I suck at whiteboard interviews. Can I suggest an alternate process?
March 1, 2016 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm an experienced software engineer and manager. I have a number of successful projects under my belt and some really great companies on my resume. However, I'm really, really bad at the traditional whiteboard interview. I'm getting ready to start looking for a new job. Would it be worthwhile to request an alternative interview format?

You know the drill. A grueling 4-hour process where you meet 4 different people, and each one wants you to solve a difficult problem on a whiteboard while they watch. Sometimes this involves writing actual code on the whiteboard. Other times, it involves some kind of difficult mathematical or algorithmic problem. I am absolutely _terrible_ at this kind of interview. The whole thing makes me nervous and causes my brain to lock up. I absolutely cannot solve problems while someone is watching and evaluating me. When I solve problems in real life, I like to get away from my computer and meditate on it for a while. That's just how my brain works.

Thing is, I've had a really successful career as a software developer and manager. I've worked for some great companies, and have a proven track record of delivering results. I've spoken at conferences. I have code on github. I have a glowing set of references. The #1 thing that's held me back in my career is my difficulty with whiteboard interviews.

In my ideal scenario, a company would let me spend a weekend working on a project for them, and they'd judge me based on that. Or maybe they'd let me sit down at an actual computer to write code, and that would be a significant part of my on-site interview. In a slightly-less ideal scenario, I'd still have to do a whiteboard interview, but the interviewer would be working along with me to solve some kind of realistic problem. Really, anything is better than the standard interview where they give you some really hard (possibly abstract, possibly mathematical) problem to solve and they just stand there and watch you solve it. It's especially bad when they want me to write actual code (or pseduocode) on the whiteboard.

So here's the question -- is it worthwhile to request an alternative interview, or does that make me sound like some kind of lazy conman who's trying to talk my way into a job I'm not qualified for? I figure it's worthwhile to at least ask, but I don't want to ask if it will cause them to form a negative opinion of me or rescind the interview. I could say something to the effect of, "I love writing code and solving problems, but the standard whiteboard interview makes me nervous and I don't wind up giving a good impression of my skills. Is there a way I could maybe write some code for you instead? If not, I completely understand, and will be happy to come in for a standard interview."

I can think of a couple opportunities where I could request an alternative interview. Often, you wind up talking with an HR person or in-house recruiter before your technical phone screen. Other times, you have the opportunity to have a cup of coffee with someone in the company prior to your on-site.

A few things I should mention :

I've pretty much given up hope on becoming good at whiteboard interviews. I've tried mock interviews, I've tried working through the problems in books like Cracking The Coding Interview, I've tried relaxation techniques, I've even tried xanax. None of it works.

Also, I'm aware that a lot of companies let you write some code as part of their pre-screening process. However, all this usually does is qualify you for an on-site interview, which often winds up being the typical whiteboard horror story.

I'm living in NYC and working in big data, if that makes a difference.
posted by panama joe to Work & Money (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I hate whiteboard interviews too, both as a candidate and an interviewer. That said, as someone who has interviewed hundreds and hundreds of technical candidates and a variety of companies, I can't think of one time in which it would have been well-received to have a candidate ask for a different interview format than everyone else goes through. I imagine if there was some sort of disability accomodation it would be handled (I've never personally run into that -- I think it would get dealt with by the recruiting team without my direct knowledge), but if it's just for personal preference, it's a hard sell and I don't think it would do you any favors.

The good news is that I've seen a fair number of companies moving more toward the take-home project or similar format. It's not at all unheard of, and if you can find companies who do that, you should apply to them. I just don't think that as a candidate you're in a good position to get a company to change their process.
posted by primethyme at 11:07 AM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

is it worthwhile to request an alternative interview

posted by jeffamaphone at 11:22 AM on March 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

You might have better luck at small startups. At my (huge, established) company, it wouldn't necessarily be a red flag to the recruiter but they would politely deny your request 100% of the time, I suspect.
posted by serelliya at 11:33 AM on March 1, 2016

I hate whiteboard coding too, although the alternatives can be worse. Some companies now hand you a laptop in the interview and tell you to write an app from scratch to their specification. It sounds more practical, but is actually also quite hard to do without hickups. I know I found I was not practised at starting apps from scratch and setting up the basics quickly, since it's not something you do every day, or at all if working on someone else's major app. I found my IDE had changed the default templates since I last did that. I also was used to my own machine with my own keyboard shortcuts. It all went awkwardly and I ended up going home and practising that so I'd do better at it in the future. It's also hard to code with somebody looking over your shoulder and judging, but the only practise for that is interviewing.

