Dynamic Programming Interview Questions & Tips

By Tom Wagner and Dwight Gunning | Published: June 22, 2023

What is Dynamic Programming?

Dynamic programming is an optimization technique used to efficiently solve problems that are computationally complex. The key characteristic is the way dynamic programming breaks the overall problem into smaller, overlapping subproblems. Often the solutions to subproblems are stored and reused to avoid repeated work. In comparison with other approaches, this greatly improves the efficiency of the solution.

Companies That Ask Dynamic Programming Questions

A Practical Example: Determining the Nth Fibonacci Number

To quickly refresh your memory, the Fibonacci Sequence is a sequence of numbers in which every number is the sum of the two previous numbers:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, …

We should also restate that the Fibonacci sequence is known to start with 0, 1. This represents the "base case" which will be covered in more detail later on.

Now, looking from left-to-right, it is fairly easy to see that each number, along with its predecessor, is needed to determine the next in the sequence. Think of this as a “bottom-up” approach in that it begins with the first example and builds up to the desired solution.

Said another way, and this time looking from right-to-left, a given number in the sequence can be derived from the two previous numbers. Think of this as a "top-down" approach in that it begins with the desired solution and drills down toward the first example.

Regardless of which way you look at it, the computation can be formalized as F(n) = F(n-1) + F(n-2). This is known as a recurrence relation and is another important concept that we’ll get back to later.

Let’s now turn to some code and step through a simple top-down solution that makes use of recursion:

def fib(n):
    if n == 0:
        return 0
    if n == 1:
        return 1
    return fib(n - 1) + fib(n - 2)

Consider what happens when invoked as fib(5) to determine the fourth Fibonacci number.

N - 1 = 4 and N - 2 = 3 so this function makes recursive calls to return fib(4) + fib(3). Notice that the invocation of fib(4) will in turn make recursive calls fib(3) and fib(2). This highlights the overlapping subproblems and where work is being repeated. The function calls can also be represented as a tree to visualize and identify the repeated work:

An image showing the repeated work when solving nth Fibonacci recursively.

In the end, solving for the fifth Fibonacci number ends up solving for:

  • The fourth Fibonacci number once
  • The third number twice
  • The second number three times
  • The first number five times

This is where dynamic programming really shines as it helps avoid repeating work and provides a far more efficient solution.

Incorporating Memoization to Avoid Repeated Work

In the recursive algorithm for this problem the answer to fib(3) (and all other subproblems) is immediately discarded; what a waste!

Instead, we can utilize a hashmap to store the return value of fib(3) and later when the same subproblem comes up, the result can be quickly retrieved, with O(1) time complexity, instead of repeating it all over. Summing two numbers a handful of times for low values of N may not seem like a big deal, but as N gets subproblem repetition increases rapidly. This technique of caching the result of a function call, in order to avoid making the same call again in future, is known as memoization.

def topDownFib(n):
    dp = [0] * (n+1)
    return topDownFibHelper(n, dp)

def topDownFibHelper(n, dp):
    if n == 0 or n == 1:
        return n
    # If value is not set in cache, compute it
    if dp[n] == 0:
        dp[n] = topDownFibHelper(n-1, dp) + topDownFibHelper(n-2, dp)
    return dp[n]

Working Iteratively from the Bottom Up Using Tabulation

Similarly, this problem can be solved from the bottom up, calculating and storing each number in the sequence along the way. This style of storing and reusing results is known as “tabulation”.

def bottomUpFib(n):
    if n == 0:
        return 0
    # Initialize cache
    dp = [0] * (n+1)
    dp[1] = 1
    # Fill cache iteratively
    for i in range(2, n+1):
        dp[i] = dp[i-1] + dp[i-2]
    return dp[n]

Although an array can be used for tabulation when solving for Fibonacci (and in fact is excessive since at most 2 previous previous results are ever needed), it demonstrates a concept that often needs to be extended as far as using multi-dimensional arrays to solve more complex problems.

