Whiteboard Interviews: What to Avoid If You Want the Job
You're a software engineer, and you're looking for a job. You're expecting to do several rounds of whiteboard interviews. You know that these interviews are not just a simple test of your skills, but a make-or-break moment that can determine whether you get that job offer or not. Don't let common pitfalls trip you up. Here's what you need to know to succeed:
Common Mistakes to Avoid During a Whiteboard Interview
You've got the skills, you've got the knowledge, but are you ready to rock that whiteboard interview? Avoid these all-too-common slip-ups to take home that job offer:
1. Attempting to solve the problem immediately without asking for clarification
The first rule of acing a whiteboard interview? Don't assume you know what the problem is! Taking the time to clarify the problem can save you from embarrassment and increase your chances of actually solving the problem. Don't be the candidate who jumps into coding without fully understanding the task at hand.
I've heard it happen time and time again. The interviewee hears the problem, spends an hour solving it, then ends up showing a wrong solution because he or she didn't clarify all assumptions that he/she has.
Here's what you should do instead:
Ask questions first! If you don't ask questions before you start working on a problem, you'll give the impression that you also won't ask questions before you start working on something at the company.
This is not just common in whiteboard interviews. I’ve witnessed candidates for engineering positions submit the wrong solution for a take-home problem. I noticed that it’s always the candidates who never ask questions beforehand.
And in the workplace, we all know that clarifying the requirements and limitations of a task or ticket is a crucial skill for a software engineer.
So what kinds of questions should you be asking? Keep reading because we’ll go cover that next…
2. Not asking any questions or engaging with the interviewer
Whiteboard interviews are an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to work collaboratively and engage with your potential colleagues.
Not asking any questions or showing any interest in the interviewer's input will make you come across as uninterested or unengaged.
Here are some types of questions that a software engineer candidate should consider asking:
- Clarification questions: we already established how important it is to make sure that you fully understand the problem before beginning to solve it. Clarification questions may include asking the interviewer to define key terms or provide additional context about the problem.
- Constraints questions: Understanding any constraints or limitations associated with the problem can help you narrow down your solution options. Examples of constraint questions may include asking about memory or time limitations.
- Input/output questions: Asking questions about the expected input and output of the problem can help you identify edge cases and ensure that your solution is correct. For example, you may ask the interviewer what the expected output should be for a given input.
- Edge cases questions: Edge cases are inputs that are unlikely or difficult to handle, but still possible. Asking questions about edge cases can help you identify potential problems and ensure that your solution is robust. Examples of edge cases questions may include asking about negative or zero inputs or extreme values.
- Trade-off questions: Software engineers are often faced with trade-offs when developing solutions to problems. Asking questions about trade-offs can help you demonstrate your critical thinking and decision-making skills. For example, you may ask the interviewer about the trade-offs between runtime and memory usage for a given solution.
In a whiteboard interview, the quality of your solution is only as good as the questions you ask. That's why it's essential to approach the problem strategically and identify any potential issues before you dive into solving it. By asking these type of questions, you'll demonstrate your problem-solving skills and provide a better solution overall.
And remember, the best problem-solvers aren't afraid to ask questions, and that's especially true in a whiteboard interview.
3. Ignoring edge cases or failing to consider edge cases
When it comes to whiteboard interviews, the devil is often in the details - specifically, the edge cases that can make or break your solution. By being mindful of these scenarios and taking them into account, you'll demonstrate your problem-solving skills and show that you're able to think critically under pressure.
Good thing you already know that you should ask about edge cases during your whiteboard interview. Now you just have to cover those edge cases your interviewer mentions!
4. Writing messy or unreadable code on the whiteboard
When you're writing code in a whiteboard interview, it's easy to get lost in the details and forget about readability. But messy or unclear code can cause all sorts of problems, from misunderstandings with the interviewer to errors in your solution. That's why it's important to prioritize readability and make sure your code is easy to understand.
The last thing you want to happen is to fail your whiteboard interview because you or the interviewer couldn’t understand what you scribble on the whiteboard.
5. Over-relying on memorization instead of problem-solving skills
Memorizing coding solutions can be a tempting shortcut when preparing for whiteboard interviews, but it's not a reliable strategy. In an interview setting, you need to be able to reason through complex scenarios and think critically about potential solutions.
If you rely too heavily on memorization, you may find yourself struggling to adapt to unexpected challenges, and the following happens:
1. You demonstrate lack of flexibility
If you memorize solutions, you may not be able to adapt to different scenarios and requirements of the coding problem presented during the interview.
2. You limit your learning and opportunities for growth
Memorizing solutions does not help you learn and understand the problem-solving process, which is important for enhancing your coding skills and performing well during the whiteboard interview. It won't help you understand the underlying concepts and algorithms. And without this understanding, it may be difficult to adapt to similar problems or learn new ones.
So if you memorize solutions, you may miss the chance to develop and learn new techniques that can help you in your career.
3. You don't build up your whiteboard interviewing confidence
If you memorize solutions, you may become overly reliant on them and lose confidence in your own abilities to solve problems. The result can be a lack of creativity and independence in your problem-solving approach.
