Test Log for Tech

After more than a year, and infinite procrastination in the names of keeping busy, work and other such stuff, I finally felt that the time is ripe to follow the ‘2 minute’ rule.

More so, because of late I’ve started finding writing on non-tech. stuff very difficult. And inspiring myself to devote more than 2 minutes on writing this blog is a biggest challenge right now. Taken the first step, yet again. More to come… 2 minutes are over 🙂

V

 

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.

Sports | Life

A Lesson from a Great Rival

Australia India cricket rivalry has been at its best during the last dacade and has to an extent rendered the hype behind Pakistan-India bashes far behind. Of late the encounters between Republic Day sharing nation’s cricket teams have been so engrossing that the respective prime ministers have taken active interest in the goings-on, both on and off the field. Recent statements by Australian PM Ms. Gillard about Tendulkar’s 100th international century is a case in point.

Australian media also leaves no stone unturned in helping home team to score a few psychological points over the Indians, which earlier (read 15 years ago) was a reserve of Poms and the Springboks (err. Proteas).

100 100 and the Bloody Binary Dilemma (will be / won’t be this time)

By being on the centre-stage for so long and carrying a billion hopes alone, Sachin Tendulkar has already attained greatness. The 100th century hype is all but denying him the pleasure of playing the purest form of the game which by right is his.

After giving so many years to the sport, I’d say it’s his right not to be judged by what he has, or is going to, achieve. In India, we treat greats unfairly and thereby making them vulnerable. I remember my father saying it so may times that “There can not be another Vishwanath or Viv”, sure there can not be another Vishwanath, certainly not another Sir Viv. … However, it’s no guarantee that we’ll not get players similar to them or, I daresay, better than them.

For so long our definitions of “test cricket opening bat” was charted by the likes of Boycott and Gavaskar, now it’s redefined by Langer, Sehwag and Hayden, do we need to compare them? Not at all, they bring pleasure in different packages and that’s how it should be. History keeps evolving and who knows, another 400+ score may be just round the corner.

Lessons Aplenty

Coming back to Australia-India tour 2011-12, it has been deja vu all along. How many times we have faltered in the first encounter due to lack of practice matches? How many times do we see ourselves picking up and licking our wounds from a terrible defeat in the starter? Still, instead of addressing the real issues, the BCCI chooses to look other way and find answers the questions to which aren’t there at all.

Watching the matches so far these are the leadership lessons I drew from the Australian team’s execution of plans:

  • There are many plans, A, B, C etc. for each player AND every stakeholder knows them
  • Team loses a session AND comes back even harder (taking bigger risks) to make up for the recent loss
  • Leader chooses his words and timings very carefully AND takes a dig at the opposition stalwart in the moment of his utter vulnerability
  • Team creates doubts in the opposition’s mind by taking huge risks AND makes it look fashionable, so much so that the opposition tries it out and dies of it
  • Team rallies behind the beleaguered warhorse AND lets him take the freedom to choose the way he wants to play
  • No one, including the captain digresses from the per-discussed plan
  • Team functions like clockwork, irrespective of whether they are getting beaten left, right and centre
  • Rookies are given freedom to express themselves, not get bogged down by opposition’s reputation AND be verbose (towards the battered opposition i.e.) at times too
  • Killer instinct isn’t something that comes out of muttering a few mantras, it comes AFTER a few successful moments against quality opposition as a result of sustained quest for excellence
  • One team rests on the laurels of a few, the other however, forgets these things quickly AND nurtures the wounds to take inspiration
  • There’s no use of being a Tiger and go hungry for days in adversity, be a pack of wild dogs instead and collectively take down any ‘prey’, adapt if you can, AND quickly
  • Show respect by bringing in the best in you to beat the hell out of the opposition AND then tell everyone that it was required to overcome such a quality side
  • Never let an under-pressure Ace have the breathing space, they are best for us when dormant
  • Easy centuries and landmarks should never be conceded, it undermines the quality of the contest, sport suffers as a whole

Michael Clarke has suddenly scaled a notch on the captaincy table, sadly enough, likewise can not be said for Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Ponting’s poor run with bat has perhaps given Clarke the much needed space to expand and be himself while the old warrior was struggling to gain a foothold back. Blessing in disguise? I’d like to believe so, and I don’t see Australia complaining at all 🙂

As I write this piece, Australia are most probably making India pay every Paisa of the Indian Rupee that they might have thought they were worth. The final point, grind the opposition to dust once you have the opportunity, do it now AND don’t let the opposition forget about it ever.

Where’s Cricket Headed to?