I quite like the test at home method some startups do now - they email you what app to write and you sit at home, code up the app and then email them the source within the stated time limit.
posted by w0mbat at 11:37 AM on March 1, 2016

Response by poster: Thing is, I've had interviews where they sat me down with an IDE and asked me to write an app from scratch. I actually did really well. On both occasions, I was offered the job and accepted. They wound up being two of the best jobs of my career.
posted by panama joe at 11:40 AM on March 1, 2016

Best answer: Thing is, I've had interviews where they sat me down with an IDE and asked me to write an app from scratch.

I can't speak for others, but my point is that you are going to have much better luck by seeking out companies that already do this kind of thing, than by trying to convince a company that does whiteboard coding exercises to change their process for you. Many companies (including my current one) have people do coding on a laptop, or do pair programming, or send home small projects as an alternative to whiteboard coding. But my opinion is that your energy is best spent on seeking out those companies; not trying to change the process at companies that don't already do it.
posted by primethyme at 11:43 AM on March 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: But my opinion is that your energy is best spent on seeking out those companies; not trying to change the process at companies that don't already do it.

I see where you're coming from, but how does one find that out about a company without interviewing there? I'm not sure I trust Glassdoor...
posted by panama joe at 11:52 AM on March 1, 2016

Asking for an alternate format won't work at a lot of companies because they have standardized interview processes to remove variables and biases. They want to compare each candidate with exactly the same set of tools. They already know how successful employees respond to that process so they can use that to determine if you, too, will be a successful employee.

I agree with primethyme that you should, instead, seek out companies whose standardized interview process matches your preferred method already.
posted by joan_holloway at 11:55 AM on March 1, 2016

A good recruiter could help you with this. They'll have direct knowledge about the interview process at various companies and can filter for the ones that match.
posted by tinymegalo at 12:08 PM on March 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Where do you search for your tech jobs? Hacker News has monthly hiring posts (for example, this one for March 2016). The board has had many article posts against whiteboarding interviews and discussions about how they aren't effective for reasons you've mentioned. I'd assume many of those companies feel the same way if they are posting in that community.
posted by xtine at 12:13 PM on March 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm literally interviewing people for a coding job right now for a dotcom company you've heard of. I don't know this for certain, but I'm pretty sure we would never offer you an alternative interview format... it would be pretty unfair to the other candidates and make it hard to evaluate one vs another.

For whatever it's worth, I also hate whiteboard interviews.

That said, here's what we do:
1) Ask the candidate to complete a small project... in our case, it's just a simple little app that can be completed in an hour or two.
2) Do an initial screenings using HackerRank, just to suss out basic skill level.
3) Bring in a candidate, have them meet our crew and complete some more relevant-type tasks, also typically in HackerRank.
posted by ph00dz at 12:33 PM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think my stance on this would be to have a gentle "are you serious?" conversation with the people you are chatting with...

"Is Dry-Erase the main IDE you guys use here? I'm relieved, the last interview I was on asked me to develop the elevator algorithm with punched-cards!... Seriously though, unless this whiteboard has EMACS/vi/whatever, this isn't going to be very productive for anyone. I can barely read my own writing and I am uncomfortable asking you to."

Then follow up with "If you have a projector in here, I can hook up and we can get to it." At the very least, this would send a signal that you are self-assured and communicating with them at their level (people sitting on both side frequently think that it is a silly step).

The last alternative is to do it on the board anyway, but casually mention throughout how using the right tools would make the exercise more effective (whether it was text entry related, like tabbing or highlighted syntax elements or some other higher function more closely integrated into the IDE). It's possible that tying the process back to what you would do at your keyboard might even make you better at this kind of task!
posted by milqman at 12:47 PM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would get a list of whiteboard problems and practice them on a whiteboard.
posted by michaelh at 12:50 PM on March 1, 2016

Sorry, I see you say that won't work. I do think more practice will help, though.
posted by michaelh at 12:51 PM on March 1, 2016

Best answer: I work for a large tech company and I do some interviews. I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be able to take home a weekend project. First, it's hard to evaluate (some people don't have as many hours as others to spend on interview questions), and second--frankly--it's too difficult to prevent cheating.

However, I know people who have interviewed without doing coding. They were interviewing for management positions, not developer positions. And they were really solid on things like large scale design, system analyses, troubleshooting, etc. But they still had to draw their ideas on the whiteboard and they certainly couldn't just go somewhere and meditate on it.

I definitely think it's worthwhile to ask if you can do coding on a computer (that they provide or you provide) or if you can skip coding-specific interviews. But I would not make fun of whiteboard interviewing. It's the industry standard. You'd come off as out of touch with reality (and possibly difficult to work with).
posted by ethidda at 1:07 PM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Given that you know whiteboard interviews are fatal to you, no reason not to be assertive on that front.

