My Google Interview

Well it’s just under 5 months since I promised a post about my Google interview. Being the highly active blogger that I am, I’d say its about time..

Back in early April I got an email from a recruiter from the Google European Recruiting Centre. I was a little puzzled how she got my name, but a bit of detective work found a guy I went to school with worked for Google in the London office and he’d recommended me.

After a phone converstation with the recruiter, we decided that a position in London would suit me best (I live in Australia, and have a wife and a then-2 year old child, so this was kinda a big deal), and I was handed over to a recruiter from London.

Google’s London office mostly does mobile applications, and I wanted to do web apps, but I was assured this wouldn’t be a problem because they had positions like that available too.

So the wheels were set in motion to setup the dreaded Google phone screen, and I started studying. It’s hard to explain how difficult I found that. Not only did I have to remember a whole lot of half-remembered computer science from ten years ago, but I also had to remember the Math that went with it, which was much harder to dig up. Things like big-O notion are easy enough conceptually, but when you are actually analyzing an algorithm you need to remember the maths for dealing with logorithms (for example), which isn’t something I’ve thought about much since doing Computer Science 4 back in 1997…

Interestingly, every recruiter I spoke to referred me to Steve Yegge’s “Get that Job at Google” post which I found ironic considering the “I don’t speak for Google” disclaimers he uses.

Anyway, in early May I did the phone interview with a programmer from London. While I’m not going to go into specific questions, it did involve writing some code (in Google Docs), and some highish level problem solving. For me, I found that I’d read some of Steve Yegge’s other writing pretty valuable.

I finished the phone interview feeling pretty reasonable, but I was still pretty pleased when I got called to arrange some on-site interviews in Sydney.

We arranged to do two in-person interviews with engineers in Sydney, and then two video-conference interviews with London, in late May.

So I went back to studying. Working through the stuff on Steve Yegge’s post was actually getting me more and more worried about all the stuff I didn’t know, but what else could I do?

In my first interview, the first question was pretty much my nightmare scenario. It was a (computer) math question, a (to quote the interviewer) “easy question to start you off” and it was something I didn’t know, and even worse – it was something I’d known I didn’t know but had left in favour of other things. So I muddled though the best I could and got the answer in the end, and the subsequent questions from that interviewer were better, but I was pretty worried that I’d blown it badly.

The next interview was much better. It was pretty clear that the first interviewer had told the second one that I was pretty nervous, because he kept telling me to slow down and not to worry too much. His first question was something I was much more confident about, and I got the naive solution out pretty quickly. Even better, I was able to identify that the class of problem was the same as something I’d been asked before, so I was able to skip the obvious improvement and got straight from the naive solution to the optimal solution in one step. The interviewer was happy about that, and let me choose if I wanted a low level or high level question next.

I chose a high level question, and he gave me a “design and sketch-code an appropriate interface” problem. I was very happy with that question because it’s the kind of thing I deal with most days in my work. I have what I though was an adequate answer, although I could see a lot of problems with my implementation. the interviewer was very happy with it, though, and said it was the best answer he’d seen. That surprised me, because I could see areas to improve, but I’d run out of time, so suspect him telling me that was a technique to try and get me over my “nerves”.

The third interview was the first video-conference one. There was nothing the stood out at me in this one, except it was the only interview where there was a question that involved talking about design trade offs etc instead of coding. There was also an interesting question where I forgot a pretty basic computer science concept, but once I got a hint I solved it reasonably.

The fourth interview was the interesting one. The first question involved writing a solver for a puzzle-type game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a game I’d played before and that really cost me because I didn’t know how I’d go about solving it. To be honest, I stuggled pretty badly with this one. I did write a checker, to determine if a given solution was valid, but it was the one question I had to give up on.

The second question from that interview was probably the best question I was given. I wish I could post it here, because the approach to solving it and the optimizations used were just so typical of all the other questions, and the optimal solution is glorious, and yet is easy to understand.

