How to Hack a Data Science Interview: Part I

How to Hack a Data Science Interview: Part I

Posted by Alex Baransky

Updated: Dec 5, 2018



The interview process can be very intimidating. However, interviews are a necessary step on the road to starting a new job. In particular, those applying for technical positions must rigorously prepare. There is no alternative to learning and practicing the material, but there are certain ways you should present yourself that will enable the interviewer to see you as an ideal fit for the position. This approach is key to making sure you land that perfect job.

This series of posts aims to help aspiring data scientists take their first steps on the path to mastering the interview process. How can you identify the best way to answer an interview question? What does the interviewer want to hear? What doesn’t the interviewer want to hear? These and more are vital questions that, when approached correctly, can lead to a prompt job offer.

In this first chapter, we will investigate the goal of an interview and discuss how to identify different types of interview questions. The next parts will expose you to different behavioral and technical questions that you can practice on to prepare strong answers for future interviews.

What Is the Goal of an Interview?

Before we begin dissecting interview questions and techniques, we first need to have a solid understanding of the purpose of an interview. An interview is designed to test whether or not a candidate is a good fit for a position. There are many different aspects to consider when determining candidate fitness. For example, when applying for a data science position these could include:

  • Technical Skill - How proficient are you at the techniques used in data science? How solid are your coding skills? Problem solving can also fall into this category.
  • Social Fluency - How capable are you of interacting with other people? This includes daily interactions but also includes things like conflict resolution and expressing disagreement in a professional manner.
  • Cultural Fit - Do your values align with the values of the company? Would you be happy working in the environment the company has created, and would the company be happy having you?

Most, if not all, interview questions can be categorized into one of the above three topics. A good first step in preparing for an interview is to make sure you know which questions belong to which category. Technical questions can be easy to distinguish from behavioral (social) and cultural questions. However, it can sometimes be important to distinguish between behavioral and cultural questions. Let’s consider this example:

You are applying for a data scientist position at a startup. You have researched the company and found that they put a strong emphasis on employee integrity. The company also prefers it when project teams are very close-knit so that members have a strong sense of trust between them. An interviewer asks “What would you do if you found out one of your team members has been taking home some of the company’s small office supplies?”

In this scenario, your coworker is clearly doing something wrong, but you don’t want to come off as someone who wants to get your coworkers in trouble and jumps at any opportunity to alert the supervisor. Is this question behavioral or cultural? You may be tempted to answer by saying you would talk privately with your coworker to curb the bad behavior. This seems like what someone on a close team should do for a fellow team member. However, taking this route would be going over your supervisor’s head. Most companies value employees with integrity so it is very common to find this attribute listed somewhere on their website. Instead, answer the question this way:

“I know that [company X] puts a large emphasis on the integrity of their employees. The coworker in question may be a member of my team, but if his or her values do not align with the company’s they may not be the correct person for the job. I would let my supervisor know about the situation so that he or she can make a decision that is best for the future of the company.”

Hopefully you can see how this is a cultural question. The interviewer wants to hear that you know the company’s values and that you are aware of and willing to take the steps to do what’s best for the future of the company. If you answer this question by saying you would talk privately with the coworker, you may come off as untrustworthy and thus would not be a good fit for the company. As you can see, it is imperative that you understand what the interviewer is really asking so that you know how to answer appropriately.

Stay Tuned for Part II

Now that we have a basic understanding of the goal of an interview and have identified that knowing how to interpret the question is as important as the answer itself we should explore some common interview questions. Check out Part II of this blog which will dive into some real interview questions and discuss how to answer them best!

Alex Baransky

Alex graduated from Columbia University with training in natural and technical sciences. He enjoys finding ways to utilize data science to answer questions efficiently and to improve the interpretability of results. Alex takes pride in his ability to simplify and communicate complex concepts.

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