Hiring guide for ANTLR Engineers

ANTLR Developer Hiring Guide

ANTLR (ANother Tool for Language Recognition) is a powerful parser generator for reading, processing, executing, or translating structured text or binary files. It's widely used to build languages, tools, and frameworks. Developed by Terence Parr in 1989 at Purdue University as part of his Ph.D. thesis work on computer science education software design patterns and later released to the public domain in 1992. ANTLR is now an open-source project under the BSD license that has been integrated into numerous commercial products due to its adaptability and efficiency. From a historical perspective, it represents a significant contribution to the field of compiler construction.

Ask the right questions secure the right ANTLR talent among an increasingly shrinking pool of talent.

First 20 minutes

General ANTLR app knowledge and experience

The first 20 minutes of the interview should seek to understand the candidate's general background in ANTLR application development, including their experience with various programming languages, databases, and their approach to designing scalable and maintainable systems.

How would you use ANTLR to create a simple parser?
Firstly, you need to define a grammar in ANTLR's format. This grammar will define the structure of your language. Then, you can use the ANTLR tool to generate a parser and lexer from this grammar. The generated parser and lexer can then be used in your application to parse input that matches the defined grammar.
What are the main components of ANTLR and their roles?
ANTLR mainly consists of a Lexer, Parser, and Tree Parser. The Lexer breaks input down into tokens, the Parser organizes these tokens into a parse tree based on the grammar rules, and the Tree Parser walks through the parse tree to execute the operations defined in the grammar.
Describe the difference between a lexer and a parser in ANTLR.
A lexer and a parser work together in ANTLR to interpret text. The lexer's job is to break down the input into a series of tokens, which are meaningful pieces of input. The parser then takes these tokens and organizes them according to the rules of the grammar. The lexer operates on a character level, while the parser operates on a token level.
How would you handle syntax errors in ANTLR?
ANTLR provides several mechanisms for handling syntax errors. You can define error-handling rules in your grammar, or you can override the default error-handling methods in the generated parser. ANTLR also provides hooks for you to add your own custom error-handling code.
What is the role of a grammar file in ANTLR?
A grammar file is where you define the structure of the language that you're parsing. This includes the rules for how tokens are recognized by the lexer, and how these tokens are organized by the parser. The grammar file serves as the blueprint for the parser and lexer that are generated by ANTLR.
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What you’re looking for early on

Does the candidate have a solid understanding of ANTLR?
Has the candidate demonstrated the ability to write ANTLR grammars?
Can the candidate solve complex problems using ANTLR?
Has the candidate shown the ability to integrate ANTLR tools into software development processes?

Next 20 minutes

Specific ANTLR development questions

The next 20 minutes of the interview should focus on the candidate's expertise with specific backend frameworks, their understanding of RESTful APIs, and their experience in handling data storage and retrieval efficiently.

How would you use ANTLR to support multiple versions of a language?
You can use ANTLR to support multiple versions of a language by defining a separate grammar for each version. You can then generate a separate parser and lexer for each grammar. When parsing input, you can choose the appropriate parser and lexer based on the version of the language that the input is in.
What are the steps to create a custom visitor in ANTLR?
To create a custom visitor in ANTLR, you first need to define a grammar with actions. Then, generate the parser and lexer from this grammar. After that, extend the base visitor class that was generated by ANTLR, and override the visit methods for the rules that you want to handle. Finally, you can use your custom visitor by creating an instance of it and calling the visit method with the parse tree as an argument.
Describe the difference between a visitor and a listener in ANTLR.
Both visitors and listeners are used to walk through a parse tree in ANTLR. The main difference is that visitors are more flexible and allow you to control the order in which the tree is traversed, while listeners are simpler and automatically walk the tree in a specific order. Visitors require you to manually call the visit method for each child node, while listeners automatically call the appropriate methods as they walk the tree.
How would you use semantic predicates in ANTLR?
Semantic predicates in ANTLR are used to add conditions to grammar rules. They are specified in curly braces {} and are written in the target language of the parser. When a rule with a semantic predicate is being evaluated, the predicate is executed and its result determines whether the rule is a match or not. This allows you to add dynamic behavior to your grammar.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of using ANTLR?
ANTLR has several advantages, such as its powerful and flexible syntax, support for multiple target languages, and error handling features. It also generates human-readable code, which can be debugged and modified if necessary. However, ANTLR also has some disadvantages. For example, it has a steep learning curve, especially for complex grammars. Additionally, the generated code can be quite large and may not be as efficient as a hand-written parser.
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The ideal back-end app developer

What you’re looking to see on the ANTLR engineer at this point.

