For all of its quirks, the tech community is its own ecosystem with many unspoken rules and conversation points. But sometimes, you have to go against the grain and challenge the industry norms. Whiteboards should not be used during interviews with developer candidates.
For coders, the notion of being “whiteboarded” has become such a controversial topic when interviewing. There are lists dedicated to developers knowing which companies make interviewees write working code with an Erase-All marker.
Think about it: you’re asking someone who’s made it all the way through the tech interview process and into your conference room, and now they have to code in an environment that doesn’t represent their actual working environment. The whole thing is a nightmare when instead the applicant could have been given a laptop to turn something out that’s much more reflective of their capabilities.
Whiteboards can wait till later
Right now, every tech company from enterprise to startup is looking for someone to write code. One would assume that the big companies would have these scientific, broken down systems to check code quality, but it’s the exact opposite, they’re asking someone to scribble on a board error-free.
The problem lies within the execution: the candidate is typically tasked with solving a problem, transforming it into something usable. But whiteboard interviews don’t necessarily test for engineering aptitude.
And there’s also the issues of time limit or if the candidate is asked to write something they’ve never encountered before. This person who might’ve done well in school is suddenly put on the spot for a potentially outdated scenario. And for what? To see how they perform under pressure? That’s not a good indicator of coding skill. And then, the whiteboard isn’t a code editor, either. You can’t check to see if the code actually works, or benchmark it.
There’s a bunch of books for sale on whiteboarding interviews, but they feel so archaic. Basically, everyone copies the formula and the problem solving questions found in Cracking the Coding Interview and uses that to judge how ability is perceived and tested. Because the information is based on how developers at Apple, Microsoft, and Google are tested, it’s become gospel.
It’s time for a change in culture
One thing that a lot of people get wrong with whiteboarding is that the interviewer can lean on internal jargon or scenarios they’d like to see replicated but aren’t realistic to someone coming off the street. It’s crucial to know how someone would solve specific problems, and even look at a string to check it for errors, or if it was written poorly. This helps establish if the candidate understands necessary use cases before going complex. But, anything more than this is problematic.
What if there’s a difference of opinion whether or not something works? The writing on the board accomplishes nothing, but if the code was tested on a laptop, proven that it works, isn’t that what matters vs. perception of “showing critical thinking ability?”
Giving a candidate a hands-on coding exercise makes more sense. Allowing someone to Google things during the exercise is fine, that’s how developers actually work today. If whiteboard coding comes into play, it shouldn’t be about writing code, but for discussing core Computer Science knowledge and intuitions.
*Posted by an iOS developer on Twitter.
Maybe instead of obsessing about whiteboard interviews, why not dive into BitBucket or GitHub for developers? Take a look at what candidates are working on, what their ideas are. Companies like Atlassian and Google hold events where passion projects are worked on for 24 hours, with some leading to significant breakthroughs and even new tools or company-sponsored projects.
In terms of assessing developer candidates’ hard skills, whiteboard interviews just aren’t cutting it. They can be useful for conducting a brainstorming or idea-hashing session but not for writing actual code. Online technical assessment platforms like Codility are your best bet for running developers through coding exercises during the hiring process.
Conducting half-hearted exercises during whiteboard interviews only goes so far. Check out our guide to running better technical interviews.