One of the most nerve-racking parts of the interview process is the whiteboard test. Although developers and tech pros fear the interviewer who asks them to solve a problem on a whiteboard, things are clearly changing. Recruiters and companies are placing greater emphasis on other tests of candidates’ problem-solving abilities.
In HackerRank’s 2018 Skills Report, which questioned over 71,000 respondents on a variety of tech issues, there’s a (deeply buried) question about what employers and recruiters value in potential hires.
The clear winner (among businesses of all sizes) was problem solving: On average, 94.9 percent of respondents ranked this as a “core” desired competency in recruits. In distant second was programming language efficiency (56.6 percent), debugging (47.1 percent), and system design (40.3 percent).
“Demonstrating computational thinking or the ability to break down large, complex problems is just as valuable (if not more so) than the baseline technical skills required for a job,” HackerRank stated. In other words, testing for technical skills (i.e., whiteboard sessions and similar exams during the interview process) is eclipsed by the need for problem-solving (which is often tested by other means).
A traditional whiteboard tests usually measures proficiency in a specific language (for instance, Python). A problem-solving test measures the resourcefulness of a candidate, as well as their ability to think creatively.
Zsolt Rabi, a software engineer and founder of RabIT, a software engineering firm, noted in an email to Dice that his company uses an assignment that contains a set of web-development tasks that require the use of a specific design pattern, in addition to a specific programming language. Since schools don’t normally teach design pattern, it’s up to the candidate to problem-solve as best they can.
“This assignment proves extremely hard to most candidates,” Rabi wrote. “If they want to complete it, they must be persistent, do their research and depend on their intuition. We do this specifically to test their problem-solving skills, as well as their ability to work with new programming languages. This way we make sure that only the most resourceful developers make it to the final interview round.”
Mastering Abstraction (No Dry-Erase Board Required)
Mark Burgess, the head of sourcing at the UK-based Talent Locker, noted in an email to Dice that problem-solving has found its way into the testing part of all interviews. Instead of being asked to create perfect code, his recruits are evaluated more on knowing when they made a mistake—and their ability to correct those errors.
“We work with a global software house who are now using an inventive coding test to determine problem-solving in the candidates we line up,” Burgess wrote. “The test itself implies that the quality of code will dictate success or failure, which means that many great candidates fail it by trying to find the perfect answer. What the test is actually evaluating, is how quickly they can recognize problems that do occur, and how they react to solving the issues and bugs that have been created.”
Vaibhav Shah, the CEO of Techuz (which has offices in the U.S., India and Singapore) noted that there are ways to test candidates with small tasks that can discern technical skills and more abstract problem-solving abilities.
“In order to evaluate their coding skills in real time, tools like Skype Interview and CodePen are highly useful,” Shah wrote in an email. “These tools provide [an] in-browser code editor in which you can run and check the codes in real-time. Providing sample task not only helps you to evaluate their technical skills but also their communication, soft skills and work ethics.”
Terence Jackson, the chief information security office (CISO) at Thycotic, a provider of privileged access management (PAM) tools based in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email to Dice that trying to evaluate problem-solving skills has turned into a major factor when recruiting and hiring, especially for firms such as his that deal with cybersecurity.
“Tech departments have created their own case studies or simulations to weed out candidates and assess their decision-making capabilities, and hands on experiences with certain tools and software,” Jackson wrote.
However, this doesn’t mean that employers won’t subject candidates to an exam situation of some sort to test for a specific skill, especially if a candidate posts those on his or her résumé or presents a certificate to a potential employer. “Candidates frequently believe the number of certifications they possess will trump their actual experience,” Jackson noted. “Hiring managers know this to not be true, especially in the under-staffed function of higher-level cybersecurity roles.”
Still, Jackson added, no matter which way a recruiting firm or an enterprise designs tests for candidates, a degree of fairness is a must. “Employers should be careful in using these tests though to ensure there is no adverse impact to candidates,” he wrote. “They should be working with HR and/or Legal to ensure these tests are given fairly and consistently across open requisitions.”