Problem-Solving Skills: Think Beyond the Whiteboard Test

Mastering technical problem-solving skills involving data sets and algorithms are all fine and good, but getting a handle on these other problem-solving skills are equally important.

Written by Dawn Kawamoto
Published on Oct. 21, 2021
Problem-Solving Skills: Think Beyond the Whiteboard Test

Are you technically brilliant? Even a rock star? 

Sorry, that may not be good enough to get you hired or promoted, said Philippe Clavel, senior director of engineering at Roblox, a game development platform company based in San Mateo, California.

Mastering technical problem-solving skills involving data sets and algorithms are all fine and good, but getting a handle on these non-technical problem-solving skills are equally important, according to hiring managers.

Prior to joining Roblox, Clavel managed a technically brilliant engineer who had a toxic personality that constantly challenged others and failed to let them think, Clavel said. After giving feedback to the engineer about his behavior, Clavel paired him with someone more senior to ensure he and his teammates worked together in solving problems.

This engineer eventually started to change and realized it wasn’t so hard to temper his comments and even say hello to people. 

“The outcome was much better. He could do more with other people than what he could do alone,” Clavel told Built In. “It definitely speeded up the collaboration process by 20 percent because there was more discussion on the front end.”

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How You Sabotage Yourself

Without possessing non-technical problem-solving skills, you are likely to miss out on landing your dream job or securing that promotion you’ve been seeking.

“Technical skills can be acquired. What I’m looking for when I hire someone is can they learn quickly? Technology changes very quickly and you have to stay on top of it,” said Igor Grinkin, a DevOps manager at San Francisco-based Newfront Insurance.

Roughly 50 to 60 percent of job candidates that come through Roblox’s door believe their technical prowess is the only thing of importance to land the job, Clavel said. He noted this belief is especially prevalent among new college graduates. However, Roblox’s interview process tends to weed people who lack non-technical problem-solving skills by the time they reach Clavel for an interview, he said.

“I would say a lot of people think these skills aren’t important. But I will be honest, they are wrong. We especially see this in new engineers, but even senior engineers think this way. They think, ‘I’m so good at technology, there’s nothing else I need to know.’ But, what this does is it prevents you from having the job you really want, because that will be one of the differentiators with you as a candidate. Or, if you get the job, it will block you in your career,” he warned.  

Amazon Web Services (AWS) also places a high importance on non-technical problem-solving skills, according to Caitlyn Shim, a general manager and director of AWS Organizations and Accounts at the Seattle-based company. “We don’t want brilliant jerks,” said Shim.

“You can be extremely smart, but if you can’t work with others, you’re gonna have a really hard time in the end. Ultimately, we’re trying to tackle problems that one person can’t solve alone.”

She added if you can’t work in a group, then you’re limiting yourself to solving one-person-sized problems and limiting your career. 

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Why These Non-Technical Problem-Solving Skills Are Needed

Effective communication and collaboration skills are an “absolute must” for any job at autonomous vehicle maker Waymo, said Annie Cheng, engineering director at Mountain View, California-based Waymo. She, like other hiring managers, notes that solving big problems takes more than one person.  

You also need to learn from your mistakes, as well as have an open mind, when tackling problems, Cheng added, noting these attributes rank high in non-technical problem-solving skills.

“Being able to think out of the box, looking at things from different angles and considering alternative solutions is an important problem-solving skill, especially if you’re working on a novel, or a moonshot project,” Cheng said.

10 Critical Non-Technical Problem-Solving Skills

  1. Active listener
  2. Good communicator
  3. Collaborator
  4. Open mindedness
  5. Curious
  6. Creative
  7. Accepts feedback
  8. Learns quickly and from mistakes
  9. Attains consensus
  10. Drive to see problems through

Making mistakes is not only inevitable but it’s a key part to developing your problem-solving ability, said Cheng, noting it leads to learning from one’s mistakes.

Driving consensus is another non-technical problem-solving skill you should master, said hiring managers.

“We have passionate people who have really strong opinions but you also have to listen to each other. Then, you have to be able to figure out how to pull the right things from everyone’s ideas so that you can all come to a good consensus in the end,” Shim said. “That’s a skill in and of itself.”

Embracing feedback will grease your problem-solving skills and prevent you from becoming stuck to one idea, no matter how much you love it and believe it smacks of brilliant innovation, said Shim, noting it’s a tough but important skill to develop.

Drive is also critical to problem-solving skills, especially complex ones.

“In computer science and software development, you have to push to the finish line. But there’s a lot of complexity that may get in your way. While it’s easy to say you want to finish, you need to go the extra mile,” Clavel said.

Curiosity is also needed for problem-solving, he added. Engineers progress by wanting to learn more and that, in turn, adds to the bench of tools you can call on to solve problems.

These non-technical problem-solving skills are important for all technical roles, hiring managers said, but they note some skills, like effective communication, have greater weight for some positions.

Engineers who work in the product feature area at Roblox, for example, need to have good communication skills because they are working closely with designers in determining what users want. Excellent communication skills can help explain your vision to product managers and designers, said Clavel.

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Actionable Steps to Develop These Problem-Solving Skills

“There’s no silver bullet, as every person is unique,” Cheng said. “While some people naturally have good soft problem-solving skills, others might need to invest quite some time to develop those.”

Emotions also often overshadow the core problems you are trying to express, Cheng observed.

“One piece of advice I gave to a direct report years ago is first learn to detect whether they are in an emotional state and see if they can control their emotion while trying to express the core problem. When they find it challenging, use different communication methods, such as writing, so they can filter out emotions and focus on bringing clarity to the key problem statement,” Cheng said.

Talking to lay people in words they can understand can bolster your technical communication skills. This skill can also be developed by teaching courses or explaining your work to a fifth-grader, she added.

There are many different ways to develop your problem-solving skills — consider these five steps from authors John Bransford and Barry Stein detailed in their book, “The IDEAL Problem Solver: A Guide to Improved Thinking, Learning, and Creativity.”


  • Identify the problem
  • Define the challenges
  • Examine potential strategies
  • Act on the strategies
  • Look at the results and evaluate whether other actions are needed

Broaden your collaboration skills by going beyond the day-to-day scope of your work and try collaborating with coworkers outside your team on projects across the company, such as forming an ERG group or working with interest-based groups like a cycling or yoga group, Cheng said. She added these efforts may also improve your communication skills too.

Matching employees with other employees to help them grow is an effective solution to develop their non-technical problem-solving skills, Clavel said. 

Managers can also take other steps to help employees develop their non-technical problem-solving skills too.

Rather than telling your employee, ‘Hey, you need to focus on communicating better or improving your creativity,’ try giving examples over time, Clavel said. The combination of knowing they need to change and having examples as a framework leads to more realistic outcomes where they can develop these problem-solving skills, Clavel said.

“Engineers are smart and it’s a matter of learning how to apply your smartness to other areas.”

“You may not get all of the skills at once, but that’s OK. You may not be very good at communication, but you can compensate by your drive or creativity, or other of those skills.”

Self-discovery in developing non-technical problem-solving skills yields the best results, hiring managers said. 

That is what Shim saw at AWS.

“Someone used to present their ideas with a bunch of attitude and was kind of aggressive. But he saw when someone else would restate his ideas in a more open way, others would listen to it and were far more receptive,” Shim said. “That really helped him see it’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. He started to experiment with different presentation styles and found one that worked and felt natural for him.”

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