The Dreaded Tele-Screen

I used to read Joel On Software a lot during my initial days as a software engineer, after some time when the influence of Feynman’s writings regained its ground (don’t read something that’s not going to contribute to your earnings), I somewhat lost interest in the utopian notion of ‘company for, by and of engineers’ that Joel Spolsky so romantically (and, often) eulogizes in all his writings. I’ve also realized the importance of the phrase that goes like… “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Appears so true while interviewing a prospective team member – but of course, there are other times too when you feel it materializing, especially during the coffee/lunch breaks etc.. A vast majority of interviewers unknowingly recommend a candidate that is closest to them in aptitude and attitude.

During the last couple of years I’ve put the theory of FEPS questions to test and found remarkable results while screening candidates. I’ve also experimented with a few interviews as an observer. Candidates goofing up 40% or more questions failed invariably whenever the interviewer was resorting to the FEPS benchmark… And got instant advancement for the next rounds whenever they played by the rules 🙂

This also proves that the software world is too small and our repertoire of tele-screen questions is even smaller – sans standardization. In this situation, any one with a smart preparation strategy can get a ticket to the in-person interviews – and if the interviewing panel is not awake to the realities still, then such a candidate can ruin the future of the team too – especially when the team is small. So how to get across to the like-minded candidates and at the same time find out where does she stand as a prospective team-mate?

The strategy of using collaborative editors like collabedit, Google Docs etc. worked for sometime, but after a period, it became less effective. Many candidates started declining the calls even before the interview started for the fear of exposing their coding skills (or lack of it).

Cut to the time of netviewer sessions while asking the candidate to solve a TopCoder practice room problem (have to say this was very effective as it gave a standardized score for the same problem, the number of times solution is compiled unsuccessfully before spotting generic mistakes etc.), but this eventually found very few takers as no one wanted to undergo the grind of almost F2F interview while taking the tele one. Besides, computers are still a luxury for many. Even this strategy was fraught with loopholes, because the word of mouth notoriety of interviewer(s) spreads pretty fast among the collaborating candidates, the questions-set travels even faster.

So it was back to the classic ‘hello, xyz… tell me about the most challenging bug… list-sort, recursion… about synthesis’ over phone. I was amazed to see that after trying all the other modes, coming back to telephone wasn’t all that bad, only difference was that while asking the questions to the candidate, I was now making sure that the candidate gets reasonable time to write his code (if he chooses to plagiarize from the www, so be it) in seclusion after the phone screen is done and later, sends it across for evaluation – after all that’s how most of the software developers work — reuse/recycle.

Results after that? Almost as effective as making them write the code in front… May be better.

Almost 70% of the candidates couldn’t code a bug-free, non recursive singly linked-list reversal (in 0.5 hour), 40% couldn’t do it even by 1 hour, 90%+ did it in 2 hours.

Upping the ante, 95% candidates couldn’t write a proper Comeau compilable heap-sort routine even after 3 hours.

Average time for candidates to write the square matrix spiral print (clockwise, anticlockwise) that takes run-time input was a staggering 5 hours – this because the solutions available in the open are either too trivial or incorrect. The hit rate here was a paltry 2%. The ones who submitted genuine (albeit buggy) solutions though, made it all the way to the offer — that tells something.

The above illustration might lead you to believe that unconventional questions lead to better filtering. Incorrect, even conventional and popular questions like reverse a string in-place by words can do the job, only condition is that these questions should come as follow up to something that has already given away candidate’s thought process. Asking bit-manipulation question to a candidate who isn’t comfortable with sizes of data types is a waste. Recursions based questions are best suited to the candidates that have shown enough procedural reasoning. Space-time complexity should always be left for the face to face rounds.

Now, nothing is fool proof, so best strategy for any interviewer is to prepare a standardized set of unconventional questions, practice with modified versions, do time-boxed paper coding and dry runs of  the code to be actively involved with the candidate as you’d do during the pair programming exercises, never ask for the perfect solution. Make the candidate ask a lot of questions – sometimes by giving hints – to gauge the thought process, remember, it’s not only the destination, but also the journey that’s important. Don’t fall in the trap of asking behavioral questions, leave it for the HR. And finally, as someone said, pray, as good developers hardly surface and hunt in open.

Disclaimer: The author doesn’t claim to have any degree of authority in the art(?) of interviewing, neither does he claim to be giving out an effective strategy or warranty of efficacy or a semblance thereof. The above piece is but a page of journal for posterity and is maintained for interested readers who might find the study to be useful, dreadful or amusing based on their respective tastes. Lastly, the views expressed above are of the author’s alone and his employers present or past have nothing whatsoever to do with the aforementioned.

Deep Slumber and the Awakening


Finally, after almost a year, I felt the need to write something. This delay wasn’t because I didn’t want to write, or there was some kind of ‘block’; it was simply because I’m keeping too busy these days with my research and there’s hardly any motivation left post some short and sweet Twitter updates once in a blue moon.


