Software Engineer Interview Process and Questions

A short time ago, I was tasked with finding the right software engineer/s for the organisation I was working for. I settled on a process, a set of background questions,  a set of practical programming exercises and a set of verbal questions. Later on I cut the set of verbal questions down to a quicker set. In this post, I’ll be going over the process and the full set of verbal questions. In a subsequent post I’ll go over the quicker set.

The Process

  1. We sent them an email with a series of questions.
    Technical and non-technical.
    They have two days to reply with answers.
    The programming exercises are not covered here.
    If they passed this…
  1. We would get them in for an interview.
    Technical and non-technical questions would be asked.
    They would be put on the spot and asked to speak to the development team about a technical subject that they were familiar with.
    The development team would quiz them on whatever comes to mind.
    Once the candidate had left, the development team would collaborate on what they thought of the candidate and whether or not they would be a good fit for the team.
    The team would take this feedback and discuss whether the candidate should be given a trial. 
    Step 2 could be broken into two parts depending on how many questions and their intensity, you wanted to drill the candidate with.

The following set of tests will confirm whether the candidate satisfies the points we have asked for in the job description.

The non functional (soft) qualities listed on the Job add would need to be kept in mind during the interview events.

Qualities such as:

  • Quality focus
  • Passion
  • Personality
  • Commitment to the organisations needs
  • A genuine sense of excitement about the technologies we work with

Email test

  1. Send Screening.pdf
  2. Send InterviewQuestions.doc

Now with the following questions, with many of them there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer. Many of them are just to gauge how the candidate thinks and whether or not they hold the right set of values.

Ice breakers

  • Would you like to be the team leader or team member?
  • Tell me about a conflict at a previous job and how you resolved it.
  • (Summary personality item: Think to yourself, “If we hire this person, would I want to spend four hours driving in a car with them?”)

Design and architecture

  • What’s the difference between TDD and BDD and why do they matter?
  • What is Technical Debt. How do you deal with it once in it? How do you stay out of it?
  • How would you deal with a pair when reviewing their code, when they have not followed good design principles?
  • What would you do if a fellow team member reviewed your code and suggested you change something you had designed that followed good design principles, to something inferior?
  • Can you explain how the Composite pattern works and where you would use it?
  • Can you describe several class construction techniques?
    What are two design patterns that are focused on class construction, and how do they work?
    (hint: Builder, Factory Method).
  • How would you model the animal kingdom (with species and their behaviour) as a class system?
    (hint GoF design pattern. Abstract Factory)
  • Can you name a number of non-functional (or quality) requirements?
  • What is your advice when a customer wants high performance, high usability and high security?
  • What is your advice when a customer wants high performance, Good design, Cheap?
    (hint: pick 2)
  • What do low coupling and high cohesion mean? What does the principle of encapsulation mean to you?
  • Can you think of some concurrency patterns?
    (hint: Asynchronous Results, Background Worker, Compare/Exchange pattern via Interlocked.CompareExchange)
  • How would you manage conflicts in a web application when different people are editing the same data?
  • Where would you use the Command pattern?
  • Do you know what a stateless business layer is? Where do long-running transactions fit into that picture?
    (hint: if you have long-running transactions, you are going to have to manage state somehow. How would you do this?)
  • What kinds of diagrams have you used in designing parts of an architecture, or a technical design?
  • Can you name the different tiers and responsibilities in an N-tier architecture?
    (hint: presentation, business, data)
  • Can you name different measures to guarantee correctness and robustness of data in an architecture?
    (hint: for example transactions, thread synchronisation)
  • What does the acronym ACID stand for in relation to transactions?
    (hint: atomicity, consistency, isolation, durability)
  • Can you name any differences between object-oriented design and component-based design?
    (hint: objects vs services or documents)
  • How would you model user authorization, user profiles and permissions in a database?(hint: Membership API)

Scrum questions

  • Have you used Scrum before? (If the answer is no, not much point in asking the rest of these questions).
  • If you were taken on as a team member and the team was failing Sprint after Sprint. What would you do?
  • What are the Scrum events and the purpose of them?
    (hint: Daily Scrum, Sprint Planning Meetings 1 & 2, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective)
  • What would you do if you were part of a Scrum Team and your manager asked you to do a piece of work not in the Scrum Backlog?
  • Who decides what Product Backlog Items should be pulled into a Sprint?
  • What is the DoD and what is it useful for?
  • Where and how do changing requirements fit into scrum?

