Technical Interview Part 1

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Technical interview is both an exciting and stressful moment. It is exciting because there is a potential career opportunity ahead of you. It is stressful because you subconsciously aware that the people in the room are there to judge you.

I have been on the both side of the table – being an interviewer and an interviewee. It is stressful to be an interviewee for obvious reason. We need to try hard to sell ourselves and “sales” is not a skill that come naturally to technical people like us. Furthermore, you never know what kind of psychopath you might meet, asking you to find a bug in his rocket science algorithm. It is equally stressful to be an interviewer. Now your shoulder carries the responsibility of evaluating a candidate whether the candidate will be a right fit to the organization for long term. Being too lenient, you might get a bad apple into the existing harmonious team; being too strict, you might lose a black horse who might just need a little polishing.

As an interviewee

Let’s deal with the stressful problem for the interviewee first. Throughout my experience, I noticed I perform best when I’m not feeling nervous. The key to not feeling nervous is not to feel desperate for a job. Always look for a new job when you least needed it. When you don’t “need” the job, you are going into the interview room as an equal. Low need, high power and vice versa. Did you notice the term interview basically means “viewing each other”. You go in as an equal to evaluate the company as much as the company is evaluating you. The outcome of having this mentality allow you to feel more confident. Again, from my personal experience when I go into a technical interview with this mindset, I often have a pleasant technical discussion with the interviewer.

As an interviewer

Now for the interviewer. I’m not sure how many interviewer will feel stressful. I did not feel being an interviewer is a stressful task until I’m conducting interview for the 3rd year. Interviewee will usually be polite and humble. Most of the time, interviewee will do their best not to offend or make it difficult for the interviewer. I always felt I have an upper hand while conducting interview, hence I never thought there was a problem. It was only until I pull myself out of the technical interviewer’s role and give a more holistic insight from the organization perspective. I realized there are so many other aspects I need to put into consideration while conducting technical interview.

For example, during one interview I found out that talking to me in a technical interview is the 7th round of interview the candidate has gone through. He has taken online technical test and other technical interviews prior to talking to me. My final feedback on the candidate is a clear ‘No’. However, that got me thinking how and why did the candidate was able to pass the previous 6 rounds of interview but not my technical interview. Is there something wrong with the way I asked technical questions? Or does it simply means the previous 6 rounds of interview were not done effectively?

Another example, the organization has an expansion plan is to grow another 100 headcount in 1.5 year. That is equivalent to approximately 6 new hires in a month. Aggressive? Definitely! However base on the current hiring rate, we will not be able to hit the number. What need to be done differently? Should I lower my technical benchmark? Should I say we can’t meet this number simply because we cannot find the talents? How big (or small) the impact is to the projects if we do not meet the numbers? Most importantly, where should I find the balance?

The nature of software development skill set has both breadth and depth. Ideally it will be perfect to pair an interviewer and interviewee who have the identical technical domain experience. Reality is due to the today’s technology breadth, developers often focus on very different vertical skill set. For example, the interviewer might be an expert in Azure Web WebJob, Azure Storage and MVC but the interviewee has been working on Angular, Web API and SQL Server. Both of them are expert in their respective full-stack domain but there is very little common ground.

Let’s face it, both the interviewer and interviewee would not know every topics in great depth, even just within the Microsoft stack of technologies. How can the technical interview being conducted in a fruitful manner with this breadth and depth nature? Do I dismiss a candidate just because they don’t share the similar background with me even though he is talented, passionate and willing to learn?

What is the solution? Should the interviewer ask something more generic and academic like object-oriented concept? Something more holistic yet sophisticated like design pattern? Or something more brainy like algorithm?

Popular topics interviewer use

Object-oriented concepts

In my previous job, my technical interview is the 1st round of interview after the candidate has passed a codility test. The online test involves assessing candidates basic programming skill (fixing a logical operator in a small function) and writing a basic SQL query with some joins. I think it was necessary to cover the basic of object-oriented concept for a C#.NET developer. So I ended up with asking questions like:

  • Explain to me what are method overloading and method overriding?
  • What are the differences between interface and abstract class?

I was under the assumption these questions were alright until one day I have a candidate who answered me so fluently as if he was reading it out from a book – except he didn’t have a book in front of him. This suggests the candidate have rehearsed these answers a thousand times before talking to me.

Well, the reality is at first I thought the candidate was such a bright developer that knows these concept so well. I decided to give him a little more challenging question to see how far he could go. The question was base on what he has explained earlier where an abstract class can contain both method with empty implementation and concrete implementation; while interface can only contain method signature without implementation. Great!

My next question was, if an abstract class can do both methods with empty implementation and concrete implementation, why do we still need interface? I was expecting him to explain something along the line where a child class can only inherit 1 abstract class but multiple interfaces. I would be happy to accept the answer and prepared move on to the next topic even if he just give me a one liner answer. To my surprised he kept quiet and could not provide any explanation.

