This one article was originally published on .cult by Nadia Primak. .cult is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career, make original documentaries and share tons of other untold developer stories from around the world.
The tech industry is not known for having great hiring processes. From the infamous whiteboard interviews to algorithm challenges that require a computer science degree to even wrap your head around, there are all kinds of outdated standards and approaches to interviewing developers that should have died out years ago. Unfortunately, like most of the antiquated systems we love to hate, these hiring processes are likely to crop up in your career from time to time. Or if you’re unlucky like me, they might pop up a bit more often.
To be clear, I am not writing this post to accuse companies in particular or for the purpose of naming and shaming. For every company I’ve experienced these problems with, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions more. One of the most common ways tech companies practice gatekeeping is by making the application process so difficult that everyone except (generally) white males with computer science degrees feel like they’re not good enough or don’t belong there.
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In this post, you’ll read about some of the most common ways companies can turn your application process into a nightmare and hopefully be able to spot them early so you don’t waste time. I’ll share personal anecdotes about how they affected me and how I moved past them, and so will you.
1. Whiteboard Interviews
As I mentioned in the introduction, whiteboard interviews are one of those outdated approaches that tech companies still like to torture us with. The general idea is that you stand in front of a whiteboard and write pseudo code to explain how to solve an algorithm.
If it’s not immediately obvious why this approach sucks, let me explain. Forcing a developer to write code by hand is inherently unnatural because it takes us out of the zone where we do our best work: behind a computer. It also robs us of our most useful tool: search engines. Not to mention that it does not affect the day-to-day realities of work.
It’s especially problematic for self-taught developers, because the cheaper online classes and resources usually don’t focus on algorithms, but on more practical skills at work, such as building applications. Even students who went to a traditional 4-year institution and studied computer science often have to practice these algorithms when going to a job interview because they are easy to forget.
I’ve lost track of how many whiteboard interviews I’ve had, but there are a few that have stayed with me particularly sharply. One was for a small startup where I interviewed 1:1 and the guy who interviewed me was very clumsy. I knew the algorithm he asked me to write was relatively simple, but for some reason my brain just couldn’t remember it. Instead of breaking off the interview prematurely or giving me a hint, the interviewer insisted on dragging out the whiteboard portion for a ridiculously long time. I spent over an hour in his office struggling before I finally got to the solution. Of course I didn’t get the job, but I was so frustrated that my humiliation had to go on for so long.
The good news is that whiteboard interviews are becoming increasingly out of style. There’s a lot of criticism of them in the developer community, and I can probably count on one hand how many developers I know who actually enjoy these kinds of interviews.
2. Timed technical reviews
If you went to high school in the United States, you probably have a special place of hatred in your heart for timed tests. The first time I did the ACT I got a bad score simply because I couldn’t stop looking at the clock and worrying about how much time I had left. It didn’t help that I had to go to the bathroom half way through, but I was too nervous to leave the room because of how much time I would lose.
Like the whiteboard interviews, timed technical reviews often contain algorithm components. A few years ago I decided to try one of those platforms where you take a coding test to create a developer profile for companies that want to outsource the technical stuff to a third party (Hired is an example).
There were three different challenges that I had to successfully complete in order to be accepted into the platform. They were all heavy on the algorithm and I had relatively little practice. I ended up getting stuck on the second challenge and didn’t have enough time to complete the third. It can be very demoralizing to take a test and feel like you have virtually no idea what you’re doing. Chances are, if you’re self-taught, you’re going to feel pretty demoralized because you didn’t study algorithms in college.
The added time pressure also doesn’t reflect the realities of most developer jobs. There is hardly ever a situation where you only have 20 minutes to complete a task, in fact coding new features usually takes days or even weeks.
The good news is that platforms have emerged to help developers prepare for these timed technical reviews. Hackerrank is probably the most popular and is a great tool for self-taught and computer science developers to brush up on these skills.
Unlike whiteboard interviews, timed technical reviews go nowhere. They are useful for hiring managers as all they have to do is send a link to the developer and the platform will manage the test and return the results. Hiring managers who choose to use these platforms are not lazy per se, they may just be running a small business or have too many other tasks to juggle. But it’s still worth being wary of these kinds of interviews and knowing what you’re getting into.
3. Phone screens
Not all phone screens are technical. Some of them are casual conversations with the recruiter or someone from HR. This is actually usually what we think of when we think of a phone screen. However, sometimes companies get creative or want to shorten the interview process by skipping a technical review and just doing a Q&A over the phone.
In theory, this could be great. You don’t have to worry about technical reviews or projects to take home. Just a phone call and done! This was exactly my mindset when I first encountered this type of interview. But my attitude changed quickly after I got the job. I realized that some of my colleagues didn’t have the required skills at all and could quite easily trick the hiring manager into thinking they were skilled.
The other danger of phone screenings is technical jargon. Again, this is more of a problem for self-taught developers, but there is so much jargon in the world of coding that no one is safe. If I’m asked over the phone to define a technical term, chances are I know the concept, just not by name, but have either forgotten the term it’s associated with, or haven’t come across it enough to trying to remember what it means. This has resulted in me not passing phone screenings or being asked to do additional work from home tasks in the past.
It’s pretty rare for a company to just do a phone screen and not provide an in-person or online coding test, but you might run into it if you’re doing contract work or applying to a company that doesn’t have much technical knowledge. positions. Just proceed with caution.
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Self-taught developers need to be more aware and often better prepared for interviews than their peers with computer science degrees. It often comes down to being less familiar with the technical jargon and algorithms, which are overemphasized during the application process compared to the day-to-day work of software developers.
Fortunately, some of the particularly unpleasant interviewing approaches, such as whiteboard interviews, are becoming quite unpopular, but it’s still worth starting prepared and knowing that there’s a possibility you’ll get some sorting puzzles or word salad thrown your way.
You should also know that there are companies that actually give hands-on coding challenges that reflect a better environment for programmers because it means they care about their candidates’ experience (and probably more about their employees, too). There’s room for improvement, but there’s also a lot of debate about how to improve the interview process in the industry, and luckily some companies are really listening and making big improvements.