Construction questions

  • How do you make sure that your code can handle different kinds of error situations?
    (hint: TDD, BDD, testing…)
  • How do you make sure that your code is both safe and fast?
  • When would you use polymorphism and when would you use delegates?
  • When would you use a class with static members and when would you use a Singleton class?
  • Can you name examples of anticipating changing requirements in your code?
  • Can you describe the process you use for writing a piece of code, from requirements to delivery?
  • Explain DI / IoC. Are there any differences between the two? If so, what are they?
    (hint: DI is one method of following the Dependency Inversion Principle (DIP) or IoC)

Software engineering skills

  • What is Object Oriented Design? What are the benefits and drawbacks?
    (hint: polymorphism inheritance encapsulation)
  • What is the role of interfaces in design?
  • What books have you read on software engineering that you thought were good?
  • What are important aspects of GUI design?
  • What Object Relational Mapping tools have you used?
  • What are the differences between Model-View-Controller, Model-View-Presenter and Model-View-ViewModel
    Can you draw MVC and MVP?
    (hint: doted lines are pub/sub)

MVCM-V-VM

  • What is the difference between Mocks, Stubs, Fakes and Dummies?
  • (hint:
    Mocks are objects pre-programmed with expectations which form a specification of the calls they are expected to receive. Stubs provide canned answers to calls made during the test, usually not responding at all to anything outside what’s programmed in for the test.
    Stubs may also record information about calls, such as an email gateway stub that remembers the messages it ‘sent’, or maybe only how many messages it ‘sent’.
    Fake objects actually have working implementations, but usually take some shortcut which makes them not suitable for production (an in memory database is a good example).
    Dummy objects are passed around but never actually used. Usually they are just used to fill parameter lists.)
  • Describe the process you would take in setting up CI for our company?
  • We’re going to design the new IMDB.
    On the whiteboard, what would the table that holds the movies look like?
    Every movie has actors, how would the Actors table look?
    Actors star in many movies, any adjustments?
    We need to track Characters also. Any adjustments to the schema?

Relational Database

  • What metrics, like cyclomatic complexity, do you think are important to track in code?

Functional design questions

  • What are metaphors used for in functional design? Can you name some successful examples?
    (hint: Partial Function Application, Currying)
  • How can you reduce the user’s perception of waiting when some routines take a long time?
  • Which controls would you use when a user must select multiple items from a big list, in a minimal amount of space?
  • How would you design editing twenty fields for a list of 10 items? And editing 3 fields for a list of 1000 items?
  • Can you name some limitations of a web environment vs. a Windows environment?

Specific technical requirements

  • What software have you used for bug tracking and version control?
  • Which branching models have you used?
    (hint: No Branches, Release, Maintenance, Feature, Team)
  • What have you used for unit testing, integration testing, UA testing, UI testing?
  • What build tools are you familiar with?
    (hint: Nant, Make, Rake, PSake)

Web questions

  • Would you use a black list or white list? Why?
  • Can you explain XSS and how it works?
  • Can you explain CSRF? and how it works?
  • What is the difference between GET and POST in web forms? How do you decide which to use?
  • What do you know about HTTP.
    (hint: Application Layer of OSI model (layer 7), stateless)
  • What are the HTTP methods sometimes called verbs?
    (hint: there are 9 of them. HEAD, GET, POST, PUT, DELETE, TRACE, OPTIONS, CONNECT, PATCH)
  • How do you get the current users name from an MVC Controller?
    (hint: The controller has a User property which is of type IPrinciple which has an Identity property of type IIdentity, which has a Name property)
  • What JavaScript libraries have you used?
  • What is the advantage of using CSS?
  • What are some of the irritating limitations of CSS?

JavaScript questions

  • How does JavaScript implement inheritance?
    (hint: via Object’s prototype property)
  • What is the difference between "==" and "===", "!=" and "!=="?
    (hint: If the two operands are of the same type and have the same value, then “===” produces true and “!==” produces false. The evil twins do the right thing when the operands are of the same type, but if they are of different types, they attempt to coerce the values. The rules by which they do that are complicated and unmemorable.
    If you want to use "==", "!=" be sure you know how it works and test well.
    By default use “===” and “!==“. )
    These are some of the interesting cases:
'' == '0'          // false
0 == ''            // true
0 == '0'           // true
false == 'false'   // false
false == '0'       // true
false == undefined // false
false == null      // false
null == undefined  // true
' \t\r\n ' == 0    // true
  • On the whiteboard, could you show us how to create a function that takes an object and returns a child object?
if (typeof Object.create !== ‘function’) {
   Object.create = function (o) {
      var F = function () {};
      F.prototype = o;
      return new F();
   };
}
var child = Object.create(parent);
  • When is “this” bound to the global object?
    (hint: When the function being invoked is not the property of an object)
  • With the following code, how does myObject.pleaseSetValue set myObject.value?
var myObject = {
	value: 0
};

myObject.setValue = function () {
	var that = this; // don’t show this

	var pleaseSetValue = function () {
		that.value = 10; // don’t show this
	};
	pleaseSetValue ();
}
myObject.setValue();
document.writeln(myObject.value); // 10

