Quora

Pen and Paper Could Be Your Downfall in a Coding Interview

Your standard physical discomfort does not overcome our difficulty in collaborating with each other.


Am I allowed to use paper and a pen during a technical interview for a top-tier tech company? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

The expectations and norms are generally to use a whiteboard for a technical interview. If you ask, some interviewers might happily let you use a paper and pen. Some will say okay, but not be happy about it. And some will flat out say no.

I’m in the last of these group. I'll tell you no. I'll be gentle about it—I’ll tell you that in my experience, a whiteboard really works better. But I'll ask you to use a whiteboard unless there's some very good reason (think: medical need).

A pen and paper offer you the ability to record your thoughts in graphical form; so does the whiteboard. A pen and paper offer you the ability to write pseudocode; so does a whiteboard.

They offer you essentially the exact same abilities. It's just a different medium.

I understand that a pen and paper can be physically easier to use because your hand isn't up in the air. I get that. Really, I've spent plenty of time up at the whiteboard. (Pen/pencil/paper is harder to erase though than a whiteboard is, so keep that in mind.)

The problem is that when someone is writing on a piece of paper, they typically don't communicate and collaborate as much. They solve it in their own heads. It's difficult for the interview to work back-and-forth with them, as the candidate is holding on to the paper. The interviewer often can't even get a good look at what the candidate is writing, unless they're nearly hugging the candidate.

If you still think “that's cool, whatever”, remember—I'm probably not going to give you as much help. I don't know what is going on in your head and it's physically difficult for me to work with you. How can I?

A pen and paper is just a bad idea. If you have a whiteboard and you don't have unusual physical challenge in using it, then use it. Your standard physical discomfort with writing on a vertical surface does not overcome our difficulty in collaborating with each other.

In fact, I'm not just saying “I won't allow it and here's why.” I'm saying don't even ask. I won't hold it against you if you do ask, but please don't.

The problem is that an interviewer might say yes and not understand the implications of this. They're just thinking: sure, what do I care? Write wherever.

But when you're at a pen/paper, you and your interviewer will tend to flip from “collaboration mode” to “independent problem solving mode.” The physical challenge in communicating over a piece of paper—you literally block your interviewer from seeing what you're doing and working with you— results in you solving it independently.

The lack of communication means that you might get viewed as not being as collaborative. Even if your interviewer realizes the physical challenge in collaboration, they still might not get enough data to say that you do collaborate effectively.

And, because of a lack of collaboration, you get less hints and guidance. Now you look like a worse problem solver.

To make matters worse, your interviewer probably doesn't even have the experience with a pen and paper interview to understand why there was so little collaboration.

So don't even ask to use a piece of paper. It's just too likely to harm you. Use the whiteboard like all the other candidates.

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