A request I’ve gotten from a couple of readers (unrelated to the recent charity thing) is to talk about engineering interviews at tech companies. I’ve been at Google, Foursquare, Twitter, and now Dropbox, so I’ve spent some time inside multiple companies that put a lot of effort into recruiting.

Tech interviews get a *lot* of bad press. Only some of it is deserved.

What you frequently hear in criticism is stuff about “gotcha” questions, or “brain teasers”. Those do happen, and when they do, they deserve condemnation. For example, I have seriously had an interviewer for a software job ask me “Why are manholes round?” That’s stupid. People who like it claim that it’s a test of lateral thinking; I think it’s garbage. But these days, that kind of rubbish seems pretty rare.

Instead, what’s become very common is for interviewers to present a programming problem, and ask the candidate to solve it by writing some code. A lot of people really *hate* these kinds of interviews, and describe them as just brain-teasers. I disagree, and I’m going to try to explain why.

The underlying problem for tech job interviews is that hiring the right people is *really, really hard*.

When someone applies for a job as a software engineer with your company, you start off with just their resume. Resumes are not particularly informative. All they give you is a brief, possibly partial history of the candidates work experience. From a resume, can’t tell how much they really contributed to the projects they worked on. You can’t tell how much their work added (or subtracted) from the team they were part of. You can’t tell if they get work done in a reasonable amount of time, or if they’re slower than a snail. You can’t even tell if they can write a simple program at all.

So you start by screening resumes, doing your best to infer as much as you can from them. Next, you often get recommendations. Recommendations *can* be useful, but let’s be honest: All recommendation letters are positive. You’re not going to *ask* for a recommendation from someone who isn’t going to say great things about you. So no matter how terrible a candidate is, the recommendations are going to say nice things about them. At best, you can sometimes infer a problem by reading between the lines – but that’s a very subjective process.

So you end up interviewing someone who’s resume looks good on paper, and who got a couple of people to write letters for them. How do you determine whether or not they’re going to be a valuable addition to your team?

You need to do *something* to decide whether or not to hire a particular person. What can you do?

That’s what the interview is for. It’s a way to try to get more information. Sure, this person has a college degree. Sure, they’ve got N years of experience. But can they program? Can they communicate well with their coworkers? Do they actually know what they’re doing?

A tech interview is generally an attempt to get information about a candidate by watching them work on a problem. The interview *isn’t* about knowing the right answer. It’s not even about getting the correct solution to the problem. It’s about *watching a candidate work*.

When I ask a job candidate a technical question, there’s three main things I’m looking for.

- What’s their process for solving the problem? On this level, I’m trying to figure out: Do they think about it, or do they jump in and start programming? Do they make sure they understand the problem? Do they clearly state their assumptions?
- Can they write a simple program? Here I’m trying to see if they’ve got any ability to write

code. No one writes*great*code in an interview setting. But I want to know if they’re

able to sit down with an unfamiliar problem, and work out a solution in code. I want to see if they start coding immediately, or take time to think through their solution before they start writing. - How well can they communicate ideas about programming? Can they grasp the problem from my description? If not, can they figure out what questions they need to ask to understand it? Once they start solving the problem, how well can they explain what they’re doing? Can they describe the algorithm that they’ve chosen? Can they explain why it works?

To try to clarify this, I’m going to walk through a problem that I used to use in interviews. I haven’t used this question in about 3 years, and as far as I know, no one is using the question anymore. The problem involves something called Gray code. Gray code is an alternative representation of numbers in binary form that’s useful for a range of applications involving things like switching systems.

Here’s a quick run through one of the reasons to use gray code. Imagine a system that uses physical switches. You’ve got an array of 8 switches representing a number. It’s currently presenting the number 7 in standard binary – so the first 5 switches are off, and last 3 are on. You want to increment the number. To do that, you need to change the position of four switches *at exactly the same time*. The odds of your being able to do that without even a transient state that appeared to be a number other than 7 or 8 are vanishingly small.