So that was it – the famous Google interview. I can’t say that there were any surprises, and I came out of it with mixed feelings.

I felt that I’d done reasonably well. I’d missed one question, and struggled in another, but I thought some of my other answers were pretty good, and I hoped my second interview might have been enough to get me over the line.

I was hoping to find out quickly how I’d gone, but that wasn’t to be. My next contact with Google was at a Developer Day here in Adelaide. I was fortunate in that the recruitement consultant from Sydney was at that event, and I’d met him at the interview. One of my interviewers was also there (the second interview – the one I’d done well at).

I spoke to them both, and both were pretty positive. The recruiter actually said he’d looked at my feedback and that I shouldn’t plan to be in my current job much longer, and both asked if I was fixed on a job in London or if I’d be interested in Sydney. They both mentioned again that I’d been very nervous, which I gladly agreed with (anything to excuse my bad answers!)

I came away from that event feeling pretty optimistic.

A couple of weeks later I finally got a response from London that the position I’d been going for had been taken by an internal applicant, but that they’d like to do more interviews with me for another postion on the mobile team. I also felt that the feedback on my interview was very mixed – some very good, and some not so good, which made them feel they wanted to do another interview. That pretty much brings me up to my last post on the topic.

Some common questions:

  • Do you get asked puzzle/brainteaser questions?
    • No – they were all algorithm and coding.
  • Was it as hard as everyone says?
    • Yes. By far the hardest 5 interviews I’ve ever done.
So would I do it again? Yes I would, but I’d probably go for a position nearer to where I live. I’d also do a few things differently WRT to studying. Instead of working my way though Steve Yegge’s study list, I think I’d probably concentrate a lot more on the TopCoder algorithm questions.

Sticky Sessions which aren’t

Exhibt A (the Apache 2.2 mod_proxy documentation): 

stickysession - Balancer sticky session name. The value is usually set to something like JSESSIONID or PHPSESSIONID, and it depends on the backend application server that support sessions. If the backend application server uses different name for cookies and url encoded id (like servlet containers) use | to to separate them. The first part is for the cookie the second for the path.


Exhibit B (the Apache 2.2 mod_proxy code):

     * If we found a value for sticksession, find the first '.' within.
     * Everything after '.' (if present) is our route.
    if ((*route) && ((*route = strchr(*route, '.')) != NULL ))
    if ((*route) && (**route)) {
        ap_log_error(APLOG_MARK, APLOG_DEBUG, 0, r->server,
                                  "proxy: BALANCER: Found route %s", *route);
        /* We have a route in path or in cookie
         * Find the worker that has this route defined.
        worker = find_route_worker(balancer, *route, r);
        if (worker && strcmp(*route, worker->s->route)) {
             * Notice that the route of the worker chosen is different from
             * the route supplied by the client.
            apr_table_setn(r->subprocess_env, "BALANCER_ROUTE_CHANGED", "1");
            ap_log_error(APLOG_MARK, APLOG_DEBUG, 0, r->server,
                         "proxy: BALANCER: Route changed from %s to %s",
                         *route, worker->s->route);
        return worker;

Translation: In Apache mod_proxy_balancer, sitcky sessions need to be in the format <cookie value>.<route> where route refers to the backend server. 


There are a couple of useful docs about this: Mark Round and the Jetty Docs. Normally I’d submit a patch to the Apache docs to clear this up, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to get failover between servers working correctly, so I’m not convinved I completely understand all the issues yet.

However, once you have got this working it turns out to be a case of RTFM.

Exhibit C:

route - Route of the worker when used inside load balancer. The route is a value appended to session id.

I’d argue that only makes any sense after you’ve got it working…

Modify java.library.path at runtime

Linking to native code in Java is always a hassle. JNI isn’t exactly nice, and there are some oddities around classloaders and native libraries which are annoying if you run into them.

One thing I wasn’t aware of was exactly how hard it is to load a library it isn’t already in the directories specified by the java.library.path system property. 

