DS Interview Study Guide Part I: Statistics

As I have gone through a couple rounds of interviews for data scientist positions, I’ve been compiling notes on what I consider to be the essential areas of knowledge. I want to make these notes available to the general public; although there are many blog posts out there that are supposed to help one prepare for data science interviews, I haven’t found any of them to be very high-quality.

From my perspective, there are four key subject areas that a data scientist should feel comfortable with when going into an interview:

  1. Statistics (including experimental design)
  2. Machine Learning
  3. Software Engineering (including SQL)
  4. “Soft” Questions

I’m going to go through each of these individually. This first post will focus on statistics. We will go over a number of topics in statistics in no particular order. Note that this post will not teach you statistics; it will remind you of what you should already know.

If you’re utterly unfamiliar with the concepts I’m mentioning, I’d recommend this excellent MIT course on probability & statistics as a good starting point. When I began interviewing, I had never taken a statistics class before; I worked through the notes, homeworks, and exams for this course, and at the end had a solid foundation to learn the specific things that you need to know for these interviews. In my studying, I also frequently use cross-validated, a website for asking and answering questions about statistics. It’s good for in-depth discussions of subtle issues in statistics. Finally, Gelman’s book is the classic in Bayesian inference. If you have recommendations for good books that cover frequentist statistics in a clear manner, I’d love to hear them.

These are the notes that I put together in my studying, and I’m sure that there is plenty of room for additions and corrections. I hope to improve this guide over time; please let me know in the comments if there’s something you think should be added, removed, or changed!

The Central Limit Theorem

The Central Limit Theorem is a fundamental tool in statistical analysis. It states (roughly) that when you add up a bunch of independent and identically distributed random variables (with finite variance) then their sum will converge to a Gaussian distribution.1

How is this idea useful to a data scientist? Well, one place where we see a sum of random variables is in a sample mean. One consequence of the central limit theorem is that the sample mean of a variable with mean and variance will itself have mean and variance , where is the number of samples.

I’d like to point out that this is pretty surprising. The distribution of the sum of two random variables is not, in general, trivial to calculate. So it’s kind of awesome that, if we’re adding up a large enough number of (independent and identically distributed) random variables, then we do, in fact, have a very easy expression for the (approximate) distribution of the sum. Even better, we don’t need to know much of anything about the distribution of we’re sampling from, besides its mean and variance - it’s other moments, or general shape, don’t matter for the CLT.

As we will see below, the simplification that the CLT introduces is the basis of one of the fundamental hypothesis tests that data scientists perform: testing equality of sample means. For now, let’s work through an example of the theorem itself.

An Example

Suppose that we are sampling a Bernoulli random variable. This is a 0/1 random variable that is 1 with probability and 0 with probability . If we get the sequence of ten draws , then our sample mean is

Of course, this sample mean is itself a random variable - when we report it, we would like to report an estimate on its variance as well. The central limit theorem tells us that this will, as increases, converge to a Gaussian distribution. Since the mean of the Bernoulli random variable is and its variance is , we know that the distribution of the sample mean will converge to a Gaussian with mean and variance . So we could say that our estimate of the parameter is 0.4 0.155. Of course, we’re playing a bit loose here, since we’re using the estimate from the data, as we don’t actually know the true parameter .

Now, a sample size of is a bit small to be relying on a “large-” result like the CLT. Actually, in this case, we know the exact distribution of the sample mean, since is binomially distributed with parameters and .

Other Questions on the CLT

I find that the CLT more comes up as a piece of context in other questions rather than as something that gets asked about directly, but you should be prepared to answer the following questions.

  • What is the central limit theorem? We’ve addressed this above - I doubt they’ll be expecting a mathematically-correct statement of the theorem, but you should know the gist of it, along with significant limitations (finite variance being the major one).

  • When can you not use the CLT? I think the key thing here is that you have to be normalizing the data in an appropriate way (dividing by the sample size), and that the underlying variance must be finite. The answer here can get very subtle and mathematical, involving modes of convergence for random variables and all that, but I doubt they will push you to go there, unless you’re applying for a job specifically as a statistician.

  • Give me an example of the CLT in use. The classic example here is the distribution of the sample mean converging to a normal distribution as the number of samples grows large.

Hypothesis Testing

Hypothesis testing (also known by the more verbose “null hypothesis significance testing”) is a huge subject, both in scope and importance. We use statistics to quantitatively answer questions based on data, and (for better or for worse) null hypothesis significance testing is one of the primary methods by which we construct these answers.

