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machine learning interview questions

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Gayane Hakobyan
written byContent Strategist, Remote Lifestyle & Career, EPAM Anywhere

With a focus on remote lifestyle and career development, Gayane shares practical insight and career advice that informs and empowers tech talent to thrive in the world of remote work.

With a focus on remote lifestyle and career development, Gayane shares practical insight and career advice that informs and empowers tech talent to thrive in the world of remote work.

The following questions and answers have been reviewed and verified by Gyula Magyar, Software Engineering Team Leader, and Ilya Starikov, Lead Data Scientist, EPAM Anywhere. Thanks a lot, Gyula and Ilya!

To help you prepare for your next machine learning interview, we have compiled a comprehensive list of the most common machine learning interview questions. These questions cover essential concepts, algorithms, and techniques that every machine-learning enthusiast should be familiar with.

By mastering these topics, you will not only increase your chances of landing your dream job but also gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. So, let's dive into the world of machine learning interview questions and get one step closer to acing your next technical interview.

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Common machine learning interview questions and answers

When applying for machine learning engineer jobs, you are likely to face a range of interview questions that will challenge your knowledge and expertise in the field. Interviewers seek candidates who can demonstrate a strong understanding of fundamental concepts and have the technical ability to deploy machine learning algorithms effectively.

To excel in your interviews and leave a lasting impression, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with various common machine learning interview questions covering concepts like supervised and unsupervised learning, decision trees, etc. In this section, we present a curated list of basic machine learning interview questions and short answers to help you prepare confidently and easily navigate your interview journey.

1. What is the difference between supervised and unsupervised learning?

In supervised learning, the data used for training is labeled, meaning that each input-data-point has a corresponding output label. Supervised learning tasks include regression and classification. In unsupervised learning, the data do not have explicit labels.

The algorithm identifies patterns and structures in the data without using specific output labels as guidance. Unsupervised learning tasks include clustering, dimensionality reduction, and anomaly detection.

2. Explain the bias-variance trade-off in machine learning

The bias-variance trade-off is the balance between having a model that is too overly simple (high bias) and a model that is too sensitive to small changes in the training data (high variance). The goal is to minimize both bias and variance to produce a model that generalizes well to unseen data, reducing the overall generalization error.

3. How does a decision tree work?

A decision tree is a flowchart-like structure where each internal node represents a decision based on the value of a specific feature. In contrast, each leaf node represents the final predicted label.

The decision tree is constructed by selecting the best feature to split the data at each step, based on impurity measures like Gini impurity or entropy. The tree continues to split recursively until it meets a stopping criterion, such as a maximum tree depth or minimum samples per leaf.

4. Discuss the main types of ensemble learning techniques

The main types of ensemble learning techniques are:

  1. Bagging: Combines multiple models by averaging (for regression) or voting (for classification), trained on random subsets of the training data (with replacement). Random Forest is an example of bagging.
  2. Boosting: Trains a sequence of models iteratively, with each model learning from the errors of its predecessor, aiming to improve the overall performance. Gradient Boosted Trees and AdaBoost are examples of boosting methods.
  3. Stacking: Trains multiple models on the same data and uses the predictions from these models as inputs to another model, called the meta-model, to make the final prediction.

5. What is the purpose of data normalization, and how can it be achieved?

Data normalization is scaling input features to a similar range to reduce the influence of any particular feature. It can enhance the performance and convergence of machine learning algorithms. Common normalization techniques include:

  1. Min-max scaling: Scales the data to a specific range, typically [0, 1]
  2. Standard scaling: Transforms the data to have a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1
  3. L1 normalization: Ensures the sum of absolute feature values equals 1 for each data point
  4. L2 normalization: Ensures the sum of squared feature values equals 1 for each data point

6. Explain k-means clustering and its applications

K-means clustering is an unsupervised learning algorithm that partitions a dataset into 'k' clusters by minimizing the within-cluster sum of squares.

The algorithm iteratively updates the cluster centroids and assigns each data point to the nearest centroid until convergence. K-means is used in customer segmentation, image compression, and anomaly detection applications.

K-means clustering in ML coding interview questions

7. Explain the purpose of principal component analysis (PCA)

PCA is an unsupervised linear transformation technique used for dimensionality reduction. It searches for new features that have maximum variance and are orthogonal to each other. PCA transforms the original data into linearly uncorrelated variables called principal components.

