Stranded with a C++ compiler and a bunch of queues

A friend had a phone interview for a job in a company that I won’t name - It’s Microsoft. One of the questions was about describing how he would write a stack, only using standard queues.

I was confounded, because long before an algorithm could form in my mind, I already decided that there was no solution that would actually be useful in any real life scenario.

That the only solution I could find; To be honest, I was too lazy to come up with the algorithm myself, but it’s really straight forward.

It has O(n) complexity, and… let’s just say it does not really scale.

But, it’s quite an interesting algorithm nonetheless. See, for a huge company to ask this question to every candidate, I can only assume one former employee found themselves stranded on an island, with a bunch of queues. Their survival depended on having a stack, they failed to come up with the proper solution and died.

It’s the only explanation that make sense to me; The other explanation would be that large companies ask really stupid & meaningless interview questions, and, well… that’s just silly.

Then, my friend told me the next question was about creating a queue using stacks.

Sure, why not ?

My friend and I debated about the complexity of this algorithm. I explained to him it was n². If our hero was stranded on an island, they could not have standard stacks shipped their way by amazon, and would have had to use what they had: a stack made of queues.

Of course, our unfortunate hero had a stock of standard queues to begin with, but maybe hey could’t use them, for some reason. After all, he didn’t invent them himself so it was better to rewrite them anyway.

template <typename T> using MyQueue = queue<T, stack<T>>;

By that point, the poor cast away recognize a knife would have been more useful than a standard container and they realized their death was nothing but certain.

And, as the hunger and their impending doom lead to dementia, they started to wonder… can we go deeper ?

After all, it is good practice to have good, solid foundations, and a bit of judiciously placed redundancy never hurts.

template <typename T> using MyQueue = queue<T, stack<T, queue<T, stack<T, std::queue<T>>>>>
A tree representation of a stack based queue.

The structure has the property of being self-tested and grows exponentially more robust at the rate of 2^n which could prove very useful for critical applications. We can however lament that 4 levels is a bit arbitrary and limited.

Fortunately, I made the assumption that our hero, has with them a C++ compiler. That may be a depressing consideration when you haven’t drink for 3 days, but, isn’t meta programming fantastic ?

After a bit a tinkering, cursing and recursing, it is possible to create a queue of stacks - or a stack of queue - of arbitrary depth.

They are pretty cool and easy to use:

inception::stack<int, 13> stack;
inception::queue<int, 13> stack;

On the system it was tested with, N=13 was sadly the maximum possible value for which the program would not crash at runtime - The deepest level consists of 8192 queues. The compiler was unable to compile a program for N > 47. At that point the generated executable weighted merely 240MB

I expect these issues to be resolved as the present solution - for which a Microsoft employee probably gave their life - gains in popularity. However, for N > 200, the author reckon than the invention of hardware able to withstand the heat death of the universe is necessary.

You may be wondering if you should use those containers in your next application ? Definitively ! Here are some suggestions.

  • An internet enabled toaster : A sufficiently big value of N should let you use the CPU as the sole heating element leading to a to a slimmer and more streamlined design, as well as reducing manufacturing costs.
  • In an authentication layer, as the system has a natural protection against brute force attacks. N should be at least inversely proportional to the minimum entropy of your stupid password creation rules. The presented solution is however not sufficient to prevent Ddos
  • Everywhere you wondered if you should use a vector but used a linked list instead.

Please stop asking stupid interview questions.