On whiteboard coding

Another day in which someone lamented to me the demeaning nature of the interview coding challenge. It is indeed embarrassing, when someone with more than two decades of software engineering experience is asked to complete a gotcha-style programming task under the watchful eye of an unhelpful interviewer. It ought to be embarassing for both of them if the modern IDE available to the candidate is a whiteboard, and a selection of coloured markers for syntax highlighting.

But here’s the problem: consistently, throughout those decades and longer, recruiting managers who hire programmers have been beset by candidates who can’t program. It’s such a desirable career path that plenty of people will try to enter, even those who hope to pick up on whatever it is they’re supposed to do once they get the job. And, indeed, that can be a good way to learn: what is Pete McBreen’s “Software Craftsmanship” other than an imperative for on-the-job learning and mentoring?

Many companies don’t have the capacity or ability to bring a keen learner up from scratch, or are hiring into roles where they expect more familiarity with the skill. Thus, the uncomfortable truth: to fix programmer interviews, you first need to fix programmer screening. Demonstrate that all candidates coming through the door are capable programmers at the required level, and hirers no longer need to test their programming skills.

Note: or do they? Maybe someone can program, but uses techniques that the rest of the team consider to be unnatural. Or they work best solo/paired/in a mob, and the team works best paired/in a mob/solo. Still, let's roll with it: remove the need for a test in the interview by only interviewing candidates who would pass the test.

The problem is that every approach to screening for programming comes with its own downsides.

The economic approach, as currently practised: keep people away by making the career less desirable, by laying off hundreds of thousands of practitioners. The problem here is plunging many people into financial uncertainty, and reducing the psychological safety of anyone who does remain.

Moving the problem upstream: sending out pre-interview coding challenges. This suffers many of the same problems as live coding, except that the candidate doesn’t have to meet the dull gaze of a bored interviewer, and the interviewer doesn’t know it was actually the candidate who completed the challenge. I suppose they could require the candidate to sign their submission, then share their key fingerprint in the interview. An additional problem is that the candidate needs time outside of the interview to complete the challenge, which can be difficult. Not as a difficult as finding the time to:

Maintain a public portfolio. This biases towards people with plenty of spare time, or who get to publish their day-job work, or at least don’t have an agreement with their day-job employer that they don’t work on outside projects.

Our last possibility is the more extreme: de-emphasize the importance of the programming skill, so that the reason employers don’t need to screen for it is that it’s less essential as a hiring criterion. This was tried before, with 1990s-style software engineering and particularly Computer-Aided Software Engineering (CASE). It didn’t get very far that time, but could do on a second go around.

About Graham

I make it faster and easier for you to create high-quality code.
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