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How best to prepare for a live coding interview

Posted on 27 September 2023

How best to prepare for a live coding interview

​8-minute read

Are you currently gearing up for a live coding challenge? Perhaps you've recently faced one that didn't go as planned. Live coding challenges, although contrived scenarios, wield considerable influence over your engineering prowess due to their unexpected nature and the accompanying heightened stress.

To provide you with real support, we've collaborated with three seasoned managers who have not only conquered numerous challenges themselves but have also participated in evaluating many more. They're here to unveil their top tips to aid you in preparing, maintaining focus, and ideally excelling in your upcoming live session.

A huge thank you goes out to our guests: Hernán Magrini from Miro, Nicolò Pignatelli from the team at GetYourGuide, and Dmytro Basan, an Engineering Manager from Klarna.

With that, let's delve into the heart of the matter and unveil the most effective strategies to prepare for a live coding challenge.

 

Tailor your preparation

Rarely does a live coding challenge mark the initial phase of a hiring process. This affords you some time to delve into understanding the organisation, team dynamics, potential hurdles, and the primary focus of the role you're being interviewed for. As a result, you possess the capability to tailor your preparation according to the organisation's unique attributes.

In our discussion, Dmytro shed light on the significance of aligning your preparation with the team's ethos. Depending on the company type, this alignment can determine the type of questions or skills that warrant emphasis during your live session. He explained that a product-centric company, when compared with a development agency, tends to present different coding challenges and areas of focus. Moreover, the industry you're aiming for within a product company can introduce subtle variations in the challenges you might encounter. For instance, a fintech enterprise might pose questions centered around extensive data sets and algorithms, whereas a SaaS product might adopt a different approach.

However, Dmytro emphasises that this isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. To continuously fine-tune your preparation, he recommends engaging with employees outside of the formal hiring process. Forge connections on social platforms, solicit insights about problem domains, and maintain authenticity in your interactions.

Hernán underscores the importance of proactively unearthing the core skills essential for the role before your live session. Engage with recruiters and delve deeper during the initial interview to discern the specific skills the company values within your niche. This holds particularly true for full-stack roles. Armed with this insight, you can strategically channel your focus during the live session toward areas that align with the team's expectations.

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Hernán also elaborated on a useful approach—exploring online platforms like [Reddit's cscareerquestionsEU](https://www.reddit.com/r/cscareerquestionsEU/ )—where past interviewees share their experiences and questions. While these questions might not mirror the exact challenge you'll encounter, hey offer practice questions that align with the type the interview might typically pose.

With an abundance of online and offline resources tailored to guiding individuals through this phase, a caveat arises. Delving too deeply into emulating others' strategies could inadvertently overlook vital topics you'd identified in your conversational preparation.

The crux here is balance. Leverage available resources and platforms to bolster your learning curve, all while acknowledging the unpredictable nature of live sessions. By striking this happy medium, you're poised to gracefully tackle unexpected questions during the live session, instead of relying solely on memorizing practiced queries.

Our experts have kindly shared a few resources to enrich your practice journey:

- https://leetcode.com

- https://www.codewars.com

- https://www.swecareers.com

- Cracking the Coding Interview: A renowned resource https://www.crackingthecodinginterview.com that equips you for technical interviews.

- De-Coding The Technical Interview Process: This resource https://technicalinterviews.dev from Spotify software engineer Emma Bostian provides insightful guidance.

- Stanford's Course: https://web.stanford.edu/class/cs9/a Stanford course, offers slides and materials online for free.

 

Incorporate these resources into your practice routine to enhance your readiness for the live coding challenge. Remember, the aim is not to replicate answers but to refine your problem-solving approach.

Here's a valuable extra tip, especially if you're currently employed. Numerous companies follow a parallel methodology when it comes to live challenges. If you're not directly involved in the interview panel, consider inquiring about the possibility of shadowing some of these sessions. This initiative offers a twofold advantage – it's not only driven by a strategic motive but also presents an excellent opportunity for you to observe firsthand how skills are being assessed. This experience can serve as a pivotal resource in refining your own approach for your forthcoming interview process.