I won’t cover the background of NHST here. It’s well-covered in the MIT course; look at the readings to find the relevant sections. Instead of covering the background, we’ll work through one exampleof a hypothesis test. It’s simple, but it comes up all the time in practice, so it’s essential to know. I might go so far as to say that this is the fundamental example of hypothesis testing in data science.

An Example

Suppose we have two buttons, one green and one blue. We put them in front of two different samples of users. For simplicity, let’s say that each sample has size . We observe that 57 users click the green button, and only click the blue button.

Seems like the green button is better, right? Well, we want to be able to say how confident we are of this fact. We’ll do this in the language of null hypothesis significance testing. As you should (hopefully) know, in order to do NHST, we need a null hypothesis and a test statistic; we need to know the test statistic’s distribution (under the null hypothesis); and we need to know the probability of observing a value “at least as extreme” as the observed value according to this distribution.

I’m going to lay out a table of all the important factors here, and then discuss how we use them to arrive at our -value.

Description Value
Null Hypothesis
Test Statistic
Test Statistic’s Distribution
Test Statistic’s Observed Value -0.09
-value 0.1003

There are a few noteworthy things here. First, we really want to know whether , but that’s equivalent to . Second, we assume that is large enough so that is approximately normally distributed, with mean and variance . Third, since the differences of two normals is itself a normal, the test statistic’s distribution is (under the null hypothesis) a normal with mean zero and the variance given (which is the sum of the two variances of and ).

Finally, we don’t actually know or , so we can’t really compute the -value; what we do is we say that is “close enough”” to and use it as an approximation. That gives us our final -value.

The -value was calculated in Python, as follows:

from scipy.stats import norm
pb = 0.48
pg = 0.57
n = 100
sigma = np.sqrt((pb*(1-pb) + pg*(1-pg))/n)
norm.cdf(-0.09, loc = 0, scale = sigma) # 0.10034431272089045

Calculating the CDF of a normal at tells us the probability that the test statistic is less than or equal to , which is to say the probability that our test statistic is at least as extreme as the observed value. This probability is precisely our -value.

So what’s the conclusion? Well, often times a significance level is set before the test is performed; if the -value is not below this threshold, then the null hypothesis is not rejected. Suppose we had set a significance level of 0.05 before the test began - then, with this data, we would not be able to reject the null hypothesis, which is that the buttons are equally appealing to users.

Phew! I went through that pretty quick, but if you can’t follow the gist of what I was doing there, I’d recommend you think through it until it is clear to you. You will be faced with more complicated situations in practice; it’s important that you begin by understanding the most simple situation inside out.

Other Topics in Hypothesis Testing

Some important follow-up questions you should be able to answer:

  • What are Type I & II error? What is a situation where you would be more concerned with Type I error? Vice versa? These are discussed on Wikipedia. Type I error is false-positive error. You might be very concerned with Type I error if you are interviewing job candidates; it is very costly to hire the wrong person for the job, so you really want to avoid false positives. Type II error is false-negative error. If you are testing for a disease that is deadly but has a simple cure, then you would certainly NOT want to have a false negative result of the test, since that would result in an easily-avoidable negative outcome.

  • What is the power of a test? How do you calculate it? The power of a test is the probability that you will reject the null hypothesis, given an alternative hypothesis. Therefore, to calculate the power, you need an alternative hypothesis; in the example above, this would look like . Although these alternative hypothesis are often somewhat ad-hoc, the power analysis depends critically upon them. Google will turn up plenty of videos and tutorials on calculating the power of a test.

  • What is the significance of a test? This is the same as the -value threshold below which we reject the null hypothesis. (In)famously, 0.05 has become the de-facto standard throughout many sciences for significance levels worthy of publication.

  • Gow would you explain a p-value to a lay person? Of course, you should have a solid understanding of the statistical definition of the -value. A generally accepted answer is “a -value quantifies the evidence for a hypothesis - closer to zero means more evidence.” Of course, this is wrong on a lot of levels - it’s actually quantifying evidence against the null hypothesis, not for the alternative. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced there’s a great answer to that one; it’s an inherently technical quantity that is frequently misrepresented and abused by people trying to (falsely) simplify its meaning.

  • If you measure many different test statistics, and get a -value for each (all based on the same null hypothesis), how do you combine them to get an aggregate -value? This one is more of a bonus question, but it’s worth knowing. It’s actually not obvious how do to this, and the true -value depends on how the tests depend on each other. However, you can get an upper-bound (worst-case estimate) on the aggregate -value by adding together the different -values. The validity of this bound results from the inclusion-exclusion principle.

