seeing a new question because
chances are you already have seen something like it before.
"Form follows function." - Sullivan
Most entry level
software development interviews will not include design questions. The
expectation is typically that if the position requires some years of experience
that the candidate should have design competencies.
Unlike other topics
covered here what is meant by asking a design question is not commonly agreed
upon. I've seen different engineers ask about totally different competencies
when coming up with design questions. Nevertheless, I think most design questions
fall into one of the following groups: Object Oriented Design, Design Patterns,
and System Design.
"Implementation inheritance causes the same
intertwining and brittleness that have been observed when goto statements are
overused. As a result, OO systems often suffer from complexity and lack of
reuse." - Ousterhout
In OOP, there are
some basic definitions that everyone should know like Encapsulation,
Inheritance, and Polymorphism.
There is also a
design aspect to OOP commonly called Object Oriented Design. In some interviews
you may get questions specifically on OO design which is different from system
design which will be discussed below.
In OO design,
classes represent entities/objects, member variables represent attributes/data,
and methods represent behaviors/functions. The most important aspect of OO
design is being able to factor our common functionality in the right super
class and knowing when to extend/inherit or contain another class.
Some things to
- Encapsulation/data hiding,
inheritance, and polymorphism. You should be able to provide examples of
- Super/parent class vs.
- Difference between a function
and a method.
- Inheritance vs. composition.
What are the pros and cons?
- Class vs. abstract class vs.
- Pros and cons of multiple
class inheritance. Why are the implications of a language supporting it?
- Overriding vs. overloading.
- C++: virtual functions, pure
virtual functions, and friend functions.
OOP becomes very
powerful when abstracting responsibilities into different layers so that at
each layer you are only concerned with a small number of easy problems. Then
multiple layers coalesce to provide a complex functionality. OOP also makes it
easier to connect various objects via composition. This is ideal, for example,
in trees for referencing children.
- Design a web browser.
- Design a library management
- Write an interpreter that
evaluates a statement according to a certain grammar. This could be a
mathematical formula or any other type of formal language.
"Each pattern describes a problem that occurs
over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the
solution to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million
times over, without ever doing it the same way twice." - Alexander
Design patterns are
very useful to have in your toolkit in general and they come up sometimes in
interviews in the context of a design question.
There is some
overlap in naming and responsibilities of design patterns which sometimes
complicates things. You should be able to at least know when a problem makes a
perfect usecase for a certain pattern.
The following is a
list of common patterns.
- Abstract factory: for
creating families of related objects.
- Builder: for creating complex
objects or when building an object needs to be done in steps.
- Factory method: using a
(static) method for object creation instead of the constructor. Effective
Java makes recommendation for this pattern.
- Lazy initialization: delay
creation until first use.
- Prototype: create a new
object by cloning a prototype object.
- Singleton: only allow a
single object of the class to be created.
- Adapter/Wrapper: adapt the
interface of class to a different interface.
- Decorator/Wrapper: add
functionality while keeping the same interface allowing layering of
multiple decorators on top of each other.
- Proxy: also implemented as a
wrapper but intent is control access to the target object while
maintaining the same interface.
- Bridge: in the bridge pattern
you have two hierarchies of classes: abstraction and implementation. The
implementation classes provide primitive functionalities while the
abstraction classes provide high-level functionalities that build upon the
methods of the implementation classes. The bridge class then behaves as
the link between the two hierarchies.
- Composite: treat a group of
related objects as a single object by using recursive composition.
- Façade: provide a common
easier interface to a group of low-level interfaces.
- Flyweight: share stateless
objects to avoid object instantiation overhead.
- Chain of responsibility: have
a chain of objects eligible that either punt to the next object in the
chain or handle the request halting the traversal.
- Command: encapsulate a
request as an object which allows queueing, logging, and undoing
- Interpreter: evaluate a
language by encapsulating its grammar.
- Iterator: allow traversal
while hiding the internal representation of the collection.
- Mediator: encapsulate the
interaction of multiple classes in a mediator thus allowing loose coupling
among the classes involved.
- Memento: encapsulate
snapshotting of the state of an object.
- Observer/PubSub: implement
one-to-many relationships as publisher and a group of subscribers.
- State: alternate the behavior
of an object by encapsulating state in an object and delegating requests
to it. This helps avoid long conditionals or switch statements.
- Strategy: encapsulate a group
of algorithms to make it easier to alternate the algorithm in the client.
- Template method: define a
skeleton of an algorithm and let subclasses fill in the details.
- Visitor: group similar
functionality on different objects in one class while allowing
For more see:
"There are two ways of constructing a software
design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no
deficiencies and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no
obvious deficiencies." - Hoare
In more senior
interviews, there is an element of system design. Below are some topics that
are important for system design.
questions usually revolve around scaling or distributed systems.
The tricky part in massively scaled systems is partitioning load and data. In distributed systems, the tricky part is about detecting
and handling partial failures and balancing consistency, availability, and
- Data partitioning. A scalable
system is one that avoids hotspots. The core idea in eliminating hotspots
is to shard the data. There are a few techniques to do this.
- Range partitioning: Divide
the data based on ranges of an identifier and assign each range to a
server. The main issue with this method is that it requires a numeric id
that is evenly distributed over known ranges.
- Hash partitioning: Apply a
hash function on the data to produce a number then assign data to a group
of servers using the modulo operator. The key disadvantage with this
method is that changing the number of nodes requires remapping the entire
- Distributed hash tables: A two-step hash table
where the first step maps data to its assigned node then the node stores
the data according to the data element's key.
- CAP theorem: Consistency, availability,
and network partitions. Choose two.
- Recovery Oriented Computed (ROC).
"Always read something that will make you look
good if you die in the middle of it." - O'Rourke
If you're like me
and like information in book form, you can find most of the topics outlined
here in the following books:
"With competition everyone has to try
harder." - Greene
I felt that this
post wouldn't be complete without mentioning competitive programming since
there are so many options now. The best thing about these websites is that they
are computer graded or in other words have an online judge.
challenges or competitions is great for programming practice and sometimes even
The art of
programming is hard to master so like anything hard don't expect it come quick.
It's achievable but it takes deliberate effort and practice. Simply put, you
can't be a great software engineer in 21
A final tip is to
approach openings through a recruiter or even better an internal referral
instead of through the regular jobs/careers website for the company you are
interested in. Even when looking at a job posting online, you can usually find
out who posted it and try to find his/her contact info.