Service Oriented questions

  • Can you think of any Advantages and Disadvantages in using SOA over an object oriented n-tier model?
  • What’s the simplest way to make a service call from within a web page and how many lines could you do this in?
  • What scales better, per-call services or per-session and why?
    (hint: maintaining service instances (maintaining state) in memory or any entities for that matter quickly blows out memory and other resources.)
  • What is REST’s primary objective?
  • How many ways can you create a WCF proxy?
    (hint:
    Add Service Reference via Visual Studio project
    Using svcutil.exe
    Create proxy on the fly with… new ChannelFactory<IMyContract>().CreateChannel();
    )
  • What do you need to turn on on the service in order to create a proxy?
    (hint: enable an HTTP-GET behaviour, or MEX endpoint)

C# / .Net questions

  • What’s the difference between public, private, protected and internal modifiers?
    Which ones can be used together?
  • What’s the difference between static and non-static methods?
  • What’s the most obvious difference in IL with static constructors?
    (hint: static method causes compiler to not mark type with beforefieldinit, thus giving lazy initialisation.)
  • How have you used Reflection?
  • What does the garbage collector clean up?
    (hint: managed resources, not unmanaged resources. Such as files, streams and handles)
  • Why would you implement the the IDisposable interface?
    (hint: clean up resources deterministically. Clean up unmanaged resources.)
  • Where should the Dispose function be called from?
    (hint: the objects finalizer)
  • Where is an objects finalizer called from?
    (hint: the GC)
  • If you call an objects Dispose method, what System method should you also make sure is called?
    (hint: System.GC.SuppressFinalize)
  • Why should System.GC.SuppressFinalize be called?
    (hint: finalization is expensive)
  • Are strings mutable or immutable?
    (hint: immutable)
  • What’s the most significant difference between struct’s and class’s?
    (hint: struct : value type, class : reference type)
  • What are the other differences between struct’s and class’s?
    (hint: struct’s don’t support inheritance (all value types are sealed) or finalizers)
    (hint: struct’s can have the same fields, methods, properties and operators)
    (hint: struct’s can implement interfaces)
  • Where are reference types stored? Where are value types stored?
    (hint:
    bit of a trick question. Ref on the heap, val on the stack (generally)
    The reference part of reference type local variables is stored on the stack.
    Value type local variables also on the stack.
    Content of reference type variables is stored on the heap.
    Member variables are stored on the heap.
    )
  • Where is the yield key word used?
    (hint: within an iterator)
  • What are some well known interfaces in the .net library that iterators provide implementation for?
    (hint: IEnumerable<T> )
  • Are static methods thread safe?
    (hint: a new stack frame is created with every method call. All local variables are safe… so long as they are not reference types being passed to another thread or being passed to another thread by ref.)
  • What is the TPL used for?
    (hint: a set of API’s in the System.Threading and System.Threading.Tasks namespaces simplifying the process of adding parallelism and concurrency to applications.)
  • What rules would you consider when choosing a lock object?
    (hint: keep the scope as tight as possible (private), so other threads cannot change its value, thus causing the thread to block.
    Declare as readonly, as its value should not be changed.
    Must not be a value type.
    If the lock keyword is used on a value type, the compiler will report an error.
    If used with System.Threading.Monitor, an exception will occur at runtime, because Monitor.Exit receives a boxed copy of the original variable.
    Never lock on “this”.)
  • Why would you declare a field as volatile?
    (hint: So that the order of the operations performed on the variable are not optimised to a different order.)
  • Are reads and writes to a long (System.Int64) atomic? Are reads and writes to a int (System.Int32) atomic?
    (hint: The runtime guarantees that a type whose size is no bigger than a native integer will not be read or written only partially. This is in the CLI spec and the C# 4.0 spec.)
  • Before invoking a delegate instance just before the null check is performed, What’s a good way to make sure no other threads can set your delegate to null between when the check occurs and when you invoke it?
    (hint:
    assign reference to heap allocated memory to stack allocated implements thread safety.
    Assign your delegate instance to a second local delegate variable.
    This ensures that if subscribers to your delegate instance are removed (by a different thread) between checking for null and firing the invocation, you won’t fire a NullReferenceException.)
void OnCheckChanged(EventArgs e) {
	// assign reference to heap allocated memory to
	// stack allocated implements thread safety

