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You wrote a trendy new messaging app, MeshMessage, to get around flaky cell phone coverage.
Instead of routing texts through cell towers, your app sends messages via the phones of nearby users, passing each message along from one phone to the next until it reaches the intended recipient. (Don't worry—the messages are encrypted while they're in transit.)
Some friends have been using your service, and they're complaining that it takes a long time for messages to get delivered. After some preliminary debugging, you suspect messages might not be taking the most direct route from the sender to the recipient.
Given information about active users on the network, find the shortest route for a message from one user (the sender) to another (the recipient). Return a list of users that make up this route.
There might be a few shortest delivery routes, all with the same length. For now, let's just return any shortest route.
Your network information takes the form of a dictionary mapping username strings to a list of other users nearby:
For the network above, a message from Jayden to Adam should have this route:
We can find the shortest route in time, where N is the number of users and M is the number of connections between them.
It's easy to write code that can get caught in an infinite loop for some inputs! Does your code always finish running?
What happens if there's no way for messages to get to the recipient?
What happens if the sender tries to send a message to themselves?
Users? Connections? Routes? What data structures can we build out of that? Let's run through some common ones and see if anything fits here.
Let's run with graphs for a bit and see how things go. Users will be nodes in our graph, and we'll draw edges between users who are close enough to message each other.
Our input dictionary already represents the graph we want in adjacency list format. Each key in the dictionary is a node, and the associated value—a list of connected nodes—is an adjacency list.
Is our graph directed or undirected? Weighted or unweighted?
For directed vs. undirected, we'll assume that if Min can transmit a message to Jayden, then Jayden can also transmit a message to Min. Our sample input definitely suggests this is the case. And it makes sense—they're the same distance from each other, after all. That means our graph is undirected.
What about weighted? We're not given any information suggesting that some transmissions are more expensive than others, so let's say our graph is unweighted.
These assumptions seem pretty reasonable, so we'll go with them here. But, this is a great place to step back and check in with your interviewer to make sure they agree with what you've decided so far.
Here's what our user network looks like as a graph:
Okay, how do we start looking around our graph to find the shortest route from one user to another?
Or, more generally, how do we find the shortest path from a start node to an end node in an unweighted, undirected graph?
There are two common ways to explore undirected graphs: depth-first search (DFS) and breadth-first search (BFS).
Which do we want here?
Since we're interested in finding the shortest path, BFS is the way to go.
Remember: both BFS and DFS will eventually find a path if one exists. The difference between the two is:
Okay, so let's do a breadth-first search of our graph starting from the sender and stopping when we find the recipient. Since we're using breadth-first search, we know that the first time we see the recipient, we'll have traveled to them along the shortest path.
To code this up, let's start with a standard implementation of breadth-first search:
It's a good idea to know breadth-first and depth-first search well enough to quickly write them out. They show up in a lot of graph problems.
Look at the nodes_already_seen set—that's really important and easy to forget. If we didn't have it, our algorithm would be slower (since we'd be revisiting tons of nodes) and it might never finish (if there's no path to the end node).
We're using a queue instead of a list because we want an efficient first-in-first-out (FIFO) structure with inserts and removes. If we used a list, appending would be , but removing elements from the front would be .
This seems like we're on the right track: we're doing a breadth-first search, which gets us from the start node to the end node along the shortest path.
But we're still missing an important piece: we didn't actually store our path anywhere. We need to reconstruct the path we took. How do we do that?
Well, we know that the first node in the path is start_node. And the next node in the path is ... well ... hmm.
Maybe we can start from the end and work backward? We know that the last node in the path is end_node. And the node before that is ... hmm.
We don't have enough information to actually reconstruct the path.
What additional information can we store to help us?
Well, to reconstruct our path, we'll need to somehow recover how we found each node. When do we find new nodes?
We find new nodes when iterating through current_node's neighbors.
So, each time we find a new node, let's jot down what current_node was when we found it. Like this:
Great. Now we just have to take that bookkeeping and use it to reconstruct our path! How do we do that?
Let's start by looking up start_node in our dictionary. Oops, it's just None.
Oh. Right. Our dictionary tells us which node comes before a given node on the shortest path. And nothing comes before the start node.
