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I was asked to solve a programming problem in my last interview. I was given a laptop with an online editor/compiler where I was to write code and execute it. Standard enough, so far. Here, I was given an option to use the internet for help or not. If I chose to use the internet, a time limit would be applied, and for this problem is was 5 minutes. If I didn't, I'd be given a longer time. (appropriate for an interview though) I chose to use the internet, since I'm not really good with remembering the exact syntax.

This is the first time I've been interviewed this way. Is there some merit to this strategy of "help+limited time" vs "no help+longer time"? What are the interviewers trying to assess? Does the choice I make tell them something about my coding skill or aptitude?

closed as primarily opinion-based by gnat, paparazzo, Dukeling, solarflare, Philipp Oct 26 '18 at 12:44

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I actually like this approach, but I'd like to know beforehand the kind of problem domain and the kind of development environment before making my choice. – pmf Oct 25 '18 at 10:53
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    Different interviewers might be assessing different things, so I don't think there's really a right answer here. Some might be assessing your ability to make decisions more than they care about which option you pick, and others might not be assessing anything at all and just think it only makes sense to have less time if you can use the internet. – Dukeling Oct 25 '18 at 17:02
  • If you choose not to use the Internet, probably you would have to use something like a book for reference, or else use the built-in help facilities of the programs, which may take longer. If you haven't used a certain function in a while, you might have to write a little experimental program to remind yourself how it behaves, and so on. Perhaps those considerations were the idea of the time limit extension. – Brandin Oct 26 '18 at 5:21
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    Why didn't you ask them at the end of the interview? I would have. They might well be your future co-workers, so ought to be approachable (if not, do you want to work with them?), plus I am genuinely interested in interview techniques & would be willing to lose a job, just to learn something like that, because if asking loses me the job I wouldn't want to work with such people anyway. – Mawg Oct 26 '18 at 6:38
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    To be honest this just seems like another "software developers lack interviewing skills" situation. – Ant P Oct 26 '18 at 8:11
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Is there some merit to this strategy of "help+limited time" vs "no help+longer time"? What are the interviewers trying to assess? Does the choice I make tell them something about my coding skill or aptitude?

It's an interesting strategy, and I could see some merit in it - although not perhaps what you would expect.

By opting to use the internet and take the lower time limit you're demonstrating two things:

  • You don't suffer from "not invented here" syndrome

  • You understand that using the resources available to you to achieve a specified task in the most time-efficient manner is important

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    It is interesting, but it's still a game. You don't know if they want a person who "just knows this stuff like the back of their hand" and doesn't need the internet, or a person who is "time effective". It depends on if they see the Internet as a crutch or a resource. In short, try to read the environment before you start the test. – Edwin Buck Oct 26 '18 at 14:44
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Is there some merit to this strategy of "help+limited time" vs "no help+longer time"?

In my opinion, no. Nobody codes without the Internet these days.

What are the interviewers trying to assess?

Who knows. The only people that can tell us are the interviewers.

Does the choice I make tell them something about my coding skill or aptitude?

No. If I want a general idea of how people code, I'll get them to sketch some pseudo-code on a whiteboard and I won't care if they get the syntax a bit wrong. If I want to see if they can write code which actually runs, they can use the Internet because that's what people do in the real world when they want to write code that actually runs.

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    @bharal they probably use google to look up things like syntax or the names of methods, not the solution to the problem. – Erik Oct 25 '18 at 11:40
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    @bharal I’m currently working as a C# developer, but I’m also pretty good at Objective-C, Swift, PHP and Java. If you’d interview me in any language that’s not C# at the moment, I’d need to look up syntax quickly. Did Objective-C require dots for method calls or not? Is ‘if(value)’ valid syntax or is it ‘if(value != null)’ in Java? I’ll pick it up again in a week or so at the job. I think you want to interview the candidates ability to work for you, not their memory of arbitrary syntax. – Cyonis Oct 25 '18 at 11:47
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    @bharal You can hardly compare a programmer to a doctor or lawyer. It's a fact of life that the internet is a useful tool in modern programming and you would be daft to not use it so people can see how 'good' you are. It's like saying a programmer from the 80's is bad just because they keep a C reference book next to their desk so they can look up functions they dont often use. – ayrton clark Oct 25 '18 at 11:56
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    @bharal You do know that doctors consult books and databases of diseases to make sure they have every detail correct and lawyers have literal libraries in their offices full of the relevant laws and precedent they use to do research before filing motions and preparing arguments? Good professionals don't remember every possible detail (that's impossible), they know where to look when they need them and how to apply them. – IllusiveBrian Oct 25 '18 at 13:22
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    @bharal: I don't know of programmers making incisions in their computers either. Doctors look things up a lot, and lawyers also. It's the lawyer's job to know what the precedent is, not the judge's. In both cases, there is a lack of detailed strict syntax on the job, and when that is required there will be computer assist. And, with that attitude, I wouldn't want you managing my investments. – David Thornley Oct 25 '18 at 15:15
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I'm not sure if the particular task is unconventional, but I'm certainly impressed that they acknowledged the use of the internet even if in doing so giving that option a handicap.

