Coding on Paper in an Interview

My company is in the process of hiring a back end or full stack software engineer. During the interview process, I often get complaints from candidates when I bring out an old fashioned pad of paper and pencil and ask them to write some code for me (or I offer for them to code on the whiteboard).

This is 2017, and we have syntax highlighters, auto-complete, Stack Overflow, etc. Why would I want to test a candidate’s ability to code on paper?? This seems barbaric and absurd. Like asking a racing car driver to ride around a track on a bicycle to see how well he handles the corners. Surely we’re past this antiquated form of testing in this day and age?

Well, no. Let me share my side of the story.

I need people who can code

The position is for a software engineer. I need to know that you can code1. It’s quite simple.

We can have a good chat about Azure, about how you parted the red sea, or how you helped get a man on the moon. But in the end, you’re here to code, so you need to show me that you can.

Hiring a coder without seeing them code, is like hiring a chef without tasting their food.

The number one best way to test your real-world coding ability would be to have you work with me for 3 months, but that’s not a practical way to screen people for a new position.

Another way for me to establish your level of skill would be for me to look at work you’ve done in the past. AKA your public contributions to GitHub, Stack Overflow, blogs, etc. I am perhaps one of the few managers who will actually clone your GitHub repos and look through your code, your commit history, your documentation, your blog posts2, your answers on forums, etc.

A quick side note on this: remember that I’m also a software engineer, like you. I understand perfectly well that there are times when you need to throw a heap of “poor” code together, just to get something done quickly, or because it’s just an experimental throw-away project that you were working on in your spare time. I won’t judge you on this. The signature of good style and craftsman ship will still shine through, even in your darkest code, so I still read it.

But, I can’t just look at past work you’ve already done. I also need to look inside your head. I need to see those cogwheels spinning when you’re working on a problem. I don’t just want to see the final outcome, I want to know what thoughts went through your mind on the journey to get there. The best way to do this is for us to work on a piece of code together, in an interview. Here you can explain to me what you’re thinking, and ask questions3

The code itself is the easy part

In the past, I used to ask two coding questions in an interview. I started with an easy one, and then would progress to the harder question. But I became tired of the emotional distress of watching people struggle through the harder question, and often eventually give up4.

So, now I just ask the easy question.

In fact, here it is. I’ll give it to you.

Write a function that adds up a collection of numbers.

That it.

That’s it?

Yes. That’s it.

In fact, I’ll give you the5 answer too6 :

Here’s another one:

Side note: One person has pointed out that they would just use the Sum function that .net provides. Well done. Ten brownie points for you7. But I then I will follow on by saying something like “Somebody on the .net development team had to write that builtin Sum function. Pretend it was you. How would you write it?”

There are obviously many different ways to write some code that satisfies the initial requirements statement of this test question. This is true in the real world as well — feature requests come in many different forms, to varying degrees of specification, and you need to be able to dig in and understand the problem that the user is trying to solve, and explore different solutions and the effectiveness of each.

Be resourceful. Dig in.

I don’t care whether or not you remember the syntax for generics or extension methods in C#. I don’t care if you remember what the C# equivalent to a fold/reduce function is. These are questions that Google or Stack Overflow can answer in the real world.

I don’t care about your spelling. This is something a spell checker would check in the real world.

I want to see how you engage a problem. When you’re actually working on the job, you’re going to have all sorts of weird and wonderful requests thrown your way. How do you deal with them? Do you blindly start pecking at the keyboard, or do you dig into what’s actually being asked?

If you need some tool to help you, do you say “this company is so stupid, they don’t even provide xyz!”, or do you say “how do we get xyz?”.

The same is true in an interview. Do what you need to do to get the job done. If you need to understand the context more, then ask me. If you need auto-complete and an IDE, or Google, ask for a laptop (actually I typically offer one).

At the very least, I expect you to ask me what kind of numbers we’re adding together.

If you need help remembering the way something works, or the syntax for something, ask me. Let’s work through it together. I want to know that you can work effectively with me and others on the team. I want to know that you feel comfortable asking for advice, that you’re not the kind of person to suffer in silence.

If you think that the whole thing is stupid, let me know. I want to know that the people on my team can challenge me and can stand up to being challenged themselves.

It’s about why

It’s not about what your answer looks like. It’s about why you made certain choices. Were there performance concerns you were worried about? What usage scenarios were you planning for — and did you ask? Is one language construct better than another from a maintainability standpoint? What approaches did you consider, and how did you weigh up each?

If you’re [un]lucky enough to interview with me, keep in mind that the main thing I’m looking for is your reasoning and approach when encountering a problem. Talk me through your thinking.

It’s a toy

Yes, this coding exercise is a toy example. And yes, I’ll make stuff up as I go. If you ask whether the numbers need to be integers or floats, I’ll make the answer up as a I go, and it might be different every time I do an interview.

But put yourself in my shoes for a moment. In an interview setting, we only have time to play with a toy example. We don’t have time for me to explain a real problem and have you craft a real solution for me. I need to know how you code, and a toy example is the only tool in the box that can get the job done effectively in a short span of time.

Hopefully by now you understand that it really won’t help you to use a laptop in my interview. The things I’m looking for are things where a laptop won’t help you. Sorry. But do whatever makes you feel comfortable.

  1. …and that you can communicate effectively, and work well with my team, and have the relevant experience. But all of this is pointless if you can’t code. 

  2. I don’t care what the blog posts are about actually — I will evaluate you based on passion, ability to communicate clearly, etc. Bonus points if your blog is about coding, and I can get a two-for-one evaluation on communication and coding. 

  3. Like maybe “WTF are we doing this for?” 

  4. Some people take a few minutes and give me a good answer on the harder question, so I know the question itself is not unreasonable 

  5. *an 

  6. Since the position is for an Azure developer, the most common language of choice for this question is C# 

  7. Even if you didn’t know that it existed, I’d give you points for saying “I’m sure this function already exists in some library somewhere. I would probably first work out if I can use that, rather than reinventing the wheel” 

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