During a Whiteboard Coding Interview…Is It OK to Explain to The Interviewer How You’d Use Google to…

By Gayle Laakmann McDowell, worked at Google. Originally published on Quora.

So you’re attempting to solve a problem and you don’t know how to solve it? Cool, that’s sort of the norm. No, you don’t say that you’d look it up on Google — because solving something you don’t know how to solve is the essence of the question.

The idea of whiteboard/algorithm interviews is not to test knowledge. Yes, there’s a baseline of knowledge you need to have. You need to know, for example, how to insert a node into a binary search tree, how to do breadth-first search, and what a linked list is. An interviewer who asks you to do these things (other than perhaps as a basic warmup question) is probably not a very good interviewer.

The idea of a whiteboard/algorithm interview is to use your problem-solving skills (i.e., your brain) to solve a problem. If I asked you to design an algorithm to count the number of permutations of a string s within a string t, I’m not asking you what is the algorithm to do this. I assume that you don’t know how to do this. I’m asking you to figure it out.

So if you get stuck while doing this? Keep going. Keep trying. Write a new example. Simplify the problem. Study what’s suboptimal or incorrect in your earlier solutions and see if you can find a path to fix those issues. Just keep going.

Yes, I’m sure that you could google a solution to this problem. I’m not asking you this question because I’m thinking “Gee, you might need to solve this exact question in real life. If that happened, could you do it?” I’m asking because I believe that solving this question gives me an idea of how effectively your brain can solve problems. Your ability to Google the answer is irrelevant.

Now, if you just forgot whether the linked list class uses list.add or list.insert, I really do not care about this. At all. I guess you could “explain” how you’d use Google to solve this, but I mean… isn’t it obvious? This seems like an unnecessary explanation. Just tell me, “Shoot. I can’t remember — is it add or insert?” I might tell you the answer if I know it, otherwise I’ll just tell you to make up reasonable syntax.

This is what a good interviewer should do because whiteboard coding is about brain power not Google power. If you have a bad interviewer, well, all bets are off.

By Gayle Laakmann McDowell, worked at Google. Originally published on Quora.
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