Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Can you solve this problem for me on the whiteboard?"

Jim is a great chef. He's too modest to say that about himself, but he's worked either as head chef or assistant head chef at a number of restaurants. Everywhere he's worked he's been dependent and reliable, prepared great food, worked well with the other chefs, and is generally a fun guy to have in the kitchen. Unfortunately, due to the poor economy and some bad decisions by management, Jim's restaurant is about to close, so Jim is out of work and looking for a new job.

There's a new restaurant opening, a fancy place with many well-to-do investors. In Jim's world, chefs are hard to find, so Jim assumes he's a shoo-in for the job. Jim arrives at the interview at a Mexican restaurant, which feels like a great fit for Jim because Mexican food is his specialty. Jim calls up the restaurant on the phone and chats with the manager about a chef position, and the manager likes what he hears enough to schedule a job interview for Jim.

Jim arrives at the interview and talks to the manager a bit. Things seem to be going well, Jim is in his element at a Mexican restaurant. The initial meeting goes well: Jim talks his job history, how much he cares about having a fresh house salsa, and how good his Baja sauce is. "Look up the Yelp reviews of my Baja sauce!" remarks Jim. "It's the #1 reason people came to the last restaurant I worked at." The manager smiles and nods, and informs Jim he looks great on paper, however the remainder of the interview will be conducted by all of the other chefs in the kitchen. "Awesome!" Jim thinks, "I have a rapport with other chefs. This should go smoothly."

The first chef walks in, sits down at the table, and coldly stares at Jim's resume. "Can you write down a recipe for me?" he asks Jim, "There's a whiteboard over there, can you write down your preferred recipe for crème brûlée?"

Jim is a bit dumbfounded, both by the request and being asked to demonstrate his cooking ability on a whiteboard. "I'm sorry," he says, "I don't know how to make crème brûlée. I thought this was a Mexican restaurant. Would you like to know my favorite recipe for Flan?"

"No, that won't do," the assistant chef says. "Please write down how you would prepare crème brûlée"

Jim is a bit taken aback, first because he's a specialist in Mexican food, and second because instead of being asked to cook, he's being asked to write stuff on a whiteboard. "I honestly don't know how to make crème brûlée," Jim says. "Perhaps you could let me google the recipe and I could actually try to prepare it for you, instead of just demonstrating a rote ability to memorize recipes and write them down on a whiteboard."

"No, that won't do," says the interviewer, who jots down "lack of confectionary skills" in his notes. "Can you at least attempt to write down how you would prepare crème brûlée?"

Jim feels embarrassed and lost. He's being asked to do something he would never have to do in a professional capacity, and worse, rather than actually doing it, he's being asked to describe how he would do it on a whiteboard. Perhaps this is a test of Jim's ability to think on his feet, but given the position he's being asked to interview for and the question he's been presented, it's certainly an unfair one. Jim picks up the black marker and thinks hard about what the possible ingredients of crème brûlée would be.

"Well," says Jim, "I'll need cream." Jim pulls the cap off the marker and attempts to write "1. Cream", however the marker is dry and the whiteboard is on wheels that roll back when Jim attempts to write. Jim only succeeds in making a long, barely perceptible mark on the whiteboard. Having made a messy mark on the whitebard, Jim looks for an eraser but there isn't one.

"Yes," says the interviewer sarcastically, rolling his eyes, "obviously you need cream for crème brûlée. Try a different marker." Jim picks up the red marker and tries to write with that to the same result, it's dried out and won't work. Frustrated, Jim puts it down and tries the green marker, which works fine, however the board swivels vertically as he tries to write. Jim grabs the board in the upper right corner and finally manages to jot down "1. Cream"

"Okay, we have the most obvious ingredient down," says the assistant chef. "Can you think of any other ingredients that would go into crème brûlée?"

"Sugar," says Jim. The assistant chef nods, and Jim writes down sugar. "What else?"