 

Using Visualisation

Nicolò emphasised the strong technique of visualising the interview you aspire to experience. This transcends mere optimism; it involves envisioning the specific skills you intend to showcase and how you plan to do so.

The live coding challenge encompasses more than your problem-solving capabilities. In each interview, the company gauges alignment with its values and team dynamics. Your general approach is scrutinised for compatibility with their current needs.

Given this multi-faceted evaluation, your visualisation process should encompass both soft and hard skills. Craft a mental framework of the session's nature, setting expectations along the way. Perhaps focus on your openness to learning and adaptability – qualities every hiring manager seeks to nurture. Alternatively, channel attention towards refining your communication skills and the ability to articulate your thought process, again a skill that all our guests and many others highly appreciate.

The overarching objective is to envision the entire session, not solely the live coding segment. This comprehensive perspective empowers you to steer your thoughts even when your code encounters challenges. With this practice, you gain an enhanced grasp over the interview's flow, irrespective of the coding component's outcomes.

 

Managing Nervousness

You could meticulously follow the aforementioned preparation strategies and still encounter challenges during the live session due to nerves. This is a phenomenon experienced even by the most accomplished individuals – take our word for it. Whether you're a junior, senior contributor, or manager, nervousness can occasionally take its toll.

All our guests emphasised a shared solution: transparency. When you find yourself in a bind, don't hesitate to admit it and seek assistance. The simple act of vocalising your stumbling block and initiating a discussion around it can lead you to unravel the obstacle independently or prompt the interviewer to provide a nudge, which you can then explore further.

Oddly, there appears to be a certain stigma attached to posing questions during live sessions. However, the truth is that hiring managers seek candidates who excel not only in engineering prowess but also in effective communication. This implies expressing your thoughts, even when grappling with a challenging task.

As Hernán aptly puts it, your core objective in an interview should never be to retreat into silence. Instead, communicate openly and articulate your thought process so that the interviewer can offer guidance.

If you're grappling with a discomfort in asking questions, you might be feeling self-conscious or uncertain about how to proceed. Dmytro offers a solution: conduct a mock interview and record it. Leverage mentoring groups, engage with university or bootcamp alumni, and simulate a 20-minute live session as if it were real. Review the recording, analyse your presentation, approach to questions, and assimilate these insights into your actual interviews.

Lastly, as Nicolò wisely noted during our discussion, remember that the live session doesn't define your true identity or value. Even if things take an unfavourable turn, consider it a learning opportunity. Process the experience and stride forward towards the next session.

 

Areas that could be getting your marked down

Undoubtedly, each company boasts its distinct hiring criteria, encompassing unique skills they prioritise. However, common themes emerge regarding areas that might lead to a deduction in your live coding session evaluation. While not exhaustive, here are some considerations:

 

Problem-Solving Proficiency: Demonstrating the ability to solve the challenge presented is imperative. Struggling in this aspect could signify a gap in hard skills or that you're applying for positions beyond your current range.

Effective Communication: Vital to the process is communicating your thought process. Hiring managers value this transparency, even if the ultimate solution isn't optimal.

Adherence to Best Practices: While comprehensive expertise isn't mandatory, adhering to best practices within your niche showcases a commitment to quality.

Inquisitiveness Communication: Linked to effective communication, openly asking questions to unveil deeper insights into the solution reflects positively. This attribute extends to how you operate in your day-to-day responsibilities.

Testability of Code: More relevant for senior roles, ensuring your code is testable is a valuable trait. Even when tests aren't explicitly required, proactively incorporating them and articulating their significance is noteworthy.

Code Readability: The significance of structured code remains paramount even within a simulated scenario. The organisation gains insights into how your work might appear if you were part of the team.

Openness to Feedback and Collaboration: Your willingness to engage in discussions about principles, styles, and handling criticism underscores your soft skills. An open and receptive demeanour highlights your adaptability as a developer and makes you a more attractive candidate.

 

While there are countless hours of material out there to support you through your live coding step, we hope that these snippets of insights from Hernán, Nicolò and Dmytro can at least guide you if you are stuck or looking to digest quick tips to boost your chances.

The market is challenging, so if you feel that there are lessons here that someone else in your network could benefit from, feel free to share this with them and collectively let’s all bring simplicity to the chaos of recruitment.

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