But don't be apologetic -- make it into a bit of an alpha male play.

"Hi, recruiter -- glad to be invited to come in. Want to be sure you know I don't do whiteboard exercises. They aren't a good way for me to learn about a company's needs, or for me to communicate how my skills and experience will create value for a company. A real-time coding exercise on a laptop or workstation would be terrific, of course."

Worst they can say is "no."

(Don't do this at a company where a friend went out on a limb to get you an interview, of course.)
posted by MattD at 1:42 PM on March 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

I agree that it's worthwhile to ask if you can do coding on a computer, although I would be prepared for them to say no. There are some bigger startups that I know of who have you bring in a computer, though, so it could become standard practice eventually.

I also suck at whiteboard interviews and have recently found myself in the odd position of having to conduct them. They are, as ethidda says, industry standard. The best I can say is that practicing should be a more holistic effort. You ought to be having discussions like these with your colleagues often, explaining your solutions and diagramming things on the board, carrying the conversation toward a workable solution even when you're starting at a point of not having anything in mind. Most interviewers understand that you're nervous, so you don't have to be eloquent or right on the first try. The whole point of the interview is for the interviewer to learn how you think about abstracted technical problems so that they can build up a case for you to be hired.

I highly recommend that you do not make fun of whiteboard interviews or invite the interviewer to commiserate. You can bring up that you get nervous (we all do!) but don't tell us that what we're doing is stupid and pointless. We may have reservations about the format, but we are also frequently volunteering time to conduct interviews, prepare for them, and participate in evaluation meetings. We take interviewing and building our teams seriously and may have raised these same concerns during hiring planning, but lack the bandwidth to run interviews in a different way. Having a candidate question the process in a "this whole thing is ridiculous, no one is going to learn a thing about me, so I'm going to refuse to take this seriously" way is off-putting and disrespectful at best.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:43 PM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Haha, if someone tried to take command of the interview like milqman said, or pull an alpha-male power play as MattD said, no chance I would support hiring them. "Hey, here I am, oh you have an established process you use for interviews? Wow, that process is dumb, hope you're ready for me to change it as I see fit! Where's your projector cable?" Um, no.

I'd probably be especially sensitive to this kind of thing because I'm female, and generally when interview candidates come in and try to steamroll me, whether that means "suggesting and implementing changes in interview process" or "answering a question clearly not the same as what I asked", it's often clear in discussion afterwards that they only did it to me and not any of the other interviewers. At this point my reaction is knee-jerk: this candidate is disrespectful, and it's not unsafe to assume it's because of sexism. No hire.

A lot of the interview process is about putting you in an uncomfortable situation and trying to gauge how much of a jackass you are about it. *Nobody* enjoys whiteboard interviews. Literally nobody is better at coding on the whiteboard than on an actual computer. It's worth asking if they have any alternatives, sure. But keep in mind that while many interviewers will be sympathetic there's ultimately no way to avoid coming across as a bit of a prima donna.

panama joe, I think your best option is to try to find blogposts about the interview process and apply to places that have a process that fits your preferred style. It's seen as a selling point at a lot of companies to have a more innovative interview process than the standard 4 hours of sweating in front of the whiteboard.
posted by town of cats at 1:45 PM on March 1, 2016 [15 favorites]

Would it be of any help if they were out of sight, say watching you through a window?

And for what it's worth, to me, this sounds like it edges into a life-affecting anxiety issue. And that is plenty of reason to ask for accommodation, even if it's not granted. (Especially because it's not a true representative of the work you'd actually be doing IN the job.)
posted by stormyteal at 1:48 PM on March 1, 2016

To be clear, I agree with town of cats that this is NOT likely to work with any specific employer and some recruiters / hiring managers might go so far as to take offense. But if you know you flunk whiteboard interviews ... what's the risk?
posted by MattD at 1:53 PM on March 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I haven't hosted whiteboard interviews in a while, but back in the day-- the main point of a whiteboard interview was not to produce viable code, it was to showcase your problem-solving abilities. We all were far more impressed by the candidate who stood at the whiteboard and asked intelligent requirement-defining questions and started to map out how to solve the problem than by someone who just started throwing hand-rolled code up on the board. If you look at the whiteboard interview as an opportunity to showcase how you approach a problem, does that make it feel less anxiety-producing?
posted by instamatic at 2:13 PM on March 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: But if you know you flunk whiteboard interviews ... what's the risk?

Well, it ain't like that. I mean, whenever I do a round of interviewing, I ultimately wind up getting some offers -- just not always at the companies I was excited about. The fact is I'm just not very good at whiteboard interviews. They do a poor job of showcasing my skills as a developer and manager.

