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Today I experienced a first in a technical interview. The candidate refused to use the whiteboard to solve an algorithm question, as I requested. There was no sort of disability at play or anything (outside of nervousness). He simply said that he is uncomfortable using a whiteboard for difficult questions.

Oddly enough, we were able to work through it with me standing over his shoulder looking at his notepad. He even communicated his thoughts effectively enough for me to help him over the inevitable bumps. After this I asked him how he felt about collaborative work (as collaboration here is heavy) and he said he loves it. I asked him if he likes to get together with other developers to hash over problems on the whiteboard to which he said yes.

Is this some sort of red flag or am I just reading too much into this? In our environment, collaboration is a must.

ADDITIONAL DETAIL:

The candidate was being evaluated for a lead development position, in which case he spends much of his time communicating with his developers and less time coding than an individual contributor.

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marked as duplicate by gnat, MichaelT, Dan Pichelman, Ozz, Kilian Foth Sep 24 '13 at 8:46

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Two words: performance anxiety. If that's not a red flag, I'd say ignore it. –  Ross Patterson Feb 25 '13 at 23:03
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He might have felt uncomfortable standing at the moment due to the stress of the interview - I know my legs feel weak sometimes when I'm stressed, and it would kinda suck to keel over during an interview. –  Tacroy Feb 25 '13 at 23:05
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What are you looking to evaluate with the whiteboard test? How fast he thinks on his feet, how neatly he writes on the board, how he talks through a problem attack..., and how is it relevant to the interview and the position you are looking to fill? And note: If you can't answer this question IMMEDIATELY, you should probably reconsider whether this is actually doing anything useful. (Note: Testing motivation is not necessarily bad. Many of the early astronaut screening tests had nothing to do with space, but were good tests of motivation.) –  John R. Strohm Feb 25 '13 at 23:14
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Whiteboards are like ballpoint pens: Too slippery. My writing is illegible (or gigantic) when I use either. Did he use a pencil or a gel pen (they're slightly more scratchy than ballpoints) on his notepad? –  Izkata Feb 26 '13 at 3:20
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If this stuck out in your mind and is making you think twice about him, rethink the whole interview and see what is really bugging you. It is my experience that uneasy feelings rarely go away after you hire someone. –  Tyanna Feb 26 '13 at 7:06

6 Answers 6

up vote 60 down vote accepted

I wouldn't be too concerned about it. You aren't hiring him to work on a whiteboard; you're hiring him to work at a keyboard. The whiteboard is an in-interview technique to help demonstrate his competence. If that doesn't work well for him, but he's able to demonstrate his competence in other ways, then that's an irrelevant implementation detail.

From what you've written, he seems to be good at communicating and working through problems, and you noted that he was able to accomplish the required work on a notepad. This solves the same problem as the whiteboard does: it gives the candidate somewhere to work through the process more slowly than typing, and without a Backspace key, while the interviewer watches to get a feel for their thought process. From what's written here, I don't see any good reason not to hire him based on this.

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+1 "You aren't hiring him to work on a whiteboard; you're hiring him to work at a keyboard.". Anyway, standing at a whiteboard is akin to giving a presentation, which a lot of people never got rid of the lump in their throat from speech class in 8th grade. However, I commend him for being honest with you about his limitations. –  gahooa Feb 26 '13 at 1:04
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@gahooa ~ While I agree with you that it's good that he was honest, I'd like to say that developers have to give presentations all the time, especially a lead dev. I feel a candidate should be able to stand up and sell himself and his skills in an interview. That's why their there after all. :) –  Tyanna Feb 26 '13 at 7:04
    
@Tyanna Yes, that was the root of my trepidation. Seems as though most disagree though, so perhaps I am being overly cautious. –  smp7d Feb 26 '13 at 14:56
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@gahooa I don't think whiteboard coding and giving a technical presentation are particularly similar, apart from the 'standing up in front of a group of people' part. They can require vastly different thought processes and preparation techniques and, potentially, personality types. If the position being hired for includes giving technical presentations, that aspect should probably be dealt with specifically in the interview. –  Eric King Feb 26 '13 at 15:56

There's a big difference between hashing out code on a whiteboard when brainstorming and hashing code out on a whiteboard when there's a guy who already knows the answer staring at you and waiting for you to make a mistake. Some people get really nervous in that environment. And even if you are not nervous, being in technical interviews all day takes it out of you.