Confidence Intervals

Confidence intervals allow us to state a statistical result as a range, rather than a single value. If we count that 150 out of 400 people sample randomly from a city identify themselves as male, then our best estimate of the fraction of women in the city is 250/400, or 5/8. But we only looked at 400 people, so it’s reasonable to expect that the true value might be a bit more or less than 5/8. Confidence intervals allow us to quantify this width in a statistically rigorous way.

As per usual, we won’t actually introduce the concepts here - I’ll refer you to the readings from the MIT course for an introduction. We’ll focus on working through an example, and looking at some different approaches.

The Exact Method

Suppose that we want to find a 95% confidence inverval on the female fraction in the city discussed above. This corresponds to a significance level of . One way to get the exact confidence inverval is to use the CDF of our test statistic, but substitute in the observed parameter for the true parameter, and then invert it to find where it hits and . That is, we need to find the value that solves the equation

and the value that solves the equation

In these, is the cumulative distribution function of our test statistic, assuming that the true value of is in fact the observed value . This is a bit confusing, so it’s worth clarifying. In our case, the sample statistic is the sample mean of binomial random variables, so this CDF is the CDF of the sample mean of binomial random variables with parameter . Solving the two equations above would give us our confidence inverval .

It took me a bit of work to see that solving the above two equations would in fact give us bounds that satisfy the definitions of a confidence interval, which says that, were we to run many experiments, we would find that the true value of would fall between and with the probability

If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d suggest you take some time thinking through why inverting the CDF as above guarantees bounds that solve the above equaiton.

Although it is useful for theoretical analysis, I rarely use this method in practice, because I often do not actually know the true CDF of the statistic I am measuring. Sometimes I do know the true CDF, but even in such cases, the next (approximate) method is generally sufficient.

The Approximate Method

If your statistic can be phrased as a sum, then its distribution approaches a normal distribution.2 This means that you can solve the above equations for a normal CDF rather than the true CDF of the sum (in the case above, a binomial CDF).

How does this help? For a normal distribution, the solutions for the above equations to find lower and upper bounds are well known. In particular, the inverval , also called a -interval, covers about 68% of the mass (probability) of the normal PDF, so if we wanted to find a confidence interval of level , then we know to use the bounds , where is our estimate of the true mean .

This sort of result is very powerful, because it saves us from having to do any inversion by hand. A table below indicates the probability mass contained in various symmetric intervals on a normal distribution:

Inverval Width3 Coverage
0.683
0.954
0.997

Let’s think through how we would use this in the above example, where we give a confidence interval on our estimate of the binomial parameter .

A binomial distribution has mean and variance . Since the sample statistical is just the binomial divided by , it has mean and variance . The central limit theorem tells us that the distribution of will converge to a normal with just these parameters.

Suppose we want an (approximate) 95% confidence interval on the percentage of women in the population of our city; the table above tells us we can just do a two-sigma interval. (This is not exactly a 95% confidence interval; it’s a bit over, as we see in the table above). The parameter has mean and variance .4 In our case, , so our confidence interval is . Note that we approximated with our experimental value ; the theoretical framework that allows us to do this substitution is beyond the scope of this article, but is nicely covered in the MIT readings (Reading 22, in particular).

The Bootstrap Method

The previous approach relies on the accuracy of approximating our statistic’s distribution by a normal distribution. Bootstrapping is a pragmatic, flexible approach to calculating confidence intervals, which makes no assumptions on the underlying statistics we are calculating. We’ll go into more detail on bootstrapping in general below, so we’ll be pretty brief here.

The basic idea is to repeatedly pull 400 samples with replacement from the sampled data. For each set of 400 samples, we get an estimate , and thus can build an empirical distribution on . Of course, the CLT indicates that this empirical distribution should look a lot like a gaussian distribution with mean and variance ..

Once you have bootstrapped an empirical distribution for your statistic of interest (in the example above, this is the percentage of the population that is women), then you can simply find the and percentiles, which then become your confidence interval. Although in this case our empirical distribution is (approximately) normal, it’s worth realizing that we can reasonably calculate percentiles regardless of what the empirical distribution is; this is why bootstrapping confidence intervals are so flexible.

As you’ll see below, the downside of bootstrapping confidence intervals is that it requires some computation. The amount of computation required can be anywhere from trivial to daunting, depending on how many samples you want in your empirical distribution. Another downside is that their statistical interpretation is not exactly in alignment with the definition of a confidence interval, but I’ll leave the consideration of that as an exercise for the reader.5 One of the MIT readings has an in-dpeth discussion of confidence intervals generated via the bootstrap method.

