Perspective, Software Development

What are you looking for in your interview?

What’s the point of an interview? Before you jump to an answer, do you give your candidate’s coding tests? Some white-board challenges? Have you ever wondered why? Do you think it’s the best way? Recently I’ve encountered opinions that counter the traditional wisdom filtering candidates. Interviewing.io shared data that shows LinkedIn Endorsements don’t correlate to a candidate’s actual skill.

Recently, respected programmers have taken to Twitter to confess their programming sins. This prompted a discussion on the technical interview questions by The Outline. There is even a small industry to prepare candidates for Whiteboard Challenges. In the end, the hubbub about Whiteboard challenges comes from the fact we are using them wrong.

We interview this way because Employers need to feel comfortable about a candidate. For Software, this means verifying the skills of the candidate. And to a lesser extend verifying their ability to communicate. This sums up the entire purpose of an interview.

But what does my answer to a whiteboard challenge actually mean? Is there such a thing as a ‘correct’ response? At a deeper level, does my answer truly reflect my skills as a developer? I say it does not. It does not reflect your skills, unless you are referring to the ability to communicate/reason by drawing boxes and lines.

Don’t get me wrong though. The ability to present your designs on a whiteboard is a useful skill. But it is not the skill that an employer wants to check. Unfortunately, there isn’t a good way to measure some of the skills without seeing actual work. ‘Take-home tests’ in the interviewee’s preferred language are much more useful. Whiteboard challenges do not demonstrate the same skills.

That is not to say you should toss out Whiteboard challenges . What we need is to change our thinking. Whiteboard challenges may not show an interviewee’s ‘coding’ skills. But they do show the manner in which an interviewee thinks. If you ask someone to write out an algorithm on a whiteboard, you will see how they think about the algorithm. You will see how they remember it. If you ask them to create a new algorithm, something unique, you can learn how they explore a new problem. You’ll see what details they pay attention to. Moreover, you can introduce new requirements after they get started. This reveals how they will adapt.

All these insights are useful to know. But they are far less tangible/measurable. As with most hard to measure qualities, we tend to fail at measuring them. As a result, the tools created to measure them begin to be mis-used or mis-applied to find other tidbits. It ends up like using a fork to eat soup. It’s not very effective and wears you and your server out trying to get anything done.

So, if an interview is about revealing the skills of the interviewee, then we need technical interview questions. But using Whiteboard challenges still provides some benefits. But we cannot use whiteboard challenges as a litmus for programming skills. Instead, we should use them to pose unusual challenges which expose the way the interviewee thinks. This new form can also reveal how interviewees adapt to adversity. Those insights combined with more traditional evaluations will help businesses to find stronger, more suitable candidates. These candidates will be stronger not merely from a technical perspective but also from a cultural one. All it takes is using the tool for its proper purpose.

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