A Quick Recap on What We Learned via Fibonacci

After considering Fibonacci from different perspectives and seeing two contrasting approaches, we’ve now been introduced to all the core concepts associated with dynamic programming:

  1. Base cases and the sub-problems that give light to a recurrence relation
  2. Top-down approaches which typically involve recursion and memoization
  3. Bottom-up approaches that are usually iterative and use tabulation

Let’s move on to look at when and how to apply Dynamic programming in interviews.

Using Dynamic Programming in Interviews

Before getting to the more formal concepts that determine whether dynamic programming can be applied, let's look at some basic heuristics to use in an interview to determine whether to even consider dynamic programming.

Heuristics for Identifying Dynamic Programming Problems

The first heuristic comes from considering the problem statement. Does it ask for the min/max out of a set of possible options, the best/worst of a set of possible options, or perhaps the total number of options? This isn't confirmation that dynamic programming is suitable, or even that's the best approach, but it is a good signal that DP is worth exploring.

As always in a technical interview, it's good practice to discuss and work through one or two simple-ish examples. Doing so helps to clarify the interviewer's requirements and expectations, plus it provides test cases for later. While working through the examples you likely identified a brute-force approach. And in explaining how the brute force work leads to the result, did you find yourself mentioning that the more complex example "follows on from" or "makes use of" the simpler example? This is a second heuristic and it's a great indication that there are sub-problems and repeated work which means a dynamic programming approach could work well.

Does a programmatic solution involving recursion become apparent? Where does the recursion lead? Eventually it must "bottom out" and this is likely to be the base case. What are the branches or conditional paths that trigger recursive calls? They will likely form part of the recurrence relation. The availability of a recursive solution is a third heuristic you can look for.

With one or more of these heuristics present, you can be confident spending time and looking hard for a dynamic programming solution.

Optimal Substructure and Overlapping Subproblems

More formally, in order to apply dynamic programming to a problem two conditions must be present:

  1. Optimal substructure
  2. Overlapping subproblems

Optimal Substructure

Optimal substructure requires that you can solve a problem based on the solutions of subproblems. For example, if you want to calculate the 5th Fibonacci number, it can be solved by computing fib(5) = fib(4) + fib(3). It is not necessary to know any more information other than the solutions of those two subproblems in order to determine the solution.

A useful way to think about optimal substructure is whether a problem can be easily solved recursively. Recursive solutions inherently solve a problem by breaking it down into smaller subproblems. If you can solve a problem recursively, it most likely has an optimal substructure.

Overlapping Subproblems

Overlapping subproblems means that when you split your problem into subproblems, you sometimes get the same subproblem multiple times. With the Fibonacci example, if we want to compute fib(5), we need to compute fib(4) and fib(3). However, to compute fib(4), we need to compute fib(3) again. This is a wasted effort, since we’ve already computed the value of fib(3).

Dynamic programming relies on overlapping subproblems, and it uses memory to save the values that have already been computed to avoid computing them again. The more overlap there is, the more computational time is saved.

The FAST Method

FAST is an acronym that stands for Find the first solution, Analyze the solution, identify the Subproblems, and Turn around the solution.

It isn’t the only way to work through problems to reach a dynamic programming solution, but aims to be easy to remember and apply while being broadly applicable.

Let’s break down each of these steps.

Find the First Solution

The first step to solving any dynamic programming problem using The FAST Method is to find an initial brute force recursive solution. Solve the problem without concern for efficiency, just as a starting point. Though there are a couple of constraints on how this brute force solution should look:

  • Recursive functions should be self-contained. Storing results by updating global variables may make it impossible to introduce memoization later on. Craft a function that is solely dependent on its parameters and not affected by outside factors.

  • Avoid unnecessary recursive function arguments. Subproblem results will eventually be memoized based on the arguments; the fewer the better.

Analyze the First Solution

Analyze the initial brute force solution. This involves determining the time and space complexity and determining if there are any obvious areas for improvement.

As part of the analytical process, confirm that the first solution fits the rules for problems with Dynamic programming solutions:

  • Does it have an optimal substructure?
  • Are there overlapping subproblems?

