Uber’s impressive string of fiascos has singlehandledly underscored the need for more women in tech. A company that lacks diversity often lacks an intrinsic system of checks and balances.
Uber, however, is not unique. The tech industry is riddled with gender gaps. And to date, attempts to bridge these gaps haven’t proved successful. Champions of change suggest evaluating the possible barriers to diversity, starting with the hiring process.
This then leads to a critique of the whiteboard, which typically serves as the gatekeeper to the the entire tech interviewing process.
I’ve a stake in this game as I aspire to live life in the tech lane. After working at a corporate law firm and spending the last eight years founding an impact-focused startup, I recently embarked on the Ada Developers Academy program. The intensive, year-long program is meant to provide women and people of non-binary gender with the opportunity to go from zero to coder in a short period of time.
Becoming a coder is one thing. Getting a job is a whole other. Among the biggest (and most controversial) hurdles is the whiteboard interview. Here’s my take:
Not familiar with the whiteboard interview?
Whiteboarding is the act of performing mental gymnastics on a blank canvas. The exercise is performed on demand, under a time limit with a side order of scrutiny by a complete stranger. To start, you enter a small cell and struggle to cram your value as a future employee into a quick chat just before being handed a question and marker. You’re then expected to make logic happen with your preferred computer language of choice.
Curious as to what questions are asked?
Determine whether a magazine article has the requisite letters to create a ransom note.
Given a sequence of numbers, return the number duplicated and the number skipped.
And my favorite, courtesy Amazon, set up a board game of Minesweeper.
It gets worse
If you manage to scribble a response that vaguely solves the challenge, typically within 30 minutes or less, you’ll then be tortured with questions about the Big O.
Nope. Not the ‘When Harry Met Sally’ Big O. But the ‘memory versus latency’ Big O and whether your whiteboard spit-balling is optimized for both.
Thanks to the power of Ada Developers Academy, I was formally introduced to the whiteboard a few months ago. Terrified, my first effort to conquer said whiteboard was a bona fide debacle. Moving from the keyboard to the felt tip marker was like camping without toilet paper. Luxuries such as auto-complete and Google search were stripped from me. All my thoughts, should I be so lucky to have any, were exposed to my interviewers, with no refuge but the bleak expanse of the whiteboard.
I prefer doing my mental gymnastics in the privacy of my Atom editor, thank you very much.
Two weeks ago, I completed six whiteboard interviews within five days. My mettle was tested by the likes of Amazon, Uber, Indeed and Nordstrom. While I won’t win any white boarding awards, I’m happy to report my performances were rock solid. I am, after all, not only a black woman, but a techie black woman. Ultimately, the siren call of a logic challenge trumped my fears of the felt tip marker.
Is the whiteboard interview effective?
Controversy surrounds the practice of whiteboard interviews. If I do land a gig at Amazon, chances are I won’t ever be asked to set up a game board of Minesweeper; which questions whether the whiteboard is an apt judge of skills that will be practiced in the workplace.
The process benefits those who think verbally, rather than those that require quiet, like me, to gather their thoughts; which questions whether the whiteboard can identify talent amoung varying personality types.
And while those who benefit from a formal computer science background have a distinct advantage, the entire practice can be gamed; which questions whether the whiteboard serves as a credible assessor of capacity and talent.
Within the tech industry, the whiteboard is considered a metric of meritocracy. Everyone is equal with a felt tip marker and a blank whiteboard is a slogan oft peddled and genuinely believed. Yet those with the luxury of time, money and as a result, resources, are more likely to crush this metric.
It’s also worth noting that only one of my six interviewers was a woman. And none were chocolate. In an industry obssessed with ‘culture fit’ that more often than not equates to ‘bromance’, the whiteboard claims to test not only your logic, but your work style. Thus, the whiteboard potentially becomes another perp that helps maintain the hue and testosterone of the tech industry.
I’m of two minds about it. My first mind tells me that interviewers witness not only my capacity to solve a problem, but how I attack it. They note what questions I ask when I’ve no idea what the hell they want from me and my marker. Finally, they’re able to judge, real time, how I react under pressure as well as how I get myself out of a tight spot.
On the flip side, I most enjoyed the interviews that involved the manager for whom I might work. It was an excellent opportunity to gauge chemistry. All of my interviews went well. Yet, in my best interviews, we exchanged not only marker strokes and strategies, but also shared insights and laughs.
My other mind tells me that these interviews fail to reveal how hungry I am to conquer the full stack. The whiteboard is not privy to what little free time I have and that it’s spent combing technical articles and books to hone my new craft. The whiteboard has no idea that when tensions run high and deadlines loom near, I’m most likely to crack a joke. While it may not be the Big O, my whiteboard will never know the transcendent joy I experience when building real apps for women IRL to solve real problems.
Ultimately, any process can be improved. And in an industry that not only prides itself on disruption but lives and dies by such, I find it interesting that the whiteboard interview remains impervious to change.