4. You risk missing details in your solutions
If you solely rely on memorized solutions, you may miss out on important nuances in the question or requirements of the problem presented during the interview. This could lead to errors in your solution or a failure to meet the interviewer's needs.
5. You struggle interacting with the interviewer
It's very common for the interviewer to ask for alternative solutions, feedback about your approach or code, or request you to explain your logic in detail. If you memorize solutions, you may struggle to answer follow-up questions, and the interviewer may perceive it as a lack of understanding, preparation, or skills.
6. Focusing too much on syntax and not enough on the problem-solving process
While syntax is important, you should not get too caught up in syntax at the expense of the overall problem-solving process. It’s better to write code that is logically sound but may have some syntax errors than to write syntactically perfect code that does not solve the problem correctly.
7. Being resistant to feedback or suggestions from the interviewer
Whiteboard interviews are also an opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to take feedback and incorporate suggestions into your work.
Candidates who are resistant to feedback may be perceived as difficult to work with or not open to collaboration.
By avoiding these common mistakes, you can increase your chances of success in whiteboard interviews and demonstrate your ability to solve complex problems under pressure.
Tips for Avoiding These Common Whiteboard Interview Mistakes
It's not enough to simply be aware of the common mistakes to avoid. You need to have a game plan in place to help you steer clear of these pitfalls. So, without further ado, here are some practical tips that can help you avoid the mistakes we've discussed earlier:
1. Practice whiteboard interviews beforehand
If your interview rounds involve a whiteboard interview, then the biggest mistake you can make is assuming you don't need to practice for it.
I get it, if you have N years of experience at a company, why do you have to practice? But you can learn from my mistake. Surprise, surprise... I bombed that interview.
It turns out that whiteboard interviews require a different set of skills than daily programming tasks. Also, practicing helps us identify knowledge gaps and improve our problem-solving skills.
So remember - one of the best ways to prepare for a whiteboard interview is to practice with mock interviews. This will help you get comfortable with the format and will allow you to identify any areas you may need to improve on.
Look up common whiteboard coding interview questions and start with those. Understand their solutions instead of memorizing them. Practice solving the problems yourself using pen and paper, or a whiteboard.
2. Research the company and the type of questions that may be asked
This is a no-brainer. Researching the company and the type of questions that may be asked can give you a better idea of what to expect in the interview and help you prepare more effectively and will allow you to tailor your responses to the company's needs.
You can use Glassdoor for the interview questions. You could even check out our list of remote tech companies to get an idea of the typical hiring process. Best of all, ask the recruiter, interviewer, or hiring manager beforehand what type of questions you'll cover.
3. Clarify the problem and ask questions before beginning to write code
Taking the time to clarify the problem and ask any necessary questions before beginning to write code can help you avoid misunderstandings and ensure that you are on the right track. We emphasized this enough earlier, so just keep that in mind.
4. Use clear and legible handwriting on the whiteboard
Believe it or not, the way you write on the whiteboard can make or break your whiteboard interview! Trust me, no one wants to squint and strain their eyes to try and decipher your messy scribbles. Instead, take a few extra seconds to write clearly and legibly, allowing the interviewer to effortlessly follow along with your brilliant thought process. By doing so, you'll also reduce the risk of errors or misunderstandings, ensuring that your ideas are clearly communicated and understood. So, let your handwriting skills shine and impress your interviewer with your clear and organized presentation!
5. Focus on the problem-solving process rather than the end result
Don't get too caught up in the end result! Instead, make sure to focus on your process and clearly explain your reasoning, even if your final solution isn't perfect. Remember, the interviewer is interested in seeing how you approach the problem and work through challenges. By doing this, you'll demonstrate your critical thinking abilities, which is what they're really looking for!
6. Be open to feedback and willing to make changes
When it comes to acing a whiteboard interview, it's not just about having the right answers. It's also about how you receive feedback and use it to improve your performance. Being open to constructive criticism and willing to make changes can demonstrate your adaptability and willingness to learn.
Remember, a whiteboard interview is not just a test of your technical skills, but also a test of your ability to work collaboratively with others. By showing that you value feedback and are willing to make changes, you can demonstrate to your interviewer that you are a team player and someone they would want to work with.
So don't be defensive when you receive feedback during a whiteboard interview. Instead, actively listen to what your interviewer has to say and ask for clarification if needed. Take notes if necessary and use the feedback to improve your approach and problem-solving skills in real-time. This can help you stand out as a candidate who is not only technically proficient, but also willing to grow and develop within the company.
By following these tips and avoiding common mistakes, you can increase your chances of success in whiteboard interviews and demonstrate their ability to solve complex problems under pressure.
By avoiding common mistakes and following the tips provided, you can demonstrate your ability to solve complex problems under pressure and increase your chances of moving on to the next rounds (and getting that offer!)
Make sure to check out remote software engineering jobs on our website too. With the right preparation and mindset, you can ace the whiteboard interview and land your dream job. Good luck!