How to Ace Your Whiteboard Interview
Whiteboard tests. The tech industry has a love-hate relationship with the things. Some organizations love them and use the whiteboard to put candidates on the spot. They want to gauge how well they perform in high-pressure situations and observe their problem-solving skills.
Candidates who don’t do well in those types of scenarios hate them. Whether you love or hate the whiteboard interview, here’s a look at whiteboard tests and how you can crush them.
Whiteboard Tests are Exactly What They Sound Like
If you’re interviewing for jobs in the tech industry, you might think that hiring practices are also high-tech. Maybe “Whiteboard” is the name for some program or GitHub-like operating environment where you can demonstrate your abilities, right?
Unfortunately, no. In fact, they are about as simple as they sound. A whiteboard test involves a literal whiteboard – as in the tall, potentially wide, white type. You’re given dry erase pens and a problem to solve.
You’re supposed to demonstrate your coding ability, knowledge and — most importantly — problem-solving process. On a whiteboard. Out loud. On the spot. Yaaaay.
The Why Behind the Whiteboard
Like Google’s puzzle questions, whiteboard tests feel like an unnecessary hazing ritual, and tech companies are the usual offenders here. But understanding why companies like whiteboard tests can help you do well.
The reason whiteboard tests are increasingly popular is simple — writing a problem out highlights how you process information and respond to things. It isn’t just about showing off your knowledge.
By putting a candidate on the spot with a problem to solve, organizations get to see what your problem-solving style is, and what skills for finding solutions you have. Companies are considering hiring you to fix problems for them — so they want to see how you act under pressure. For companies trying to hire new developers, coders, and even managers, a whiteboard test can demonstrate your thought process and whether you’re a fit for their team.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean whiteboard tests are executed perfectly. We’ll talk a bit about why later. But some companies might be relying on them too much while using them incorrectly.
How to Prepare to Crush Your Next Whiteboard Test
Often, companies will tell you your interview problem ahead of time. Or at least give you a ballpark idea. Why? Whiteboard tests are about process, not knowledge (usually). Having an idea of what’s coming can help you relax and prepare — yet be challenged. Here are several ways to ensure you’re prepared for your next whiteboard exam.
1. Buy a whiteboard — and use it
Practice makes perfect. We recommend you use Kaplan® IT Training Practice Exams while studying for certification exams. You should do the same for whiteboard tests. What better way to prepare for a whiteboard test than using an actual whiteboard?
Using a whiteboard to practice will help you pace yourself and determine how you’ll go about drawing out solutions in a confined area. It’ll force you to be concise, yet thorough, with your visualizations. Having a sense of what works and what doesn’t is great prep for the real test.
Being even slightly more comfortable using a whiteboard also will help you feel more confident. At the very least, you’ll be well-versed in making sure you take your pen cap off before you dive in. You don’t want to get flustered and lose focus over the small things, so whiteboard it up.
2. Work through practice questions
Find a coworker or two who can run with you through some practice questions. Have them listen to you as you work through practice questions and scenarios. Then, let them give you honest feedback. They will likely pick up on cues or mannerisms that are unbeknownst to you. Being able to address any possible distractions can make for a more polished whiteboard presentation.
If possible, find someone who isn’t as tech-savvy to practice with. You need to be able to break down problems and determine solutions to them efficiently and quickly. There’s also a chance there will be non-technical folks in your interview. Being able to explain complex concepts in a way everyone in the room understands is crucial.
Working through practice questions (hopefully on a whiteboard) will help you hone your ability to communicate your thoughts more efficiently.
3. Watch someone else run through one
We often learn best from others. If you already work in tech, there’s a good chance someone in your professional network has done a whiteboard test. Tap into that network and see if they are willing to do a mock whiteboard test. You’re bound to pick up some tricks you can use. At the very least, you can ask them lots of questions.
Does your company use whiteboard tests to vet candidates? Maybe you could sit in on an interview. If all else fails, you can probably find recordings of people going through the whiteboard testing process.
Being able to step back and be an audience member is helpful. You can take note of what does and doesn’t work. Then you can turn around and apply that knowledge to your own approach. You’ll be even more ready for the actual whiteboard test.
4. Get a good night’s rest
This should speak for itself! Going into a whiteboard test without a good night’s rest is setting yourself up for failure. It’s akin to showing up to run a race wearing heavy boots: you’re going to be sluggish.
Of all the tips we’ve shared, this one involves the least effort. Make sure you hit the hay at a reasonable hour and give yourself plenty of time to sleep.
Getting Strategic about Whiteboard Tests
Unsurprisingly, there are people who have really gone to town on optimizing the whiteboard test (it’s the internet, after all). Here are some of the more interesting whiteboard approaches we found.
One writer recommends splitting your whiteboard into three and devoting the right side to your assumptions and what sort of inputs your problem set is receiving. The left is your approach to the solutions, and the center your implementation techniques.
Other whiteboard veterans strongly recommend you write in one simple sentence the problem you’re trying to fix somewhere prominently. They explained that it’ll help you anchor all your questions and solutions back to the problem itself.
Another person touted using this thought process: Parameters, Return, Example, Pseudocode (PREP). Following that mnemonic can help you uncover the right solution in a logical way that shows clear thinking. Again, establishing a process to help you break down a problem, lay it out, and put together solutions is important.
Whiteboard tests don’t have a specific format. But finding one that works for you could make or break your comfort level in front of an interview panel. Practicing on a whiteboard in front of people like we recommended earlier should help you test what strategies work best for you.
Pitfalls of Whiteboard Tests
Whiteboard tests can be problematic for companies. For example, some companies require whiteboard tests because that’s the way it’s “always been done”. This mindset turns the whiteboard test into a hazing ritual. If you notice a combative tone or a “my way or the highway” attitude about minutiae, tread carefully.
A whiteboard test can also fail if someone on the hiring committee isn’t as technically knowledgeable as they should be. If someone believes something is categorically false about the solution or recommendation you made, don’t get high and mighty. Remember the test isn’t about knowledge, it’s about problem-solving. Be polite, courteous, and helpful if someone isn’t following your presentation.
Companies shouldn’t rely solely on whiteboard tests. However, they are popular in the tech world. You should be prepared to encounter one, especially if you are a developer or programmer.
The Bottom Line about Whiteboard Tests
If a company asks you to do a whiteboard test as a part of its hiring process, don’t be afraid! Remember one thing above all else: The whiteboard test is meant to observe your problem-solving strategies and abilities.
Acing a whiteboard test falls on your knowledge and training – that’s for sure. But you’d be falling into a trap if you went into a test thinking that you needed the right answer every time without help. Companies want to see if you’ll ask for help. Or if you’ll find creative solutions to problems outside of your experience and familiarity.
Very likely the problem set you’ll be faced with will be technical in nature. However, the underlying intention will be to watch you work through a challenging problem — and how you arrive at solving the issue. Keep a level head, speak reasonably, and keep your eye on the prize.