Interview Questions I Hope I Get

I have an interview coming up, and so my “keep in shape hacking time” has been recently devoted to interview preparation. I thought I would make a post about what’s in my head, both as a way to solidify it (no better way to learn something than by teaching it) and in case this interview goes bad, so that my next prospective employer can see what I’m thinking about.

If you, my current prospective employer are reading this, would you please not take advantage of this by removing these questions from your list? Come on guys, give me a break. If I’m going to be transparent in my thought processes, the least you can do is throw me a bone and ask at least one of these in person!

Question 1: Make something faster.

I think this would be an interesting question. Especially if it was literally asked in these words. The interviewee asks, “make what faster?” The interviewer says, “Whatever. Tell me about making something faster. Whatever you want to tell me about.”

This would be a fun question because it would test the interviewer’s ability to organize his/her thoughts, select the relevant ones, and present them. In fact, it is checking the interviewee’s ability to teach, which is a required skill for someone with like me (with a grey beard). You deliver the most value on a team not by pulling 80 hour weeks yourself, but by mentoring people so that the 4 people in your team manage (together) a 160 hour week, instead of the 60-80 hours of useful progress they might have managed without your (theoretically) sage advice.

My answer would be the following:

There are three possibilities for how to make something faster. First, you can not do it at all. Not doing it is an infinite speedup over doing it. How? Caching, usually. And hey, caching is easy. As easy as naming.

Second, you can do it better, by choosing a better algorithm, representation, or by doing less work. I might retell a story Átila told me about a challenge in which the right answer could be got with less than half the data sorted (he wrote his own quicksort that let him find the answer before finishing the sort, thereby blowing other contestants out of the water; they all did quicksort to completion, then looked for the answer in the sorted list). I also happen to have spotted a place in my prospective employer’s product where I could propose to change the representation, in order to reduce the compute power necessary to parse something. It takes an arrogant little prick to use the company’s own software as an example of what not to do, but depending on the feeling I have with the interviewer, I might do it.

Third, you can take the solution you have now, and optimize it. To do that, you measure, profile, tweak, and then measure again. I checked some code into the Go standard library that does that, and one of those would make a nice story.

Question 2: How would you add load shedding to the Go standard library’s HTTP server?

I thought of this question while reading chapter 22 of the new SRE book from Google and O’Reilly.

There are two layers where you could implement it. The “right” way to do it is the arrange that the server sends back a properly formatted error 503 via HTTP. Another way that you could do it would be to accept and close the connection immediately. Which you choose depends on who you think your clients are, and how you think they will respond to the two kinds of errors.

The “accept and close” technique should be capable of more “!QPS” (non-answered queries per second) because it can theoretically handle each reject without spawning a new goroutine. Goroutines are cheap, but they imply at least one mutex (to add the goroutine into the scheduler), some memory pressure (for the stack), and some context switches. Implementing this would be a simple matter of wrapping the net.Listener with our own, which intercepted Accept to do “accept and close” when load shedding is needed.

I just went to read the source, and the way Accept is called, it must return a valid connection and no error. So our load-shedding Accept needs to actually be a loop, where we accept and close until the logic decides it is time to finally let a connection through (i.e. “if load shedding then allow 1 in 100 connections” or whatever), and then we need to return with that connection.

So how to implement the other one? What you want is an http.HandlerFunc wrapper. Except: what if libraries you don’t control are registering handlers? How can you be sure your load shedding wrapper is always the first one called, so that it can send an error 503? I thought I had a solution to this, but it turns out that http.ServeMux is not an interface, but a concrete type. So it is not possible to trap http.ServeMux.Handle, and ensure that the load shedder is always on the front. This one is going to take some more thinking.

Of course there’s always monkey patching in Go which could be used to arrange for HandleFunc and friends to always arrange to put a load shedder on the front of the call chain. But not in production. Please, God, not in production.

Question 3: A coding challenge I found on Glassdoor

This one is a legitimate coding challenge, and I don’t want to post either the question or the answer here, because that’s just not cool. But it did lead me to an interesting observation…

After a little workout in the coding dojo (I slayed the challenge!) I hit the showers. And in the shower, I had an idea: what if you could interpret the []byte that you get from go-fuzz as input to this code challenge? Then I could fuzz my routine, looking for ways to crash it. I quickly got it working, but ran up against the fundamental problem of fuzzing. When your input is random, for lots of problems, it is hard to check the output to know if it is the right output for the given input. You have one routine right there that could check it, but it is the routine-under-test, and thus using it would be cheating (and pointless). The bottom line, which I already knew, is that fuzzers can only find crashes, not incorrect behavior.