In any case, I'm not gonna go in there and give the recruiter or interviewer a bunch of attitude, so we don't need to follow that thread of conversation any further. I would only ask for special accommodation if there was a polite, tasteful way to do it.
posted by panama joe at 2:26 PM on March 1, 2016

I hire, and my interview process involves a practical exam component. If one of my applicants said they didn't want to take part in the standard practical exam, I would have to remove them from the application process. I can't evaluate a candidate who has only done 50% of the interview.

I do think that you can continue to apply broadly to jobs that interest you and then, when you're in the initial stages of scheduling an interview, ask a few questions about what the interview process is like. If they say "you'll be meeting with X, Y and Z and you should set aside three hours for the interview" or even "we do a whiteboard interview with blah blah blah" you can bow out of the process then without any wasted time.
posted by kate blank at 3:00 PM on March 1, 2016

As a person in your field, I would find this a strange request. The point of this style of interview is to see how you solve problems, not how you work in a day-to-day fashion. Pseudocode and white-board diagrams are great because they don't test for language expertise or memorized patterns, so you can't use your pre-existing models for the problem as a crutch.
posted by deathpanels at 5:45 PM on March 1, 2016

Remember that nobody cares about the whiteboard. The goal is to get an idea and that you have problem solving abilities in software across. You can do this by putting the whiteboard marker in your hand, waving it in the air, and talking to the interviewer. Now and then, draw a line or two for emphasis.

I would suggest practice. Before my last job change I would stay late or show up on weekends and practice by myself in an empty meeting room. I even recorded a few on video and watched them. It was hilarious. But I rocked my next interview and got the dream job I wanted.
posted by nickggully at 6:52 PM on March 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I work at a software company you've heard of. We know that candidates with lots of experience in industry, especially ones who have stayed at the same job for a long time, are often uncomfortable with whiteboard coding. If you told your recruiter that straight up ("I'm really rusty with whiteboard coding, and if you ever evaluate candidates in other ways, such as takehome exercises or coding onsite with a laptop, I'd be happy to have that be part of the evaluation process") we would do our best to accommodate you. You'd still have to do some whiteboard coding, but you'd increase your odds of getting evaluated in other ways as well, and we might even offer a practice "no fail" whiteboarding interview.

I really like it when a candidate volunteers to do a takehome, because often takehomes feel like a imposition on the candidate, and it's nice to know that they don't feel that way about it.

(Also, uh -- the approach cited in the response above would not fly where I work. Interviewers are expected to transcribe the code written by the interviewee. If you produce no code, you fail the question.)
posted by phoenixy at 8:12 PM on March 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm hiring for developers right now at my current place, and while researching I found this: https://stripe.com/jobs/engineering-onsite.pdf so I think you might have the most luck searching out places like this where you know what to expect going in. It's nice to see that world class platforms like Stripe seem to use a more practical interview structure.
posted by conkystconk at 5:25 AM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks to all for your help and advice. It's good to know that companies are starting to think beyond the whiteboard. I'll be on the lookout for companies that have a more innovative hiring process.

Unfortunately, lots of companies adhere to the whiteboard format, so I'll probably still have to deal with some of that. It doesn't seem like there's much to be lost by asking if I could do a take-home project or code on a laptop instead of a whiteboard. However, it seems like a bad idea to be insistant about it or suggest a completely different interview format. So I'll steer clear of that.

And yeah, I understand why companies want some kind of standardized interview process. But I'm continually astounded that so many see the whiteboard interview as the "gold standard" when in fact there's no research to back that up and they've never tried anything else. A bit incongruous for an industry predicated upon innovation and intellectual curiosity.
posted by panama joe at 12:48 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Haha, if someone tried to take command of the interview like milqman said, or pull an alpha-male power play as MattD said, no chance I would support hiring them.

Yeah. Seriously. I interview engineers for a company and product you've definitely heard of, and while I would accommodate a request for a different sort of interview, if someone tried milkman's strategy I would immediately show them the fucking door and make sure the recruiter blacklisted them for us. MattD's strategy would make me roll my eyes and I'd pass on bringing them in for an in-person.

JFC, milkman, that's the kind of thing that would hurt you at other companies, as everyone would tell their friends about the asshole who passive-aggressively complained about the whiteboard not being an IDE.

I'm not hiring someone to write stuff on a whiteboard all day, so if I notice someone being terrible at it, I would go down another path.

Actually, the first thing I ask is usually "tell my about some projects you've done", and if you were able to pull out your laptop and say "here's an application I built" I'd prob skip the whiteboard part altogether.
posted by sideshow at 11:36 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

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