Initially, I thought I’d just be able to alter that property and the JVM would pick up the new locations. That turns out not to be the case, as is shown by this (closed) bug report.

However, there is a solution, outlined in this post on the Sun forums, which revolves around altering the usr_paths field stored in java classes.

	public static void addDir(String s) throws IOException {
		try {
			// This enables the java.library.path to be modified at runtime
			// From a Sun engineer at
			Field field = ClassLoader.class.getDeclaredField("usr_paths");
			String[] paths = (String[])field.get(null);
			for (int i = 0; i < paths.length; i++) {
				if (s.equals(paths[i])) {
			String[] tmp = new String[paths.length+1];
			tmp[paths.length] = s;
			System.setProperty("java.library.path", System.getProperty("java.library.path") + File.pathSeparator + s);
		} catch (IllegalAccessException e) {
			throw new IOException("Failed to get permissions to set library path");
		} catch (NoSuchFieldException e) {
			throw new IOException("Failed to get field handle to set library path");

Obviously, I don’t think that’s portable across JVMs, though.


For the last I’ve been doing webdesign (yeah, that actual visual UI stuff, not just AJAX or something) at work, and – remakably – for the first time since 1997 (yes – 1997!) I’ve enjoyed it.

Generally speaking my design tastes are different – or perhaps I could better say they reflect my unique sense of humour. For example, the orginal – and best – design for featured a colour scheme generated from converting universal constants (the speed of light, e, etc etc to hex values). It was unique, and is still yet to be duplicated (!!).

But doing serious webdesign led me to dig out an old, old review for the first website I ever built and maintained. This, was when the web was young, CSS didn’t really work, Netscape 4 (!) was my browser of choice and I think I was running a pre-Slackware 1.0 Linux install, which I’d downloaded onto 12 floppies.

Website review, 1997 (actually, the article is from the May 1998 edition of Adelaide Review but I did the site in ’97)


Website review
Website review

Nick’s Two Laws of Software Engineering

So I’ve been working in software for over 10 years, and so I figured its about time I came out with some highly scientific principles of software engineering. Follow these, and I personally guarantee success…

  1. Don’t try and do too much at once.
  2. Hire smart people.
It’s important that you do both of these – leave either out and you’ll probably fail. 

Firstly, software is too hard to try and get too much of it done at once. Don’t bother trying – no matter how smart your team is you’ll fail – or have to redefine success to something less than 100% satisfactory. If you’ve got a big project to do, then incrememental delivery is the only way forward.

Secondly, no matter how small the project is you need smart people. Software is too hard, and it has an amplifying effect on stupidity. Since the smallest bug can cause big problems, and the number of bugs decreases expoentially with smartness you just can’t afford to have less than the smartest people available (I’ve got no evidence this bug vs smartness relationship is true, but it sounds kinda scientific & shit, so I’ll leave it in). However, if you have smart people, you have to stop them trying to do too much at once. See rule one.

That’s it. I now declare software development to be a solved field.


So Android is out (a couple of months after I got a Nokia E71 – which is great BTW). People seem to think it will succeed mearly on the basis of having an open platform. I’m sure that will help, but the real issue holding back mobile is the carriers, not the software platform. Getting a decent deal out of carriers was Apple’s biggest move with the iPhone, and Android phones will need to get similar deals. Ask a mobile developer about how to get “on deck” on most carriers, and how much money they get from that (usually around 20%!) and compare that to the AppStore deal.

On not going to Google

So contrary to some self-inflicted rumors, I’m not off to Google London or Sydney. My wife has taken a new contract here in Adelaide so we’ll be staying here for at least another 12 months.

It is kind of disappointing, but I’ve been doing the Google recruiting process for a week short of 3 months now, been though 5 interviews (with somewhat mixed results – yes, I’ll do a post about that), turned down the opportunity to do more interviews for some position I had no interest in and the last message I had from Google HR was that they would have “concrete clarification” about other positions for me on Wednesday. That was Wednesday three weeks ago.