	// CheckChanged is a member declared as…  public event EventHandler CheckChanged;
	EventHandler threadSafeCheckChanged = CheckChanged;
	if (threadSafeCheckChanged != null)  {
		// fire the event off
		foreach(EventHandler handler in threadSafeCheckChanged.GetInvocationList()) {
			try {
				handler(this, e);
			}
			catch(Exception e) {
				// handling code
			}
		}
	}
}
  • What is a deadlock and how does one occur? Can you draw it on the white board?
    (hint: two or more threads wait for each other to release a synchronization lock.
    Example:
    Thread A requests a lock on _sync1, and then later requests a lock on _sync2 before releasing the lock on _sync1.
    At the same time,
    Thread B requests a lock on _sync2, followed by a lock on _sync1, before releasing the lock on _sync2.
    )
  • How many ways are there to implement an interface member, and what are they?
    (hint: two. Implicit and explicit member implementation)
  • How do I declare an explicit interface member?
    (hint: prefix the member name with the interface name)
public class MyClass : SomeBaseClass ,IListable, IComparable {
    // …
    public intCompareTo(object obj) {
        // …
    }

    #region IListable Members
    string[] Ilistable.ColumnValues {

        get {
            // …
            return values;
        }
    }
    #endregion
}
  • Write the above on a white board, then ask the following question. If I want to make a call to an explicit member implementation like the above, How do I do it?
string[] values;
    MyClass obj1, obj2;

    // ERROR:  Unable to call ColumnValues() directly on a contact
    // values = obj1.ColumnValues;

    // First cast to IListable.
    values = ((IListable)obj2).ColumnValues;
  • What is wrong with the following snippet?
    (hint: possibility of race condition.
    If two threads in the program both call GetNext simultaneously, two threads might be given the same number. The reason is that _curr++ compiles into three separate steps:
    1. Read the current value from the shared _curr variable into a processor register.
    2. Increment that register.
    3. Write the register value back to the shared _curr variable.
    Two threads executing this same sequence can both read the same value from _curr locally (say, 42), increment it (to, say, 43), and publish the same resulting value. GetNext thus returns the same number for both threads, breaking the algorithm. Although the simple statement _curr++ appears to be atomic, this couldn’t be further from the truth.)
// Each call to GetNext should hand out a new unique number
static class Counter {
    internal static int _curr = 0;
    internal static int GetNext() {
        return _curr++;
    }
}
  • What are some of your favourite .NET features?

Data structures

  • How would you implement the structure of the London underground in a computer’s memory?
    (hint: how about a graph. The set of vertices would represent the stations. The edges connecting them would be the tracks)
  • How would you store the value of a colour in a database, as efficiently as possible?
    (hint: assuming we are measuring efficiency in size and not retrieval or storage speed, and the colour is 16^6 (FFFFFF), store it as an int)
  • What is the difference between a queue and a stack?
  • What is the difference between storing data on the heap vs. on the stack?
  • What is the number 21 in binary format? And in hex?
    (hint: 10101, 15)
  • What is the last thing you learned about data structures from a book, magazine or web site?
  • Can you name some different text file formats for storing unicode characters?
  • How would you store a vector in N dimensions in a datatable?

Algorithms

  • What type of language do you prefer for writing complex algorithms?
  • How do you find out if a number is a power of 2? And how do you know if it is an odd number?
  • How do you find the middle item in a linked list?
  • How would you change the format of all the phone numbers in 10,000 static html web pages?
  • Can you name an example of a recursive solution that you created?
  • Which is faster: finding an item in a hashtable or in a sorted list?
  • What is the last thing you learned about algorithms from a book, magazine or web site?
  • How would you write a function to reverse a string? And can you do that without a temporary string?
  • In an array with integers between 1 and 1,000,000 one value is in the array twice. How do you determine which one?
  • Do you know about the Traveling Salesman Problem?

Testing questions

  • It’s Monday and we’ve just finished Sprint Planning. How would you organize testing?
  • How do you verify that new changes have not broken existing features?
    (hint: regression test)
  • What can you do reduce the chance that a customer finds things that he doesn’t like during acceptance testing?
  • Can you tell me something that you have learned about testing and quality assurance in the last year?
  • What sort of information would you not want to be revealed via Http responses or error messages?
    (hint: Critical info about the likes of server name, version, installed program versions, etc)
  • What would you make sure you turned off on an app or web server before deployment?
    (hint: directory listing?)