"Milk," says Jim, and he begins to write it down before he comes to the realization that the cream and milk are redundant. Jim doesn't often cook with cream. The interviewer shakes his head in exasperation and pinches the bridge of his nose as Jim looks dumbfounded. "It's not milk brûlée," he says. Unfortunately, there's no eraser, so Jim tries to erase "3. Milk" with his hand, smearing green ink all over the board and his hand before asking "do you have an eraser?" The interviewer looks around unenthusiastically before shrugging no. Jim continues smearing the marker's ink across the surface of the board with his fingertips in a desperate attempt to compensate for the absence of an eraser.

"Can you think of any other ingredients that might go in crème brûlée?" asks the interviewer, clearly bored.

"Eggs?" asks Jim. The interviewer nods. Jim writes down "eggs". "What else?" the interviewer asks. Jim stares at what he's written down: cream, sugar, eggs. "Well," says Jim, "I assume some kind of flavoring. Chocolate perhaps?"

"Wrong," says the interviewer. "Please write vanilla." Jim looks confused for a second and jots down vanilla as asked. The interviewer jots down "trouble with basic recipes" before asking "What other ingredients can you think of?"

Jim stares at the ingredients so far: cream, sugar, eggs, vanilla. "Perhaps some water?" Jim guesses. The interviewer nods, and Jim writes down water. "Now, what are you missing?" asks the interviewer.

Jim stares at the list: cream, sugar, eggs, vanilla, water. Those seem like they should be the basic ingredients, and the interviewer rejected additional flavoring that wasn't vanilla. Jim is stupefied... he can't think of anything else. Taking a stab in the dark, Jim suggests "Salt?"

The assistant chef does a facepalm and sighs, before looking up at Jim and stating the obvious solution: "the units. Your recipe is lacking units." The ambiguity of the interviewer's question has caught Jim off guard, especially when he professed no idea of what the recipe was to being with, and worse, he has absolutely no idea what the units should be. He stares at the whiteboard for awhile before asking "how much crème brûlée are we making?"

"That's up to you," says the interviewer, "how many servings would you like to prepare?"

Jim has absolutely no clue. He's not a confectioner, but he doesn't want to completely bomb the interview, so he ventures a guess. "I'd like to prepare 2 servings. Let's try a cup of cream, a teaspoon of vanilla, two tablespoons of sugar, 4 eggs, and a cup of water."

"Those aren't the right proportions," say the interviewer. "You should use a quart of cream, two quarts water, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, a cup of sugar, and six eggs to produce six servings. Let's move on to the recipe. Can you write it down on the whiteboard for me?"

Now Jim is completely lost. The ingredients of a recipe he has no clue about are something he can guess at, but how is he supposed to guess the recipe itself? He takes his best shot.

"Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk them with the cream and sugar," guesses Jim.

"Wrong," says the interviewer.

"Whisk them with the cream and vanilla?" asks Jim.

"Still wrong," says the interviewer, "but you were closer the first time."

"Do you want me to keep guessing?" asks Jim. The interviewer sighs, writes down "completely incompetent", stands up, and says "Thank you for your time. I'll go get the next person."

Jim stands by the whiteboard and feels confused and out of place. He wonders what crème brûlée has to do with preparing Mexican food. He sits down at the table and googles for crème brûlée on his phone, quickly scanning over the recipe and thinking "that doesn't look too hard at all, I could probably make a great crème brûlée if I had a little practice." The recipe for crème brûlée is in fact quite similar to Flan, and Jim can make great Flan, but unfortunately, the interviewer won't even know as he hasn't asked Jim to cook anything. The next interviewer comes into the room.

He sits down at the table and scans over Jim's résumé, making a few grunts after scrutinizing various items. "You didn't go to culinary school?"

"No," says Jim, "but I've loved cooking since I was a little kid. I used to cook dinner with my mom every night. I've been working professionally as a chef all my life, and I can prepare great food. Why don't you just take me to the kitchen and let me show you?"

"That won't be necessary," says the interviewer. "Now, can you please write on the whiteboard how you would prepare a cheese danish?" Unfortunately, Jim is not a pastry chef either.

.   .   .

The manager has returned to conclude the interview. "Well Jim," he says, "we've discussed the issue, and we don't think you'd be a good fit here."