Is there some merit to this strategy of "help+limited time" vs "no help+longer time"?

It's difficult to guess what they are getting out of this. They may put more stock in one option over the other, or they may be examining soft skills that come as the result of choosing either option.

If it was myself I'd rather see someone understand that they sometimes need to ask the right questions; whether those questions be to google, people in the office, or to the rubber duck on their desk I don't think it matters.

Does the choice I make tell them something about my coding skill or aptitude?

Unfortunately sometimes it's difficult to guess what the interviewer is really after, they likely have some metrics that they will get from that particular task, but it could range from your reaction to being given the option in the first place, to what you googled. Very difficult to actually know for sure.

Edit:

As per the comment below lets have a stab at looking into what they could be concluding from the task.

The choice Itself:

  1. This could show them that you're aware using resources readily available to you such as the internet can help solve a problem quicker.

  2. The opposite is also true, they could take it that you're showing that you are unfamiliar with that particular technology, concept and or problem.

The Task itself:

This could allow for some more assessment stemming from your initial choice. For example, you've opted to use the internet as a resource; are there elements within the task that are considered core concepts of the language and or technologies that they are using, and as such maybe they believe not knowing these without the use of a resource like the internet is a negative.

  • All you're saying in this "answer" is "I don't know". – solarflare Oct 26 '18 at 5:51
  • @solarflare sometimes the right answer is that we can't know. Answers to this particular question will likely be entirely based on a guess or assumption. My answer is that there is no way to know for sure, guessing the reason doesn't really do anyone much use. Thanks for the feedback. – Digitalsa1nt Oct 26 '18 at 8:05
  • @solarflare taken you're feedback on board, attempted to make some assumptions on their intentions with the OPs task. – Digitalsa1nt Oct 26 '18 at 8:15
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I was given a laptop with an online editor/compiler where I was to write code and execute it.... I chose to use the internet, since I'm not really good with remembering the exact syntax.

If I were in your shoes, I would never choose the internet. The only situation I would is where I already saw the question and did not know how to solve it. I'm also curious why you chose the internet. You said you were given a compiler where you can check if you're code is correct and if it's in the right exact syntax. Did the interviewer ask you to code in a language not mentioned in the job description? Were you able to see the question beforehand?

Is there some merit to this strategy of "help+limited time" vs "no help+longer time"? What are the interviewers trying to assess? Does the choice I make tell them something about my coding skill or aptitude?

I don't know the job description or position that you're applying for, but choosing the internet shows either: you're not confident to solve the problem given, or that you're not prepared for the interview. If you're really optimistic, I guess it shows you can google very well and copy and paste other people's codes? I hardly see any advantage to choosing internet over longer time. If you solved the question very well with internet... well you used the internet.

On the other hand, if you didn't choose the internet, it shows that you know what you're doing and you're prepared for the interview. I think not solving the problem perfectly without internet is better than solving the question with the internet.

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I believe the purpose is to prevent cheating.

With a longer duration, someone might be able to dig out complete solutions on the internet. The person who designed the tasks likely felt that using internet could be a massive help, so placed a time limitation on that. The fact that the limit is 5 minutes suggests that the task is very simple, and the internet is intended for quickly looking up syntax and function name references.

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The purpose could be seeing which option you choose.

I'd be impressed by anyone who could do well without using the internet, esp if the person was under 50

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What is to be gained by using the internet?

If you are coding in a language you are familiar with, you would hardly need to check syntax. Even for some obscure features (which I personally don’t like to see people use, as they hinder maintainability (I’m looking at you, Mr. Ternary-Expression </rant>); the compiler will tell you where you are going wrong, even if you have to takes several stabs until you get it right.

So, if you are not using the internet for syntax, then you are using it for help on the problem, and you are really losing out by doing that. A great part of the interview is seeing which questions a candidate asks in order to clarify the problem. Sure, the interviewer can look over your shoulder and see what you are Googling, but that totally loses the to and fro of person to person discussion.

Tl;der – you don’t need the internet for syntax, the compiler is your friend. You don't need the internet to ask questions about the problem, the interviewer wants to discuss those with you.

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