Stop Whiteboarding

Let’s reevaluate how we interview software engineering candidates

Gregory Mazurek
Jul 17, 2015 · 7 min read

The Interview

There’s a whiteboard in your future.

You’re nervous. You’ve wanted a new opportunity for some time and you’ve convinced a company to interview you. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself because you don’t want to ruin it. You’re capable. You’ve been programming computers for a while now. You like talking about this stuff. You like thinking about this stuff. You like meeting people who know more than you do about this stuff. But, you’re still worried.

The Intent & History

According to one version of history, the whiteboard was created in the late 1950s by a photographer named Martin Heit who realized that he could write on his negatives with a marker pen that could be easily erased afterwards.

A second version reads that the whiteboard was created by in early 1960 Albert Stallion who believed that enameled steel could replace chalkboards. A third version of the whiteboard’s history is that Edsger Dijkstra invented the wall-hanging as a means for screening front-end web developers for the University of Texas Austin’s Department of Engineering’s internal website’s social calendar.

  1. Job-specific knowledge
  2. Survival abilities when under pressure
  3. White-boarding skills

Outside Software Engineering

How does America hire welders? We now work for a construction company. In our new role, we have to hire some welders for our team.

The welders will be responsible for fusing metals for a series of new projects. They must have specific skills and they must be very talented because they will be working on critical parts of our infrastructure. So, how will we go about screening the welders to see if they have what it takes to work on our projects?

Don’t Hate The Whiteboard, Hate The Questions

The problem in software engineering interviews isn’t the act of writing on a whiteboard; it’s the questions being asked.

In general, we need to ask questions of software engineers. That can’t go away. In the same way we need to see a welder actually weld, we need to see a software engineer actually solve a problem.

One Alternative

I changed my interviewing approach this year in order to try to assess both a candidate’s job-specific knowledge as well as her communication and collaboration skills by asking a large question that fit within the domain of the candidate’s expertise and comfort area.

For example, I interviewed a smart 22 year-old computer science major college graduate for a front-end engineering position. He didn’t have much experience but he was passionate and had all the inspiring energy every company needs. The first question I asked was, “what are some of your favorite websites today?” He answered enthusiastically about a website that he spends hours browsing every week. So, we used that website as our foundation. Over the course of the next hour, I asked him to talk me through how he would architect the front-end for this website. As he gave me answers, I asked what he thought the downsides and upsides were. I asked whether he, as a consumer of this website, would like to see anything done differently in terms of performance or usability. It went on and on. I didn’t know anything about this website. This was the first time I saw it. But by starting with something that he was excited about, it was easy to have a technical conversation in which I began to understand what he knew very well and what he was capable of learning to fill in his gaps. Our focus was less about his ability to solve a concrete problem than his ability to think critically by applying his technical knowledge to a product he knew well.

Keep The Whiteboard

For the majority of candidates, we still need to ask technical questions that can give us insight into the candidate’s capabilities. Whiteboards neither help nor hurt but the questions we ask and the way in which we ask them can change the entire interviewing process.

Interviewing is stressful. It’s very hard to stand in front of a group of strangers and defend one’s abilities. I know some people who don’t leave their current position because they fear interviewing. How we interview can help those people.

The Rime of the Digital Mariner

A collection of works by Gregory Mazurek on software…

The Rime of the Digital Mariner

A collection of works by Gregory Mazurek on software engineering, user experiences, and writing novels.

Gregory Mazurek

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gregorymazurek.com

The Rime of the Digital Mariner

A collection of works by Gregory Mazurek on software engineering, user experiences, and writing novels.