Overall, I would recommend using the approximate method when you have good reason to believe your sample statistic is approximately normal, or bootstrapping otherwise. Of course, the central limit theorem can provide some guarantees about the asympototic distribution of certain statistics, so it’s worth thinking through whether that applies to your situations.

Other Topics in Confidence Intervals

  • What is the definition of a confidence interval? This is a bit more technical, but it’s essential to know that it is not “there is a 95% probability that the true parameter is in this range.” Actually, what it means is that “if you reran the experiment many times, then 95% of the time, the true value of the parameter you’re estimating would fall in this range.” It’s worth noting that the range is the random variable here - the parameter itself (the true percentage of the population that identifies as female, in our example) is fixed.

  • How would this change if you wanted a one-sided confidence interval? This one isn’t too bad - you just solve either or for a lower- or upper-bounded interval, respectively.

  • What is the relationship between confidence intervals and hypothesis testing? There are many ways to answer this question; it’s a good one to ponder in order to get a deeper understanding of the two topics. One connection is the relationship between confidence intervals and rejection regions in NHST - Reading 22 in the MIT course addresses this one nicely.

Bootstrapping

Bootstrapping is a technique that allows you to get insight into the quality of your estimates, based only on the data you have. It’s a key tool in a data scientist’s toolbag, because we frequently don’t have a clear theoretical understanding of our statistics, and yet we want to provide uncertainty estimates. To understand how it works, let’s look through an example.

In the last section, we sampled 400 people in an effort to understand what percentage of a city’s population identified as female. Since 250 of them identified themselves as female, our estimate of the raio for the total population is . This estimate it itself a random variable; if we had sampled different people, we might have ended up with a different number. What if we want to know the distribution of this estimate? How would we go about getting that?

Well, the obvious way is to go out and sample 400 more people, and repeat this over and over again, until we have many such fractional estimates. But what if we don’t have access to sampling more people? The natural thing is to think that we’re out of luck - without the ability to sample further, we can’t actually understand more about the distribution of our parameter (ignoring, for the moment, that we have lots of theoretical knowledge about it via the CLT).

The idea behind bootstrapping is simple. Sample from the data you already have, with replacement, a new sample of 400 people. This will give you an estimate of the female fraction that is distinct from your original estimate, due to the replacement in your sampling. You can repeat this process as many times as you like; you will then get an empirical distribution whic approaches the true distribution of the statistic.4

Bootstrapping has the advantage of belig flexible, although it does have its limitations. Rather than get too far into the weeds, I’ll just point you to the Wikipedia article on bootstrapping. There are also tons of resources about this subject online. Try coding it up for yourself! By the time you’re interviewing, you should be able to write a bootstrapping algorithm quite easily.

Machine Learning Mastery has a good introduction to bootstrapping that uses the scikit-learn API. Towards Data Science codes it up directly in NumPy, which is a useful thing to know how to be able to do. Asking someone to code up a bootstrapping function would be an entirely reasonable interview questions, so it’s something you should be comfortable doing.

Other Topics in Bootstrapping

  • When would you not want to use bootstrapping? It might not be feasible when it is very costly to calculate your sample statistic. To get accurate estimates you’ll need to calculate your statistic thousands of times, so it might not be feasible if it takes minutes or hours to calculate a single sample. Also, it is often difficult to get strong theoretical guarantees about probabilities based on bootstrapping, so if you need a highly statistically rigorous approach, you might be better served with something more analytical. Finally, if you know the distribution of your statistic already (for example, you know from the CLT that it is normally distributed) then you can get better (more accurate) uncertainty estimates from an analytical approach.

Linear Regression

Regression is the study of the relationship between variables; for example, we might wish to know how the weight of a person relates to their height. Linear regression assumes that your input (height, or ) and output (weight, or ) variables are linearly related, with slope , intercept , and noise .

A linear regression analysis helps the user discover the s in the above equation. This is just the simplest application of LR; in reality, it is quite flexible and can be used in a number of scenarios.

Linear regression is another large topic that I can’t really do justice to in this article. Instead, I’ll just go through some of the common topics, and introduce the questions you should be able to address. As is the case with most of these topics, you can look at the MIT Statistics & Probability course for a solid academic introduction to the subject. You can also dig through the Wikipedia article to get a more in-depth picture. The subject is so huge, and there’s so much to learn about it, that you really can spend as much time as you want digging into it - I’m just going to gesture at some of the simpler aspects of it.

