Practical tips for whiteboard coding interviews

Table of Contents

I spent a lot of time this summer preparing for whiteboard coding interviews. I've half-written several blog posts reflecting on my experience, but so far I haven't finished any of them. Rather than spend yet another Sunday afternoon rewriting yet another incoherent treatise on meta-learning, I'm limiting the scope of this post to concrete tips for whiteboard coding interviews.

If I could give only one piece of advice, it would be to buy a spiral-bound notebook and Cracking the Coding Interview and work through the book. Also, find someone to mock-interview you - you're probably not as ready as you think you are.

Ok, that was two pieces of advice. Here are some more.

1 Before the interview

1.1 Minimize the likelihood of surprise

Eliminate as many potential sources of surprise as possible before your interview.

The obvious source of surprise is the interview questions themselves. You'll usually be surprised by the specifics of the question, but if you've prepared well then you'll have some intuition from having solved similar problems.

If the company offers candidate coaching or allows you to come onsite in lieu of a phone screen, take advantage of it. The novelty of your physical surroundings is a potential distraction you should eliminate before interview day, if practical.

If your interview will be on a laptop, try to find out how it's configured. For example, Google gives candidates the option of writing code in Google Docs on a Chromebook. Pro tip: there's a free Chrome extension called DriveAce that offers syntax highlighting for various languages as well as Vi and Emacs keybindings. Once you've practiced it a couple of times, it takes less than 10 seconds to go from a rage-inducing, Microsoft Word-style prose editor to a nice text editor with programmer-friendly keybindings.

During my Google interview, I drew pictures and outlined the problem on a whiteboard before switching to the Chromebook to write the solution. This worked really well. In fact, I was able to redeem one round from disastrous to merely bad by spending the last two minutes of the interview hammering out ugly code on the Chromebook. Had I instead been at a whiteboard I would have been dancing back and forth, scribbling arrows everywhere, and saying things like, "If you could just pretend that all of this code is actually part of that method over there…"

Even if you aren't interviewing at Google, the principle still holds - practice like it's the real thing.

(Google freely divulges this information in their candidate coaching sessions, so I think I'm in the clear talking about it here.)

1.2 Develop your vocabulary

During my interview preparation I adopted the habit of writing a paragraph or two about each practice problem that I solved. I hoped that this exercise would prepare me to to communicate my thought process during interviews, but I discovered an unexpected benefit. Ever heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? It basically says that the thoughts that you can think are limited by the language at your disposal.

Consider two hypothetical candidates explaining the performance considerations for a hashtable.

The first candidate explains that "the insert operation for a hashtable has amortized, constant time complexity, assuming a relatively uniform hash function. If the choice of hash function results in a high load factor for any particular bucket, then the performance degenerates to linear time."

The second candidate reasons that "putting stuff in is big-O of n, because you could have too many collisions and have to iterate through all the elements in each bucket. But usually it's faster. The average case is just big-O of 1, because, you know, the worst case doesn't happen unless all the elements have the same hash."

Sure, the second candidates language is a little less precise, but we know what they mean, right? Isn't it just pedantic snobbery to insist on speaking like an algorithms textbook when plain-ol', regular-person, English will suffice?

Not if you believe Sapir and Whorf. The first candidate's vocabulary doesn't just help her communicate her solution better - it enables her to think better. Having a compact mental representation allows your brain to quickly fetch a complex concept into your working memory. This ability is vital in an interview environment which requires quick, high-level, thinking to select heuristics from a large search space.

I've found that the best way to truly internalize a concept is to try to express it in English, sometimes accompanied by a diagram. My first attempt usually reveals holes in my mental model. Look for wishy-washy phrases in your own writing - imprecise prose often indicates a lack of understanding.

Once I'm satisfied with the language, it's time to compress and index. During this stage I edit what I've written to make it as succinct as possible without sacrificing clarity or completeness. By the end of this process, I have a rich but compact mental representation of the concept that I associate with a few words or phrases.

1.3 Develop idioms for common problem types

Credit for this idea goes to my friend Jakob.

There are a surprising number of popular interview questions that presuppose the existence of a 2-dimensional NxM grid, e.g., Battleship, Tic-Tac-Toe, Boggle, Minesweeper, guiding robots out of dark caves, flood-filling, navigating a skiier down a tree-spotted slope which mysteriously restricts movement to the 4 cardinal directions, etc.

Problems like these often call for iterating over the grid from a given point. The most obvious way to do this is usually to represent the grid as a 2D array of integers and iterate in a doubly-nested for loop with integer counter variables. Sometimes you can get away with this, but I've found that I often end up getting bogged down in writing tedious bounds-checks.

For problems like these, it's helpful to be able to automatically whip out an abstraction like this.

class Point {
    // TODO: constructor
    int x, y;

    Point up() { return new Point(x, y - 1); }
    Point down() { return new Point(x, y + 1); }
    Point left() { return new Point(x - 1, y); }
    Point right() { return new Point(x + 1, y); }

class Grid<T> {
    // TODO: constructor
    T[][] points;
    int numRows = points.length;
    int numCols = points[0].length;

    boolean isInBounds(Point p) {
        return (p.x >= 0 && p.x < numCols) && (p.y >= 0 && p.y < numRows);

    T valAt(Point p) { return points[p.y][p.x]; }

Graphs are another common abstraction with several different representations. The ability to quickly choose between object nodes with pointers, an adjacency matrix, or an adjacency list and code it without spending any brain cycles gives you an advantage.