So apparently Google have done studies which show that slowing page load times from 0.5 to 0.9 seconds cuts traffic by 20% – people just don’t wait around. Perhaps I might recommend a similar study for the recruitment process?

OTOH, all the Google engineering staff I met or talked to were great. So all in all it was a mixed experience – if you are thinking about trying it I’d recommend it, but I’d also recommend not trying anything too complicated (like saying yes to a recruiter from another continent..)

FriendFeed – 6 likes, 3 don’t likes and 2 requests.

I’m a huge fan of FriendFeed.

I think that too many internet pundits see it as competition for Twitter, which is distracting from the real innovations it has provided. FriendFeed is the first real new way of reading rss feeds since the distinction between river-of-news and source-centric emerged.

The addition of a social layer which allows people to define who they are (by what data they produce) makes the subscription process much easier. I could see myself suggesting to family members to sign up to it so they’ll see what I’ve been doing – rather than the alternative of them having to remember to visit Flickr, and my 4 blogs etc, etc, or use a traditional blog reader wich will just confuse them.

At work, we started building a similar service for a vertical market group (educators in Australia) in roughly the same time frame as FriendFeed. There are a number of differences (we’ve only had 1.5 developers working on it over that time, for a start!), but the one thing FriendFeed has which I want is the commenting on items.

We actually built a proof-of-concept for a social-bookmarking service which would allow commentry on posted items (as well as on tags), but that hasn’t been incorparated into our service yet. However, we didn’t think of building that directly into the newsfeed, which is such a small thing, but makes such a difference.

Apart from that, here’s some things which I love about FriendFeed but most people probably don’t think about:

  1. The way your profile shows who you follow, not who follows you. Showing the number of people who follow you turns it into a popularity contest, which is kind of silly.
  2. The subtle influence of “Like” by your friends on what shows in your feed. If one of your friends “Likes” something then it will show up in your feed as posted by a friend-of-your-friend.
  3. The ordering of who liked something by how far away they are from you in the social graph (or showing your friends first, anyway)
  4. The search. The fact that it is easier to find one of my own posts on FriendFeed than in itself is scary.
  5. Imaginary Friends is a brilliant idea, which solves a really big problem. Whoever thought of that – in particular the name! – deserves lots of “Like”s
  6. The “multi-level” nature of it. You can start with using it just as a way of following people, then discover features just as you think “wouldn’t it be great if I could….”

Things I don’t like:

  1. “Like”. The meaning of the word makes it difficult to use in some circumstances (eg, reading about something bad which you want to remember). In our social bookmarking prototype we used a system very much like the “Rating an Object” pattern from the Yahoo design pattern library (which is a great resource for social software patterns, BTW). I think that actually rating an object may not quite have the correct social connotations for FriendFeed, but perhaps a “Star” (like in GMail) might be appropriate?
  2. I don’t think FriendFeed rooms work, yet. Maybe it is that I don’t quite get them, but firstly I can’t see a good way to find them, and secondly the fact that items need to be specifically re-shared into them is confusing. (OTOH, I’m probably wrong here, and they are probably already heavily used. We built a similar feature called communities (eg), and they have worked pretty well. We do have a discovery mechanism, though (as well as a more subtle recommendation thing when a person edits their profile)).
  3. Sometime a friend will share an item, and because people keep commenting it will remain towards the top of my feed for a long time. I know I can hide it, but I’d prefer the reverse – if I don’t “Like” it of comment on it then it should go away quicker.

Feature requests (some of these are things we’ll probably build into our system anyway):

  1. Tagging. I want to use FriendFeed as a social bookmark system.
  2. Direct messages, or a “@”-like syntax which will make sure a message is recived by the target.

Anyway, like I said: I’m a big fan. I think FriendFeed is already beautiful software, and it’s a joy to see the subtle, continuous refinement and evolution it goes though.

Google Developer Day 2008

I went to the Google Developer Day in Sydney today. It was pretty interesting, even if I can’t say I learnt much new, perhaps becuase I concentrated on sessions about AppEngine and OpenSocial.