Gray code solves that by changing the representation. In Gray code, the representation of every number N+1 is only different from the representation of N by exacly one bit. That’s a nice property which makes it useful, even nowadays when we’re not using physical switches for much of anything anymore.

The easiest way that you get the gray code of numbers is by writing a table. You start off by writing 0 and 1, which are the same in both gray code and standard binary:

Decimal | Standard Binary | Gray |
---|---|---|

0 | 0 | 0 |

1 | 1 | 1 |

There’s the one-bit gray codes. To get the two bit, make two copies of the rows in that table.

To the first copy, prepend a 0. To the second copy, reverse the order of the rows, prepend a 1:

Decimal | Standard Binary | Gray |
---|---|---|

0 | 00 | 00 |

1 | 01 | 01 |

2 | 10 | 11 |

3 | 11 | 10 |

To get to the three bit gray codes, you repeat the process. Copy the rows, prepend 0s to

the first copy; reverse the order of the second, and prepend 1s.

Decimal | Standard Binary | Gray |
---|---|---|

0 | 000 | 000 |

1 | 001 | 001 |

2 | 010 | 011 |

3 | 011 | 010 |

4 | 100 | 110 |

5 | 101 | 111 |

6 | 110 | 101 |

7 | 111 | 100 |

So, the gray code of 6 is 101, and the gray code of 7 is 100.

What I would ask an interview candidate to do is: implement a recursive function that given an integer , returns a string with the gray code of .

I can understand how some people look at this question, and say, “Yeah, that’s just a stupid puzzle.” On one level, yeah. It’s obvious an artifical question. In fact, in practice, *no one* ever uses a recursive algorithm for something like this. Even if you have a problem where gray code is part of a practical solution, there’s a better way of converting numbers to gray code than this silly recursive nonsense.

So I agree that it’s artificial. But interview questions *have* to be artificial. In a typical interview, you’ve got an hour with a candidate. You’re not going to be able to *explain* a real problem to them in that amount of time, much less have them solve it!

But it’s artificial in a useful way that allowed me, as an interviewer, to learn about the candidate. I wasn’t trying to see if the candidate was number-puzzle wizard who could instantly see the recursion pattern in a problem like this. Most people have never heard of gray code, and to most people (including me, the first time I saw this problem!), the recursion pattern isn’t obvious. But that’s not the point: there’s a lot more to the interview that just the initial problem statement.

I don’t present the problem, and then sit back and watch silently as they try to solve it. If I did, all I’d be learning is whether or not they’re a number-puzzle wizard. I don’t care about that. So I didn’t just leave them floundering trying to somehow come up with a solution. In the beginning, after describing the problem, I set an initial direction. I usually have them start by extending the table themselves, to make sure they understand the process. Then I take their extended table, and add a new column:

Decimal | Standard Binary | Gray | Rec |
---|---|---|---|

0 | 0000 | 0000 | |

1 | 0001 | 0001 | |

2 | 0010 | 0011 | “1” + gray(1) |

3 | 0011 | 0010 | “1” + gray(0) |

4 | 0100 | 0110 | |

5 | 0101 | 0111 | |

6 | 0110 | 0101 | |

7 | 0111 | 0100 | |

8 | 1000 | 1100 | “1” + gray(7) |

9 | 1001 | 1101 | “1” + gray(6) |

10 | 1010 | 1111 | “1” + gray(5) |

11 | 1011 | 1110 | |

12 | 1100 | 1010 | |

13 | 1101 | 1011 | |

14 | 1110 | 1001 | |

15 | 1111 | 1000 | “1” + gray(0) |

With that on the board/screen, I’d ask them to try to take what I just gave them, and rewrite it a bit. For example, in row 8, instead of “1” + gray(7), come up with an expression using the numeric value “8” of the row, which will produce 7. They should be able to come up with “15 – 8” – and to see that in every row , where and , the gray code of is “1” + gray(15 – n).

