Interviewing as a Front-End Engineer in San Francisco

Published by Guest Author

The following is a guest post by Philip Walton (@philwalton). Philip recently went through a slew of interviews for front-end jobs at tech companies in the Bay Area and found them to be not what he expected.

A few months ago I started casually looking for front-end gigs in the San Francisco Bay Area. I liked my current job, but I felt I was outgrowing the tech scene in my town. I wanted to leave my small pond and see how I'd fare in a big one, with some of the best developers in the world.

When I started looking I knew I wanted to work at a place where I wouldn't be the expert, so I only applied to big name companies. The whole experience ended up being quite valuable, and through it I got a chance to meet some of my heroes and visit the offices of some of my favorite companies.

But it wasn't all good. In fact, after looking back on the process I can't help but feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with the way tech companies interview their front-end candidates.

Before continuing, I want to offer this disclaimer. Parts of this article are going to be critical, so I think it would be best to keep the names of these companies anonymous. After all, who they are is not relevant to my overriding point.

The only details I will share is that I applied to and had phone interviews with six companies, four of which invited me to interview on-site. In total I had 23 different interviews, all of them technical.

The other thing worth mentioning is that these were all well-known companies. Companies I'm 100% sure you've all heard of, and I mention that not to brag, but to suggest that since they're the ones who set the bar where it is, the experiences I had were probably pretty close to the norm.

My Experience

Overall, my experience was quite good. Some of these companies have a reputation for their excruciating interviews, but what I went through was not nearly as bad as the stories I'd heard. Everyone was nice, everyone was professional, and if I didn't know the answer to something, I never felt belittled. Most of the time it just seemed like a simple conversation about technology between two people discussing the best way to solve a problem.

But there was something obvious missing: front-end specific questions!

Now, I'm no interviewing expert. And I'm sure most hiring managers would disagree over how to best measure the effectiveness of any particular set of interview questions. But one thing I'm sure everyone can agree upon is that the questions you ask should be questions that will be best answered by the most qualified people for the job.

To put that another way, if a talented computer science grad, fresh out of college, with almost no front-end experience can outshine a great front-end engineer in your interview, you're probably asking the wrong questions.

This basically sums up my criticism. The overwhelming majority of my interview questions were logical puzzles, generic coding challenges, and algorithm design problems — things that are necessary but nowhere near sufficient.

What Was Missing

I know several people who do a lot of interviewing, and I hear the same line from them over and over: I'd rather hire a smart person and teach them X then hire someone who knows everything about X but lacks creativity, logic, and reasoning.

I get that. The problem is that front-end development is a domain specific skill set. It's not just about mental ability, it's also about knowledge and experience.

Front-end engineers, at their most basic level, are developers who write code that runs on the user's browser. Today that means someone who writes HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and knows the various APIs that browsers expose. The difference between the general term "programmer" and specific term "front-end engineer" is simply the domain where one's knowledge exists. A superstar front-end engineer is probably also a superstar programmer, but the reverse is not necessarily the case (often not).

If you agree with what I've just said, then you can understand my surprise at the absence of some of the following topics from all 23 of my interviews:

  • I wasn't asked a single question about new or upcoming HTML APIs.
  • I wasn't asked a single question about the differences between various browsers and browser versions or how to target/deal with those differences.
  • I wasn't asked a single question about the differences between desktop and mobile browsers or about techniques for building webapps to run on both.
  • I was asked just one CSS question (just one!), and it was "tell me the difference between inline and block", a question that even most non-front-end people know.
  • I was only asked one question that had anything to do with the DOM, DOM events, or event binding.

What I was asked is a lot of questions like these:

  • Write a function that takes two sorted lists of numbers and merges them into a single sorted list.
  • Given an array of integers (positive or negative) find the sub-array with the largest sum.
  • Determine if a given string is a palindrome.
  • Given a large hash table whose keys are movie names and whose values are a list of actors in those movies, write a function to determine the Bacon number of a particular actor.

Again, I don't want to imply that there isn't value in asking these questions. The problem is they have nothing to do with front-end development. As I said before, most smart developers with a strong computer science background could answer all of these, even if they'd never built a website.

So What's Going On?

I'm sure part of the problem is the newness of the need for front-end only positions as well as the term "front-end engineer" itself. It's not a well-defined term and could mean very different things depending on who was using it. I'm willing to admit the possibility that my idea of a front-end role is different from those who were posting the job, but I suspect there's more to it than that.

Another likely causes is that the majority of my interviewers were not themselves front-end engineers. They were senior team members, hiring managers, VPs, founders, etc, but they were usually not front-end engineers. As a result, they stuck to what they knew, and they asked the same questions they always ask.

My Suggestions

Given my recent experience, I want to offer the following advice to anyone reading who might be interviewing a front-end engineer in the near future.

  • Front-end candidates should be interviewed by at least one front-end team member (preferably more). If you don't have a front-end team member, find someone you know and trust and ask them to do it.
  • Obviously topics like logic and algorithms are important, especially for certain companies, but if you're interviewing for a front-end position, a substantial portion of the questions should focus on the front-end.
  • If you really want to ask questions about logic and algorithms, figure out a way to do so that combines your questions with front-end specific knowledge.

To illustrate that last point, instead of asking about the complexity of merge sort, ask about the complexity of this jQuery expression:

$("#nav a")
  .addClass("link")
  .attr("data-initialized", true)
  .on("click", doSomething)

A correct answer to this will demonstrate both an understanding of basic computer science principles as well as a deeper knowledge of what jQuery is doing behind the scenes.

Instead of asking someone to write a function that adds two dates, have them build a simple calendar widget to go along with it.

Instead of quizzing them on CSS trivia, give them two paragraphs of text and see how many ways they can think of to arrange them side-by-side as columns. Then ask them to describe the pros and cons of each method.

Finally, good front-end engineers tend to be very self-motivated. Since browser technologies aren't usually taught in schools, most front-end engineers learned this stuff on their own. So instead of asking them what they know (which is of limited value), ask them how they stay current, and how they keep from falling behind. What are they doing to make sure they'll be better in a year than they are today?

Conclusion

Interviewing is a tricky thing, and even some of the most innovative companies get it wrong sometimes. And interviewing for a front-end position can be even harder because of the ambiguity of the term and the range of expectations that come with it.

The impression I got from many of my interviewers was that most of these companies have only recently begun to realize the importance of dedicated front-end people. Their front-end code bases are starting to get massive and really hard to manage. And part of the problem is the people who manage them aren't well versed in front-end best-practices.

If you're looking to hire a front-end candidate, consider reexamining your interview process. If you're doing some of the things mentioned in this article, you may very well be missing out on some great people.

If you're looking for a job as a front-end engineer, you couldn't be looking at a better time, but if my experience is any indication, I would suggest brushing up on some of your computer science fundamentals. One resource I highly recommend is the MIT Open Courseware lecture series, specifically Introduction to Algorithms.

Lastly, I hope this article isn't just seen as a rant by someone who didn't like his interview questions. That is certainly not my intent. My hope is that I can do my part in raising the bar for front-end work in our industry. And I believe one of the best ways to make that happen is to help companies hire the right people for these jobs.