Calculating a Linear Regression

Rather than go through an example here, I’ll just refer you to the many available guides that show you how to do this in code. Of course, you could do it in raw NumPy, solving the normal equations explicitly, but I’d recommend using scikit-learn or statsmodels, as they have much nicer interfaces, and give you all sorts of additional information about your model (, -value, etc.)

Real Python has a good guide to coding this up - see the section “Simple Linear Regression with scikit-learn.” GeeksForGeeks does the solution in raw NumPy; the equations won’t be meaningful for you until you read up on the normal equation and how to analytically solve for the optimal LR coefficients. If you want something similar in R, or Julia, or MATLAB,6 then I’m sure it’s out there, you’ll just have to go do some Googling to find it.

A Statistical View

This subject straddles the boundary between statistics and machine-learning. It has been quite thoroughly studied from a statistical point of view, and there are some iportant results that you should be familiar with when thinking about linear regression from a statistical frame.7

Let’s look back at our foundational model for linear regression. LR assumes that your input and output are related via

where are i.i.d., distributed as . Since the are random variables, the are themselves random variables. One important question is whether there is, in fact, any relationship between our variables at all. If there is not, then we should close to 0,8 but they will not ever be exactly zero. One important statistical technique in LR is doing a hypothesis test against the null hypothesis that . When a package like scikit-learn returns a “-value of the regression”, this is the -value they are talking about.

Like I said before, there is a lot more to know about the statistics of linear regression than just what I’ve said here. You can learn more about the statistics of LR by looking at the MIT course notes on the subject, or by digging through your favorite undergraduate statistics book - most of them should have sections covering it.

Validating Your Model

Once you’ve calculated your LR, you’d like to validate it. This is very important to do - if you’re asked to calculate a linear regression in an interview, you should always go through the process of validating it after you’ve done the calculation.

I’d generally go through the following steps:

  • If it’s just a simple (one independent variable) linear regression, then plot the two variables. This should give you a good sense of whether it’s a good idea to use linear regression in the first place. If you have multiple independent variables, you can make separate plots for each one.
  • Look at your value. Is it reasonably large? Remember, closer to 1 is better. If it’s small, then doing a linear regression hasn’t helped much.
  • You can look at the -value to see if it’s difference from zero is statistically significant (see the section below). Also, you can have a very significant -value while still having a low , so be cautious in your interpretation of this one.
  • You can also look at the RMSE of your model, but this number is not scaled between 0 and 1, so a “good” RMSE is highly dependent on the units of your indepedent variable.
  • Plot your residuals, for each variable. The residual is just the input minus the value predicted by your model, a.k.a. the error of your model. Plotting each residual isn’t really feasible if you have hundreds of independent variables, but it’s a good idea if your data is small enough. You should be looking for “homoskedasticity” - that the variance of the error is uniform across the range of the independent variable. If it’s not, then certain things you’ve calculated (for example, the -value of your regression) are no longer valid. You might also see that your errors have a bias that changes as the changes; this means that there’s some more complicated relationship between and that your regression did not pick up.

Some of the questions below address the assumptions of linear regression; you should be familiar with them, and now how to test for them either before or after the regression is performed, so that you can be confident that your model is valid.

Basic Questions on LR

Hopefully you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic ideas behind linear regression. Here are some conceptual questions you should be able to answer.

  • How are the s calculated? Practically, you let the library you’re using take care of this. But behind the scenes, generally it’s solving the so-called “normal equations”, which give you the optimal (highest ) parameters possible. You can use gradient descent to approximate the optimal solution when the design matrix is too large to invert; this is available via the SGDRegressor model in scikit-learn.

  • How do you decide if you should use linear regression? The best case is when the data is 2- or 3-dimensional; then you can just plot the data and see if it looks like “linear plus noise”. However, if you have lots of independent variables, this isn’t really an option. In such a case, you should look perform a linear regression analysis, and then look at the errors to verify that they look normally distributed and homoskedastic (constant variance).

  • What does the value of a regression indicate? The value indicates “how much of the variance of the output data is explained by the regression.” That is, your output data has some (sample) variance, just on its own. Once you discover the linear relationship and subtract it off, then the remaining error still has some variance, but hopefully it’s lower - is one minus the ratio of the original to the remaining variance. When , then your line is a perfect fit of the data, and there is no remaining error. It is often used to explain the “quality” of your fit, although this can be a bit treacherous - see Anscombe’s Quartet for examples of very different situations with the same value.