Case in point, I was recently the interviewee and the interviewer asked me a whiteboard coding question that I not only knew the answer to cold, I had written a freakin' blog article on how to do it. I was so mentally worn out after two solid days of talking about programming languages and doing coding questions that I just blanked on it and it took me probably ten times longer than it should have to write the solution. Very embarrassing. I can easily see how someone nervous about an interview could blank on any question instantly.

I have been on the interviewer side and had candidates who told me ahead of time -- like, days ahead of time -- that they were uncomfortable with whiteboarding. They asked if there could be some other way to test their knowledge of basic algorithms. Given that warning, I'm fine with actually setting up a machine in the user's preferred development environment, giving my coding problems, and letting them hash it out for reals.

In short, I don't consider it a "red flag", but that said it is reasonable for the candidate to let you know in advance that they show off their skills best in some other way.

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Oh, wow. You're not with Microsoft anymore? –  Mason Wheeler Feb 25 '13 at 23:21
    
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That's when you write: 'blogs.msdn.com/b/ericlippert/'; Then 'search for <topic>' as your answer on the whiteboard. –  Mr.Mindor Feb 26 '13 at 3:49
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To be honest, I am surprised that you even had to do technical interview. For me, if you applied at my company, I will only be talking about salary numbers. In your case as well, Coverity shouldn't really need to interview you, you are the most prominent team member of C# compiler team and your writing proves that you know your shit. :) –  SolutionYogi Feb 26 '13 at 22:10

While I probably would have followed up with a question about what sort of problem he feels is whiteboardable, I can kind of see his point. If you're close enough to write on a whiteboard, you're too close to see the entire thing without moving your head. For certain kinds of algorithms that could be frustrating. I prefer whiteboards for writing a line or two, then stepping back to think about it. The higher the writing to thinking ratio, the more I prefer an editor or a piece of paper. In fact, I've been known to do a bunch of quick typing in my editor, then transfer the list to a whiteboard for the thinking part.

What might be seen as an eccentricity I see as a high degree of self awareness. I would rather hire someone who knows he is more efficient on paper and asserts it, than someone who has no idea. Also keep in mind that not all disabilities are visible. He could be blind in one eye, or have limited peripheral vision, and prefers not to tell people unless absolutely necessary.

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+1 for invisible disabilities. These are hard to catch and almost always the person doesn't want to tell unless absolutely necessary. Good point –  PhD Feb 26 '13 at 2:07
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Lefty here. That's not even a disability, but it makes my whiteboard writing look either sloppy (as my hand rubs over whatever I just wrote) or illegible (as I twist my hand around trying not to do that). –  octern Feb 26 '13 at 6:49

I wouldn't be concerned at all, if his notepad work was otherwise acceptable.

Writing on a whiteboard is physically different enough from handwriting on a horizontal surface or typing that it's hard for some people to do "fluently". Scribbling diagrams and scrawling notes, as normally happens during whiteboard collaboration, is also very different from writing clear code.

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I'd be concerned with someone refusing a common request who doesn't feel the need to provide an explanation. Hopefully they phrased it as a preference and not a refusal. No indication that this is a temporary problem (twisted ankle?) That seems socially awkward to me. When hiring your imagination is just going run wild and come up with the worse-case scenarios.

If the position allows you to insulate this individual from working at the board, it's less of a problem, but what problem has this symptom? Leading others requires you to recognize when you're not putting people at ease and should make an effort to explain the situation. I refuse to use this framework, period = WTF?

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In what way is seeming socially awkward bad? –  Michael Shaw Feb 26 '13 at 14:36
    
Leading others requires you to recognize when you're not putting people at ease and should make an effort to explain the situation. Definitely. +1 for this part. That said, from self-confidence POV, it's still hugely different when you're in position of interviewee than in position of actual hired leader with a responsibility for people you had time to become familiar with. –  Alois Mahdal Apr 4 '13 at 21:00

I've been typing since I was 12 partially because I sucked at handwriting even then. If I'm handwriting a solution, 9/10 of my brain is on the writing part 1/20th is on the nervous part and what's left is some combination of what I ate that day, the funny thing my wife did, how the new guy compares to Leonard Nimoy and the problem. Give me a freaking computer not a whiteboard or a notepad. We don't all work and think in the same way.

More specific to your question, he doesn't like whiteboards? How does this hinder his ability to communicate to engineers in a world where we have 1,001 options to communicate any idea we want?

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+1 for the pie chart –  Alois Mahdal Apr 4 '13 at 20:55

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