Whiteboard Coding Stress Reduces Performance by More than Half

Stress caused by whiteboard technical interviews significantly affects the performance of job candidates, according to a recent study by North Carolina State University researchers.

Whiteboard tests are a common feature of the hiring process for software developers. During these sessions, candidates are expected to develop coding solutions on a whiteboard while describing their decision-making process to observers. 

In the study, half of the participants performed the typical whiteboard test with an interviewer looking on. The other half solved the problem on a whiteboard in a private room with no interviewer present. The private interviews also included a retrospective “think-aloud” session to discuss the solutions presented.

Performance Anxiety

“People who took the traditional interview performed half as well as people that were able to interview in private,” said Chris Parnin, co-author of the research paper titled, “Does Stress Impact Technical Interview Performance?”

In the paper, the researchers noted that “a technical interview has an uncanny resemblance to the Trier social stress test,” a technique used by psychologists with the sole purpose of inducing stress. “Through a happy accident, the software industry has seemingly reinvented a crude yet effective instrument for reliably introducing stress in subjects, which typically manifests as performance anxiety,” they said. Additionally, “the unique combination of cognitive-demanding tasks with a social-evaluative threat (essentially being watched) is consistent and powerful,” they stated.

The researchers went on to say that private interviews benefit job candidates by reducing stress and allowing “more accurate assessment of their problem-solving abilities.”