  • What are the assumptions you make when doing a linear regression? The Wikipedia article addresses this point quite thoroughly. This is worth knowing, because you don’t just want to jump in and blindly do LR; you want to be sure it’s actually a reasonable approach.

  • When is it a bad idea to do LR? When you do linear regression, you’re assuming a certain relationship between your variables. Just the parameters and output of your regression won’t tell you whether the data really are appropriate for a linear model. Anscombe’s Quartet is a particularly striking example of how the output of a linear regression analysis can look similar but in fact the quality of the analysis can be radically different. Beyond this, it is a bad idea to do LR whenever the assumptions of LR are violated by the data; see the above bullet for more info there.

  • Can you do linear regression on a nonlinear relationship? In many cases, yes. What we need is for the model to be linear in the parameters ; if, for example, you are comparing distance and time for a constantly accelerating object , and you want to do regression to discover the acceleration , then you can just use as your independent variable. The model relating and is linear in the acceleration , as required.

  • What does the “linear” in linear regression refer to? This one might seem trivial, but it’s a bit of a trick question; the relationship might not appear linear, but in fact it can be obtained via a linear regression, by using as the input variables, rather than . Of course, for this to work, you need to know ahead of time that you want to compare against , but this can be discovered via trial-and-error, to some extent. So the “linear” does, as you’d expect, mean that the relationship between independent and dependent variable is linear, but you can always change either of them and re-calculate your regression.

Handling Overfitting

Overfitting is a very important to understand, and is a fundamental challenge in machine learning and modeling. I’m not going to go into great detail on it here; more information will be presented in the machine learning section of the guide. There are some techniques for handling it that are particular to LR, which is what I’ll talk about here.

RealPython has good images showing examples of over-fitting. You can handle it by building into your model a “penalty” on the s; that is, tell your model “I want low error, and I don’t want large coefficients.** The balance of these preferences is determined by a parameter, often denoted by .

Since you have many s, in general, you have to combine them in some fashion. Two such ways to calculate the measure of “overall badness” (which I’ll call ) are

or

The first will tend to be emphasize outliers; that is, it is more sensitive to single large s. The second considers all the s more uniformly. If you use the first, it is called “ridge regression”, and if you use the second it is called “LASSO regression.”

In mathematics, these denote the and norms of the vectors of s; you can in theory use norms for any , even (count the number of non-zero s to get the overall badness) or (take the largest as the overall badness). However, in practice, LASSO and ridge regression are already implemented in common packages, so it’s easy to use them right out of the box.

As usual, there is a LOT to learn about how LASSO and ridge regression change your output, and what kinds of problems they can address (and/or create). I’d highly recommend searching around the internet to learn more about them if you aren’t already confident in your understanding of how they work.

Logistic Regression

Logistic regression is a way of modifying linear regression models to get a classification model. The statistics of logistic regression are, generally speaking, not as clean as those of linear regression. It will be covered in the machine learning section, so we won’t discuss it here.

Bayesian Inference

Up until now this guide has primarily focused on frequentist topics in statistics, such as hypothesis testing and the frequentist approach to confidence intervals. There is an entire world of Bayesian statistical inference, which differs significantly from the frequentist approach in both philosophy and technique. I will only touch on the most basic application of Bayesian reasoning in this guide.

In this section, I will mostly defer to outside sources, who I think speak more eloquently on the topic than I can. Some companies (such as Google, or so I’m told) tend to focus on advanced Bayesian skills in their data science interviews; if you want to really learn the Bayesian approach, I’d reccomend Gelman’s book, which is a classic in the field.

Bayesian vs Frequentist Statistics

It’s worth being able to clearly discuss the difference in philosophy and approach between the two schools of statistics. I particularly like the discussion in the MIT course notes. They state, more or less, that while the Bayesians like to reason from Bayes theorem

the frequentist school thinks that “the probability of the hypothesis” is a nonsense concept - it is not a well-founded probablistic value, in the sense that there is no repeatable experiment you can run in which to gather relative frequency counts and calculate probabilities. Therefore, the frequentists must reason directly from , the probability of the data given the hypothesis, which is just the -value. The upside of this is that the probabilistic interpretation of is clean and unambiguous; the downside is that it is easy to misunderstand, since what we really think we want is “the probability that the hypothesis is true.”

If you want to know more about this, there are endless discussions of it all over the internet. Like many such dichotomies (emacs vs. vim, overhand vs underhand toilet paper, etc.) it is generally overblown - a working statistician should be familiar with, and comfortable using, both frequentist and Bayesian techniques in their analysis.

