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XML Interview Questions

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Superficially, this is a fairly basic question. However, the point is not to determine whether candidates understand the concept of a parser but rather have them walk through the process of parsing XML documents step-by-step. Determining whether a non-validating or validating parser is needed, choosing the appropriate parser, and handling errors are all important aspects to this process that should be included in the candidate's response.

Although XML does not require data to be validated against a DTD, many of the benefits of using the technology are derived from being able to validate XML documents against business or technical architecture rules. Polling for the list of DTDs that developers have worked with provides insight to their general exposure to the technology. The ideal candidate will have knowledge of several of the commonly used DTDs such as FpML, DocBook, HRML, and RDF, as well as experience designing a custom DTD for a particular project where no standard existed.

Successful candidates should recognize this as one of the most basic applications of XSLT. If they are not able to construct a reply similar to the example below, they should at least be able to identify the components necessary for this operation: xsl:template to match the appropriate XML element, xsl:value-of to select the attribute value, and the optional xsl:apply-templates to continue processing the document.

Extract Attributes from XML Data
Example 1.

<xsl:template match="element-name">
Attribute Value:
<xsl:value-of select="@attribute"/>
<xsl:apply-templates/>
</xsl:template>

Every interview session should have at least one trick question. Although possible when using SGML, XML DTDs don't support defining external entity references in attribute values. It's more important for the candidate to respond to this question in a logical way than than the candidate know the somewhat obscure answer.

The way candidates answer this question may provide insight into their view of XML data. For those who view XML primarily as a way to denote structure for text files, a common answer is to build a full-text search and handle the data similarly to the way Internet portals handle HTML pages. Others consider XML as a standard way of transferring structured data between disparate systems. These candidates often describe some scheme of importing XML into a relational or object database and relying on the database's engine for searching. Lastly, candidates that have worked with vendors specializing in this area often say that the best way the handle this situation is to use a third party software package optimized for XML data.

Obviously, some important areas of XML technologies were not included in this list -- namespaces, XPointer, XLink, and so on -- and should be added to the interviewer's set of questions if applicable to the particular position that the candidate is applying for. However, these questions in conjunction with others to assess soft skills (communication skills, ability to work on teams, leadership ability, etc.) will help determine how well candidates understand the fundamental principles of XML.

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