This news about Large Hadron Collider (CERN) raising hopes of Higgs-Boson particle’s sighting actually pulled me out of my comfort zone of 140 characters. I’m more into Mathematics and CS, but advances in Physics excite me no end. More importantly since many breakthroughs in theoretical and applied Physics have transformed the Computer and Electronics industry as such.


There are other churnings happening in Indian Polity, India is at the crossroads… yet again.

One is about the unfortunate episode of government attempting to check the freedom of expression by (proposed!) monitoring of the Internet – thankfully the giants of the www didn’t budge. I can only pray that this disgusting culture of sycophancy, egotism (and nepotism) somehow gets decimated and that of tolerance and public debates befitting a true democracy prevails.

Two is about the Lokpal (people’s ombudsman) bill making pretty big strides, and going by the look of things, it’s going to be a reality sooner than later. Kudos to all of India for achieving an awakening at least. Perennial skeptics have their daggers out already about the efficacy and what-not of the proposed bill in curbing the corruption menace, but the protagonists (that includes one and all who sympathise with this movement – I’d excuse myself from calling it Anna’s movement) shouldn’t lose heart. They have taken the all important first step. The way would be only easier from here on.

The Bradman Oration – 2011

Rahul Dravid was invited to deliver the annual Bradman Oration at the Australian war memorial. I’d like to say that he finally (and rightfully) got his due, I’m happy that he got this opportunity before Tendulkar – for obvious reasons. The speech was impeccable, balanced and touched upon major pressing issues facing the game of Cricket.

An important point raised by him was that of respecting (listening to) the spectator. In Asian stadia, it’s a normal practice to ignore the comforts of the general public, no shades, no open areas for the fans to feel welcome for a family outing, makeshift and substandard parking, touts, utterly mismanaged ticket sales & pricing, and above all, absolute lack of hygiene.

Overdose of non-test cricket isn’t helping the cause either. Hats off to Dravid for stating it the way he did.

Time Travel Paradox and Channel 9

A very interesting stuff came up while watching Hawking’s “Time Travel with Stephen Hawking” on Discovery today. It was about the wormhole paradox, wherein a scientist can prove it’s impossible to travel through time using the much glorified time-machines/wormhole by going back a minute in time and shooting himself dead — thus questioning the existence of himself (in the present,) if one side is takes effect, the other can’t hold and vice versa. Godel would’ve loved it.

Hawking says that this proves that time travel via this particular medium isn’t possible and thus historians of the world can breathe a sigh of relief.

I was thinking, if such a wormhole is actualized somehow even in the distant future, will it be free for all? Or will it be some privilege bestowed on a select few?

In the first case, let’s revisit our paradox; if it’s free for all, then the paradox itself is baseless as the history (if considered as a complex mathematical formula with zillion unbounded variables) will be changed by the extent the resultant nett efforts the participating parties put in to change the ones that are in their control. The same thing happens to alter the present, isn’t it?

In the latter case however, if only the privileged few are supposed to travel through, where’s the paradox then? Isn’t the present being dictated by the chosen ones anyway? If time is a dimension as it is perceived today (and someday it’s proven true by any chance i.e.) every micro-second is being altered by them and thus the history is taking the course as ‘designed’ and not as ‘destined’ (whatever is the difference between these two terms.)

That does in fact bring us to the gibberish of “The wormhole’s existence proves that it can’t exist.” And another one, Time, as the fourth dimension as perceived by humans, exists only in the meta plain.

Channel 9 vs. the Others

I have been watching cricket telecasts for a long time now and have always been fascinated by the way Channel 9 of Australia covers sports as opposed to what the other channels of the world do.

For me, just like the Australian cricket team, 9 has been at the forefront of their field and the others just follow. I remember they started the experiments with speed guns, picture-in-picture, stump camera, ultra motion, and recently the player’s run-time vitals etc. But here what I am talking about is the info bars and the graphics part. The way 9 represents the player profiles and match stats is just out of this world, plain, tasteful, simple and very effective. No gaudy colours, no bold faced crap, just plain & simple information that can be consumed without any fuss.

They use the screen real-estate like no one does, if you want to see what I’m talking about here, have a re-look at the graphics shown during Ashes coverage and the recently concluded test series between SA and India, or travel (if you may :-)) slightly backwards in time to compare the above with the Ind-NZ series telecast and you’ll see where I’m coming from.

In the latter’s case, the screen looks as if some gaming-geek has had a shot at painting an over-sized mural, thereby utilizing just about 40% of the screen to show what actually matters to a viewer. Right now I’m trying to follow the NZ-Pak series and I wasn’t surprised to see a far better telecast of these matches too, may be that geographical area itself has this gift of effective creativity and it seems Sky (ANZ) is a distant second and at least making an effort towards catching up — that’s refreshing.

Regarding the standards of commentary on the other side of the fence (read non-Aus/Eng), well, lesser said the better.