Whiteboard tests have long been a job interview staple for software engineers and applicants for other technical roles, but an increasing number of companies are ditching this tried and true practice, opting for different ways to assess a candidate’s technical prowess.
Robert Half Technology, a recruiting firm that places tens of thousands of technical job candidates with employers across the country every year, has seen diminishing use of whiteboard tests among employers over the years, Thomas Vick, the firm’s regional director, told Built In.
And the “Hiring Without Whiteboards” GitHub page, sourced from more than 1,000 contributors, lists more than 900 companies where job candidates were not subjected to whiteboard interviews as part of their hiring processes. Employers on the list range from Fortune 500 companies to startups.
What Is a Whiteboard Test?
So, what does this mean for the job interview process?
Many candidates will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the days of standing at a glossy whiteboard — coding in front of interviewers who are scrutinizing their work and comments — are on the decline. And for employers, this shift can provide access to more candidates and, importantly, a more diverse talent pool.
How Effective Are Whiteboard Tests, Really?
Whiteboard tests have been around since the 1990s and are still favored by a number of companies including Amazon, Microsoft, Google and IBM.
The open-ended nature of traditional whiteboard tests provides a more holistic way to evaluate a candidate than a question with a right or wrong answer, Daniel Borowski, CEO of online technical assessment platform Coderbyte, told Built In. That’s because a whiteboard test allows interviewers to understand how the candidate thinks, troubleshoots and communicates.
But an increasing number of employers are finding even greater benefits when forgoing a traditional whiteboard test, instead opting for alternative means to assess a job candidate’s technical skills.
Those benefits include attracting a larger number of candidates who might otherwise pass on applying at a company for fear of taking a whiteboard test. It also reduces the risk of missing out on a qualified candidate because their nervousness prevented them from performing well on the test.
In fact, researchers from North Carolina State University and Microsoft found that computer science students consistently received lower scores when their technical problem-solving was assessed in a whiteboard test in front of an interviewer, compared to a setting where they solved the technical problem in a private room. This research suggests whiteboard tests may really be measuring how well candidates handle the stress of the interview setting, rather than their technical prowess.
“I wouldn’t say whiteboard tests will die, because there are still a lot of managers who hold onto that practice and are comfortable with that.”
Another benefit of ditching the whiteboard test in favor of alternative testing is expanding the pool of diverse candidates who don’t hold computer science college degrees, said Vick of Robert Half Technology.
Traditional whiteboard tests usually ask candidates to solve coding problems that involve data sets, algorithms and binary trees — subjects that computer science students learn about in college. But not all job applicants go to college. Some are newly minted tech workers coming from bootcamps, or self-taught coders who will learn quickly on the job but are not familiar with commonly used algorithms or data sets.
But the biggest reason why companies are ditching traditional whiteboard tests, which often set up hypothetical problems a job candidate won’t encounter once hired, is to create coding tests that will give them a better idea of what a candidate’s actual capabilities will be in their work environment, Vick said. To that end, companies may send candidates home with a coding project, rather than have them stand in front of a whiteboard coding on the spot.
Even with this shift, though, developers shouldn’t be too hopeful about never having to do another whiteboard test.
“I wouldn’t say whiteboard tests will die, because there are still a lot of managers who hold onto that practice and are comfortable with that,” Vick said.
Alternatives to Whiteboard Interviews
So what are companies replacing whiteboard tests with? Several alternatives are gaining traction.
One of the big trends Vick is noticing is that more companies have created testing environments where they can place candidates in situations similar to what they will likely face on the job and see how they would work toward creating a finished product. Often, the candidate will have three days to work on this project from home, given they may be juggling a full-time job. After the test is completed, the project is submitted and evaluated, with particular emphasis on the applicant’s methodology and thought process.
More Comprehensive Interviews
Some companies, like cybersecurity firm BeyondTrust, simply dive deeper into the technical details in their job interviews.
“In an interview, candidates will bring up a point and we’ll drill down on it. You start by asking, how did you get there? Can they speak intelligently on what they delivered and how they delivered it?” said Dermot Williams, senior director of engineering at BeyondTrust.
The intention is to draw out a candidate’s experience, discuss what they’ve done and the challenges they’ve come up against, and assess if they can think outside the box, Williams said.
“We have a pretty high success rate. It’s very rare we come across someone we’ve hired where we have regrets and missed the boat on their lacking technical expertise,” Williams told Built In.
The top reason Williams takes this approach with job candidates is that he’s concerned with keeping them at ease during the interview process. In his view, a whiteboard test is likely to drain them, which in turn could impede their efforts to put their best foot forward.
Projects Inspired by Real-Life Tasks
One way to keep job applicants at ease is to have them work on projects based on real-life situations that they may be familiar with. That was the case for Frances Coronel, senior software engineer at Byteboard, when she was interviewing at various companies before accepting a role at her current company.
Coronel interviewed at a startup that presented her with a simulated scenario troubleshooting a bug for a customer. The company sent her an alert with a hypothetical support ticket involving a problem encountered when a customer was trying to process images. As part of the test, she had to analyze the software bug, reply to a pretend customer agent on the employer’s platform and help them address the bug and explain why it was happening.
“This test was about testing my communication skills and the day-to-day process I use as an engineer, like my analytical skills and how to reverse-engineer a bug you run into,” Coronel said. “This tested my tangible real-world skills.”
She was also given a chance to pick the language she wanted to use in the coding test, which helped make the experience more positive.
Whiteboard Tests May Turn Some Candidates Off
For Coronel, this real-life coding test was a stark contrast to the first time she encountered a whiteboard test in an interview in 2015 with a cloud storage company at a conference.
Recruiters with the cloud storage company were friendly, but the man administering the whiteboard test was a bit standoffish and spoke very little during the 30-minute test, Coronel recalled.
“I felt that was one of the worst experiences I have ever had with a whiteboard test.”
He asked Coronel to reverse a binary search tree in any language of her choosing. And although it is common for job interviewers to provide guidance during a whiteboard test, the cloud storage tester remained quiet. Halfway through the test, he thanked Coronel for her time and asked her to leave.
“I felt that was one of the worst experiences I have ever had with a whiteboard test,” she said.
Another unfavorable experience occurred when she interviewed earlier this year with an email startup. Coronel was not expecting a whiteboard test and was surprised when they asked her to come up with pseudocode for a tic-tac-toe app, which had no relevance to what she would do on the job if hired.
As a result, Coronel and others like her may avoid interviewing at companies that conduct whiteboard tests.
“Candidates definitely take it into consideration,” said Vick, of Robert Half Technology. “They’re thinking, ‘What is the interview process going to look like, what are they going to ask me to do?’ and so on. So, yes, they definitely take into account whether there will be a whiteboard test.”