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Preparing Interviews for a Software Engineer position

Interview Preparation

Last week I’ve just finished two recruitment processes for a Senior Software Engineer position that I have applied. Both companies have a very well organized recruitment process, consisting in several interviews, including technical ones with code challenges.

I got an offer in both cases. Unfortunately I had to decline one of them, and I can tell you that it was a really hard decision, because both were presenting me exciting and interesting challenges (engineeringly speaking). I wish I could multiply myself to accept both offers (I would have loved to live both experiences). But that’s life. And Yes, I am about to start a new journey. New Year, New Life.

In this post I want to describe how I have prepared for the interviews and give some tips to someone thinking to apply to a similar position. IMHO, preparation is the key to succeed.

Be ready to write code in an interview

The obvious - if we are applying for a software engineer position, we need to be ready to be asked to write code during interviews. I know that some companies do not ask to write code in interviews, they assign you a homework task instead. It’s arguable which one is better.

In my case, in both processes I had to write code (C# and SQL). Furthermore, one of the companies was using a hiring platform, Codility, in which you need to write real working code (compiled, tested against test data, etc.), not just pseudo-code on paper.

The thing is, if you write code on a daily basis, writing code is not an issue, right? The problem here is the type of problems that they are throwing you in the exercises, particularly those that you don’t deal with for some time. They tend to like exercises about:

  • Arrays challenges
  • Algorithms and data structures
  • SQL
  • Object oriented principles and design patterns

Let’s see what kind of preparation we can think of to improve our ability to solve these problems.

Practicing Code/SQL challenges

There are some platforms out there where we can practice code/sql challenges. Here are some examples:

All of them have great exercises. Regarding difficulty level, I would suggest to focus on the Easy and Medium level. You can choose the language of your choice to solve the exercise.

Codility and HackerRank are hiring platforms, but they have a lot of training content for developers. In Codility, the platform that I used most, I would suggest the 10 first lessons in the section Codility for Programmers. HackerRank is very thorough, and you can choose the skills you want to practice.

And if we struggle in a given exercise, we can have some help from the community using those platforms. It happened sometimes, where I wasn’t tackling the problem in the right direction.

Big-O, Algorithms and Data Structures

This is another topic that engineering interviewers like to discuss or see it in action.

Today, when we need to sort some data, we typically rely on an implementation provided by a base class library. So, if someone asks us out of the blue, what is the difference between a bubble sort and merge sort, unless we have a great memory or deal with this on a daily basis, probably we won’t answer immediately.

But there are some theory that we should know for sure. One of them is the Big O notation (asymptotic analysis). And here, more important than to know what it is, it is to recognize quickly the approx. time complexity of a given algorithm: constant, logarithmic, linear, quadratic, etc.

So, even if we don’t remember the bubble sort algorithm, as soon as we see its implementation we should recognize a quadratic time complexity. Besides sorting, searching algorithms is also important to be aware of, since they are somehow related (we can adopt different searching approaches if the data is already sorted).

A long time ago, I’ve read somewhere a saying: “Make it run, make it right, make it fast”. I can’t remember the source, but I can say that I really like this approach. So, when the interviewer asks you to solve an exercise, focus first on the simplest solution, and do not worry about performance. As soon as you finish your first solution, try to identify its time complexity, and if you have time you can start to identify possible improvements (unnecessary work, common cases. etc.). In the coding platforms that I mentioned earlier, we got a score based on the tests results. Sometimes the solution is correct, but we don’t get 100% score because we are not fast enough, and some tests timeout.

For data structures, I think the important is to know what data structure should be used for a given scenario/exercise. When facing an exercise we should try to identify which data structure, or combination of data structures, best suits the given problem:

  • Array
  • Linked List
  • Queue (FIFO - First in First Out)
  • Stack (LIFO - Last in First Out)
  • Hash table
  • Binary Search Tree
  • etc.

To know what is the best data structure to use, we need to know the time complexity of each of its operation, such as adding/removing elements, search by position, search by key, etc.

In my case, I reviewed all these concepts by taking a course on Pluralsight.

