title: Technical Internship Interviews date: 2016-03-29 23:59:59 layout: post — title: Technical Internship Interviews date: 2016-03-29 23:59:59 layout: post —
Hello! So recently I’ve been going through the hoops of getting hired for the 2016 Summer internship season, and I’ve remembered just how much you can get to suck at interview problems if you don’t practice.
The point of this post is to give a quick introduction and some resources on how to do at least okay in a coding interview. I won’t say I’m the best (I had an interview recently where I quite literally fumbled when asked basic networking questions), but I’ve gone through a decent amount of these things, and seen a decent amount of questions. Of course, this means everything here is my opinion (specifically not the opinion of any employer).
Quick note on phone interviews! This all applies there too.
Before your interview, your goal should be to cement your existing knowledge unless you have months and months of notice to develop new skills. You caught their eye based on who you are, so make you the best you you can be.
This means review your data structures, specifically the non-fancy ones. Maps, lists, linked lists, sets (maybe not even that last one). Review your algorithms, sorts specifically (quicksort is such a common interview question and such a common programmer pain point).
Next, let’s talk about the first part of an interview: first impressions. The typical advice regarding first impressions is to shake hands, make eye contact, etc. This is important, but there’s some even more basic stuff that coder types don’t do (and I didn’t do until recently). Ensure that you look nice, smell nice, and have a smile on your face as you go in the door. This is important, and sets the tone for the rest of the interview. Your first sentence should make you seem excited about the company and about being there. I always start with a “Hi!” (note the exclamation marks!) and move on to talking with the interviewer with the typical small talk as we move to the location of the interview. Typically, since you’re both technical people, this will turn technical pretty fast. You’ll end up talking about your past jobs or where you’re working now, school, etc. Go with this!
The Meat: Technical Problems
Technical problems are the thing that’s the most talked about with interviews, and also are why the company has brought you into their office in the first place (mostly). So let’s work through one (note that this is a pretty well known problem, with a twist at the end):
Given a list of size N-1 containing the numbers 1…N inclusive except for two numbers, find the missing numbers.
Depending on how much maths training you have, the answer may jump out on you right away. But that’s not the point. This is a twist on a fairly common problem.
Step 1: Think. Your interviewer is not gonna think less of you because you are thinking a little bit about how to do the question. A good pause time is probably around 15 seconds, so they know you’re thinking but it’s not awkward!
Step 2: Ask questions. After your thinking above, you’re going to undoubtably have some questions. How is the input specified? What function signature are they looking for? The interviewer can’t tell you’re thinking of this simple thing until you actually ask them or mention it.
So, in this case, I would ask the interviewer if the input is an array. This may seem pretty obvious, but with a set this would be much easier. Assume the interviewer says that yes, the input is an array.
I would also ask what the function signature should be, giving an example. In Java, the following seems reasonable:
Step 3: Brute force. Now that you’ve thought a little bit, you probably can see a brute force solution, and that should be the first thing you write out in your document or on the whiteboard. I’m going to use Java, as it’s a really well understood language.
So what does this problem actually want us to do? We want to find the two missing numbers. How can we do this in the easiest and most intuitive way? Well we can go through the lists and find one which isn’t in the other list. Let’s code that up.
Step 4: Damage report. Your solution right now is likely to be pretty inefficient. Time to communicate to your interviewer that you think you have a correct brute force solution and want to move on to optimizing. First you should probably figure out exactly how inefficient your code is and where so you don’t spend time analyzing the unimportant bits.
In the code above, the hard part for the computer is the two loops. This is because the computer must do n computations, followed by n-2. This means that the code is O(n(n-2)) = O(n*n) because of the double loops.
Step 5: Look for common inefficiencies and develop an optimized solution. What are you doing every time in the loop that you could do once and make it faster for sufficiently large input? Look for unnecessary repeated work. This is the killer in most questions.
Another common improvement is to use a data structure that is slightly more sophisticated than a list.
In this case, what is our most expensive operation? We check every single time if the element is in the array. Is there a data structure which allows for checking if something is in a list? Yes. We can use a set for this. This is “precomputing” in addition to using a data structure so it’s a pretty nice example. Let’s see how this looks in practice (note I assume a couple imports here, that’s totally cool for you to do on an interview):
By the properties of HashSets we know that generally (unless you give it a very bad, specially selected data set) have O(1) expected insertion and O(1) expected “contains”. This means that we have brought down our nested O(n*n) loop into one O(n) (expected) loop. As a tradeoff, we add the step of adding all of our integers to the set. This takes (expected) O(n) time.
Therefore, we have found an O(n) solution. This is in fact the optimal available (at least that I can think of) asymptotic performance here. There is a solution that is faster non-asymptotically and doesn’t depend on the Set precompute, which involves getting the sum and the product of every element in the array. We can then do some fancy math with the system of equations presented to find the missing numbers. This is left as an exercise to the reader 😀.
You will probably be given a chance to ask questions about the company. Even if you had all your questions answered previously, put in the 15 minutes to research the technology and culture of the company.
I like to use the following formula for questions. I ask one technical question and one more humanizing question. The first question generally follows the format of “I notice you use technology X. In my experience, this has a couple pitfalls like Y, Z, and A. What was your technical reason for using X instead of an alternative like B?”. This will require a bit of research on your part, like ensuring that you know one or two technologies that they use.
For the second question, I attempt to humanize myself by asking something about culture or how their team works. This is really effective in letting you know something about the company and to convince them that you are a good fit for their company.
Lastly, I want to say that technical interviews should be exciting if really really scary. This means that you can totally be able to come out of an interview curious and excited to hear back. It doesn’t always have to be this nerve wracking experience you want to have over right away. If there’s one piece of advice I could give it’s to treat your interviewer like a human who wants to hire you! It’s not like they wasted all this money on bringing you in for no reason. And it costs money. Think about the hour of the engineer’s time you took, plus HR, plus costs of bringing you there if they paid for that, what the engineer could have been working on could have been working on, stuff like that, and you’ll see exactly how much interviewing/hiring costs a company.
Here are some resources that can help you prepare for technical interviews (in order of how much I like them).