Currently a standard at top-tier tech companies, whiteboard interviews became popular in the early 1990s alongside the introduction of the internet worldwide. Built off micro computers that were too heavy to bring to interviews, the whiteboard interview was introduced as a portion of the technical interview, which tests a candidate’s problem-solving skills and technical aptitude.
Engineering professionals were provided a problem to solve and a whiteboard on which to solve it. These interviews were designed to give the potential employer a glimpse into how one approaches problem solving, the ability to walk and talk the interview team through your brainstorming, and an opportunity for the hiring team to assess how well a potential hire collaborates, communicates, and accepts criticism.
While some companies still rely on traditional whiteboard interviews as a way to assess a candidate’s technical aptitude—and there are loads of resources to assist job seekers in mastering them—whiteboard interviews may not be the best option. The consensus in the present day is to either modernize and fine-tune them or eliminate them altogether.
Whiteboard interviews don’t provide an adequate simulation of the work environment
One of the biggest criticisms of whiteboard interviews is that they fail to achieve their intended goal: to mirror real work environments. Whiteboard interviews were initially designed with engineering students in mind, but technological advances have made them more nostalgic than practical. In their traditional form, they haven’t evolved at the same rate as the technologies they’re meant to assess.
Nicky Hoyland, CEO of Huler, a best-in-class consumer grade HR software ecosystem that employs over 60 full-time developers, does not follow the whiteboard interview format. “I personally just don’t think the process is reflective of how a developer would work day in day out,” she says. In addition, her company doesn’t use them because they don’t think the whiteboard or pen/paper is reflective of how code would be written, reviewed, and tested in real life. “Google/Stack Overflow is a developers biggest resource along with the machine/environment and tools they need (example the IDE—integrated development environment—where developers and programmers can maximize productivity by providing tight-knit components with similar user interfaces in a single program in which all development is done) so stripping those things away doesn’t provide a ‘real’ scenario.”
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Huler has found success with what they call “code review” live interviews that follow a similar three-point review structure as the whiteboard interview: observe, question, and document. This ensures an applicant is tested in the environment they’ll actually work in.
There are also virtual whiteboard interview alternatives that are both remote-friendly for the post-COVID world and more closely reflect day-to-day work. One such option is Hackerearth. The tool offers a library of pre-loaded and customizable assessments that simulate real-world problems with project-type questions. Another is Codility, which offers remote interviews with virtual whiteboarding and uses real-life tasks in a shared, live development environment so it more closely resembles the in-person whiteboard interview.
Whiteboard interviews can promote a homogeneous environment that leaves out underrepresented populations.
A clearly defined process and proper training for the interviewers to mitigate bias are crucial—something not traditionally considered during a whiteboard interview. Alicia Fasciocco, an HR business partner at CipherHealth, Inc., has had experience with whiteboard interviews as both an engineer and most recently an HR practitioner. She considers them an unfavorable hiring practice because of their possible adverse impact. “There is too much research that states these processes discourage or work against underrepresented groups. That is all the information we needed to avoid whiteboarding. Whiteboard tests can allow interviewer bias to not only affect the interviewee’s candidacy, but also their performance on the test.”
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“For roles that require a technical challenge, we offer a take-home test that is mindful of not taking advantage of candidates’ time,” Fasciocco says. “Candidates have agency and let us know when they are ready to receive the take home test. They are given a number of days to complete it, allowing space for explanations of why they did what they did. As of now, this process has had a positive impact on our technical hiring. However, we will continue to keep a close eye and if we find inequitable impact for underrepresented groups, we will change the process again.”
Selecting the right questions for whiteboard interviews can be tricky.
In many instances, the question(s) or problem(s) being solved during the whiteboard interview are sent to the candidate in advance so they have time to practice, prep, and fix errors. This head start, however, may matter very little if the problem or question is not properly curated. Whiteboard interview questions can neither be too simplistic nor too hard, and Jonathan says “gotcha”-type questions, which are intended to trip up candidates, backfire because they fail to really assess their skills.
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Hoyland offers an alternative for those who are dead-set on seeing problem-solving in real time without the use of an online application. She suggests, by way of example, using Excel to have candidates demonstrate and document how to work formulas, pivot tables, structures, and look ups. That type of question satisfies the whiteboard structure.
Read more: 6 Red Flags To Look for During Interviews
Whiteboard interviews are not appealing at all professional levels.
Companies’ interview processes should align with the level of the roles into which they’re seeking to hire. A whiteboard interview is better suited for entry-level technical candidates than more experienced developers and engineers. Jonathan, a director of engineering who asked to remain anonymous, believes whiteboard interviews are a sufficient way to test someone for a skillset who is fresh out of school and/or has limited experience, but someone like him with two degrees and open source code would possibly withdraw from the recruiting process if they were required to test in this way.
Whiteboard interviews can lead to stress interviews.
As more companies are adopting the philosophy that hiring for team fit is better than hiring for individual skills, the whiteboard interview does not support this. Because candidates are being assessed on their ability to problem solve, communicate how they are walking through the problem, and answer questions while under pressure, these types of interviews may not account for a candidate’s strengths.
Candidates aren’t afforded the opportunity to show how they will work in an actual team environment, how their strengths complement and support other teammates, and how well they can collaborate. Being in this highly pressurized environment, confronted with intimidation, adversity, and hostility, can ultimately destabilize a candidate and tailspin the interview into a stress interview.
Fasciocco’s firsthand experience echoes these concerns: “My experience on the other side of the table as a developer clarified to me that these challenges can be more of a test for anxiety rather than problem-solving skills. When faced with a real-life coding challenge, there are endless resources at your fingertips (Google, etc.). In a white boarding challenge, you have only the person on the other side of the screen. If that person has not established a trusting rapport at the start of the call and/or there is a social power dynamic at play, the candidate will not be set up for success.”
Read more: 6 Tips to Get Over Your Job Interview Nerves
About our sources
Nicky Hoyland is the founder and CEO of challenger tech brand Huler and CEO at MCG and DBLX. Hoyland is dedicated to revolutionizing how we work and shaping the future of the learning industry using the latest tech. She’s worked with organizations such as WomenInTech Network and Girls Who Code on her mission to close the gender gap in tech.
Alicia Fasciocco is an HR Business Partner at CipherHealth, Inc., where she’s responsible for helping to find great people to join their team, acclimate new hires, and come up with fun ideas to keep their team members happy and fulfilled in their roles.