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I have just had (my very first!) interview for a support / development role, which has been advertised as not needing experience in any particular technical languages, as they would be taught on the job.

I was told by the recruiter that there would be a technical test, but 'nothing too heavy'.

I have several languages listed on my CV, ordered by familiarity. A few days before and on the journey, I looked over some basic syntax cheatsheets for some of the languages I'm least familiar with and haven't used for a while, including SQL, so I could at least say something about them.

I was very surprised and shaken to be handed a technical test at the beginning of the interview with several intermediate level questions on SQL, and be left to it. My first thought was to make use of the cheatsheet I brought with me, but I couldn't ask whether this was acceptable, so I didn't, and I know I made several syntactical mistakes.

My question is: Is is acceptable to use a syntax cheatsheet in a technical interview, for a language you have listed as only having a familiarity with?

This is very similar to this question - Would it be a good idea to bring a cheatsheet to an in-person technical interview?, but I think my question isn't quite a duplicate, as the job description specifically said that SQL wasn't essential, and my CV made it clear that I only had a familiarity with it. Also, the cheatsheets were for syntax only - I could have explained the concepts and steps required if asked.

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    Why could you not ask if use of a cheat sheet was acceptable? I would not worry much about minor syntax if you demonstrated a valid approach. I am very strong in SQL and often use the editor and documentation for syntax. – paparazzo Mar 1 '16 at 16:53
  • I couldn't ask, because they left me alone in the room to get on with it... – Fubrite Mar 1 '16 at 16:59
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    It's hard to know what they would find acceptable without asking. If it were me, I would just write it as best as I could, or use pseudocode if I forgot the proper keywords – Brandin Mar 1 '16 at 17:12
  • Even though I work as a developer for almost a decade, I have a really hard time to remember function names and the likes, but I do know the logic. So, if I were interviewing you, I wouldn't mind your syntax error as long as what you did was right. – undefined Mar 1 '16 at 17:56
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I have conducted interviews for multiple technical positions. Most of the time there was a pre-test that the candidate would complete at home, though several times it would be done in person. I never had anyone ask to use a cheat sheet or a search engine during the in-person testing, but several have told me that they had to Google a problem while doing the at-home assignment.

As an interviewer with a background in development, I don't have any personal issues with an interviewee going to documentation, man pages, or even code samples to help them. In the "real world" nobody is expected to be able to write perfect code without outside influence.

The way I see it, the true test is if a person can be presented with a problem that is somewhat outside their direct experience and they are able to look to external sources to guide them to providing a solution.

Of course, there is the question of what a technical interview is intended to prove. If applying for a senior developer position, I wouldn't think of using a code interview as it won't tell me anything about an applicant's ability. I only use code problems for recent graduates or people making a transition (QA to dev, for example) as a way to judge general understanding of techniques, paradigms, and best practices. The only way that I could justify using code as a judge of ability would be an extended development challenge that would take several days or a portfolio that I could look through to see how the person thinks, organizes their code, etc.

In short, I don't see any reason that once you have been given a test and you can judge it to be of sufficient difficulty (it's not just testing logic or basic knowledge) that you couldn't ask if you could make use of a reference guide you brought with. If you are denied, just relax and focus on showing logic over function - if your IDE would help remind you of the order of parameters in a function call, for example, don't sweat if they're in the wrong order. Your code doesn't have to actually compile, you just need to demonstrate that you can give a coherent answer.

  • +1 for a sane, pragmatic approach. I will say though that I've seen too many people who will take your in-interview code, complie it and fail anyone for whom it doesn't, even on the tiniest missed colon. But that can be a valuable insight anyway, you end up with a bunch of perfectionists who can't deliver real projects so as well to fail anyway. – The Wandering Dev Manager Mar 1 '16 at 18:15
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    We give code interviews to all candidates who will code as part of their job function, regardless of seniority. A surprising number of candidates with over ten years experience are unable to solve basic programming problems. – kevin cline Mar 2 '16 at 21:05
  • @TheWanderingDevManager, ouch, I definitely agree that would be a good sign for the interviewee to get out as fast as they can. I would shudder to go back to the college days of counting my LISP parentheses to make sure I drew the right amount (in pen, of course). – Brian R Mar 3 '16 at 17:02

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