At this point Jim is entirely expecting this response. Jim is most comfortable in a kitchen, preparing food hands on. He feels out of place trying to explain the theoretical act of preparing food with a whiteboard. Jim loves food so much that whenever he went out for a smoke break with his fellow chefs, he continued to talk about food even when they were on break. Unfortunately, during the interview he didn't get the opportunity to discuss food in this sort of context. Instead he was asked only pointed questions about food items he didn't know how to prepare.

"I see," says Jim. "Can I ask you one question before I go?"

"Okay," says the manager.

"Throughout this interview," Jim asked, "I was asked about preparing confections and pastries, but not once was I asked about preparing Mexican food. I thought this was a Mexican restaurant. Do you serve confections and pastries here?"

"No, we don't prepare confections or pastries," said the manager, "however we're all classically-trained pastry chefs. Some of the people you talked to are actually pretty new to Mexican food. But they've all gone through culinary school and have impeccable cooking skills because of it."

"Have you considered asking your candidates to actually cook instead of explain how they would theoretically prepare something on a whiteboard?"

"It's a lot easier for us to just use the whiteboard," he says, "and we want candidates who are as knowledgable about the theory of cooking as the act of cooking."

Jim is extremely frustrated. It's not that he isn't knowledgable about the theory of cooking, but he hasn't memorized the recipe to every foodstuff on earth. Confectionaries and pastries are two areas that Jim knows very little about.

.   .   .

Jim arrives for another interview at another popular Mexican restaurant. On his way in he notes the health inspector's grade on the certificate displayed on the window: a 100%! Jim doesn't think he's actually seen a 100% score before. Jim walks in and the manager is actually there to greet him for his interview. Jim's actually pretty close with the manager, having seen him around at various farmers markets, concerts, and other events, and Jim wonders why he went to see those crazy pastry chefs before coming here.

"Hey Jim," the manager says, "I ate at your restaurant a few times. The food there was delicious!"

"Did you try the baja sauce?" asks Jim, "because I made that myself."

"Yes!" exclaims the manager, "the Baja sauce was so orgasmically delicious! Now I hope you don't mind, but we have a little test prepared. Come with me, please."

The manager leads Jim into their state of the art kitchen. It's hopping on a busy night, with people everywhere preparing the various menu items the restaurant has to offer. The order management system is fully automated using LCD displays which are mounted on the ceiling, tracking which items have been ordered, prepared, and served. The kitchen looks extremely clean and modern and the workflow seems highly efficient. The manager continues leading Jim around and shows him a prep area in the back of the kitchen which is unused. "You can work here," he says, "come with me and you can get your ingredients."

The manager continues leading Jim back to their refrigerator, where Jim notices an LCD display showing a realtime graph of the refrigerator's temperature, with bars for "too hot" and "too cold". Jim also notes in the visible history the temperature has remained within the guidelines the display is showing with very little alteration.

The manager pulls the latch to the door on the refrigerator and Jim feels a whoosh of cold air. Inside Jim finds a cornucopia of ingredients. Jim grasps some cilantro and inhales it, and the smell is deliciously fresh.  Jim darts about the refrigerator taking inventory, and discovers all the requisite ingredients are in place to concoct his own trademark Baja sauce.

"I know you can make awesome food," says the manager, "but you need to convince the owners you're a good chef. You have an hour," says the manager, "Your goal is to make delicious Mexican food."

.   .   .

58 minutes later the two co-owners of the restaurant have arrived along with the manager and have come to the back of the kitchen where Jim has been spending his time. He introduces himself and shows them the food he's prepared.

Jim has prepared some Baja fish tacos made of battered and fried red snapper, topped with Jim's own Baja sauce freshly made on-the-spot using only ingredients from the restaurant's well-stocked refrigerator. "I'm sorry it took so long," Jim says, "but really I spent 40 minutes making the sauce, and 10 minutes actually making the tacos"

The owners and the manager each grab one of Jim's tacos and bite in. They're unbelievably delicious, and it's all thanks to Jim's baja sauce. In his moment of triumph, Jim thought back to the first restaurant where he interviewed, and wondered why they were so caught up on their pastry-making ways. Clearly it takes a different kind of chef to make fish tacos than to make pastries, and perhaps Jim wasn't cut out for being a pastry chef. But when it came to making Mexican food, Jim was in his element. It seemed really weird that former pastry chefs-turned-owners of a Mexican restaurant would expect him to be a competent pastry chef, but perhaps that's what they're used to.

