Bad at whiteboard puzzles? You can still get a programming job

Practicing algorithm puzzles stresses you out: just looking at a copy of Cracking the Coding Interview makes you feel nervous.

Interviewing is worse. When you do interview you freeze up: you don’t have IDE error checking and auto-completion, you can’t use a search engine Google like a real programmer would, there’s a stranger staring you down. You screw up, you make typos, you don’t know what to say, you make a bad impression.

If this happens to you, it’s not your fault! Whiteboard puzzles are a bad way to hire programmers.

They’re not realistic: unless you’re Jeff Goldblum haxoring the alien mothership’s computer just in time for Will Smith to blow up some invaders, you’re probably not coding on a 5-minute deadline.

And the skills they’re testing aren’t used by 95% of programmers 95% of the time. I recently had to do a graph traversal in dependency order—which meant I was all prepared to find my algorithms text book from college. But then I found this library already had a utility called toposort, and vague memories of classes 19 years ago reminded me that this was called a “topological sort”. I didn’t actually have to implement it, but if I did would have done it with textbook in hand, over the course of a couple of hours (gotta write tests!).

Unfortunately, many companies still use them, and you need a job. A programming job. What should you do?

Here are some ideas to help you find a job—even if you hate whiteboard puzzles.

1. Interview at companies with a better process

Not all companies do on-the-spot programming puzzles. The last three companies I worked at didn't—one had a take-home exercise that wasn’t about algorithms (a decision I was involved in, and which I now regret because of the burden it puts on people with no free time). Two others just had talking interviews: I talked about myself, they talked about the company, all very relaxes and civilized.

To find such companies:

  1. Here’s one list of 500+ companies that don’t do whiteboard puzzles.
  2. The invaluable Key Values job board also tells you about the interview process at the covered companies (see the column on the right when looking at a particular company).

2. Offer an alternative

If you are interviewing at a company with whiteboard puzzles, you don’t have to accept their process without pushing back. Just like your salary and working hours, the interview process is also something you can negotiate.

If you have some code you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of and have the ability to share, ask the company if you can share it with them in lieu of a whiteboard puzzle. I once made the mistake of only suggesting this during the interview, and the guy who was interviewing me said he would have accepted it if I’d asked earlier. So make sure to suggest this before the day of the interview, so they have time to review the code in advance.

3. Take control of the process

If all else fails and you’re stuck doing a puzzle, there are ways to take control of the process and make a good impression, even if the puzzle is too hard for you. I cover this in more detail in another post.

4. Don’t give up

Finally, remember whiteboard puzzles have nothing to do with actual programming, even when the work you’re doing is algorithmic. They’re a hazing ritual you may be forced to go through, but they in no way reflect on your ability as a programmer.



We all make mistakes, and I’ve got 20 years’ worth: from code that crashed production every night at 4AM, to accepting a preposterously bad job offer.

Every painful failure taught me a lesson—but only after it was too late.

You can do better! Join 3300 other programmers, and every week you’ll learn how to avoid another of my mistakes.


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