The first principal component captures the most variance in the data, followed by the second, and so on. Choosing the top 'k' principal components, which capture most of the variance, reduces the dimensions while preserving the data structure.

8. What is cross-validation, and why is it useful?

Cross-validation is a technique for assessing the generalizability of a model by dividing the dataset into multiple smaller sets (folds). The model is trained on a subset of the data (training set), and its performance is evaluated on the remaining data (validation set).

This process is repeated multiple times, rotating the training and validation sets, and the average performance is used to estimate the model's generalization error. Cross-validation helps prevent overfitting and better estimates model performance on unseen data.

9. How is feature selection important in machine learning?

Feature selection is identifying the most relevant input features that provide the best predictive power for building machine learning models. The importance of feature selection lies in:

  1. Reducing overfitting: Using fewer features makes the model less complex and less likely to fit the noise in the training data.
  2. Improving model accuracy: Irrelevant or redundant features can lead to a decrease in model accuracy.
  3. Reducing training time: The training process takes less computational resources and time by working with fewer features.
  4. Enhancing model interpretability: A model with fewer features is easier to understand and explain.

10. Write a Python function to compute the Euclidean distance between two points

11. Describe the steps involved in the k-Nearest Neighbors algorithm

The k-Nearest Neighbors (k-NN) algorithm is a lazy learning, instance-based algorithm used for classification and regression tasks. The steps involved in the algorithm are:

  1. Determine the value of 'k', the number of nearest neighbors to consider.
  2. Calculate the distance between the target instance and every other instance in the dataset.
  3. Sort the distances to find the 'k' nearest instances.
  4. Return the most frequent class among the 'k' nearest instances for classification. Return the average of the 'k' nearest instances' labels for regression.
k-Nearest Neighbors algorithm in ML interview questions

12. Describe the main challenges associated with working with imbalanced datasets

Imbalanced datasets are characterized by having a significantly larger number of samples in one class than in others. Challenges associated with imbalanced datasets include:

  1. Poor performance on minority class: Most machine learning algorithms optimize for overall accuracy, so they tend to perform poorly on the minority class due to their bias towards the majority class.
  2. Inappropriate evaluation metrics: Accuracy may not be an appropriate performance metric for imbalanced datasets, as it might produce high accuracy even with a poor model. Alternative metrics like precision, recall, F1-score, and the area under the ROC curve should be considered.

13. How can you handle missing values in a dataset?

Missing values in a dataset can be handled using several strategies:

  1. Remove rows with missing values: If the number of rows with missing data is small, deleting them may not result in significant information loss.
  2. Remove columns with missing values: If some columns have a large amount of missing data, it might be better to remove them altogether.
  3. Impute missing values using mean, median, or mode: Replace missing values with a central tendency measure of the feature, such as mean, median, or mode.
  4. Impute missing values using other techniques: More advanced imputation techniques like k-Nearest Neighbors or regression-based methods can be used.

14. Explain linear regression and how it works

Linear regression is a supervised machine learning algorithm that models the relationship between input features (independent variables) and a continuous target variable (dependent variable) by fitting a linear equation to the observed data.

Linear regression for machine learning interview prep

Linear regression aims to minimize the sum of squared residuals (the differences between the predicted values and the actual values), seeking the best-fitting regression line.

15. Explain the concept of overfitting and how to prevent it

Overfitting occurs when a machine learning model captures the noise in the training data, leading to high performance on the training set but poor performance on unseen data. To prevent overfitting, one can use:

  1. Regularization techniques like L1 or L2 regularization, which add a penalty term to the loss function, discouraging the model from having overly complex weights.
  2. Cross-validation to estimate model performance on unseen data and adjust complexity accordingly.
  3. Early stopping during training to prevent the model from fitting noise in the training data.
  4. Increasing the size of the training dataset or use data augmentation techniques.
  5. Ensemble learning methods that combine the predictions of multiple models.

16. Explain the difference between batch gradient descent, stochastic gradient descent, and mini-batch gradient descent

  1. Batch gradient descent: Calculates the gradient of the entire dataset and updates the model parameters in a single iteration. It is computationally expensive for large datasets but provides a stable convergence.
  2. Stochastic gradient descent: Updates the model parameters by calculating the gradient for each individual data point, resulting in faster convergence but more noise in the update directions.
  3. Mini-batch gradient descent: A compromise between batch and stochastic, it updates the model parameters using a small batch of data points, balancing computational efficiency and convergence stability.

