Software Job Search 2022 Retrospective: Coding Challenges

I did a lot of coding and design challenges during my recent job search! A lot a lot. And I have some thoughts about them.

I mostly have thoughts about the coding challenges. The design challenges were pretty much what you’d expect. They started with “design a system that has to do X”. Once I had an initial design they’d ask some questions about how to handle various types of changes in scale, requirements, etc.

I’ve given design challenges as an interviewer before. I think they’re great because it’s a chance to have a conversation on a technical topic with someone that is a lot like what you’d do when working with them. More places should do these!

How many of these types of challenges was I given? So many! Here’s a list:

  • Array - 1 take-home coding.
  • ClickHouse - 1 take-home coding - but I didn’t do this because it came just before I decided to accept the MongoDB offer.
  • Google - 1 live coding - but I didn’t continue after this, so there’s probably more that they do.
  • LogDNA - 1 live system design.
  • MongoDB - 3 live coding, 1 live system design.
  • Oden - 1 live coding (which I can’t remember very well), 1 live system design
  • OneSignal - 2 live coding - I withdrew my application before getting a final response from them, but I think I’d already done their full interview process.
  • Optic - 1 take-home coding.

But what about the coding challenges? Let’s start at the very beginning, and ask what the purpose of this type of challenge is. I think there are a few things companies would like to learn from these challenges:

  • Can the candidate understand requirements and build software that fulfills those requirements?
  • Can the candidate write code that isn’t a complete mess? For example, do they break their code up into reasonably sized functions/methods/classes/packages?
  • Does the candidate understand various technical concepts at the level you’d expect given their experience? This includes topics like concurrency, serialization, REST APIs, etc.

Live Coding

I very strongly question whether you can learn any of these things from a live coding challenge. There are several reasons for this.

These sorts of exercises are ridiculously artificial, with very little resemblance to real-world work. They take place in a high-pressure situation in a very limited time. Many of them also further hamper the candidate with additional constraints.

It’s very common to do these in CoderPad (or an equivalent). CoderPad is hot steaming garbage and can go fork itself. It’s like a half-assed version of an IDE from 20+ years ago. It has very little customization, no code completion, and is very different from most developers’ preferred environments. Even I, a dinosaur who will have Emacs pried out of my cold dead hands, have finally started used using LSP mode to turn Emacs into a proper IDE.

Why do companies use this tool? I don’t know. Looking at the feature list, it doesn’t seem like it does anything all that amazing. Pretty much every company was using used Zoom for interviews, and you can share your screen with Zoom. CoderPad does let the interviewer type as well, but there are solutions to that, like the VS Code Live Share extension or the Chrome Remote Desktop extension.

At the very least, I’d like to see more companies offer candidates a choice of environments. Of all the companies I interviewed with, only OneSignal didn’t only use CoderPad (or Google’s internal thing). For one of the challenges we used CoderPad, and then for the other, I shared my screen. This was slightly awkward since I was using Zoom’s in-browser version, but its screen sharing is broken if you try to share your whole screen1, but I needed to share multiple apps (Emacs and a terminal), so I had to quickly install the Zoom Linux app and hope it didn’t hard-lock my computer, as it loves to do.

The challenges I did live included topics like data (de)serialization, concurrency, and algorithms and data structures. For the algorithms and data structures ones, I was told not to look things up online, making the experience even more divorced from normal day-to-day software development. For the others, I was able to look up things like library APIs, and they tended to be more interactive.

The worst of these was with Google, where the interviewer was mostly mute as I stumbled through the problem. The other algorithms interview I had was with MongoDB and the interviewer was more of a partner in the coding process.

If I had to evaluate my own performance, I’d say that on my two algorithms/data structures challenges, I did either very poorly (Google) or somewhat poorly (MongoDB). For the others, I did either very well (finishing the problem in half the allotted time) or fairly well (finishing easily in the allotted time, but with more looking things up online or getting some help from the interviewer).

But when I think about why I did well on some of these and poorly on others, I think it comes down almost entirely to prior experience. There were several different data (de)serialization problems across different companies. I have a lot of experience with this. I’ve helped design a somewhat complex binary on-disk data format for which I wrote the writer and multiple readers. I also wrote a pretty cool (IMHO) JSON tidier, and I’ve dug a bit into the guts of serde, easyjson, and lots of Perl code for handling config files and other formats.

Unsurprisingly, when presented with a similar problem I can solve it very quickly. But that’s not because I’m an awesome programmer2, it’s just because I’m repeating a task I’ve already done many times.

Similarly, the concurrency-related tasks weren’t too hard, in part because for my music player frontend I’ve had to work with async APIs and tasks a lot recently. So solving similar problems feels easy.

But if my past work history had been different, would I have done nearly as well? Almost certainly not.

On the flip side, the two algorithms questions were toy problems that bore no resemblance to any work I’ve ever done3. If I had to do something similar for work, I’d google the answer, cut, paste, and tweak some code, and probably have something reasonable working soon enough. But without that “crutch”4 to lean on, I didn’t do very well.

