Under pressure

Programmers are confessing their coding sins to protest a broken job interview process

“Whiteboard” interviews are widely hated. They also discriminate against people who are already underrepresented in the field.

Under pressure

Programmers are confessing their coding sins to protest a broken job interview process

“Whiteboard” interviews are widely hated. They also discriminate against people who are already underrepresented in the field.
Under pressure

Programmers are confessing their coding sins to protest a broken job interview process

“Whiteboard” interviews are widely hated. They also discriminate against people who are already underrepresented in the field.

David Heinemeier Hansson, a well-known programmer and the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails coding framework, was the one who started it.

Evolve

“Hello, my name is David,” he wrote on Twitter. “I look code up on the internet all the time.”

Immediately, other techies picked up the meme. “Hello my name is Sadiksha, I am working on rails since 2011. I don’t know migrations syntax to add/remove column, I google it everytime,” one coder said. “Hello, my name is Tim. I’m a lead at Google with over 30 years coding experience and I need to look up how to get length of a python string,” tweeted another.

The sentiment had clearly struck a chord. Hansson, also known as DHH, was alluding to the common practice of what he calls “whiteboard algorithm hazing,” in which potential hires are put through a grueling interview process that relies heavily on technical questions.

This interview style, widely used by major tech companies including Google and Amazon, typically pits candidates against a whiteboard without access to reference material — a scenario working programmers say is demoralizing and an unrealistic test of actual ability.

“The only world where you would actually need to be able to recall an algorithm would be a post-apocalyptic one, where the hard drives of all the computers connected to the internet were fried, and all copies of foundational academic papers and computer science textbooks had been reduced to ashes,” coding instructor Quincy Larson wrote in a blog post. “Whiteboard interviewing is a discrete skill, much like being able to remember Pi to a thousand decimal places.”

People spend weeks preparing for this process, afraid that the interviewer will quiz them on the one obscure algorithm they haven’t studied. “A cottage industry has emerged that reminds us uncomfortably of SAT prep,” Karla Monterroso, VP of programs for Code2040, an organization for black and Latino techies, wrote in a critique of the whiteboard interview. “An individual can spend thousands of dollars learning the cultural norms necessary to get themselves into a desk at a technology firm.”

Those speaking up on Twitter now appear to be predominantly white and male. However, this style of interview has been repeatedly criticized for contributing to the industry’s diversity problem.

The process “freezes out many of the people who are underrepresented in the software development field,” Larson wrote. “If you’re busy working and raising kids, you want to spend as much of your scarce time as possible learning to code — not performing rote memorization that won’t matter once you start your job.”

This means companies tend to favor recent computer science grads from top-tier schools who have had time to cram; in other words, it doesn’t help diversify the field with women, older people, and people of color.

There’s evidence to back this up. In December, Aline Lerner, one of the founders of Interviewing.io, a service that lets people practice for technical interviews and even interview for some companies anonymously, wrote a blog post titled “You can’t fix diversity in tech without fixing the technical interview.”

“After drawing on data from thousands of technical interviews, it’s become clear to us that technical interviewing is a process whose results are nondeterministic and often arbitrary,” she wrote. “We believe that technical interviewing is a broken process for everyone but that the flaws within the system hit underrepresented groups the hardest.”

Some companies, including Foursquare, have already dropped the whiteboard interview. Perhaps DHH’s meme will inspire more.

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