Want The Chance To Work At Instagram? Solve This Photo Shredder Puzzle

Coding puzzles have been part of the Silicon Valley hiring process and lore since the days when Fizzbuzz was just a gleam in some HR recruiter’s eye.

Blue chip companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon all use questions like, “Write a function that takes a string consisting of numeral characters and returns all possible alpha character strings of same length as input that correspond to the keypad of a typical telephone,” in order to separate the skilled coders from the chaff.  Come to think of it, that function would really come in handy if you want to create customized phone numbers like 247-PIZZA really quickly (but I digress …).

Photo-sharing startup Instagram isn’t yet raising new funding, but it is adding to its staff of six, setting up this “shredded” photo puzzle as an engineering challenge. The objective? Write an algorithm that would “un-shred” the photo — i.e. producing a whole image when given the sliced image as input.

“If you think about it, there’s a pretty simple approach that would allow you to find matches in a different domain,” Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom writes in a blog post announcing the challenge, “That is, imagine you’re sitting there trying to find a match between two pieces. What are you looking for to decide whether they’re a fit or not?”

Ooh! Ooh! I know.

While the idea of an image-based puzzle is novel, some of the folks at HackerNews were concerned that this particular puzzle was too easy (of course they were), to which the solution of course is “make it harder.” Systrom has provided a couple of ways to do this on the blog, and I feel like someone whose coding skills were better than mine could really get creative with this.

Apparently at some startups it’s not even that important if the candidate correctly solves the puzzle, just that they were the type of person who would attempt it. At those startups I’d be a shoo-in!

When asked why he followed in the footsteps of Facebook and his former employer Google in using a puzzle as part of company’s hiring process,” Systrom explained, “It’s less of a hiring process and more of a marketing tool. I think it starts a discussion that may lead somewhere – but not necessarily with hiring. We just like meeting really smart folks — [and] want to attract people who have the same intellectual curiosity as the rest of our team. We love the challenges we face every day with imaging and building scalable technology, and this challenge is simply a way for us to speak to the people who feel the same way.”

Anyone who completes the challenge correctly will get an Instagram T-shirt and everyone who tries will get a response from the team. When asked how many people they were planning on hiring, Systrom told me, “Anyone that’s great we’ll take,” saying that he had no specific numbers in mind.