Math for Technical Interviews

How much math do I need to know for technical interviews?

The short answer is about high school-level math.

Computer science is often associated with math, and some universities even place their computer science department under the math faculty. However, the reality is that you usually only need high school math for most of the software engineering interviews and day-to-day software engineering jobs.

But I have seen xxx question on LeetCode that needs yyy math trick

LeetCode has 2000+ questions, mainly user submitted. Having a particular question in the vast question bank doesn't mean very much. What really matters is whether the question is asked in an actual interview. If you look at the top questions companies ask, the questions that require advanced math tricks or knowledge are rarely asked. Questions that require knowing a particular math trick or fact are a knowledge test, and interviews are supposed to test your coding and problem-solving skills, not specific math knowledge.

What if I'm so unlucky that I got asked a tricky math question?

At most companies, candidates' performance ratings are reviewed by engineers other than the interviewers. And if a question is considered too difficult or off-topic, that round will be considered to carry less significance and assigned less weight in the final decision. So don't sweat about not knowing advanced math.

What if I don't even remember high school math?

You can learn it in one hour. Let's go through them now!

Logarithmic

Logarithmic functions (log) are the inverses of exponential functions.

In computer science, log is base 2, because computers use binary numbers. Everything in a computer is store as 0's and 1's. This is different from other sciences, where 10 is the most common base.

Exponential:

2^2 = 2 * 2 = 4

2^3 = 2 * 2 * 2 = 8

2^4 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 = 16

The question log(x) answers is: how many 2 do we need to multiply to get x?

log(8) = 3 we need to multiply three 2s, 2 * 2 * 2 to get 8

log(16) = 4 we need to multiply four 2s, 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 to get 16

Another way to phrase it is: how many times can we divide x by 2 until we get to 1? 8/2/2/2 = 1 we have to divide 8 by 2 three times to get to 1, so log(8) = 3.

16/2/2/2/2 = 1 we have to divide 16 by 2 four times to get to 1, so log(16) = 4.

Why is log important?

We sometimes want to reduce the problem size by half in computer algorithms. For example,

  • in binary search, we cut the search range by (about) half each time. The time complexity is log(n).
  • in a full binary tree with n nodes, where each node except the leaves has two children, the tree's height is log(n).
  • and many other algorithms like merge sort, heap etc. We will look at them in the future sections.

Permutations and factorial

A set is a group of things (called “elements”). There is no order between elements within a set. For example, (a, b).

A permutation of a set is an arrangement of elements in the set into a sequence. The order does matter for permutations since a sequence has an order. Two sequences with the same elements but different ordering are considered different permutations. For example, a permutation of the set (a, b) is [a, b], and the other is [b, a].

The following figure shows all the permutations of (a, b, c).

Counting permutations

To create a permutation, we have 3 choices for the first letter. The tree has three branches on the first level. After choosing our first letter, we have 2 letters left to choose from for our second letter. The tree has two branches on the second level. Finally, we have only 1 letter left for our third letter. The total number of permutations is 3 * 2 * 1 = 6.

The number of permutations for a set of size n is n * (n-1) * (n-2)... 1. This is called factorial of n, denoted by n!. For example, 5! = 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 = 120. This means there are 120 ways to arrange 5 letters in a row.

Subsets

We call set B a subset of set A if every element in B is also found in A. For example, (1, 3, 9) is a subset of (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9).

Counting subsets

How many subsets does a set have? Well, for each element, we can either choose to include it or not. Thus, for each element, there are 2 options. That means for n elements, we have 2 * 2 * ... * 2 (n times) options, equal to 2^n.

Here's a figure to illustrate this. Imagine we have switches that can be on or off. If we have only one switch, then there can be 2^1 = 2 states. Two switches can have 2^2 = 4 states. Three switches can have 2^3 = 8 states.

Subsets

Subsets

Arithmetic sequence

An arithmetic sequence is a sequence of numbers such that the difference between the consecutive terms is constant. For example,

1 2 3 4 5 is an arithmetic sequence because the difference between consecutive numbers is 1.

