“The thing about coding tests is…”: A review of AlgoExpert

Chronicles of Chris
6 min readJan 9, 2021

The Stats

Feelings

  • Before: Bad
  • During: Good
  • After: Bad

Time

  • Expected: 1 month
  • Actual: 1 month

Imposter Syndrome Check: Negative

The Background

Anyone setting out on their journey to become more than jut a hobby coder has to eventually face the dreaded coding interview or pre-interview coding challenge. Hell, even the fully fledged pros have to do them when they switch companies. Is seems that, unless you’re a well-known bigwig in the world of programming, unless you have a gang of fanboys and groupies, and unless you have 15 years in experience in a 5 year-old technology, you gotta prove yourself to a prospective employer.

Now, I’ve spent the better past of the last year drilling code into my brain. I’ve made a bunch of websites, from coding for clients to cute little projects. But I’m not what you’d call “naturally logical”. I’m no dunce, but I also once bought two one way tickets and naturally presumed that, as they were the same price, they’d be good for a return journey. This is the exact kind of presumptive thinking that the coding test zooms in on and punishes you for.

Pretty stupid to make your “O” look like a “C”, if you ask me…

To try to resolve this skill gap before diving head first into full-time job applying, I turned to AlgoExpert.

I also did my first coding test today

The Feeling

Using AlgoExpert feels warm and fuzzy. It feels like a real grown up is holding your hand and walking you across a busy road, and you know you’ll be fine if you just stick with them.

That, however, is a false sense of security. My main issue with AlgoExpert is that it’s reductive, and over simplifies the interview process.

After having done and actual, bona fide, in-the-wild test, I can’t help but feel a little buyer’s remorse. I thought I was on a great track — and perhaps that’s because I drank the AlgoExpert Kool-Aid — but crossing that road without your designated adult is a torrid affair; it turns out coding challenges aren’t quite as clear cut as Clement, creator and lead narrator on the explanation videos, makes out. Which, all in all, left me feeling unsure of myself and a little bitter.

The Review

So you wanna be a software engineer at Google?

I assume you’ve all had that YouTube ad at least a dozen times by now, right? I’m not so sure AlgoExpert can get you there. I have been doing AlgoExpert religiously for a month and have really enjoyed the series of “ohhhhh that’s brilliant” moments the explanations have given me, followed by diligently logging the solutions in a Google doc I’m maintaining. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed seeing my thought processes develop, and being able to tackle logic problems that I wouldn’t have been able to hack a month ago.

What’s more, the breadth of knowledge on the platform really is impressive. I shelled out a few extra bucks to also get SystemsExpert in a package deal. That, coupled with the data structures course they provide as standard, plus all the coding questions (115 at time of writing, and 5 of those were added in the last month alone), and you’ve got quite a library of need-to-knows for your job search.

They even have behavioural tips and a mock interview function where you get paired with another user and role play as both interviewer and interviewee.

It feels comprehensive.

So you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s everything you need to know to land that software engineer role. Their marketing would certainly have you think that way.

The truth is, the interview process is a lot more nuanced than that.

I’ve actually had two coding challenges for potential jobs. The one I’ve already mentioned was the coding test you’re required to complete before activating your profile on HoneyPot. For those of you who don’t know, HoneyPot is a website where you place all your info and then employers are encouraged to reach out to you, rather than the other way around. There are other websites out there with similar concepts, but HoneyPot is the most well known. (side note: I also applied to be placed on OfferZen but was rejected, which quickly set off my imposter syndrome). The test itself was hosted on HackerRank, where you can practice as much as you like before jumping into the lion’s den and putting your entire future on the line.

At least that’s how I felt to me.

If I can’t pass this, will I ever have what it takes to become a programmer?

The test was awful. Awful. I bought. a whiteboard to give myself room the think (and to look like a teacher’s pet in a live interview) and it did nothing to help me. I started so calmly, going through some of the thought processes and methods AlgoExpert had taught me, but they quickly abandoned me not two minutes into the test. Before long I was just throwing code at the screen.

The test consisted of two questions, each of which were supposed to take 45 minutes. I was given two classics: balance parentheses and meandering array. I went in bubbling with confidence and came out a broken man. A failure, a charlatan, a joke. 4/9 tests past on the first, 13/15 on the second. Whichever way you cut it, that’s not enough. I’m not enough.

To add insult to injury, my previous coding challenge had been to recreate the following website as faithfully as possible:

The video I received from the hiring company

Upon viewing that video for the first time, my instinctive thoughts were: I don’t know how to do sliding pictures, I don’t know how to make a smoke effect, I don’t know how to make text slide in from no where, I don’t know how to make the monk bobble in like that, and AlgoExpert did not prepare me for this.

I introduced some hacky workarounds like using the JavaScript scrollBy method to move the user into the right position on the image, tried tinkering with some smoke effect npm packages, and use all of my CSS animation mana to try to get some semblance of sliding text on the go. I did manage to learn some new things and pulled off some of the hacky workarounds, but all in all I was feeling thoroughly inadequate.

Suffice it to say, I was shocked when I was called back after each of the challenges. I’ll be interviewing next week.

AlgoExpert’s greatest flaw is that it is so sanitised, so clinical, and so insulating. It shields you from the real world and the real danger of the busy road. Even the AlgoExpert IDE is too polished. The HackerRank UI was shit. hated it. That could be somewhat because I’m just so used to AlgoExpert’s UI after cramming 30 questions in a month, but even CodeWars has a better UI than HackerRank imo. I couldn’t get my head around the console, and eventually found it at the bottom of a long series of seemingly irrelevant errors that were to do with a bunch of hidden HackerRank code.

Besides the false sense of security, AlgoExpert lulls you into a a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking. I passed HoneyPot’s exam even though I failed a bunch of tests, and I remember getting 45% on a test in my coding bootcamp and having my instructors explain that actually it’s about far more than the raw score. I passed the website recreation challenge even though the site wasn’t an exact match for the video they’d sent me. Far from it, in fact.

The thing about coding tests is that they’re about the score, of course, but also about the cleanliness of your code, your chosen methodology, your thought process, your communication skills, your naming conventions, and so much more. AlgoExpert ignores a lot of that nuance, and tells you: “If you do exactly this, you will win. Else, you will lose.”

I wouldn’t say I regret buying it. The biggest criticism I’ve seen out there is that AlgoExpert has nothing new, and that it’s just a knowledge aggregator. Which, frankly, is worth the money in order to have that peace of mind. I’ve learned a lot; the systems design and data structures fundamentals content in particular were real bonuses. But I would only recommend it to you if you can spare the cash and will be happy for the lessons learned even if you don’t land yourself a job.

If you’re hoping AlgoExpert will be your lifeline, you are in for a rough time. The peace of mind they’re selling is, ultimately, their undoing.

--

--