5 Ways to Succeed at Your Next Whiteboard Interview

Having a job interview on the books can be incredibly stressful. But if you’re expecting the interviewer to insist on the whiteboard to show off your abilities, it doesn’t have to be nerve wrecking.

Mukai Matsiga of Galvanize provides some insight on how this portion of your interview could be a great opportunity to show your value.

The Purpose of the Whiteboard Test

For those of you in the tech industry who are unfamiliar, or just lucky enough to have never been asked to participate in one, the whiteboarding portion of the technical interview process typically consists of the interviewee hand-writing code in front of their potential future employer. Questions can range from simple concepts to the damn near impossible.

You might think: What gives? Couldn’t they just check out your coding sample via GitHub or shoot you a quick coding assessment to see if you write clean code? Sure, they could. However, they’d be missing out on a huge opportunity to see if you are, in fact, the right fit to join their team. The value companies derive from the whiteboard interview has a lot more to do with the individual they’re interviewing and a lot less to do with the code that the individual actually writes.

Is the code important? Yes. It’s still extremely important. Well then, what else is a potential employer getting out of the whiteboarding interview besides the answer to the question “can this person code?”

Your thought process, and ability to communicate that process, will provide more information about you as a developer than turning your back towards your interviewers and just silently writing the correct answer on the whiteboard. This goes back to the old adage from high school and college when your teachers asked you to “show your work.” Partial credit? Yeah, partial credit. Communicating your thought process, even if the code isn’t 100 percent correct, could actually help you land your dream job.

Some Tips

Your whiteboarding interview may be your first (and only) opportunity to truly demonstrate your technical ability. While you’ve got someone in the room with you, prove to them, beyond the code, that you are a productive, unique, precise, or even maniacal thinker. Also, follows these tips:

Clarify The Question

Before you even start to mark up the whiteboard, your first task is to reiterate the task at hand in your own words. Don’t be afraid to say things like, “just so I’m understanding this question correctly, you are looking for me to find X solution by utilizing Y technology?”

When you have framed the question in your own words, you’re demonstrating a few key attributes. First, it shows that you can listen and it’s your first opportunity to demonstrate your receptiveness and ability to take instruction, while also giving you an opportunity to grab any last minute suggestions or hints before you jump into the process.

Second, by reiterating the specific perimeters of the solution, as well as the technologies used (or steps that will need to be taken), you’re laying down an archetype of sorts for yourself, as well as for the interviewer, to refer back to if you ever get stuck or lost during the problem. Use this as your anchor. Write quick notes, or a technical word bank, on the corner of the board, then refer back to it often.

Highlight The How

After you’ve framed the solution, you’re off to the races. Remember to think out loud for most (if not all) of the exercise, highlighting how you are using the prominent pieces of technology that you are coding on the whiteboard.

Make sure you highlight check points – or smaller objectives – that you have completed along the way to solving the bigger problem. Often times, those interviewing you are willing to give you hints along the way, however, it’s almost impossible for them to help you in any capacity if they don’t know where your train of thought is headed.

Sell Your Value

Throughout the entire interview process, you are basically selling the commodity of ‘you’ to the company. You are selling your value, providing the “why” they should hire you. That’s why it’s so important to communicate your thought process. While you are demonstrating your talents, the interviewers are looking for your logical patterns and if you think within a similar ideology. They need to find out if they could work with you 40+ hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and that you can handle the heavy stuff.

Your ability to demonstrate that you are (or will be) a productive, skilled, culture fit for their team is necessary during this interaction. The tech industry is notorious for the long hours and late nights of coding. Because of this, when interviewing, it’s best to show your potential team that you have the ability to communicate with them, work on problems together, and come to a general solution of a task at hand. Simply put, show them that you are a cool person to work with.

Ask For Feedback

When you believe you’ve gone as far as you can, ask for feedback. Make sure to say, “I believe this should get the result you were looking for, does it look like that for you?” The point of this is to bring them back into the code, have them share their thoughts on your work, and interact throughout the critique process. A simple “okay, I understand” won’t get you too far, especially if they’re ripping your code apart. Connect the feedback they’re giving you to the things that you do know, chime in, and even help them with the critique process.

By doing this, you’ll show self-awareness, a trait that is a must-have for anyone entering a new opportunity with a new company. Show them that you’re a great listener, while also showing them that you’re great with feedback and understand how you would apply that feedback to future coding. If you can, get back to the whiteboard and redo some of the work that you’ve done, following along with their instruction and critique. Show them that you’re open to suggestions and that you’re a quick learner. Again, in doing this, you’re demonstrating that you can be a valuable member of their team that works well with others.

Practice & Prepare

Getting the final answer on a whiteboarding exercise won’t make or break your chance at getting the job. Sure, if you completely bomb the whiteboard, you may be out of luck. Tech companies need to bring someone on who knows what they’re doing. Again, it’s important to show off your communication skills and your thought process will have a much higher impact on those you are interviewing with.

The whiteboard portion of an interview doesn’t have to be dreadful. Of course, preparing for the technology on the job description is important. It is also important to set up practice questions with your tech buddies and participate in mock-whiteboards while talking through each step of your process on your way to the solution. If done correctly, the whiteboard interview can demonstrate the value you have beyond your coding ability and help you land your dream job.

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Galvanize campuses are home to an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs, skilled programmers, expert data scientists, and men and women motivated to make an impact. As different and diverse as we all are, we’re united by common values. Interested in entrepreneurship, web development, or data science? Check out the Galvanized Newsletter, bringing you the best content from The Learning Community for Technology.
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