Subproblem Identification

If there is indeed a Dynamic programming solution, the appropriate subproblems can now be identified and coded. Apply memoization to avoid unnecessary repeated work. At this point the problem is solved with a top-down solution that likely exhibits optimal complexity and no does not repeat any work.

Turn the Solution Around

Since we understand the problem well, we can go further. This involves coding the alternate bottom-up approach that iteratively computes and uses tabulation to store the results of successive subproblems, until the overall solution is reached. Turning the solution to bottom-up is generally desired as it avoids pitfalls associated with recursion and the call stack.

Deciding on Top-down/Memoization vs. Bottom-up/Tabulation

In an interview, the choice of top-down or bottom-up approaches should be balanced with other factors beyond performance: How easily can the bottom-up solution be coded, is it as easily reasoned about and discussed with the interviewer? Which approach are you most comfortable with? That may be the most important factor of all!

Common Mistakes in Interviews Featuring Dynamic Programming

  1. Jumping too quickly to conclude dynamic programming is necessary. When you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If the problem doesn’t require an optimal solution but rather any correct solution, a greedy approach will likely be simpler to identify and implement.

  2. Conversely, looking too hard for a greedy solution and failing to recognize a dynamic programming problem. A way to determine which solution is more appropriate is to know whether a sub-solution helps lead to the final solution. If a sub-solution (a solution with a part of the input) helps, then dynamic programming is probably the way to go!

  3. Failing to identify how to break the problem into subproblems so that the recurrence relation and base case(s) become clear. When you have a strong intuition (or have been told) that a problem needs a Dynamic programming solution, this is the major challenge. Reviewing plenty of questions and gaining practice is essential.

  4. Struggling to define and work with a suitable result matrix. Many problems (such as Longest Common Subsequence) involve two- or multi-dimensional arrays to store sub-problem results. These can be difficult to conceive and may be tricky to work with in code. Again it’s all about practice.

Diagramming a multi-dimenisional array used for tabulation.

  1. Lack of clarity in communicating your dynamic programming logic. Visualizations can help a great deal here. As we’ve seen in this article, sketching a recursive tree or a matrix table can be helpful tools to gain shared understanding with your interviewer.

What to Say in Interviews to Show Mastery Over Dynamic Programming

  • Articulate why dynamic programming is applicable (overlapping subproblems and optimal substructure) for a given problem
  • Refer to the recurrence relation and base case(s). Reason about and justify that the subproblem dependencies are acyclic.
  • Discuss and ask the interviewer if they have a preference when it comes to the tradeoffs between top-down (recursive) and bottom-up approaches.

Common Dynamic Programming Interview Questions

Data Structures and Algorithms

Alien Dictionary

You are given a list of lexicographically sorted words from an alien language. This language has a unique order. Return the alphabetical order of all the letters found in the list of words.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Longest Common Subsequence

Given two strings, return the longest common subsequence between the two strings.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Partition to K Equal Sum Subsets

Given an integer array nums and an integer k, return true if it is possible to divide this array into k non-empty subsets whose sums are all equal.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Longest Increasing Path in a Matrix

Given an m x n integers matrix, return the length of the longest increasing path in the matrix. You may only move up, down, left, or right.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Maximum Subarray

Given an integer array nums, find the subarray with the largest sum, and return its sum.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Partition Equal Subset Sum

Given an array of positive numbers, determine if the array can be split such that the two partition sums are equal.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Regular Expression Matching

Given an input string (s) and a pattern (p), implement regular expression matching with support for '.' and '*'. '.' Matches any single character. '*' Matches zero or more of the preceding element.

Data Structures and Algorithms

Minimum Cost to Construct String

Given a 2-D integer array mapping the letters ABCD and their costs. Calculate the smallest cost to make a string of length n.

Adjacent Topics to Dynamic Programming

About the Authors

Author avatar
Tom Wagner

Tom has four years of experience developing software professionally, including experience at both Amazon and Pinterest. He is experienced both as an interviewer, conducting interviews on behalf of the companies he's worked for, and interviewee, as he has landed software engineering offers from Google, Twitter, Stripe, Airtable and Doordash during previous job searches.

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