What about the end_node? If we look up the end node in how_we_reached_nodes, we'll get the node we were visiting when we found end_node. That's the node that comes right before the end node along the shortest path!
So, we'll actually be building our path backward from end_node to start_node.
Going back to our example, to recover the shortest path from Min to Adam:
We'd take this dictionary we built up during our search:
And, we'd use it to backtrack from the end node to the start node, recovering our path:
Chaining this together, the shortest path from Min to Adam is
Here's what this could look like in code:
One small thing though. Won't this return a path that has the recipient at the beginning?
Oh. Since we started our backtracking at the recipient's node, our path is going to come out backward. So, let's reverse it before returning it:
Okay. That'll work!
But, before we're done, let's think about edge cases and optimizations.
What are our edge cases, and how should we handle them?
What happens if there isn't a route from the sender to the recipient?
If that happens, then we'll finish searching the graph without ever reconstructing and returning the path. That's a valid outcome—it just means we can't deliver the message right now. So, if we finish our search and haven't returned yet, let's return None to indicate that no path was found.
What about if either the sender or recipient aren't in our user network?
That's invalid input, so we should raise an exception.
Any other edge cases?
Those two should be it. So, let's talk about optimizations. Can we make our algorithm run faster or take less space?
One thing that stands out is that we have two data structures— nodes_already_seen and how_we_reached_nodes—that are updated in similar ways. In fact, every time we add a node to nodes_already_seen, we also add it to how_we_reached_nodes. Do we need both of them?
We definitely need how_we_reached_nodes in order to reconstruct our path. What about nodes_already_seen?
Every node that appears in nodes_already_seen also appears in our dictionary. So, instead of keeping a separate set tracking nodes we've already seen, we can just use the keys in how_we_reached_nodes. This lets us get rid of nodes_already_seen, which saves us space.
We treat the input user network as a graph in adjacency list format. Then we do a breadth-first search from the sender, stopping once we reach the recipient.
In order to recover the actual shortest path from the sender to the recipient, we do two things:
To make sure our breadth-first search terminates, we're careful to avoid visiting any node twice. We could keep track of the nodes we've already seen in a set, but, to save space, we reuse the dictionary we've already set up for recovering the path.
Our solution has two main steps. First, we do a breadth-first search of the user network starting from the sender. Then, we use the results of our search to backtrack and find the shortest path.
How much work is a breadth-first search?
In the worst case, we'll go through the BFS loop once for every node in the graph, since we only ever add each node to nodes_to_visit once (we check how_we_reached_nodes to see if we've already added a node before). Each loop iteration involves a constant amount of work to dequeue the node and check if it's our end node. If we have n nodes, then this portion of the loop is .
But there's more to each loop iteration: we also look at the current node's neighbors. Over all of the nodes in the graph, checking the neighbors is , since it involves crossing each edge twice: once for each node at either end.
Putting this together, the complexity of the breadth-first search is .
BFS and DFS are common enough that it's often acceptable to just state their complexity as . Some interviewers might want you to derive it though, so definitely be ready in case they ask.
What about backtracking to determine the shortest path? Handling each node in the path is , and we could have at most N nodes in our shortest path. So, that's for building up the path. Then, it's another to reverse it. So, the total time complexity of our backtracking step is .
Putting these together, the time complexity of our entire algorithm is .
What about space complexity? The queue of nodes to visit, the mapping of nodes to previous nodes, and the final path ... they all store a constant amount of information per node. So, each data structure could take up to space if it stored information about all of our nodes. That means our overall space complexity is .
Our app's design has a formal name: a mesh network. In a mesh network, data is sent from one node (here, a phone) to another directly, rather than through intermediate devices (here, cell towers). Assuming enough devices are in range, mesh networks provide multiple possible transmission paths, making them reliable even if some devices have failed.
The tricky part was backtracking to assemble the path we used to reach our end_node. In general, it's helpful to think of backtracking as two steps:
And in this case, something interesting happened after we added how_we_reached_nodes—it made nodes_already_seen redundant! So we were able to remove it. A good reminder to always look through your variables at the end and see if there are any you can cut out.
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