An unexpected live coding challenge

A few weeks ago I was in a technical interview, and was asked to do a live coding challenge. I was surprised, because this is the sort of thing that I expect a recruiter and hiring manager to mention ahead of time. Preparation is very important, and while I know that there are many people for whom live coding is a thrill, there are plenty of other people for whom it can be a terrifying experience.

I'm glad to say that I'm not terrified by it, but it's definitely not an ideal environment for me.

So after a few minutes of me describing what I've done in my career (it seemed pretty clear that the interviewer hadn't actually read my resume), and a few technical questions, we got into the challenge.

For a given string composed of parenthesis ("(", "{", "["), check if the string is valid parenthesis.
1. "()" -- valid
2. "({})" -- valid
3. "(}{)" -- invalid
4. "{()}[{}]" -- valid
5. "({(}))" -- invalid

I noted immediately that this is an issue which requires the processing function to track state, because you not only need to determine open and closed pairings, but also what type it is.

It took a minute to sketch out the classifications that I needed, talking through my decision process all the while:

OPENS = ["(", "{", "["]
CLOSES = [")", "}", "]"]

braces = [ "{", "}"]
parens = [ "(", ")"]
brackets = [ "[", "]"]

classes = { "braces": braces,
            "parens": parens,
            "brackets": brackets

I was able to stub out a check function pretty quickly, but got stuck when I went from the stub to implementation, because I realised that I needed to keep track of what the previous element in the string was.

Oh no! How do I do that? (A stack, btw)

Mental blank :(

I needed time to jog my memory, so I asked the interviewer to tell me about himself, what he does on the team and a few other questions.

This, I think, was a very good decision - with the focus of the interview not on me, I could step back and think about what basic data types in Python I could use to implement a stack.

The data type I needed is indeed pretty basic: a list().

A Python list() lets you push (the append() operation) and pop so with the addition of another data structure

counts = { "braces": 0,
           "parens": 0,
           "brackets": 0

and a short function to return the class of the element

def __classof(c):
    """ returns whether 'c' is in brackets, braces or parens """
    if c in braces:
        return "braces"
    elif c in brackets:
        return "brackets"
        return "parens"

we're now in a much better position for the algorithm.

By this time I had also calmed myself down, because everything came together pretty easily for me.

With the above code blocks already noted, here is the body of the function:

def check_valid(input):
    """ For the given examples at top, determine validity.
        Assumption: the input is _only_ braces, parens and brackets

    # start
    c = input[0]

    stack = list()

    counts[__classof(c)] += 1

    for c in input[1:]:
        if c in OPENS:
            ## increment count & add to stack
            counts[__classof(c)] += 1
            ## closing checks
            if __classof(c) !=  __classof(stack[-1]):
                return "invalid"
                # decrement count_ (__classof(c))
                counts[__classof(c)] -= 1

    return "valid"

We're playing fast and loose here with input validity checking - there's no "is this an empty string?" and we're not handling a single-character string, let alone validating that our input only contains braces, parens and brackets.

With this main() function, though, we're doing pretty well:

## main
strings = ["""()""",

for element in strings:

which gives us the following output:

()                   valid
({})                 valid
(}{)                 invalid
{()}[{}]             valid
({(}))               invalid
](){}                valid

Using the criteria specified, the final case is invalid, given that it starts with a terminating rather than initiating/opening element - there's nothing to balance the element with. However at that point my time was up and I didn't worry about it.

My interviewer then asked whether I had considered using recursion to solve the problem.

I hadn't considered recursion because I generally don't have to for the use-cases I need to write - and in this particular problem space it didn't seem to me to be an effective use of resources.

Consider the longest case, {()}[{}]. If you're recursing on the check function, then you'll wind up calling the function four times, so that's four new stack frames to be created and destroyed. That doesn't strike me as particularly efficient in time or space. Iterating over the input, however, avoids all of the setup + teardown overhead.

Anyway, it was a relatively fun exercise, and I'm glad I did it. I was able to keep a cool head and buy myself enough time to jog my memory and finish the problem, and it worked the first time (I know, that _never_ happens!).

For future encounters like this, I think it's handy to remember these points:

  1. Breathe

  2. Talk through what you are doing, and why

  3. If you hit a problem, see point 1, and then say that you're stuck and need to think through a particular part of the issue.

  4. If you need to stop talking so you can think, say that that's what you need to do.

It is my impression that if your interviewer is a decent person, they will help you work through your point of stuckness so that you can complete as much as possible of the task.