A tale of two interviews

time to read 5 min | 842 words

We’ve been trying to find more people recently, and that means sifting trouble people. Once that process is done, we ask them to come to our offices for an interview. We recently had two interviews from people that were diametrically opposed to one another. Just to steal my own thunder, we decided not to go forward with either one of them. Before inviting them to an interview, I have them do a few coding questions at home. Those are things like:

  • Given a big CSV file (that fit in memory), allow to speedily query by name or email. The application will run for long period of time, and startup time isn’t very important.
  • Given a very large file (multiple TB), detect what 4MB ranges has changed in the file between consecutive runs of your program.

We’ll call the first one Joe. Joe has a lot of experience, he has been doing software for a long time, and has already had the chance to be a team lead in a couple of previous positions. He sent us some really interesting code. Usually I get a class or three in those answers. In this case, we got something that looked like this:

The main problem I had with his code is just finding where something is actually happening. I discarded the over architecture as someone who is trying to impress in an interview, “See all my beautiful ARCHITECTURE!”, and look at the actual code to actually do the task at hand, which wasn’t bad. 

Joe was full of confidence, he was articulate and well spoken, and appear to have a real passion for the architecture he sent us. “I’ve learned that it is advisable to put proper architecture first” and “That is now my default setting”. I disagree with those statements, but I can live with that.  What bothered me was that we asked a question along the way of “how would you deal with a high memory situation in an application”. What followed was several minutes of very smooth talk about motivating people, giving them the kind of support they need to do the job, etc. Basically, about the only thing it was missing was a part on “the Good of the People” and I would have considered whatever to vote for him. What was glaringly missing in my point of view was anything concrete and actionable.

On the other hand, we have Moe. He is a bit younger, but he already worked with NoSQL databases, which was a major plus. Admittedly, that was as a user of, instead of a developer of, but you can’t have it all. Moe’s code made me sit up and whistle. I setup an interview for the very next day, because looking at the code, there was someone there I wanted to talk to. It was very much to the point, and while it had idiosyncrasies, it showed a lot of promise. Here is the architecture for Moe’s code:

So Moe shows up at the office ,and we start the interview process. And right from the get go it is obvious that Moe is one of those people who don’t do too well in stressful situations like interviews. That is part of the reason why we ask candidates to write code at home. Because it drastically reduce the level of stress they have to deal with.

So I start talking, telling about the company and what we do. The idea is that hopefully this gives him time to compose himself. Then I start asking questions, and he gives mostly the right answers, but I’m lacking focus. I’m assuming that this is probably nervousness, so I bring up his code and go over that with him. He is much more comfortable talking about that. He had a O(logN) solution at one point, and I had to drive him toward an O(1) solution for the same problem, but he got there fairly quickly.

I then asked him what I considered to be a fairly typical question: “What areas you have complete mastery at?” This appear to have stumped him, since he took several minutes to give an answer which basically boiled down to “nothing”.

Okay… this guy is nervous, and he is probably under estimating himself, so let us try to focus the question. I asked whatever he was any good with HTML5 (not at all), then whatever he was good with server side work (have done some work there, but not an expert), and how he would deal with a high memory situation (look at logs, but after that he was stumped). When asked about the actual code he wrote for our test, he said that this was some of the hardest tasks he ever had to deal with.

That summed up to promising, but I’ve a policy of believing people when they tell me bad things about themselves. So this ended up being a negative, which was very frustrating.

The search continues…