2 During the interview

2.1 It's OK to skip around

Don't confine yourself to writing code linearly.

If you find youself getting bogged down in the mechanics of a tricky section of code, just leave yourself some room and move on. This technique is particularly effective when dealing with recursion. It's easier to identify the base case after the recursive step is in place (Credit for this idea again goes to Jakob).

Another strategy for getting unstuck is what Sussman and Abelson call "programming by wishful thinking." If you find yourself in need of a Foo but are unsure of how to acquire it, sometimes it's better to simply call findAFoo() and move on. Not only does deferring the implementation keep you from losing momentum and confidence, but the mechanics of the Foo acquisition process might become obvious once you've fleshed out the rest of the solution.

2.2 get() on with it already before you set() your interviewer off

Don't waste time on boilerplate. This applies especially if you're writing Java on a whiteboard. One of my pet peeves as an interviewer is when a candidate identifies the need for a simple abstraction like a 2-D Coordinate, and starts to write code like this.

package com.tronbabylove.interview.acmecorp;

public class Coordinate {

    private final Integer x;
    private final Integer y;

    public Coordinate(Integer x, Integer y) {
        this.x = x;
        this.y = y;

    public Integer getX() {
        return this.x;

    public Integer getY() {
        return this.y;

    public Integer setX(Integer x) {
        this.x = x;

    public Integer setY(Integer y) {
        this.y = y;


This is totally sufficient - it even compiles in Java and C++!

class Coord {
    int x, y;

Spending time writing useless getters and setters tells your interviewer that one or both of the following statements are likely true:

  1. You have no idea how to approach the problem, so you're simply engaging with trivialities as a stalling tactic.
  2. You're unable to break down a problem and direct your effort towards meaningful work

Either way, it doesn't reflect well on your problem-solving ability.

2.3 Use assertions liberally

There's nothing that will kick the old sweat glands into high gear like clicking "Run" in your CoderPad with 3 minutes left in a phone screen and watching your program spit out an opaque, totally incorrect, output.

An AssertionError, on the other hand, is like a blinking neon sign pointing to exactly which of your assumptions was incorrect. When you're bug-hunting under pressure you really want blinking neon signs.

Even if you aren't going to be running your code during the interview, assertions around the preconditions and postconditions of your important methods are still great tools for thought and communication. It's also an easy habit to adopt. In fact, a lot of people are almost programming without assertions without even realizing it.

Next time you find yourself writing a comment like this…

// At this point, we know there must be at least 1 element

Just express it a little more formally.

// numElements >= 1

Now make that comment executable.

assert numElements >= 1;

Voila! It communicates exactly the same thing to the reader, except now they don't have to just take your word for it.

2.4 Bound your search space

Most of the problems that get asked in interviews have at least one naïve solution. Obviously, you should describe this solution to your interviewer first.

It can be overwhelming when it comes time to optimize. If there's no obvious next step, there will likely be many promising algorithms and data structures bouncing around the walls of your short-term memory. When you start to feel overwhelmed by the size of the potential search space, it helps to imagine the properties of the best possible solution.

For example, if your problem involves searching a collection for every element that matches some criteria, the obvious solution is just to scan the entire collection in linear time. With a baseline of O(n), you can narrow your search space to solutions that are better than O(n), which for 99% of the interview questions you'll encounter means either logarithmic or constant time and/or space. Algorithms that don't depend on their input size are rare, so it's unlikely a constant time solution exists. Now you're looking for properties of the collection that could serve as the basis for a logarithmic search.

Of course, there's no substitute for systematic reasoning when a problem calls for a non-standard algorithm, but falling back on simple heuristics can kickstart your search when you don't know where to begin.

3 Conclusion

I believe that there are two types of people who succeed in whiteboard interviews:

  1. People with a rock solid foundation in computer science who can consistently reason their way through any unfamiliar problem in 45 minutes or less, despite the presence of another judgmental human.
  2. Normal people who have studied a lot.

While I wish I were in the former group, the success I've had has always come through exhaustive preparation. The ability to reconstruct a tree from an in-order traversal is, at best, a weak predictor of success in the real world. Still, I don't begrudge the hours I've spent preparing for whiteboard interviews.

If you view the time you spend studying as preparation for a test, then there's a good chance you will fail. Your performance will be graded against a rubric which varies with whatever set of biased humans was unlucky enough to be assigned an interview that day. Woe unto you if you're the type of person who derives your self-worth from your ability to calculate the shortest path between any two nodes in a directed, acyclic graph.

But if instead you view this time as an opportunity to review the fundamentals of computer science, then it's value is outcome-independent. Investing in yourself is always good decision, regardless of whether any particular corporation offers you a job.