17. Explain the concept of dropout in neural networks

Dropout is a regularization technique in which a fraction of the neurons in a layer is randomly "dropped" or deactivated during training, preventing the model from relying too heavily on a particular neuron and encouraging it to learn a more distributed representation. Dropout reduces overfitting and improves model generalization.

Dropout in neural networks for machine learning interview prep

18. How does transfer learning work?

Transfer learning leverages a pre-trained model, often on a large dataset, to solve a similar, potentially smaller-scale problem. The pre-trained model's weights are fine-tuned on the target task using a smaller learning rate, allowing it to adapt to the specific domain without overwriting the generalized learned features. Transfer learning allows for faster convergence and better performance with limited data.

19. Discuss the differences between long short-term memory (LSTM) and gated recurrent unit (GRU)

LSTM and GRU are popular types of recurrent neural networks (RNNs) that address the vanishing gradient problem in traditional RNNs, allowing them to capture long-range dependencies. The differences between LSTM and GRU are as follows:

  1. LSTM uses three gates (input, forget, and output) while GRU uses two gates (update and reset).
  2. GRU has fewer parameters, making it faster and more computationally efficient than LSTM but possibly less expressive.
  3. LSTM maintains a separate cell state and hidden state. At the same time, GRU uses a single hidden state.

20. How does a convolutional neural network (CNN) work?

A CNN is a deep learning model designed to work with grid-like data like images. It consists of convolutional layers, pooling layers, and fully connected layers. The convolutional layers apply filters to local patches of input data, effectively learning spatial hierarchies of features. Pooling layers reduce the spatial dimensions of the input, performing downsampling. Fully connected layers are used for classification or regression, combining the high-level features extracted by convolutional and pooling layers.

The concept of a convolutional neural network in ML: machine learning interview questions and answers

21. Explain the main differences between reinforcement learning (RL) and supervised learning

In supervised learning, a labeled dataset is provided, and the goal is to learn a mapping from input features to the target labels. In reinforcement learning, an agent interacts with an environment to learn optimal actions and decisions based on receiving feedback in the form of rewards or penalties. In RL, there is no explicit guidance or correct action to be taken, and the agent learns through trial and error, refining its policy over time to maximize the cumulative reward.

22. What is the concept of sequence-to-sequence models?

Sequence-to-sequence models are a type of deep learning architecture designed to handle problems where input and output are variable-length sequences. They typically consist of an encoder-decoder architecture, where the encoder processes the input sequence and compresses it into a fixed-size context vector. The decoder generates an output sequence based on the context vector.

Sequence-to-sequence models are commonly used in machine translation, text summarization, and speech recognition.

23. Describe the difference between model-based and model-free reinforcement learning

In model-based reinforcement learning, the agent learns a model of the environment, which includes the transition dynamics and reward function. The agent uses this model to plan and make decisions, considering future state transitions and rewards.

In model-free reinforcement learning, the agent does not learn a model of the environment. Instead, it directly learns a policy or value function through trial and error, without explicitly estimating the environment's dynamics or reward function.

24. Explain the concept of an autoencoder

An autoencoder is an unsupervised deep learning model that learns efficient data encodings by minimizing the reconstruction error between the input data and the model's output. Autoencoders typically have an encoder-decoder architecture, where the encoder maps the input data into a lower-dimensional latent space, and the decoder reconstructs the original data from the latent representation.

25. What is the idea behind one-shot and few-shot learning?

One-shot learning and few-shot learning are techniques used to build models that can recognize new concepts or classes with very limited training data. In one-shot learning, the model must learn to recognize new objects or classes based on just one or very few samples. In few-shot learning, the model is provided with a small set of examples for each new class. Techniques such as memory-augmented neural networks, meta-learning, or transfer learning are used to enable models to learn effectively with limited data.

26. Describe the actor-critic method in reinforcement learning

The actor-critic method is a model-free reinforcement learning algorithm that combines both value-based and policy-based approaches. The 'actor' component represents the policy, which takes actions in the environment. The 'critic' component represents the value function, which evaluates the quality of these actions. The actor-critic method uses the critic's feedback to update the actor's policy, and the critic itself is updated based on the rewards and value estimates observed during the interaction with the environment.