1 3 5 7 9 is an arithmetic sequence because the difference between consecutive numbers is 2.

1 2 4 is NOT an arithmetic sequence because 2-1=1 but 4-2=2.

Sum of an arithmetic sequence

The sum of an arithmetic sequence is (first_element + last_element) * number_of_element / 2. Here's the animated proof form Wikipedia if you are interested.

For example:

sum([1,2,3,4,5]) = (1 + 5) * 5 / 2 = 15

sum([1,3,5,7,9]) = (1 + 9) * 5 / 2 = 25

Because last_element = first_element + difference * (number_of_element - 1) , the sum can be expressed as (2 * first_element + difference * (number_of_elements - 1)) * number_of_elements). In big O complexity analysis, we drop the constant terms (first_element, diffence and -1), so this really becomes O(n^2).

When is arithmetic sequence useful [for my interviews]?

It's sometimes useful for nested loop complexity analysis.

Consider the code below:

1n = 10
2for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
3  for (j = 0; j <= i; j++) {
4    doSomething();
5  }
6}

How many times does doSomething() run?

It runs 1 time when i=0

It runs 2 times when i=1

It runs 10 times when i=9

This is an arithmetic sequence and the total run time is O(n^2).

Geometric sequence

Similar to arithmetic sequence, a geometric sequence is a sequence of numbers such that the ratio between the consecutive terms is constant. For example,

1 2 4 8 16 is a geometric sequence because the ratio between consecutive numbers is 2.

1 3 9 27 81 is a geometric sequence because the ratio between consecutive numbers is 3.

1 2 6 is NOT a geometric sequence because 2/1=2 but 6/2=3.

The sum of a geometric sequence is first_element * (1 - ratio^number_of_elements) / (1 - ratio).

Geometric sequence is useful in counting the number of nodes in a perfect binary tree. We will cover it in the Everything about trees section.

Modular Arithmetic

Modular arithmetic is a system of integers that “wrap around” when reaching a certain value, called the modulus. If this sounds weird, one example of modular arithmetic you are likely to encounter daily is the clock system.

On a clock, there are 12 hours. With a 24hr system, for each hour greater than 12, we subtract 12 to convert to a 12hr based system. E.g. 15h = 15-12 = 3 o'clock. In math jargon, 15 and 3 are called congruent modulo 12.

In computer programming, % is often used as the modulo symbol in most programming languages.

15 % 12 = 3

This reads 15 MOD 12 is 3.

How to calculate MOD

The rule to calculate x % y is:

  1. if x < y, return x
  2. else subtract y from x until x < y
1function mod(x, y) {
2  while (x >= y) {
3    x -= y
4  }
5  return x
6}

For example,

3 % 12 = 3 because 1) above applies.

32 % 12: 32 is greater than 12, so we subtract 12 from it 32-12=20, 20 is still greater than 12, we subtract 12 again and get 8; therefore, we return 8.

The interesting MOD property often used in interview questions is its distributivity:

(a + b) MOD c = ((a MOD c) + (b MOD c)) MOD c

i.e. (the sum of a series of integers) MOD c equals to (the sum of each integer MOD c) MOD c

For example

(13 + 2) MOD 12 = 15 MOD 12 = 3

= ((13 MOD 12) + (2 MOD 12)) MOD 12 = (1 + 2) MOD 12 = 3

When is MOD useful?

The keyword that should trigger you to think about mod is divisible. Consider this problem:

Given an array of integers, find the two integers whose sum is divisible by 60.

E.g. [30, 20, 150, 110, 200].

x divisible by 60 is equivalent to x % 60 == 0.

MOD is distributive, so (a + b) % 60 == 0is equivalent to (a % 60 + b % 60) % 60 == 0.

We can %60 on every number in the array and get [30, 20, 30, 50, 20] and now we can see 30 + 30 = 60. So the two integers whose sum is divisible by 60 are 30 and 150.

That's it, folks/mates/comrades! That's pretty much all the math you need to know. You are now ready to dive into algorithms and data structures.


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