Basics of Bayes Theorem

Bayes theorem tells us how to update our belief in light of new evidence. You should be comfortably applying Bayes theorem in order to answer basic probability questions. The classic example is the “base rate fallacy”:

Consider a routine screening test for a disease. Suppose the frequency of the disease in the population (base rate) is 0.5%. The test is highly accurate with a 5% false positive rate and a 10% false negative rate. You take the test and it comes back positive. What is the probability that you have the disease?

The answer is NOT 0.95, even though the test has a 5% false positive rate. You should be able to clearly work through this problem, building probability tables and using Bayes theorem to calculate the final answer. The problem is worked through in the MIT stats course readings (see Example 10), so I’ll defer to them for the details.

Updating Posteriors & Conjugate Priors

The above approach of calculating out all the probabilites by hand works reasonbly well when there are only a few possible outcomes in the probability space, but it doesn’t scale well to large (discrete) probability spaces, and won’t work at all in continuous probability spaces. In such situations, you’re still fundamentally relying on Bayes theorem, but the way it is applied looks quite different - you end up using sums and integrals to calculate the relevant terms.

Again, I’ll defer to the MIT stats course readings for the details - readings 12 and 13 are the relevant ones here.

It’s particularly useful to be familiar with the concept of conjugate priors. In general, updating your priors involves computing an integral, which as anyone who has taken calculus knows can be a pain in the ass. When sampling from a distribution and estimating the parameters, there are certain priors for which the updates based on successive samples work out to be very simple.

For an example of this, suppose you’re flipping a biased coin and trying to figure out the bias. This is equivalent to sampling a binomial distribution and trying to estimate the parameter . If your prior is uniform (flat across the interval ), then after flips, of which come up heads, your posterior probability density on will be

This is called a distribution. It is kind of magical that we can calculate this without having to do any integrals - this is because the distribution is “conjugate to” the binomial distribution. It’s important that we started out with a uniform distribution as our prior - if we had chosen an arbitrary prior, the algebra might not have worked out as nicely. In particular, if we start with a non- prior, then this trick won’t work, because our prior will not be conjuage to the binomial distribution.

The other important conjugate pair to know is that of the Gaussian distribution; it is, in fact, conjuage to itself, so if you estimate the parameters of a normal distribution, those estimates are themselves normal, and updating your belief about the parameters based on new draws from the normal distribution is as simple as doing some algebra.

There are many good resources available online and in textbooks discussing conjuage priors; Wikipedia is a good place to start.

Maximum Likelihood Estimation

We discussed before the case where you have a bunch of survey data, and want to estimate the proportion of the population that identifies as female. Statistically speaking, this proportion is a parameter of the probability distribution over gender identity in the that geographical region. We’ve intuitively been saying that if we see 250 out of 400 respond that they are female, then our best estimate of the proportion is 5/8. Let’s get a little more formal about why exactly this is our best estimate.

First of all, I’m going to consider a simplified world in which there are only two genders, male and female. I do this to simplify the statistics, not because it is an accurate model of the world. In this world, if the true fraction of the population that identifies as female is 0.6, then there is some non-zero probability that you would draw a sample of 400 people in which 250 identify as female. We call this the likelihood of the parameter 0.6. In particular, the binomial distribution tells us that

Of course, I could calculate this for any parameter in ; if I were very far from 5/8, however, then this likelihood would be very small.

Now, a natural question to ask is “which parameter would give us the highest likelihood?” That is, which parameter best fits our data? That is the maximum-likelihood estimate of the parameter . The actual calculation of that maximum involves some calculus and a neat trick involving logarithms, but I’ll refer the reader elsewhere for those details. It’s worth noting that the MLE is often our intuitive “best guess” at the parameter; in this case, as you might anticipate, maximizes the likelihood of seeing 250 people out of 400 identify as female.

I won’t give any question here, because I honestly have not seen any in my searching around. Even so, I think it’s an important concept to be familiar with. Maximum likelihood estimation often provides a theoretical foundation for our intuitive estimates of parameters, and it’s helpful to be able to justify yourself in this framework.

For example, if you’re looking at samples from an exponential distribution, and you want to identify the parameter , you might guess that since the mean of an exponential random variable is , a good guess would be , where is your sample mean. In fact you would be correct, and this is the MLE for ; you should be familiar with this way of thinking about parameter estimation.

Experimental Design

Last, but certainly not least, is the large subject of experimental design. This is a more nebulous topic, and therefore harder to familiarize yourself with quickly, than the others we’ve discussed so far.