27. Can you briefly explain the concept of Bayesian optimization?

Bayesian optimization is a sequential model-based optimization method that aims to find the global optimum of a complex, potentially expensive, black-box function with a limited number of evaluations. The core idea is to model the function using a probabilistic surrogate model, such as a Gaussian Process, and select the next evaluation point based on an acquisition function that balances exploration (sampling points with high uncertainty) and exploitation (sampling points with high predicted values). Common acquisition functions include Expected Improvement, Probability of Improvement, and Upper Confidence Bound.

28. Explain the concept of AdaBoost

AdaBoost (Adaptive Boosting) is an ensemble learning method that combines the predictions of multiple weak learners to form a single strong learner. AdaBoost trains a sequence of weak learners (such as decision stumps) iteratively, with each learner focusing on the instances that the previous learner misclassified. The final prediction is a weighted vote of the weak learner's predictions, where the weights depend on the weak learner's performance.

29. What is gradient boosting, and how does it differ from AdaBoost?

Gradient Boosting is an ensemble learning method that, just like AdaBoost, combines weak learners in a sequence. However, while AdaBoost focuses on misclassified samples, Gradient Boosting fits the weak learners on the negative gradient of the loss function for the model's current predictions.

This means that Gradient Boosting tries to correct the residuals (errors) of the previous learner, iteratively improving the model. Gradient Boosting supports any differentiable loss function and learner type, making it more flexible than AdaBoost.

30. How does a Restricted Boltzmann Machine (RBM) work?

An RBM is a generative stochastic neural network consisting of visible and hidden layers but no direct connections between nodes. It learns to represent the distribution of the training data by maximizing the likelihood of the input data. RBMs are trained using an unsupervised learning algorithm called contrastive divergence, which updates the weights based on the difference between the data and the model's learned distribution. RBMs can be used for dimensionality reduction, feature extraction, and collaborative filtering.

31. Explain the difference between collaborative filtering and content-based filtering in recommender systems

Collaborative filtering leverages user-item interactions to recommend items to users based on their similarity to other users or items. It has two main approaches:

  1. User-based: Recommendations are based on users who have similar preferences or behavior patterns.
  2. Item-based: Recommendations are based on items similar to those the user has previously interacted with or liked.

Content-based filtering recommends items based on their features, matching those with the preferences or interests of the user. It uses the similarity between item features and user profiles to make recommendations.

32. Describe the attention mechanism in deep learning

The attention mechanism is a technique used in sequence-to-sequence models to improve their ability to handle long-range dependencies. Attention selectively focuses on parts of the input sequence relevant to the current output element. It computes a context vector as a weighted sum of input states, using learnable weights determined by the model's hidden states.

The attention mechanism allows the model to dynamically allocate its "attention" to different input elements, enhancing its performance in tasks like machine translation and text summarization.

33. What is the concept of adversarial training in deep learning?

Adversarial training is a technique used to improve the robustness of deep learning models by exposing them to adversarial examples — input instances that are slightly perturbed to confuse the model and lead to erroneous predictions.

Adversarial training modifies the training process by introducing adversarial examples and minimizing the error on both the original and adversarial instances. This enables the model to learn a more robust representation, becoming resistant to adversarial attacks and small perturbations in the data.

Advanced machine learning interview questions and answers

As you progress in your career as a machine learning engineer, technical interviews may become more challenging, targeting your expertise in advanced concepts, optimization techniques, and the ability to solve complex problems.

Staying on top of current trends and research developments and gaining practical experience in deploying machine learning algorithms is essential for success in these interviews.

Technical interviewers often look for candidates with deep insight into various complex aspects of machine learning and a strong understanding of optimizing and enhancing models for particular use cases. We’ve curated a list of advanced machine learning interview questions and short answers to help you take your interview preparation to the next level and showcase your expertise with confidence.

34. Write a Python function to implement min-max scaling on a NumPy array

Code sample:

35. Explain the difference between R-squared and Adjusted R-squared in regression

Both R-squared and Adjusted R-squared are metrics used to assess the goodness-of-fit of a regression model.

  1. R-squared measures the proportion of variance in the dependent variable that is explained by the independent variables. However, it has the limitation of increasing as more variables are added to the model, regardless of their contribution to model performance.
  2. Adjusted R-squared addresses this limitation by incorporating a penalty for the number of variables. It increases only when a variable significantly contributes to the model's performance, providing a more reliable estimate of model quality.