Given all that, I’m very skeptical that the interviewers got good answers to the questions I think they should be asking. Instead, I think they mostly learned if I’d done a similar thing in the past or not. That is somewhat useful information. I guess. Maybe. But I think it’s a pretty poor indicator of my future job performance.

Take-Homes

It’s obvious to me that take-homes do a much better job of answering the questions I posed above. The candidate can do them in a reasonable time frame, with less pressure, and in a familiar coding environment.

However, take-homes have a few big disadvantages for both the candidate and employer.

The big one is that they take longer in several ways. They use more of the candidate’s time, which is annoying for the candidate. For the take-homes I was given, I was told they should take 2-4 hours, as opposed to all of the live coding exercises, which were scheduled for 45 minutes or an hour.

And because it’s more time-consuming for candidates, it means that they may just not bother. We saw non-trivial attrition during this step of our hiring process at both MaxMind and ActiveState. We’d give them the take-home challenge and they’d disappear. I certainly don’t blame them!

It also tends to slow down the hiring process. The employer has to give the candidate a reasonable amount of time to do this. Most places gave me 3-7 days as a default, with a provision saying “let us know if you need more time”. That’s a 3- to 7-day stall in the hiring process. During that time the candidate might finish a bunch of live coding interviews with other companies and get an offer!

The other issue I saw with take-homes is that they’re harder to scope well. Notably, I think Array’s exercise was a bit under-specified and could have used more clarification of what was in scope and out of scope. I think I spent more time on it than was needed because of this.

Optic’s Challenge and Why It Was the Best

As I mentioned in a previous post, I really liked how Optic structured their challenge. They’re a remote company trying to work largely asynchronously, and the challenge reflects this. The challenge started with an invite to a fresh Git repo that included the instructions as well as some existing code. The challenge involved extending an existing service in the repo with some functionality, though you could do this by writing a new service for just the new bits of the API. They also invited me to a Slack channel just for this challenge.

They encouraged me to treat this like I would if I was actually working there. So rather than just taking the instructions and working in isolation, I started by asking for a quick Zoom call with one of their devs5 to clarify a few points. Then later in the process, I filed some GitHub issues to ask more questions about details of the project and scope. The same dev responded on GitHub and we discussed the pros and cons of each implementation.

Another thing I liked was that they not only asked for code, they also asked for some documentation around design choices, trade-offs I’d made, and future directions for improvements. This is exactly the type of thing you’d do at work, right? The main difference is that you’d probably do some of that documentation first as part of the feature scoping. Then the final deliverable could include some documentation/stories/tasks/tickets/whatever for next steps on the project.

And finally, they paid me $300 for doing this. FWIW, I understand why this can be a bit tricky at some places, so I think a good alternative would be to offer to make a donation to a 501(c)(3)6 charity on the candidate’s behalf.

What About Existing Projects?

None of the companies that gave me any of these challenges offered to let me submit an existing project as a replacement. This surprised me. I didn’t ask any places about this. In retrospect, I wish I had, just out of curiosity as to why.

My guess is that they would say that they want to give all candidates the same process in the interest of equity. But I’m extremely skeptical that in practice this improves diversity in hiring.

If you’re coming into tech from an underrepresented background, are you more or less likely to have the free time and energy to spend three hours per company on take-homes? Are you more or less likely to get nervous and freeze up during a live coding exercise?

If anyone has more data about this I’d be very curious to learn more.

Takeaways

Ironically, when I was given the choice by OneSignal7, I chose live coding over a take-home. I was gambling that it would go well and I wanted to save some time. For me, live coding was better because it’s quick and I was fairly confident I could quickly handle most types of problems that I would get in these sessions.

I think more companies should offer this choice. This lets the candidate pick the option that they think will best showcase their skills.

But I think it’s probably worse for the company doing the hiring.

Is there any better way to evaluate someone’s abilities besides a take-home or looking at existing public projects? I can’t think of one. In my time in software engineering, I’ve seen a lot of people hired as developers who were fundamentally incapable of good work for a variety of reasons. Getting answers to the questions I posed above is critical for hiring.

So we’re left in this state where it’s hard to hire software engineers, but we feel like we have to put them through the wringer in the interview process anyway. What a silly, silly field I’m in!


  1. I’m going to blame this on Wayland. ↩︎

  2. Though I am ;) ↩︎

  3. I’d honestly be surprised if any software developer I met had done something similar outside of leetcode-type exercises, though I’m sure someone somewhere has. ↩︎

  4. Of course, this isn’t a crutch. No sane employer will ever complain that you found an answer quickly online as opposed to spending longer solving it from first principles in isolation! ↩︎

  5. Yes, I know I said they work asynchronously, but they also made it clear that a kickoff Zoom call was an option. ↩︎

  6. Or your country’s equivalent. ↩︎

  7. The only company that offered this choice, IIRC. ↩︎