For most people, that’s enough of a clue to be able to start writing the function. If they can’t get there, it shows me that they’ve got some trouble wrapping their head around this abstraction. I’ve got a few more hints up my sleeve to help, but if without all of the help I can give, they still can’t come up with that, that’s one mark against them.

But even if they can’t come up with the relation at all, it’s not the end of the interview. I have, sometimes, ended up recommending hiring someone who had trouble this far! If they can’t come up with that basic relation, it’s just one piece of information about the candidate. I’d file that away, and move on, by giving them the recurrence relation, and then I would ask them to code it.

There’s one problem that comes up in coding, which is interesting and important. The most naive code for gray is something like:

def gray(n): print("gray(%s)" % n) if n == 0: return "0" if n == 1: return "1" num_digits = math.floor(math.log(n, 2)) + 1 return "1" + gray(int(2**num_digits - 1 - n))

That’s very close, but not right. If you call `gray(10)`

, you get the right answer.

If you call `gray(4)`

, you get “110”, which is correct. But if you call `gray(8)`

, you’d get “110”, when you *should* have gotten `1010`

.

Most candidates make this mistake. And then I ask them to trace it through on 8 as an example. They usually see what the problem is. If they don’t, then that’s another red flag.

If they’re really struggling to put together a recursive function, then I’d ask them to just write a function to convert an integer into standard binary. If they can do that, then I start making suggestions about how to convert that to do gray code.

The big indicator here is whether or not they can write a simple recursive function *at all*. The systems I was working on at the time made heavy use of recursion – if a candidate couldn’t write recursive code, there was simply no way that they’d be able to do the job. (It was depressing to see just how many qualified-looking candidates came in, but who couldn’t write a simple recursive function.)

Through this whole process, how well they were able to talk about what they were doing was as important as the solution they came up with. If they heard the question, and immediately wrote down perfect, beautiful code, but they couldn’t explain how they got it, or how it worked? They’d get a mediocre rating, which wouldn’t get them a job offer. If they made a lot of mistakes in their code, but they were crystal clear about explaining how they worked out a solution, and how it worked? They’d probably get a *better* rating than the perfect code candidate.

I hope this shines a bit of light on this kind of interview question. While it’s necessarily artificial, it’s artifical in a way that we *hope* can help us learn more about the candidate. It’s not a trick question that’s irrelevant to the job, like “Why are manholes round?”: this is an attempt to probe at an area of knowledge that any candidate for a software engineering job should have. It’s not an all or nothing problem: even if you start off with no clue of how to approach it, I’m guiding you through. If you can’t solve it without help, this problem gives me some insight into what it is that you don’t understand, and hopefully whether or not that’s going to be a problem if we hire you.

Is it a great way of doing interviews? Honestly, no. But it’s the best way we know of doing it.

As an interview system, it doesn’t do a good job of identifying the very best people to hire. There’s no correlation between outstanding interview performance and outstanding on-the-job performance. But there’s a strong correlation between poor performance on this kind of interview question and poor performance on the job. Great performers on the job show the same distribution of interview performance as average ones; but poor performers on interviews show a significantly negative-shifted job performance distribution.

We haven’t found a way of interviewing people that does a better job than this. It’s the best we have. Statistically, it works far better at selecting people than “open-ended” interviews that don’t involve any kind of practical programming exercise. So for all of its faults, it’s better that the alternatives.

I’m sure there are pedants out there who are asking “So what’s the correct implementation of gray code?” It’s totally not the point of talking about it, but here’s one sloppy but correct implementation. This isn’t the quality of code I would ever use for anything serious at work, but it’s perfectly adequate for an interview.

import math def gray(n): def required_digits(n): """Compute the number of digits required to represent a number in binary """ return int(math.floor(math.log(n, 2))) + 1 def pad_digits(gray, num_digits): if len(gray) < num_digits: return "0"*(num_digits - len(gray)) + gray return gray if n == 0: return "0" if n == 1: return "1" num_digits = int(math.floor(math.log(n, 2)) + 1) return "1" + pad_digits(gray(int(2**num_digits - 1 - n)), num_digits - 1)