Why Can’t Senior Programmers… Program?

This post is obviously a reference to the notorious Why Can’t Programmers.. Program?. I was earlier today reading an article about unreasonable assignment for junior programmer interview. In that article the author describe how some of one of his junior friend had to program a linked list in java that is compliant with the List interface during a job interview.

The whole assignment needed to be done in 30 minutes, and required to implement at least 2 classes and 37 public methods. It seems pretty unrealistic indeed to expect this from any programmer, especially from a junior programmer.

But that isn’t what is the most surprising about this article. The author then goes to mention he tried to do the assignment pair programming with another senior developer and they couldn’t get it nailed down in 6 hours. In fact, they didn’t even started the iterator part of the problem. Damn, 2 senior developers can’t do it that much time ? What can be so hard about it ?

And so I tried

I had to see by myself what was so hard about this, so I setup myself to do the assignment and see how it goes. It was understood that I had tight time constraint, so I had to blast through the spec getting all the methods do what they are supposed to with less than a minute each to get it by the time limit.

For reference, we are implementing the List interface and the ListIterrator interface.

Hopefully, most methods are actually quite trivial, and, without constraint on the complexity, I could do heavy code reuse. For instance, the addAll method will repeatedly call the add method, which is O((N + M) * M) while doing something in O(N + M) wouldn’t have been too hard. The documentation is also nice enough to provide you with all you need, even sometime sample code for complex condition.

Needless to say, I couldn’t get it done in 30 minutes. I needed 35. I would not recommend to use the result of these 35 minutes of intense coding in production. The complexity is high, allocations too frequent but overall, it works™. If I were to use that code, which would be stupid to boot, because Java already provide a linked list implementation in its standard library, but if I were, I would surely improve the test suite, fix the algorithms that exhibit high complexity and make the code more readable.

To my shame, I skipped retainAll, by choosing to throw an UnsupportedOperationException, which is valid per spec.

What to do during the next 5 hours and 25 minutes ?

As I expected, the assignment was way too complex for the time given, but I’m fairly confident that I can achieve some quality implementation in less than 6h by now. To boot, improving complexity, then, getting the gava test suite make sure all of it passes.

Which lead to the question: How come two senior developers can’t get it done in 6 hours ? The industry I work for is full of mysteries, and this is one of them. While I agree with the author sentiment on whiteboard interview to some extent, I may have some insight on the reasons why he never passes them. Sorry buddy.

Truth be told, pair programming, test driven development, denigrating recruiting practices and ruby on rail sounds very good on a blog, but all of it is no more than playing buzzword bingo if one can’t get shit done.

A good interview question ?

Asking to implement a List is a bad interview question. Its too long, and won’t give much signal, and don’t have a reachable first goal within the 30 minutes.

Ideally you want to have a question with an relatively easy answer, but on which one can improve. For instance, a problem with a relatively easy solution of high complexity. Various heuristics can be added and/or discussed to make it perform better.

The interviewer can get signal pretty quickly because there is an easy answer and discussion can follow on how to improve. The problem is open ended, which allow good candidates to really show how far they can go. It also allow for discussion between the interviewer and interviewee, the kind of which help to asses how one works.

Implementing List is tedious, with many corner cases, certainly not doable in 30 minutes and does not allow for much discussion between the interviewer and interviewee.

Don’t do that. Unless you want your candidate to suffer.

Especially for a ruby on rail position…