Object Oriented and Design Patterns

Another topic that interviewers like to ask is about Object Oriented Principles and Design Patterns. And here we can expect several type of interviewers: some of them asks you to explain the SOLID principles; others that ask you to write, for example a singleton pattern; and others that will present you a real problem to see if you use principles and patterns in a natural way. I think this later approach is the one that makes more sense, and in my case it happened exactly that. I was asked to design a system where these topics started to popup naturally. (interfaces, polymorphism, composite pattern, strategy pattern, etc.)

Again, if you use these principles on a daily basis, this should not be a problem. Even some design patterns are so embedded in our daily work that we don’t even notice that we are using them. Nevertheless I decided to review these topics, just in case someone could ask me about them in more detail.

Instead of reading the gang of four book, Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, I decided to review just the most used patterns by reading the new edition of Head First Design Patterns, which I really enjoyed. The Head First series books provides a great way of learning.

Be ready to brainstorm about real problems

These are the questions that I like most, and in fact I was expecting more of these. Basically the interviewers present you a real problem. Typically you don’t need to write any code. They are just ask you to present a high level solution, discussing alternatives, pros and cons, etc. They want to know how you think.

For example, “the product owner wants a new feature of auto-completing a search, providing multiple matches to the user, based on user past behavior. Let’s start thinking about the problem”. That’s the type of questions you should expect.

IMHO, this is the most interesting type of questions.

Be ready to be asked about past projects

Another common set of questions is questions about past projects that are mentioned in your CV. My suggestion is to revisit your CV and try to remember some options you have chosen, the design and architecture adopted, etc. If some detail is missing in your head, go read some documentation that you still have about the project.

Typically, the projects that are discussed in interviews are chosen by you, not by the interviewer. So, be wise when choosing your projects to be discussed.

There are a lot of topics that can arise during these questions:

  • DevOps general questions: how you build? how you deploy? What flow you use? CI/CD?
  • Testing approaches (unit tests, integration tests, e2e test, load tests)
  • Observability: how do you know what’s happening in production? Telemetry, traces, logs, etc.?
  • Distributed systems: pub/sub systems? queuing systems? retries? circuit breakers and other patterns, etc.

The variety of questions here is endless, and basically is based on your experience.

Know about the interviewer as much as possible

As I said earlier, preparation is the key to success. In an interview process, part of the preparation is to know the interviewer. Most of the companies announce who will be your interviewer. Take advantage of that information and try to know as much as possible about that person via LinkedIn, blog, presentations, etc.

If we think carefully, interviewing is like dating. Basically both parties are trying to understand how compatible they are, right? If you know who is interviewing you, you can pick common topics that you and your interviewer relates to.

This “investigation” can be very time consuming. Let me give you an example. For the preparation of one of my interviews, I found a presentation made by the interviewer. During that presentation he mentioned that he practices martial arts. Great, I thought, I also practice martial arts (Taekwondo and Hapkido). So we have something in common. At some point in the interview I asked him what martial art did he practice, and we have spent a few minutes on this topic. It’s all about Rapport - connecting through shared interests and empathy.

For another interview, I’ve skimmed the master thesis of the interviewer about Aspects Oriented Programming. I also read his blog. Again, some blog posts were mentioned during the interview. We can create connections easier if we know better who is talking to us.

Soft skills

I am sure that there are a lot of other suggestions to excel in an interview. My focus on this post was mainly in the Software Engineering field. I didn’t want to focus too much in the soft skills. I think the only suggestion that I have regarding soft skills is: be yourself and respect your identity. Don’t pretend to be someone who you aren’t.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, I just want to mention that a recruitment process is time consuming for a candidate. I spent many hours preparing my interviews, and I don’t have any problem assuming that. Probably there are some people that don’t need any kind of preparation. Not me.

In this post I just wanted to describe how I prepared myself for the interviews. It worked for me. It doesn’t mean it will work for you.

Finally I want to finish this post by mentioning two resources:

  1. the book Cracking the Coding Interview. I didn’t read the book so I can’t recommend it. The reviews are great. I only heard about the book after my technical interviews. What I can say is that, if I knew it before, I would have read it before applying to those positions.
  2. the site Glassdoor. Before applying to a position, search for interviews reviews on this site to have an idea what you should expect, how long does it take, how many interviews, etc.