If we have some new feature, we might have reason to think it will be good to include in our product. For example, Facebook rolled out a “stories” feature some time ago (I honestly couldn’t tell you what it does, but it’s some thing that sits on the top of your newsfeed). However, before they expose this to all their users, they want to put it out there “in the wild” and see how it performs. So, they run an experiment.

Designing this experiment in a valid way is essential to getting meaningful, informative results. An interview question at Facebook might be: How will you analyze if launching stories is a good idea? What data would you look at? The discussion of this question could easily fill a full 45-minute interview session, as there are many nuances and details to examine.

One basic approach would be to randomly show the “stories” feature to some people, and not to others, and then see how it affects their behavior. This is an A/B test. Some questions you should be thinking about are:

  • What metrics will we want to track in order ot measure the effect of stories? For example, we might measure the time spent on the site, the number of clicks, etc.
  • How should we randomize the two groups? Should we randomly choose every time someone visits the site whether to show them stories or not? Or should we make a choice for each user and fix that choice? Generally, user-based randomization is preferable, although sometimes it’s hard to do across devices (think about why this is).
  • How long should we run the tests? How many people should be in each group? This decision is often based on a power calculation, which gives us the probability of rejecting the null hypothesis, given some alternative hypothesis. I personally am not a huge fan of these because the alternative hypothesis is usually quite ad-hoc, but it is the standard, so it’s good to know how to do it. For example, you might demand that your test be large enough that if including stories increases site visit time by at least one minute, our A/B test will detect that with 90% probability.
  • When can we stop the test? The important thing to note here is that you cannot just stop the test once the results look good - you have to decide beforehand how long you want it to run.
  • How will you deal with confounding variables? What if, due to some techincal difficulty, you end up mostly showing stories to users at a certain time of day, or in a certain geographical region? There are a variety of approaches here, and I won’t get into the details, but it’s essential that you be able to answer this concern clearly and thoroughly.

It’s also worth considering scenarios where you have to analyze data after the fact in order to perform “experiments”; sometimes you want to know (for example) if the color of a product has affected how well it sold, and you want to do so using existing sales data. What limitations might this impose? A key limitation is that of confounding variables - perhaps the product in red mostly sold in certain geographic regions, whereas the blue version sold better in other geographic regions. What impact will this have on your analysis?

There are many other considerations to think about around experimental design. I don’t have any particular posts that I like; I’d recommend searching around Google to find more information on the topic.

If you have any friends that do statistics professionally, I’d suggest sketching our a design for the above experiment and talking through it with them - the ability to think through an experimental design is something that is best developed over years of professional experience.

Conclusion

This guide has focused on some of the basic aspects of statistics that get covered in data science interviews. It is far from exhaustive - different companies focus on different skills, and will therefore be asking you about different statistical concepts and techniques. I haven’t discussed time-dependent statistics at all - Markov chains, time-series analysis, forecasting, and stochastic processes all might be of interest to employers if they are relevant to the field of work.

Please let me know if you have any corrections to what I’ve said here. I’m far from a statistician, so I’m sure that I’ve made lots of small (and some large) mistakes!

Stay tuned for the rest of the study guide, which should be appearing in the coming months. And finally, best of luck with your job search! It can be a challenging, and even demoralizing experience; just keep learning, and don’t let rejection get you down. Happy hunting!

  1. Of course, the actual statement is careful about the mode of convergence, and the fact that it is actually an appropriately-normalized version of the distribution that converges, and so on. 

  2. Again, we’re being loose here - it has to have finite variance, and the convergence is only in a specific sense. 

  3. I’m being a little loose with definitions here - the width of a inverval is actually , but I think most would still describe it using the phrase “two-sigma”. 

  4. As usual, we’re being a bit sloppy - we’re just using the sample variance in place of the true variance and pretending this is correct. This will work if the number of samples is large. If you need confidence intervals with few (say, less than 15) samples, I recommend you look into confidence intervals based on the student-t distribution.  2

  5. In doing bootstrapping, we’re really trying to find the distribution of our statistic . So, what we find via this method are bounds such that . How does this relate to the definition of a confidence interval? This is a somewhat theoretic exercise, but can be helpful in clarifying your understanding of the more technical aspects of confidence interval computation. 

  6. Why are you using MATLAB? Stop that. You’re not in school anymore. 

  7. Some of the issues that arise here (for example, over- and under-fitting) have solutions that are more practical and less theoretical and statistical in nature - these will be covered in more depth in the machine learning portion of this guide, and so we don’t go into too much detail in this section. 

  8. just represents the difference in the mean of the two variables, so it could be non-zero even if the two are independent. 

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