The Future

Finding a better alternative to the whiteboard interview

Two engineers are looking for other ways to screen engineers and promote diversity.

The Future

Finding a better alternative to the whiteboard interview

Two engineers are looking for other ways to screen engineers and promote diversity.
The Future

Finding a better alternative to the whiteboard interview

Two engineers are looking for other ways to screen engineers and promote diversity.

Lots of programmers share the sentiment that the conventional interview process has some glaring issues. The hiring process often relies on complicated technical questions without allowing access to reference materials, creating an environment that some say is more reminiscent of SAT prep than any real work environment.

One engineer decided to do what computer science teaches you to when you encounter a problem: solve it.

On March 15, Lauren Tan, an engineer at Netflix who speaks regularly at conferences dedicated to programming languages, wondered out loud on Twitter: “Which companies don’t do typical whiteboard coding interviews?”

“It was mostly out of curiosity because I work at Netflix in Silicon Valley, and there’s a general impression that most Silicon Valley — or tech interviews in general — are very whiteboard-centric,” she told The Outline.

The number of responses the tweet received encouraged Tan to take her curiosity further and build an open list. She used Github, a free site primarily used by programmers to store code and collaborate with others online. The list has been up for less than a week, and at the time of writing, there were 376 companies on the list and it had been bookmarked more than 4,300 times.

Whiteboarding tends to favor those with more time to spend poring over interview prep books, as well as those who come from more traditional education backgrounds.

Each listing comes with a brief description of the company’s interview vetting process. Popular alternatives to the whiteboard interview include take-home projects with discussions afterward and pair programming, a method in which two programmers share the same computer and one types while the other directs. Despite the hoodie-up, hunched-back stereotype, the profession actually involves a lot of collaboration among colleagues, and the ability to explain one’s code in detail is a good indicator of future success.

Dave Renz, co-founder of New York product and development studio Tanooki Labs, eschews whiteboarding for a take-home assignment and follow-up code review and even pays his applicants. Tanooki offers a half day of pay to those interviewees selected to complete the take-home assignment. “By asking someone to take the time to do our code test, they are contributing value,” he told The Outline in an email. “So by paying them a modest amount for their time, we are also contributing to the shared effort.”

Tan isn’t the only one advocating against whiteboard interviews. They.whiteboarded.me, created by IBM Watson DevOps engineer Zack Zlotnik, maintains a list of companies that use whiteboarding-style interview techniques and companies that do not.

In addition to being a hostile process that does not mirror the real world, Zlotnik believes whiteboarding crowds out more diverse candidates. Zlotnik came to this conclusion after seven years of interviewing candidates as a corporate operations engineer at Google.

“It is no secret that technical interviews often require a great deal of preparation,” he told The Outline in an email. “For someone who is well-off, they can afford to take time off from work and dedicate time to prepare for a technical interview. For those who are not so well-off, they have to fit their interview prep into their normal routine. This puts anyone who has real-world obligations (such as caring for loved ones, etc.) at an immediate disadvantage.”

Whiteboarding tends to favor those with more time to spend poring over interview prep books (now in its 6th edition!), as well as those who come from more traditional education backgrounds. While the path to becoming a software engineer used to involve going to college and majoring in computer science, now candidates for engineering jobs also include autodidacts who taught themselves how to code and graduates of coding bootcamps, which teach web development fundamentals in a shortened period of time. This means non-traditional candidates can get a foothold in the industry without following a traditional path — but it doesn’t matter if they can’t get hired because of a fixation on memorizing trivia.

“As an interviewer, I learned there was no value in asking ‘gotcha’ questions since they yield very little information,” he said. “In fact, the only information to be gleaned is whether someone knows the answer to a question or not. What matters infinitely more is how they arrived at that point.”

By directing candidates to companies that don’t rely on whiteboarding, Zlotnik and Tan both hope to incentivize companies to rethink how they hire. “Many companies will not stop these practices until they have a good reason for doing so,” reads the FAQ on They Whiteboarded Me. “We, as tech workers, must provide that reason.”

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