I separate pure-algo from real-coding questions

Many job seekers simply say “algorithm question” or “coding interview” as if they mean the same. I see significant differences between two types of coding test — compilable code vs pure algo.

Here’s one difference to start with — real-coding questions require us to be very familiar with syntax and very fast edit-compile-test cycles. I often struggle even when my idea was correct. I often run out of time. No such requirement in a white-board algo test.

I try to visualize a spectrum image like

<=== harder on language+implementation (blue side) … (red side) increasingly harder on pure algorithm ===>

  • * (On far left “Ultraviolet” side of the spectrum) multi-threading coding questions are light on pure computer science algorithms.
  • * (Also on the far left  side) some weekend coding assignments are very serious about design trade-off’s, reasonable assumptions, thorough automated testing … No such requirement in a pure-algo test.
  • * (On the mid-left side) real coding questions can have a code smell issue, esp. in the weekend take-home assignment. I failed many times there even though my code worked fine.
  • * (in the middle) many Hackerrank and Codility questions involve difficult algorithm and fast edit-compile-test. Very hard for me.
  • * (on the right side) pure algorithm questions are sometimes on white board, and even over phone if very short. Light on syntax; no edit-compile-test; no code smells.
  • * (on the far right side) some west coast white board interviews require candidates to ask clarifying questions, and later eyeball-test our code without a compiler. No such requirement in a real-coding interview.
  • * (On the extreme right end) very tough algorithm questions care only about O() not about language efficiency. Pick your language. The toughest algorithm questions don’t even care about O() so long as you can find any solution within 15 minutes.

I often perform better with pure algo questions than real-coding questions. My worst game is codility/hackerrank.

I find it imprecise to call all of them “algorithm questions” and disregard the key distinctions between the two types. Both types have some algorithm elements, but the real-coding questions often require additional skills such as quick completion, language efficiency, and code smells knowledge. A bug can often take us 10 minutes to locate — something rare in pure-algo questions.

Effective strategies to prepare for real-coding vs pure algo interviews are rather different. In this email I will only mention a few.
1) for speed, we need to practice and practice writing real code and solving short problems; you can try timing yourself.
2) for pure algo, we can use python; we can look at other people’s solutions; we still need to practice implementing the ideas
3) for white-board, we need to practice talking through a problem solution… need to practice asking clarifying questions and eyeball-testing
4) for weekend take-home tests, practice is not effective for me. I won’t prepare.
5) for multi-threading problem, need to practice with basic multi-threading problems.

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