Maintenance questions

  • How do you find an error in a large file with code that you cannot step through?
  • How can you make sure that changes in code will not affect any other parts of the product?
  • How can you debug a system in a production environment, while it is being used?

Configuration management questions

  • Which items do you normally place under version control?
  • How would you manage changes to technical documentation, like the architecture of a product?

Project management

  • How many of the three variables scope, time and cost can be fixed by the customer?
  • Who should make estimates for the effort of a project? Who is allowed to set the deadline?
  • Which kind of diagrams do you use to track progress in a project?
  • What is the difference between an iteration and an increment?
  • Can you explain the practice of risk management? How should risks be managed?
  • What do you need to be able to determine if a project is on time and within budget?
    (hint: Product Backlog burn-down)
  • How do you agree on scope and time with the customer, when the customer wants too much?

Candidate displays how they communicate / present to a group of people about a technical topic they are passionate and familiar about.

References I used

If any of these questions or answers are not clear, or you have other great ideas for questions, please leave comments.

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10 Responses to “Software Engineer Interview Process and Questions”

  1. Xing Su Says:

    That’s a lot of decent questions… I don’t get the luxury of probing interviewees at that depth, but these would greatly help if one day I am allowed to… I also like getting interviewees to write some small programs or reviewing some code in a controlled environment (without my presence but no access to Google).

    • binarymist Says:

      Yeah, it’s a long list. Next post is a cut down version. No. 1 of “The Process” takes care of getting the candidate to create a solution to a problem.

  2. Xing Su Says:

    Also depending on what type of people you are after… A decent passionate senior should know the vast majority of the above (where the questions apply to his past experience and the job)… However, for a 9-to-5 programmer, I don’t expect him to know much about .net GC, data structures or algorithms (I know… they should not be hired, but the reality is only a small portion of developers can get most of your questions right).

    • binarymist Says:

      Agreed. I wouldn’t personally hire those that didn’t show a good level of aptitude. I just don’t think it’s worth the frustration, rework, unreliability, lack of creativity, etc, etc of hiring an average developer. A lot of the questions are geared to get a response rather than a right or wrong answer. I just want to see how they think. Whether you hire the decent passionate senior or the 9-to-5 programmer depends at least partly on your business model. Do you use the Ben and Jerry model or the Amazon model? How quickly do you need the developer? A top developer can be 10 times more productive than the bottom of the barrel developer. Will you pay them 10 times as much? If not, why not. Just some things to think about. Personally I won’t take on a top developer unless I can pay them well and give them a lovely environment to work in.

  3. Software Engineer Interview Process and Questions | AppDev Reading Says:

    […] Software Engineer Interview Process and Questions https://blog.binarymist.net/2013/04/27/software-engineer-interview-process-and-questions/ […]

  4. Jason Says:

    How would you modify the above to recruit for a junior or graduate position? Or would you just ask the same questions but just expect less detailed/knowledgeable answers?

  5. Andrew McClure Says:

    I don’t like Ice Breaker No. 2. This is more deal breaker than ice breaker. If there hadn’t been a situation where conflict needed to be resolved, the candidate may feel stressed about having nothing to say on the matter.

    Of course if the point is to see how they respond to stress then it’s a very good question – but certainly not an ice breaker.

  6. Ijon Says:

    Nice post.
    For me too many questions regarding design patterns is a smell and hints to high likelihood of over-engineering and incidental complexity.
    Same goes for too many topics in an interview.
    I like focused companies (if you all do is application development and never developing algorithms please do not ask me about algorithms etc)
    Of course a decent software developer should be able to answer most of the questions above. However supply and demand is quite important. Like you said if you can not pay 10 times better for a developer (or provide fruitful environment to compensate that) then you have to be strategic in the interview process. Which requires quite a bit of careful preparation on employer’s side.
    Most of the interviews are nonsense today. Wasting time of both sides. I think we should abandon the myths altogether and put our feet on the ground.
    In none of the other professions people are asked if they practice their profession in their spare times. So I do not understand all this disputation of 9-5 developer. I think majority of developers are inherently naive as well as unaware of capital and labour relationship.

  7. Kim Carter Says:

    Some good ideas around JavaScript here https://medium.com/javascript-scene/the-two-pillars-of-javascript-ee6f3281e7f3

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