Pros and Cons of the Online Coding Interview

Hard truth: Engineering managers recruiting software developers often have to screen 20+ candidates to find the right skills, creativity, and attitude for a particular position.

Then another position might require an engineer with different skills and experience. One week it’s a senior full stack engineer; the next it’s a junior frontend developer. You want to cast the net widely for candidates—after all, competition for top talent is fierce—but travel can increase expenses and complicate scheduling.

These are factors that make the online coding interview appealing—at least in theory. Now there are tests, code collaboration tools, and online platforms to streamline the hiring process.

But as both managers and candidates gain experience with online coding interviews, some doubt has been cast about the approach. Critics argue that the online coding interview is fundamentally flawed.

For one thing, technical interviews are not standardized. They vary hugely from company to company, and firms creating these tests are competing to offer a different, better product. Candidates vying for the same position on different development teams find that the “skills” and “tools” required can range greatly from interview to interview. How can they prepare?

With this variability, bias often enters the picture. A lack of structure may mean that the interviewer’s personal opinion of the candidate looms larger than their skillset.

Testing that is “tool specific” risks eliminating candidates who have the drive and ability to learn on the job. It’s possible for an engineer to pass a JavaScript assessment with flying colors but fail the interview for lack of familiarity with the company’s preferred framework—a framework they could readily pick up.

Another cardinal flaw of the online coding test is an emphasis on the candidate’s grasp of code instead of their approach to problem-solving. Managers need to assess what a candidate knows, but even more how the candidate thinks and explains their decisions.

It’s no wonder senior engineers decline to take online coding tests. They’re too long, contain errors or ambiguities, and yield little information about how a candidate will interact with the company’s development team. Senior engineers expect companies to assume coding skills and know that online tests miss much of what an engineer does daily.

Glen McCallum, a Senior Software Engineer at INscribe Digital, writes: “It’s funny. Straight out of University, I probably could have coded a merge sort out of my head. Ten years later I had to pull out a textbook and dust it off. So, if a company is using this as a screening problem, I hope they’re expecting a junior dev.”

Popular online code editors

A coding editor enables collaboration and sharing between an interviewer and a candidate. Today, managers have the challenge of choosing from dozens of online coding platforms that specialize in supporting interviewers. And these platforms compete by offering hundreds of options for testing.

Some online code editors, which reside on remote servers, are like text editors; others act more like an integrated development environment (IDE). There are language-specific code editors, too, like JavaScript online code editor. All of these options allow an engineer to write code from any computer.

Here are 3 of the most common platforms:

  • HackerRank offers paid user licenses (individual, team, or enterprise) at escalating monthly fees and allows users to build and test technical assessments in over 35 programming languages. Users can also host real-time coding interviews and receive instant reports on the results. IDE coding editors require no setup; it’s all on the platform.
  • CoderPad is where candidates share their technical skills with interviewers. The platform offers both live collaborative coding and take-home projects. Candidates can write, execute, and debug collaboratively, while managers receive the results.
  • CodeInterview is another popular real-time shared coding environment. Code editors and compilers are available in more than 25 programming languages, and interviewers and candidates can communicate via audio and video. All interviews may be recorded and played back.

It’s important to remember that in this short list of online coding platforms, the features described are by no means exclusive. In fact, all top platforms tend to offer the same features, emphasize their extensive archives of questions and languages, and charge monthly fees with an automatic renewal.

Then there are free online coding testing platforms where users can find free features:

  • CoderPad Sandbox addresses candidates looking to prepare for their interviews. Candidates get used to the IDE and setup, practice writing code in the language of their choice, and choose packages/libraries from over 30 programming languages.
  • CodePen has been around for years and is hugely popular for online cloud coding. Users write HTML/CSS/JS code that is rendered live on the page. CodePen has most of the same features as leading platforms, but engineering managers must customize this general coding editor for interviews.
  • Plunker also enables real-time collaboration and code sharing. Working in the cloud, developers share ideas with others so that managers can adapt the Plunker platform for interviewing. All projects are public and the site has many social features for chatting and browsing templates created by other users.
  • Codeshare, like other free platforms, doesn’t cater specifically to online coding interviewers. But interviewers can set coding tasks and observe in real-time while interviewing remotely. The site highlights an increasingly common mantra among senior engineers: “Nobody likes writing code on a whiteboard.”

Some coding platforms that cater to code testing interviews can adapt tests to junior or senior candidates. And while most heavily emphasize coding, some claim that their results provide information about the candidate’s approach to problem-solving and teamwork.

Collaborative code editor

The feature that really enables managers to observe a candidate interacting within a team is collaborative code editing.

Most of the online testing platforms and code editors described above have team-collaboration capabilities. But some organize their capabilities and services specifically around collaboration:

  • Collabedit is an online code editor for real-time collaboration and can be used without installation or an account. It has a text editor, a chat feature, document history, and syntax highlighting for programming languages. Collabedit enables a team to interact with a candidate and emphasizes its usefulness for technical phone interviews.
  • CodeCollab focuses on the work of development teams, not online code testing for interviews. But as a real-time collaborative code editor and compiler, it can be adapted for interaction between a company’s senior engineers and candidates.

These platforms provide an online environment for candidate interviews by members of a development team. One downside is that if they’re used as initial screening for code writing skills, they may be a poor use of time for your senior engineers. The right kind of coding challenges objectively measure those capabilities so that later-stage interviews can begin with technically qualified candidates.

The alternative to CodePad and other online code testing

A typical criticism of the code quiz goes something like this:

Code testing with python interview questions (for example) and an online code editor c# can identify a fresher or junior-level coder. But this type of assessment cannot evaluate an engineer who will learn, grow, and eventually lead a top-quality development team. That’s why senior computer engineers resent code quizzes and often refuse to take them.

From the outset, Woven’s mission has been to develop, test, and refine challenges that go beyond code. Our assessments engage candidates and ask them to use code to define and solve real-world problems. Senior engineers are tested for essential skills: debugging, technical communication, systems thinking, backend programming, frontend programming, and more.

No coding test using an online coding editor JavaScript can provide the information you need to know how well a candidate will perform on the job. And it certainly won’t tell you how a candidate can innovate, problem solve, or strengthen your development team.

Woven can. Our platform handles all of the scoring, assessing, and reporting of test results. Two senior engineers in our network score each test and provide feedback and recommendations. You’ll see the potential for performance in the role, including prospects for growth.

The best part? 95% of candidates accept our challenges.

If you’re ready to explore Woven’s alternative to online coding quizzes, sign up for a free trial. Our staff is available to discuss your specific goals and is ready to take the uncertainty and hassle out of hiring top talent for your team.