The AppEngine ones were excellent, but unfortunately I’d previously watched the video of the same talk from Google I/O. The OpenSocial sessions weren’t as good. I think they suffered a little from being unclear about the exact audience they were pitched at. In particular they seemed to jump around from assuming you knew nothing at all about open social to assuming you understood the difference between a gadget, a container, a REST server and Shindig.

The final session was an OpenSocial code lab, which involved the audience attempting to copy down random tiny urls to pages we saw for a few seconds. If you missed one of the URLs then nothing you tried would work for you afterwards. We used the iGoogle sandbox as a container, which seems to be pretty buggy and confusing. On the upside I did have a good conversation with John Hjelmstad about Shindig etc, as well as some interesting ideas he had for CSS spriteing.

By all accounts, the Gears & Android sessions were really good, so perhaps I should have gone to them instead.

Finally, my team at work were fortunate enough to be one of six finalists for the Google Speedgeeking prize, which seems to be a prize for the best mashups done using a Google API. We didn’t win, but we got a trophy anyway.

Google Speedgeeking 2008 finalist

The (s|S)emantic (w|W)eb

“The semantic web is the future of the web and always will be”

Peter Norvig, speaking at YCombinator Startup School

I’m sick of Semantic Web hype from people who don’t understand what they are talking about. In the past I’ve often said <insert Semantic Web rant here> – now it’s time to write it down.

There’s two things people mean when they say the “semantic web”. They might mean the W3C vision of the “Semantic Web” (note the capitalization) of intelligent data, usually in the form of RDF, but sometime microformats. Most of the time people who talk about this aren’t really having a technology discussion but are attempting a religious conversion. I’ve been down that particular road to Damascus, and the bright light turned out to be yet another demonstrator system which worked well on a very limited dataset, but couldn’t cope with this thing we call the web.

The other thing people mean by the “semantic web” is the use of algorithms to attempt to extract meaning (semantics) from data. Personally I think there’s a lot of evidence to show that this approach works well and can cope with real world data (from the web or elsewhere). For example, the Google search engine (ignoring Google Base) is primarily an algorithmic way of extracting meaning from data and works adequately in many situations. Bayesian filtering on email is another example – while it’s true that email spam remains a huge problem it’s also true that algorithmic approaches to filtering it have been the best solution we’ve found.

The problem with this dual meaning is that many people use it to weasel out of addressing challenges. Typically, the conversation will go something like this:

Semantic Web great, solve world hunger, cure the black plague bring peace and freedom to the world blah blah blah…

But what about spam?

Semantic Web great, trusted data sources automagically discovered, queries can take advantage of these relationships blah blah blah…

But isn’t that hard?

No, it’s what search engines have to do at the moment. The semantic web (note the case change!) will also extract relationships in the same way.

So.. we just have to mark up all our data using a strict format, and then we still have to do the thing that is hard about writing a search engine now – spam detection.

Yes, but it’s much easier because the data is much better.

Well, it’s sort of easier to parse, and in RDF form it is more self descriptive (but more complicated), but that only helps if you trust it already.

Well that’s easy then – you only use it from trusted sources

Excellent – lets create another demo system that works well on limited data but can’t cope with this thing called the web.

Look – I don’t t think the RDF data model is bad – in fact, I’m just starting a new project where I’m basing my data model on it. But the problem is that people claim that RDF, microformats and other “Semantic Web” technologies will somehow make extracting infomation from the web easier. That’s true insofar as it goes – extracting information will be easier. But the hard problem – working out what is trustable and useful – is ignored.

The Semantic Web needs a tagline – I’d suggest something like:

Semantic Web technologies: talking about trying to solve easy problems since 2001.

RDF could have one, too:

RDF: Static Typing for the web – now with added complexity tax.

So that’s my rant over. One day I promise to write something other than rants here – I’ve actually been studying Java versions of Quicksort quite hard, and I’ve got some interesting observations about micro optimizations. One day.. I promise…