Researchers criticise whiteboard technical tests

Software engineer hiring practice discriminates against women, suggests study

Whiteboard coding tests may be common when hiring software engineers, but a recent study found them to be an exclusionary practice which preferences both men and more privileged candidates.

In their paper titled 'Does Stress Impact Technical Interview Performance?' researchers from North Carolina State University and Microsoft found that whiteboard coding sessions test for stage fright rather than coding competency.

The study found that technical interviews bear an "uncanny resemblance" to the Trier Social Stress Test, which is the "best known 'gold standard' procedure for the sole purpose of reliably inducing stress."

From these findings, researchers suggested that qualified candidates may be excluded from the hiring process due to performance anxiety, rather than inability.

The study was conducted on 48 graduate and undergraduate students with programming experience. Researchers compared a traditional technical interview under watchful eyes, against a private evaluation without being observed.

Researchers found that subjects performed worse overall in the traditional technical interview, exhibiting lower scores and higher stress levels. Ultimately, performance anxiety issues born from the circumstance of a traditional technical interview disqualified otherwise viable candidates.

Another conclusion was that technical interviews favour men over women, as scientific evidence suggests women experience "disproportionately more negative effects from test and performance anxiety."

"We also observed that no women successfully solved the problem in the public setting, whereas all women solved it correctly in the private setting," the pape reads.

Speaking with The Register, paper co-author Christopher Parnin said: "It all comes down to the fact that the test is designed to make almost anyone fail. You're basically having to interview tons of people just to find those who can pass it."

Passing the technical test is a separate skill unto itself, and doesn't necessarily reflect ability. Mekka Okereke, a senior manager at Google suggests doing at least 40 practice sessions, while students at Stanford University take courses for passing technical interviews.

"The big picture is to provide more accessible alternatives," said Parnin. "There are a lot of ways to test for the same thing without putting all this pressure on people."

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Latest comments (1)

Forrest Trepte Sr Software Engineer, Microsoft7 months ago
What are the suggestions for more accessible alternatives?

I'm thinking of something such as presenting a programming problem before the interview and giving the interview candidate plenty of time to implement and submit a solution on their own. The programming problem could be something realistic, similar to work that the candidate would actually be doing. Then, we could discuss the solution during the in-person interview. However, there may be some drawbacks to this approach. For example, different candidates may not be able to dedicate as much time to their solution and it isn't possible to determine if they have had help from others. Also, this potentially demands a lot more effort on the part of the candidate to develop a solution and the interviewer to review and test the solution.

What are some other ideas?
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