36. Explain the differences between L1 and L2 regularization

L1 and L2 regularization are techniques used to reduce overfitting by adding a penalty term to the loss function, discouraging models from having overly complex weights.

  1. L1 regularization, also known as Lasso regularization, adds the absolute value of the weights to the loss function. This can lead to sparse solutions, where some parameters are forced to be exactly zero, effectively performing feature selection.
  2. L2 regularization, also known as Ridge regularization, adds the squared value of the weights to the loss function. It enforces smoothness in the learned function and reduces large-weight values without forcing them to be exactly zero.

37. Explain Variational Autoencoders (VAEs) and their advantages over traditional autoencoders

VAEs are a type of generative model that extends autoencoders with a probabilistic twist. Instead of learning deterministic latent representations, VAEs learn the probability distribution parameters for the latent variables. The encoder outputs the mean and variance of the latent distribution, while the decoder reconstructs the input data based on samples drawn from this distribution.

VAEs impose a more structured latent space than traditional autoencoders, enabling data reconstruction and various generative tasks, such as sampling new data points from the learned distribution.

38. Explain the BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) model

BERT is a state-of-the-art transformer-based model for natural language processing tasks such as question answering, sentiment analysis, and text summarization. It uses bidirectional self-attention, meaning it can capture relationships between words in both directions.

BERT is pre-trained on large text corpora using masked language modeling and next-sentence prediction tasks, allowing it to learn powerful contextual representations. Fine-tuning BERT on specific tasks enables it to achieve high performance with less training data and time compared to training a model from scratch.

39. Explain the idea of spectral clustering

Spectral clustering is an unsupervised learning technique for partitioning a dataset into clusters. It uses the data's similarity graph and the eigenvectors of its Laplacian matrix to find low-dimensional embeddings. Spectral clustering performs dimensionality reduction and clustering simultaneously, enabling it to discover complex and non-convex cluster structures that traditional clustering methods, like k-means, might not detect.

40. How do conditional variational autoencoders (CVAEs) work?

CVAEs are a generative model that extends Variational Autoencoders to handle conditional generation. In a CVAE, the encoder and decoder networks receive additional conditioning input, such as a label, a text description, or any other relevant information.

The encoder produces the conditional latent distribution parameters, and the decoder generates data samples conditioned on both the latent variables and the conditioning input. CVAEs enable the generation of data with specific attributes or characteristics, making them useful in tasks such as image-to-image translation and text-based image generation.

41. Elaborate on the focal loss and its application in object detection

Focal loss is a variant of the regular cross-entropy loss, designed to address the issue of imbalance between positive and negative examples in object detection tasks. The key idea is to down-weight the contribution of easy examples during training, focusing more on the hard examples. Focal loss introduces a modulating factor that reduces the importance of well-classified examples, allowing the model to concentrate on more challenging cases. Focal loss is used in the RetinaNet object detector, which achieves state-of-the-art performance on various object detection benchmarks.

42. What is a capsule network (CapsNet), and how does it differ from a convolutional neural network (CNN)?

A capsule network is a type of neural network that aims to alleviate issues with CNNs, such as their inability to capture precise spatial hierarchies and viewpoint invariance. CapsNet consists of capsules, which are groups of neurons that capture the presence and properties of specific features. The network uses a dynamic routing mechanism to establish part-whole relationships between lower and higher-level capsules, allowing it to understand spatial and hierarchical relationships better than CNNs.

Capsule network in machine learning: interview questions for experienced engineers


In conclusion, preparing for a machine learning interview can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. Take you time to familiarize yourself with these top 42 machine learning interview questions and answers as you apply for remote machine learning engineer jobs.

Remember, practice makes perfect, so take the time to review these questions and understand the underlying concepts. As you continue to hone your skills and expand your understanding of machine learning, you will not only increase your chances of landing your dream job but also contribute to the exciting and ever-evolving field of artificial intelligence. Good luck!

Gayane Hakobyan
written byContent Strategist, Remote Lifestyle & Career, EPAM Anywhere

With a focus on remote lifestyle and career development, Gayane shares practical insight and career advice that informs and empowers tech talent to thrive in the world of remote work.

With a focus on remote lifestyle and career development, Gayane shares practical insight and career advice that informs and empowers tech talent to thrive in the world of remote work.

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