Will COVID-19 Kill the Whiteboard Test During Job Interviews?

Ah, the whiteboard test: Easily the most hated part of many job interviews. Being asked to write out the solution to a programming problem longhand, without Google or your saved code snippets—it’s tense, aggravating, and just not how you work. (What’s worse, some hiring managers won’t even accept pseudocode; they want your program written out like a machine would read it.)

But whiteboard tests depend on the job interview taking place in-person, and with COVID-19 forcing everyone to stay at home, other kinds of examinations are taking its place: homework assignments, for example, that candidates have a day or two to complete (how civilized!). Given how technologists tend to hate whiteboard tests, it’s worth questioning whether the practice will return to the same degree once the world “normalizes” again.

In 2018, we surveyed technologists about what they hated about the job-interview process. A full 42 percent said they disliked whiteboard tests, well ahead of “time that interviews take” (30 percent) and “potentially feeling dumb” (22 percent). No wonder there’s a GitHub repo that lists the companies that have abandoned the whiteboard test as part of the interview process; HR reps and hiring managers increasingly recognize that it’s maybe not the best way to evaluate technical aptitude.  

It’s easy to see why: The job candidate is given an erasable marker and a time limit, and needs to tackle a complex coding question. Insult to injury, some firms have been using the same whiteboard questions for years, meaning the problem you’re trying to solve might be grievously outdated by industry standards. It’s not a good way to determine whether you’ll actually build that iOS app to spec, or whether you can maintain an e-commerce portal amidst a flood of new traffic.

Indeed, solving whiteboard problems effectively often comes down to rote memorization and process—you remember all those theoretical concepts you learned in your CS courses in college, right? But seasoned developers know that tackling a problem in an elegant manner often comes down to creativity and innovation—and that a search engine is right there if you need to actually look up something. 

Or as Homebrew creator Max Howell once summed up, in an old-but-famous Tweet:

Will COVID-19 accelerate a trend away from whiteboard tests? It’s far too soon to tell. But if companies continue to rely on alternative means of testing, eventually those processes will become set in stone. While it seems unlikely that all companies will eventually eliminate the dreaded whiteboard, its prevalence may decline in favor of tests that actually evaluate technologists’ skills.

For more COVID-19 content, check out the COVID-19 Jobs Resource Center.