a blog about programming and startups by Brian Brunner

For the Love of God, Ask FizzBuzz

25 Oct 2013

Software engineering interviews are a very open-ended art form. Every company puts their own particular spin on things so that they can figure out whether or not a candidate is both qualified and a good fit for their team. But there is one thing that I strongly believe every single company should do when interviewing: ask FizzBuzz.

Just to be clear, I don’t literally mean that you should ask the specific FizzBuzz problem. You can ask any sort of basic, non-brain teaser problem you want.

  • Count the number of words in a sentence that start and end with the same letter.
  • Print out every other odd number in a list.
  • Or, to blatantly steal a question that one of my coworkers likes to ask, print out the diagonals of a matrix.

And so on. The point is to figure out whether or not someone can actually code.

Don’t give a candidate a day long programming assignment. Don’t try and bring them on as a contractor for a short stint. Don’t do a code review of a repo on their github. Don’t do much of anything, not until you’ve established that they can solve a trivial problem without any sort of fuss.

A good resume with a long list of well-known companies and a degree from a top-tier engineering school doesn’t guarantee anything. Even someone who sounds competent on a technical phone-screen might not be able to put down simple code. And to reiterate, I’m not talking about the brain-teaser type problems that pretty much everyone, including Google, knows are useless. It should be something that you could write in under a few minutes while you are hung-over on a Friday morning. Before your first cup of coffee.

This was all brought up last night when a friend of mine asked for advice on how to conduct a technical interview. I suggested a FizzBuzz type problem (among other things) and he was in a small state of disbelief that something so simple was a necessary question to ask. I reassured him that, yes, it was necessary, as I have seen people flounder on questions like these.

A solid answer to FizzBuzz is like a firm handshake when meeting your new boss or like opening the door for your date. It’s an introduction that sets a minimum bar and guarantees that neither the interviewer nor the candidate is wasting the other’s time.

subscribe to my mailing list