The broken engineering interview process

Imagine yourself in an interview, sitting in front of 5-10 others of your field. Midway through, the group’s questions drift from the personal and work experiential to the assessing and cross-examining.  They ask you to step up to The Whiteboard, marker in hand, and prove what you know.  Never mind that you’re not fresh out of college and that you haven’t taken a formal test in some time. Gone are the days when a good professional portfolio and list of references, along with a teamwork-minded personality, can get you a job.

These days in the engineering industry, you have to take an impromptu public test to prove your aptitude. I think this interview process is faddish at best and broken at worst.

I had my first whiteboard interview at InVue a few years back. It was ridiculous and a bit demeaning. I failed miserably which hurt my ego for some time afterward. As someone who suffers from impostor syndrome, it wasn’t a good experience.  Did they not like me? They must have thought they wasted their money and time on me!

But the longer I work in the world of engineering, and the more confident I become in my capabilities, the more ludicrous I see the whiteboard interview. First, designing on one’s feet, in front of a room of one’s peers, is not how engineering is done.  It’s not how it’s ever been done. I’ll go one further: this model of engineering isn’t even good engineering.

Engineering is by definition of process of refinement. A design begins on a proverbial napkin, which moves to paper and screen, and finally to copper etched on fiberglass, or lines of code compiled to chip. These stages are meticulously reviewed by groups of other engineers over months, sometimes years… never in the course of an afternoon in front of a single whiteboard by a single candidate.

Put it another way: if a whiteboard interview ever produced a product in the real world, I’d never ever buy it. It would likely burst into flames and kill its user. Perhaps the notorious Note 7 debacle borrowed just such a design cycle?

And in time, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my disdain for this method of interviewing. There’s a great trend on Twitter where programmers are getting honest about their inadequacies in order to protest this style. I love every single one of them. They each, in their own way, help shatter the unrealistic glass conference room doors that are modern engineering interviews. They reveal themselves to be real designers, not necessarily gifted in quick, improvisational thinking.

So in their spirit, here’s my own tweet, the full story you can read here.

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