Don't Mind the Leetcode Grind

Leetcode is a polarizing topic when it comes to technical interviews. But what exactly is it? And does it deserve your attention?

What Is Leetcode?

The “grind” bit aside, Leetcode is just a platform where you can solve programming puzzles of varying difficulty that cover a wide range of data structures and algorithms (DSA) topics, like trees, dynamic programming, linked lists, string manipulation, and much more. Many of these problems require that you find an optimal solution, in terms of time or space complexity (or both).

Leetcode has a list of DSA problems that you can solve

Used generally, the term “Leetcode” (or, in its verb form, to Leetcode) doesn’t necessarily refer to that particular platform. Rather, it refers to a range of platforms—including Hackerrank, Geeksforgeeks, CodeChef, and more—that are meant to help you practice solving technical interview problems and coding puzzles.

The Self-Imposed Leetcode “Grind”

In principle, Leetcode seems pretty harmless, right?

Unfortunately, most of the tech industry has adopted Leetcode as its unofficial method of standardized testing: a way to weed out those who can’t solve an unfamiliar problem on a whiteboard, without Googling and without enlisting help from their co-workers. Because, as we all know, these skills are irrelevant in the workplace.

Due to how frequently these types of questions are asked during technical interviews, certain online circles—especially subreddits like r/cscareerquestions—have come to develop an almost religious obsession with the so-called “Leetcode grind.” It’s way of life wherein you devote a majority of your time to cranking out Leetcode or Hackerrank problems in preparation for technical interviews at FAANGs: the Facebooks, Amazons, Apples, Netflixes, and Googles of the tech world.

Reddit is obssessed with the Leetcode grind

And like any obsession, the Leetcode grind is nothing short of unhealthy.

The Leetcode Experience

You’ve never truly experienced Leetcode unless this sounds familiar:

  1. Decide that you’re going to finally tackle Leetcode.
  2. Get stuck on an Easy problem.
  3. Give up 10 minutes in and look at the solution.
  4. Fail to understand said solution.
  5. Google “Leetcode sucks” and read some encouraging rants on Reddit.
  6. Revisit step 1 about a month later.

And yet, it’s not exactly healthy when you think about it—not any healthier than the actual “grind” mentality itself.

The Truth About Leetcode

I’m not a fan of Leetcode. Poorly worded problems frustrate me. Obscure solutions and math tricks practically get my blood boiling. Who cares? When will I ever use any of this?

Everyone’s felt like this at some point. Remember when you and other students used to complain about learning certain subjects in school that weren’t related to your interests? It’s frustrating, sure, but it’s also a necessary evil. The point of most academic programs isn’t to teach you how to become a specialist—it’s to expose you to a variety of disciplines and problems.

As much as I hate it, I have to admit that Leetcode isn’t inherently evil or bad. It can be healthy in moderation because there’s nothing wrong with practicing your problem-solving and optimization skills or learning new ways to approach unfamiliar problems. What is unhealthy is the Leetcode grind.

And honestly, at the end of the day, Leetcode is just one piece of the puzzle.

An Interview Is More Than Just Leetcode

Want to ace tech interviews? Good luck doing that if you’ve tunnel-visioned into the Leetcode grind. What about these other important areas?

  1. Polishing your resume.
  2. Practicing answers to soft questions.
  3. Preparing questions for interviewers.
  4. Researching companies.
  5. Writing compelling cover letters.
  6. Working on side projects.

Where do these fit into your day when all you do is crank out Leetcode problems?

Leetcode Is Only Useful if It’s Asked

The biggest problem with the “Leetcode grind” mentality is the fact that it only helps if you actually make it to the technical interview. If you don’t, what use is it to you? You’re much better off figuring out why you’re not making it to the technical interview in the first place.

Fortunately, not all companies use these types of problems to weed out applicants. In fact, in all of the interviews that I’ve done to date, I’d say that I’ve maybe had to do only one or two Leetcode or Hackerrank problems. The rest have been practical interviews:

  • Low-pressure pair programming on platforms like Coderpad, where Googling is allowed.
  • Bug fixing and simple skill tests, with practical problems relevant to the job you applied for.
  • Take-home assignments or Codepen challenges.
  • Walking through hypothetical scenarios out loud, like how you would design a REST API.
  • Quizzing me on my computer science and programming fundamentals knowledge.
  • Asking questions related to the tech that I’d be using on the job.

Part of the blame for the Leetcode grind falls on the tech industry—there are lots of creative and practical ways to test a candidate’s skills in a technical interview. Interviewers should put in just as much effort to develop relevant exercises to test a candidate’s abilities. But why bother to put in that effort when you can just Google a generic problem, slap it on a white board, and pretend to seem interested in the solution?