Team India’s decline as such is good for cricket overall, and I hope India take a lesson out of these defeats rather than feel deflated and find solace in axing a few old heads. Being a true # 1 side requires much more than sheer talent, talent per se is now a luxury more-than-less of us can afford due to the exposure and early training. True perseverance is hard to achieve (especially in the face of unfavourable results and easier alternatives) and should be pursued.

Season’s greetings, and a very happy new year to you all.

May this year NOT be the last for our beleaguered planet as many would like to believe (pun intended) L.O.L

Deep Slumber and the Awakening

Start

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.

Science

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.

Gibberish

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.

Little Big Dreams (and of 4 equals 170)

The street lights coming up during twilight made the effect of setting sun even more surreal than ignorantly blissful souls are sometimes prone to believe. Cars, buses and bikes whizzing past told a different story though, that of a week-day still alive with people — some like myself, returning home, some in a mad rush to report to their work-benches on time.

At the other end, it was the start of an evening that I had planned for. Everything had gone well enough till now and goings-on also promised for better tidings as after a long time I was returning home by 7, pretty early these days. Office had been good, although I hadn’t achieved to my satisfaction out of the day, it wasn’t as lost as I would’ve termed it to be otherwise.

As I prefer to do quite often, dedicating some time everyday to some activity that doesn’t add up; here I decided to invest a moment at the florist’s and buy some flowers myself. It was then that I spotted this beautiful family of three, the couple and their lovely little daughter. They all looked relaxed and were having great fun in each other’s company, seemed like they were having this kind of outing after a long while. And this girl, who mustn’t have been more then four years old, was restlessly pacing up and down dressed in her tees, checked trunks and casual floaters, between their parked car and the counter while the bouquet that her father had ordered was being prepared, actively suggesting the flowers and colours to the shopkeeper.

It must have been either the birthday of the lady or they must be going to their friend’s, doesn’t matter here, but the girl was restive, in a strange sort of hurry, and she looked like being on a mission… The kind of determination that is seen only when they are hard at play or craving for something they badly want, no amount of persuasion or reasoning can deter them. She showed all the right signs of being up to something big for her age.

I thought that spending some more time there wouldn’t at all be a waste and so I lingered on. As the bouquet got ready and while the couple was immersed in some precious chirp not knowing it was time to move, came the moment of truth. The little girl promptly took the completed bouquet from the florist’s hands (almost snatched it) and opened her sweaty right palm, to pay up — it had two 2 Rupee coins, wet, pure and shiny… that’s all she had, she wanted to pay for that set with her own money, then grab the flowers and surprise her mother I guess.

The florist stood bewildered for a moment, but came back at once and tried to make a jovial event out of this, feigning seriousness, and told the girl that the cost is 170, and she has only 4 Rupees.

All of 4 or 5 years of age, she was playing her part in all sincerity oblivious to the factual difference between the asked price and her actual savings, and the florist’s playful yet theatrical reaction was enough to tell her that the money she had wasn’t ample by a long mile. She was getting impatient and confused by the minute, and once more tried in vain to settle it by offering the same coins, again, glanced sheepishly at her parents — who were still deep in their conversation — may be praying for success in cracking the deal before they wake up to the reality.

When the second attempt failed too, the disappointment was writ large on her face and boy! Does it break a heart to see a kid lost and on the verge of losing hope… Suddenly the pleasant evening rapidly transmogrified into a dark night of gloom – literally. It sure did, and I couldn’t hold myself back from alerting the father.

Thankfully, the gent quickly pictured what all was going on there and decided to end it the only way it should have. He gestured to the boy to accept the coins moving towards him, paid up the balance, while his little precious was seen running towards her mother with springs in her steps as if she had conquered the world — sure she had; unaware of the external help she had received in this endeavour. Grown ups call it luck…

I reckon this must have been that girl’s first real purchase on her own. And it must have definitely been very emotional for the mother as and when she’d have heard about this incident.

Just a quarter of an hour ago I didn’t even know these folks, I still don’t know them in the worldly sense, however, this event did bring me closer to them, more so to that proud little girl. I guess I felt as elated, as successful — if not more — as she did when she ran with those flowers in hand and the widest, the most radiant smile adorned her divine face.

I further understood what Lao meant when he said “Be a child, be a man.”

It’s about being pure, ignorant yet alert to the surroundings, thinking big in small, being content in the present, not thinking too far ahead and about being spontaneous, more importantly, not losing hope, even if it’s considered stubbornness by very many.

We keep thinking big, but always hold back from taking that final (or first?) step for the fear of possible implications and dreaded insecurities. We get those bouquets alright, but never fail to compare those with what others have.

May be the child within needs to be awakened and relived, then only we’d be able to make sense out of all the ‘non-senses’ that we have created and trained ourselves to almost perfection for each other’s petty conveniences.

I came back that evening at least 4 years younger, happier. 🙂