K. Lykov Blog

A Posteriori Vision of the SE Interview Preparation Process

In this post, I will share my thoughts about interview preparation process for Software Engineer (SE) position. It might be useful for those who are planning to interview with companies which employ tough algorithmic problems to select candidates. I will start with the review of my background, then briefly describe my preparation process, and, finally, provide a posteriori preparation advice.

I started programming at the age of 15 (I was in High School specialized in CS), then I was studying Mathematics and, after that, worked for 4 years as SE. Finally, I was doing Ph.D. in Computational Physics. So at the beginning of my preparation process, I already forgot algorithms classes from my high school but I knew quite well several programming languages.

I started my preparation more than a year before having interviews with target companies. The plan was to spend around 2h a day on this task. At the first step, I read the whole Cormen (March’16-September’16). I solved most of the exercises and implemented all the algorithms except those which are irrelevant for the interview like FFT. To practice, I solved around 250 problems from the book “Elements of programming interview”. I typically read one chapter per week and solved 1-2 problems per day. In addition, I was solving problems from Leetcode (June’16-July17). At the beginning, I was solving a few easy per week. During the second step, I was reading topcoder algorithms tutorials and solving some problems listed there. At that time, I was solving 1-2 problems from leetcode a day, sometimes participating in the contests. During the third preparation step, I solved around 100 problems on leetcode for 3 weeks (it was right before Google telephone interview). The final preparation step (preparation for Google onside) was solving contest per day (topcoder, hackerrank, hackerearth), plus 2 problems per day on a whiteboard.

Preparation principles

Looking back I see quite many mistakes which did my preparation more time consuming than it could be. In particular, I should have concentrated more on the goal - develop skills in problem-solving. So there is no need to spend so much time on Cormen. Participate more in contests from the beginning, and others.

Thus, a posteriori, I would give build my preparation strategy on the following principles:

1) Use small iterations while preparing.

2) Find and use metrics for performance to evaluate your progress and weak points.

3) Read books/blogs about algorithms only by demand. First check out e-maxx.ru/algo/, which provides a brief algorithm explanation, and only after that read Cormen in case if you still don’t understand it.

4) Participate in all the contests you can find.

5) Gradually increase the complexity, does not makes sense to solve div1C if you are not comfortable with div1A.

More specifically, I would split the whole process into 3 weeks iterations. Before starting each iteration, you evaluate your strength and weaknesses using well-defined metrics. My metrics were:

a) time to solution: for easy/medium/hard,

b) accuracy of solution: how many times you need to run the code before submitting to find out all bugs, how many test cases it passes

c) whiteboard: how good is your explanation

d) mental stamina: do you manage to solve problems for several hours in a row (in contests, for instance)?

I would recommend to take problems from archives of topcoder, codeforces, codejam, hackerearth, hackerrrank or participate in a competition if at that date there is one. To practice standard interview problems, use leetcode - it has so-called “mock-up” mode which shows your time-to-solution and distribution of other users. Ideally, you need to solve 3 problems a day which corresponds to your current level.

Plan example

  1. Cover basic topics:

1.1 Cover simple ad hoc problems, which do not require any algorithms knowledge. Plenty of them are on leetcode (easy), topcoder div2a, codeforces div2a or b. K

1.2 Study binary search. Check out topcoder tutorial, hackerearth tutorial. Also, you can find relevant problems there.

1.3 Checkout greedy algorithms. The same sources.

1.4 Cover simple dynamics. The same sources.

  1. Achieve proficiency in basics. Solve problems on these topics on different resources. Key metrics: time to solution, an accuracy of solution. You must not do mistakes on these problems.

  2. Cover the next topic (graph algorithms, more complicated dynamics, sweep line, combinatorics, etc). Practice problems for this topic. Also, solve random contests and, when you meet something you have no clue about, study this topic and practice. Evaluate your performance every several weeks.

  3. Evaluate your weaknesses, increase the complexity of the problems you solve. Go to step 3.