Javascript Developer Interview: Conway’s Game of Life with React.js and Redux

Conway’s Game of Life: Javascript, React.js, Redux

I was recently involved in an interview process that combined an in-person whiteboard interview and a take-home project. I’ve thought a lot about what makes a good software engineer interview process from both employer and employee perspectives. I liked this process for front-end UI Javascript roles, am writing it up as inspiration for hiring companies and as interview practice for candidates. I also discuss my own development process, the source code, and the demo.

The Conway’s Game of Life Interview Process

Conway’s Game of Life is a famous zero-player game where the player sets up and runs a cellular automaton according to a simple but carefully designed set of rules.

In-person whiteboard interview

Present the rules of the game. Optionally draw an example 3x3 grid and walk through a couple of steps of the game. Ample time should be taken to ensure the interviewee clearly understands the rules.

Ask the interviewee to implement on the whiteboard a function that takes a game board and returns the result of that board having been advanced by 1 step. Here you can use whatever language or pseudocode you want. It’s realistic to expect a software engineering candidate to come up with a working function. You may also wish to focus on design of data structures, algorithms, initial assumptions, scalability concerns, etc.

Take-home project

Ask the candidate to implement the game as a single-page web app. There are lots of variations on the specific requirements — e.g. you might ask the candidate to use a specific framework. Some ideas for requirements:

  • Play — cause the game to run automatically
  • Pause — cause the game to halt if running
  • Single-step — advance one step
  • Resize—modify board dimensions
  • Tick Speed — change the tick duration to speed up or slow down the running game
  • Initial board state — Ability to configure the initial board state

Note on take-home projects: Ideally candidates will be compensated for their work. The scope of this development effort can be constrained to what I believe to be a reasonable time commitment — say ~10 hours — for it to be a reasonable expense for the company or perhaps an acceptable imposition on the candidate it’s not done as a paid engagement.

My Implementation of Conway’s Game of Life

Tools, Libraries, and Languages

Design Decisions

  • I used a cartesian coordinate system with origin at top left. As I got into it I began to wish for a centered origin to allow the board to grow in a more balanced way without the top and left boundaries being more likely to be reached before the other two.
  • I’m using a brute-force “step” function to advance the board. I’d like to look into better algorithms like List Life or Hashlife.

Source code on Github

Demo

Why is this a good interview problem?

Conway’s game of life has two characteristics important to interview scenarios:

  • Layers of complexity — you can start simple with this problem, writing a brute-force “step” function in a few minutes. But the scenario gets more and more complex as you consider the problem — e.g. what happens at the edges of the board? How can you scale the algorithm to perform on boards with millions of cells? And there are also layers of complexity w/ respect to the UI as well as you move from basic functionality to adding features like the ability to add new live cells on the fly while the game is running.
  • Range of skills — full-stack web developers operate in a bunch of different technical areas: front-end state management, UI components/modularity, HTML, CSS, UI/UX design, algorithms, data structures, API design, etc. This problem lends itself to the candidate choosing to demonstrate relative strengths in each of these areas.
  • Fun — and of course it’s a great fundamental problem that’s captivated math enthusiasts for decades

Cross-posted from marksoper.me.