02 March 2014
I’m going to go out on what seems to be a wildly unpopular limb here and say this: asking a developer to write an implementation of a sort algorithm is almost certainly a bad job interview question.
Why? Because you’re likely not hiring someone to write implementations of sort algorithms. Even if you were, they probably would not be writing optimized code in a job interview situation, so what’s it really testing?
Problem solving skills aren’t universal, nor does the ability/inability or inclination/disinclination to solve one kind of problem necessarily reflect one’s overall skills. Or lack thereof.
Remember that the person being interviewed is also interviewing you and deciding whether they want to work with you or not. If you ask a coding question that’s more directly relevant to the job at hand, then they will have a better sense of what it is you do every day—and whether that’s something they want to do, too. You’re engaging them in your problem space, not asking something they may or may not warm to even if they’d love the job you’re interviewing for.
For example, in an interview I went on once upon a time, the interviewer said, “We have this problem, and I’d like to see how you approach it.” So it was a supportive, shared, coding question. I had questions about some aspects of the requirements, which the interviewer then answered. That was a great interview approach.
I’ve come to dread the sort interview questions. Frankly, it’s not a part of programming I enjoy. I like the fact that other people think about sort implementations. Yay, diversity.
I remember once, I think it was 2005, having re-reviewed all the common sort algorithms, then flown to a job interview. The question: “How would you write a shuffle algorithm?”
I remember that instant of total frustration far more than anything else from the interview.
My answer was something like: create a hash of something like a random seed from the current time plus some aspect of the information you had about the song (since it was about shuffling songs) like the title, and then sort the hashes. I have no idea if that’s a good answer, but it’s what I came up with at the time.
Using a different field, asking someone who’s applying for a general application programmer to write a sort implementation is like interviewing for a job as a Cosmo article writer and being asked to produce a sonnet in the job interview. (With the added bonus of live critique questioning your choices.)
Now that’s not to say that knowing how to write sonnets isn’t a cool skill. It is.
But let’s look at what an article writer needs skill at that a sonnet writer doesn’t:
What skills a sonnet writer needs that an article writer doesn’t:
99.9% of all people making their living as writers aren’t writing poetry. 99.9% of the rest write greeting cards for money. The other two are poetry professors. Random aside: did you know Cupertino has a poet laureate?
99.9% of all software engineers making a living as such aren’t writing implementations of sort algorithms or developing new sort algorithms as their job.
Ask more relevant questions.