At this point, a skilled ANTLR engineer should demonstrate strong problem-solving abilities, proficiency in ANTLR programming language, and knowledge of software development methodologies. Red flags include lack of hands-on experience, inability to articulate complex concepts, or unfamiliarity with standard coding practices.

Digging deeper

Code questions

These will help you see the candidate's real-world development capabilities with ANTLR.

What does the following ANTLR grammar do?
grammar Hello;
r : 'hello' ID;
ID : [a-z]+ ;
WS : [ \t\r\n]+ -> skip ;
The given ANTLR grammar defines a simple language that recognizes sentences of the form 'hello' followed by a lowercase word. 'hello' is a rule and ID is a token that matches one or more lowercase letters. WS is a token that matches any whitespace and skips it.
What does the following ANTLR grammar do?
grammar Calc;
prog: stat+;
stat: expr NEWLINE
    | ID '=' expr NEWLINE
    | NEWLINE;
expr: expr ('*' | '/') expr
    | expr ('+' | '-') expr
    | INT
    | ID
    | '(' expr ')';
ID  : [a-z]+ ;
INT : [0-9]+ ;
NEWLINE: '\r'? '\n' ;
WS  : [ \t]+ -> skip ;
This is a grammar for a simple calculator. It can evaluate expressions with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It also supports variables and assignment.
What does the following ANTLR grammar do?
grammar ArrayInit;
init: '{' values '}' ;
values: INT (',' INT)* ;
INT : [0-9]+ ;
WS : [ \t\r\n]+ -> skip ;
This ANTLR grammar recognizes a simple array initialization language. It matches an array of integers enclosed in braces, with elements separated by commas.
What does the following ANTLR grammar do?
grammar Multithread;
prog: stat+;
stat: 'start' ID NEWLINE
    | ID '=' 'run' '(' ID ')' NEWLINE
    | 'end' ID NEWLINE
    | NEWLINE;
ID  : [a-z]+ ;
NEWLINE: '\r'? '\n' ;
WS  : [ \t]+ -> skip ;
This ANTLR grammar recognizes a simple multithreading language. It can start and end threads, and assign threads to run specific tasks.

Wrap-up questions

Final candidate for ANTLR Developer role questions

The final few questions should evaluate the candidate's teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills. Additionally, assess their knowledge of microservices architecture, serverless computing, and how they handle ANTLR application deployments. Inquire about their experience in handling system failures and their approach to debugging and troubleshooting.

How would you use ANTLR to generate a lexer and parser in a different target language?
ANTLR supports multiple target languages, including Java, C#, Python, and JavaScript. To generate a lexer and parser in a different target language, you need to specify the language when you run the ANTLR tool. For example, to generate Java code, you would use the command 'antlr4 -Dlanguage=Java MyGrammar.g4'.
Describe the difference between LL and LR parsing in ANTLR.
LL and LR are two types of parsing algorithms that can be used in ANTLR. LL parsing is top-down, starting from the start rule and trying to match the input from left to right. LR parsing is bottom-up, starting from the input and trying to reduce it to the start rule. ANTLR uses LL parsing, which allows it to handle left-recursive grammars and provide better error messages.
How would you build a language interpreter using ANTLR?
To build a language interpreter using ANTLR, you would first define a grammar for your language. Then, use ANTLR to generate a lexer and parser from this grammar. You can then write a visitor or listener that walks the parse tree and executes the appropriate actions for each rule. The actions can be defined directly in the grammar, or in the visitor or listener.

ANTLR application related

Product Perfect's ANTLR development capabilities

Beyond hiring for your ANTLR engineering team, you may be in the market for additional help. Product Perfect provides seasoned expertise in ANTLR projects, and can engage in multiple capacities.