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A PhD computer scientist speaks out.

How a hedge fund interview coding problem "devastated" me

I have a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering with a specialization in pattern recognition and Technical Analysis Algorithms. Since earning that, I've worked in some of the world’s largest research laboratories.

I have taught computer science for the last 18 years. In that time I worked on algorithms for educational software on grants as large as $3 million and on Technical Analysis algorithms for financial companies.

As a minority (I am Black), I wanted to give back and let other minorities know that they too, can be engineers, programmers and attain higher degrees. I have created and teach, among other things, Software System Development and Object-Oriented Programming courses.

Recently I have wanted to branch out and have been looking for a financial company that could use someone with my experience and background. I applied to a top hedge fund and was thrilled to receive an email saying that they would be in touch. And, indeed a bit later I received an invitation to answer a couple of questions on a programming site.

Excitedly, I went to the site read the first problem. Not a complicated problem. I had the answer within a minute in my head. But, when I looked at the languages that they provided on the programming site, my favorite language, Mathematica, was not available.

The solution to the problem would have taken just a couple of lines of code in Mathematica. All the other languages that I knew (C,C++,C#) would have taken much more time.

I was devastated as I knew that it would take time to write the solution in C#. my other favorite language. So, I became flustered and decided to convert my Mathematica code to C#. This took some time, especially since the development environment provided by the website is nowhere near as powerful as Visual Studio, which I usually use.

It is as if you asked someone to go build something and provide them with a screwdriver, a hammer and a handsaw when that person is very adept at using an electric drill, a nail gun and an electric saw. Had they been given those tools, they would have done a fantastic job, but alas, given the poor alternatives, could not even really begin the work.

The loss to the hedge fund is that they never got a chance to talk to me to see how I approach problems and how I have solved difficult problems in the past and currently. They won't get to know the ideas that I have for proving whether technical analysis "works" or not. 

That's not to say I  consider myself a genius or anything like that, but I do know that I have a passion for writing algorithms that solve deep problems. In my teaching, I incorporate technical analysis into my system development courses as a way to provide my students with projects that are relevant, practical and fun.

It is quite possible that I still would not have met their high standards, but the point is that they sell themselves short by going about looking for potential employees in this way.

If you want to see how good someone is, give them a problem to solve and the best tools to do so. If they can’t solve the problem with the best available tools, then you have your answer. On the other hand, if they can’t solve the problem because you provided them with a bad set of tools, you really don’t know how good they can be.

Am I alone in this? Has anyone had the same problem? Let me know in the comments.

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AUTHORGus Rose Insider Comment
  • Ma
    9 hours ago

    Gus! Thank you very much for pointing that out. Yes this is true! And it is a complete waste of time if they give you a not so friendly tool. I understand the language part as sometimes they need someone with expertise in the programming language. However, If you are giving me algorithms, it should be the same logic across all programming languages. It is the same for an electrician or a plumber, do you give the tools or are they bringing they own tools to repair or build ? I would like to get in touch with you as I am looking for some advice from you. Can you DM?

  • ph
    23 hours ago

    How many such employers use that language? They probably don't. My brother used to program in APL; it was very 'short', but impossible for anyone other than the programmer to understand and maintain.

    Long ago I administered tests to would be employees at a NYC IB. We were not even language specific at that stage - we just wanted to see if junior programmers had basic competence - and, could follow instructions. Most couldn't.

    Perhaps the issue here is that as well educated as you are, you couldn't do, in a practical way, what they wanted. The collegiate world CAN be very poor at preparing people for real world work. I was lucky - my IT prof in the mid 1970's did the bulk of the programming for every state college in the system I was in. IOTW, he did, and taught, real world coding and analysis.

    Every time I read articles about programming today, there's a new flavor of the month. Yet in real life, the bulk of the code out there is in long lasting, 'basic' languages. And if I were hiring programmers today, I'd want ones well versed in both current heavily used languages and the classics.

  • Th
    That guy
    18 March 2023

    Given that it was an online tool, congratulations, you've failed initial screening!

    Many do, and that's the whole point of the screening. It might be a false negative, who knows? There are plenty of funds and tech companies around, and some may be more eager to talk in person on the first stage.

  • Aj
    18 March 2023

    They hired a PhD with similar profile who could solve the problem using C++ in 5 mins.

  • Ni
    18 March 2023

    This question is an easy one on leetcode. It should take 5 minutes with any language.

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