From there, I realized there are candidates who really put a lot effort in preparing for technical interview like rehearsing answers for those top 50 interview questions from Google result. Ahem… the truth was, I was too lazy to craft any original interview question back then so I ended up using questions from those top 50 interview questions where candidates can easily prepare for. The problem with this was I ended up evaluating how much preparation work a candidate has done rather than how strong his technical capability is. It was a bad idea to use top 50 interview questions.

The top 50 interview questions

When you use those top 50 interview questions, not only you cannot accurately assess the candidate, you will push away those developers who really know their stuff. Remember interview is about viewing each other between the interviewer and the interviewee. Under normal circumstances, a company will put one of their best guys to conduct the interview. If the best guy in the company can only conduct interview base on top 50 interview questions, it will really make me think twice whether I want to join the company when the company offers me a job.

In fact, I encountered this once. I was talking to an interviewer in a MNC who has prepared a long list of technical questions. We covered those questions in approximately 30 minutes instead of his normal 60 minutes. At one point, after he asked question A, I knew he will follow up with question B, so I explained the answer for question B along with the answer in question A. At the end of the interview, his feedback was it was as if I already have the list of question that he was holding. The truth was, I have gone through those questions 5629 times when I was preparing interview questions for my candidates.

Eventually, I did not take up the offer in the MNC. There are many factors that influenced the decision. One of them is knowing the best technical guy in the team could only do what I did 2 years ago, it wasn’t very motivating.

I have stopped using those top 50 interview questions. They are for amatures 🙂

Design pattern

Design pattern seems like a favorite topic for discussion during technical interview in the past few years. This topic got so popular to the point that a recruiter without a computer science background will start asking candidates to explain design patterns. It took me by surprised when two HR looking ladies (they were recruiters) were asking me to explain the design patterns I have worked with. I got a feeling they did not understand 9 out of 10 sentences came out from my mouth because they never ask any follow up question base on what I explained. They probably just wanted to see how clearly I can articulate my ideas.

Design pattern is something you implement it once and it becomes a second nature in your project. Developers do not apply 7 patterns at a go and revisiting them every 3 weeks to evaluate whether they are still appropriate. If they are not, revamp them and apply another 5 new patterns. This simply do not happen for any software with real delivery timeline. Most developers will be working with 1-2 patterns on a daily basis. This will be a breadth and depth issue. The interviewer might be an expert with Adapter and Abstract Factory while the interviewee is an expert in Observer and Singleton. It is not always possible to have an in-depth discussion on all design patterns.

Shouldn’t a good developer know a few more patterns at least on the theoretical level? Yes, I think it’s a valid point. However there will still be a gap between interviewer and interviewee’s level of understanding. For example, the interviewer has been working with Adapter for the last 3 years and the interviewee only read 3 articles on Adapter pattern (or vice versa). The level of discussion between interviewer and interviewee on Adapter pattern is going to be shallow.

The bad news is, some interviewers doesn’t seem to recognize the breadth and depth gap. Some interviewers insist on discussing rigid details on specific design pattern. It will end up being an unpleasant experience for both interviewer and interviewee. Interviewee feeling inferior for not being able to provide an answer; while interviewer feeling not satisfied because he cannot have a meaningful technical discussion with interviewee to assess his technical skill.

The good news is, when design pattern base questions are done right, it gives both the interviewer and interviewee a good discussion to explore areas they both might not have thought of before as an individual.

Algorithm

This is a very safe approach to use during technical interviews because all programmers are expected to have solid logical thinking. Algorithm is all about combining programming techniques and logical thinking to solve specific problem. It is a very suitable approach to assess interviewee’s ability to solve a problem using codes.

Interview questions base on algorithm could be as simple as writing a function to print a few asterisks (*) on the screen, to detect whether the input is an odd or even number, to sorting a series of numbers, to printing a calendar. Usually the company who uses algorithm base questions will have 3 level questions such as easy, medium, hard. If you want to secure a job, you should at least get it right on easy and medium. The hard question is there for the interviewer to identify a grand-master coder over a senior coder.

The ironic part about algorithm base question is a lot of candidates tend to shy away from them.

Example 1:  About 8 years back it was still pretty common to have the candidate to write down the solution on paper. The question was about a simple string manipulation function. Unfortunately, the candidate who appeared to be an experienced developer handed me empty paper and left with an apologetic tone saying this job might not be right for him.

Example 2: One company that I know of is asking the candidate to code a function to detect an integer input whether is an odd or even number and display an appropriate message – using the provided laptop with Visual Studio on it. The answer is surprisingly simple which is to use a modulus (%) and put an If check at the remainder. However this took a candidate who is applying a senior developer position 20 minutes to type a few keystrokes and a few backspaces, type a few keystrokes and a few backspaces.

Example 3: Codility has been an handy tool for conducting programming test online to save everyone’s time. I recently found out a friend who applied for Tech Lead position. He was asked to write a function to work with zero-based index in Codility. To my surprise, he could not understand the question. He did not even attempt to write the solution and closed the browser.

It appears that interviewee feels very stressful when the technical interview involve writing algorithm. In the above examples, the question was not complicated, the answer was not complex. I believe all 3 candidates in the above examples can do reasonably well if they are not in an “technical interview” mode.

In the next article, I will discuss more about how I conduct technical interview instead…

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