.   .   .

If you haven't already seen through the thinly-veiled allegory, I'm describing an interview process that based on my experience has become incredibly common in the Silicon Valley. I'm not going to name names, first and foremost because I've signed NDAs, but to those of you who have a rigorously whiteboard-driven interview process, I can't comprehend what you're doing. At the very least, if you're asking me to write on a whiteboard, make sure you have good markers and good erasers. That said...

Programmers use computers. It's what we do and where we spend our time. If you can't at least give me a text editor and the toolchain for the language(s) you're interested in me using, you're wasting both our time. While I'm not afraid of using a whiteboard to help illustrate general problems, if you're asking me to write code on a whiteboard and judging me based on that, you're taking me out of my element and I'm not giving you a representative picture of who I am or how I code.

Don't get me wrong, whiteboards can be a great interview tool. Some of the best questions I've been asked have been presented to me on a whiteboard, but a whiteboard was used to explain the concept,  the interviewer wrote down what I said and used that to help frame a solution to the problem. It was a very different situation than "write code for me on the whiteboard."

Want to do better? Give a programmer a computer. Programmers like computers. Install common editors like vim, Emacs, and TextMate and let someone choose what they're most familiar with. Better yet, give them Internet access, or even let them use their own laptop. If you're looking over their shoulder the entire time, they can't "cheat" on the interview, and maybe you'll learn something new about their workflow and how they develop software. Who knows, maybe they have a better programming workflow than you which you can only discover by watching how they work on their computer. Limiting potential programming hires to a medium like a whiteboard is a degrading experience, and one that doesn't give you an indication of a person's potential.

Last but not least, treat your potential hires like people, because they are people. Take the time to get to know your potential hires before their interview. If they've developed open source software and gained some notoriety for it, that should be a major factor in your decision, more so than what you can distill from a cursory whiteboard interview. Bottom line, if you're interviewing someone for a software engineering position, and they have a Github, and you haven't spent at least 10 minutes familiarizing yourself with what's on their Github account before you even talk to them, you're doing yourself and your company a disservice.

My worst experience (still not naming names, but you know who you are) was a company specializing in Ruby who, not to beat around the bush, was the inspiration for this whole blog post. My first in-person conversation with someone technical at the company was a nonstop wall of coding questions on a whiteboard, with no preliminary discussion of what kind of people we are or what wavelength we're on. The entire interview was conducted in an interrogation of "solve my problems or I won't give you the job." This style is completely degrading to the person being interviewed. It's computer science trivia where the prize is a job. I'm sorry, but winning a computer science trivia contest isn't a good way to gauge potential employees.

Call it sour grapes if you want, but if you're the company I interviewed with and you're reading this, and remember who I am, and remember interviewing me, I think you missed out. And I think it's your fault, which is bad because I wanted to believe in your company. I hope you're not surprised if you never heard a word back from me.

My attitude is if I'm a good Ruby programmer, and you're trying to hire me when the supply for Ruby programmers is low and demand is high, that before you even talk to me you've spent at least 10 minutes Googling for my name, looking at my code, and figuring out who I am, rather than spending an hour subjecting me to a series of ad hoc programming questions in areas I may or may not specialize in. That 10 minutes of Google will tell you a lot more than asking me to come in and scribble stuff on a whiteboard.

I think this process has left me a bit more discerning about the companies I'll actually interview with. When you're trying to hire talented developers in a scarce market, please do your due diligence and don't insult somebody skilled by asking them to do a degrading whiteboard interview instead of looking at code they have freely available on the Internet or just looking over their shoulder as they code on a computer, preferably their own, at least the first time you get to know them. You may even learn something.