Leetcode Is Not Representative of the Real World

On the job, unless your solutions are always inefficient, and unless you know that the input to your algorithm is going to scale to very large sizes, a brute-force solution will be more than good enough. In fact, brute-force solutions are usually pretty easy to understand because they involve some sort of stepwise iteration or problem simulation. Good examples of these kinds of problems are ZigZag Conversion and Merge k Sorted Lists.

Unfortunately, Leetcode can encourage premature optimization because most Medium and Hard problems cannot be solved with a brute-force approach (it times out). This can lead to analysis paralysis on certain problems that you would’ve been able to solve if you weren’t forced to optimize it right out of the gate. In the real world, readable brute-force solutions aren’t worth optimizing unless you have a good reason for doing so.

Is the Leetcode Grind Making You Miserable?

Then stop—that’s all there is to it. Leetcode is only a grind if you let it become one.

If you’re preparing for interviews, make a habit of practicing one or two Leetcode problems a day to prepare yourself for solving these kinds of problems more proficiently over the long term. If one day you don’t feel like practicing Leetcode, then don’t.

Leetcode, like all skills, takes practice and time to perfect. If you expect to solve Medium and Hard problems within minutes of reading them, you’ll be disappointed and walk away frustrated. You’ll beat yourself up. You’ll think you’re stupid and not cut out for dev.

Treat Leetcode as an exercise to keep yourself sharp. Don’t treat it like a school assignment or an interview. Solve these problems casually, and you’ll eventually spot patterns to common problems.

Tips for Solving Leetcode Problems

1. Don’t always filter problems by subject

Leetcode is all about pattern recognition. And the first step in solving any Leetcode problem is to figure out what type of exercise you’re given. String manipulation? Sorting algorithms? Trees, dynamic programming, linked lists? When you’re first starting out with Leetcode, it makes sense to familiarize yourself with all of the possible types of problems you may encounter and to practice the ones that are unfamiliar or that you struggle with. But if you always filter Leetcode problems by their type, then you’re cheating yourself out of part of the challenge and making those problems easier. In a real-world interview, you won’t be told what type of problem you’re given—that’s up to you to figure out. Try to strike a balance between targeted practice and solving random problem sets so you don’t develop a crutch.

2. If you’re stuck, attempt a brute-force solution

Like I mentioned before, most advanced Leetcode problems reject brute-force solutions because they tend to be slow. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t at least attempt a brute-force solution as a starting point; if it works, you can work on optimizing it to make it pass. This is especially important in the real world, where interviewers want to see your thought process and problem-solving skills. They don’t expect you to come up with an optimal solution immediately. If you do, great job! If not, don’t panic.

If you’re practicing Leetcode but can’t come up with a brute-force approach, start reading the solution and try to understand the reasoning. If at some point a lightbulb goes off in your head, try to revisit the problem and work through it yourself before spoiling the full solution.

3. Don’t treat Leetcode as a competition

Yes, Leetcode awards points for solutions. Yes, elitists love to brag in the discussion section about how their solution is faster than X% of Language submissions. These metrics are meaningless, and you’ll get different numbers each time you submit a solution. This is also missing the point of Leetcode entirely. Don’t obsess over performance metrics. If your solution is optimal and passes, that’s all that matters.

4. Use the language you want to use on the job

This one’s optional, but I find that it’s a great way to kill two birds with one stone: practicing Leetcode while familiarizing yourself with the language you want to use on the job. It’s a good way to keep things fresh in your mind. On the other hand, Leetcode can also be a useful way to familiarize yourself with a new language that you’ve been meaning to learn.

5. Don’t beat yourself up

The greatest athletes, actors, and professionals of the world don’t achieve mastery without practice. You can’t expect to ace Leetcode problems immediately, even if you’re a competent developer.

My submissions fail pretty frequently, with only a 40% acceptance rate for the 60 or so problems that I’ve solved to date. I’m okay with that, and you should be too. Leetcode doesn’t define your intelligence or aptitude as a programmer. It’s all about spotting patterns—the more you practice, the better you get.

So forget the Leetcode grind—just focus on the value of practicing your problem-solving skills, not on doing as many exercises as you can in one sitting or getting every answer right the first time around. With this change in attitude, you’ll be much better prepared for the real world, where nobody cares if you can invert a binary tree on a white board.


This post’s social media preview image uses the Leetcode logo under fair use; it is under the copyright of LeetCode. I am not affiliated with LeetCode.