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The power of two: Using pair programming to improve technical interviews

Tech hiring can be a pain, and finding an ideal candidate takes a lot of work. But with pair programming, engineering managers have a trick up their sleeve which can help them make the hiring process a tad easier, and effective.

Pair programming interviews are a common way to gauge candidates’ coding skills and capacity for collaboration. These interviews have become crucial for recruiting teams seeking top talent as remote work and dispersed teams have become more common, and the need to assess collaborative skills has taken priority.

That said, pair programming interviews may be challenging to implement, and managers need to be aware of the common mistakes that can occur. In this article, we’ll provide recruiting teams - i.e. hiring managers and potential interviewers - with a thorough overview of how to use pair programming interviews to their hiring advantage.

So, let’s dig deep!

01. What is pair programming?

what is pair programming

As the name suggests, pair programming is a technique which requires two people to code together. They are termed as Driver and Navigator. One writes the code and the other evaluates each line of code and suggests changes or identifies problems in real time. The roles may be exchanged at any point, and the two regularly interact to guarantee the code is of high quality and fits the required criteria.

Pair programming is an Agile development method originating from Extreme Programming (XP) and is usually used in software development to accelerate delivery. It is also known as yin-yang programming, doer-checker or active-passive programming.

The same method can be adapted to tech hiring to help hiring managers better understand how applicants work, communicate, and solve problems in groups. By viewing the code, managers can analyze candidates’ technical skills, communication skills, problem-solving ability, and attitude to challenging jobs.

Pair programming assists engineering managers in better understanding how candidates think, learn, and process information. Managers can acquire significant insights into how a candidate approaches and solves real-world coding difficulties by working together on a coding problem.

02. Pair programming as an interview technique

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Pair programming can be used for technical interviews by teaming an applicant with an interviewer to write code in real-time. This way the interviewer can assess the developer’s code-writing capabilities and accuracy in a familiar environment.

The candidate and interviewer collaborate on a coding challenge or a real-world programming task. As the applicant codes, the interviewer navigates, giving directions and comments. This is a great way to assess how applicants describe their methods and assumptions while verbally communicating their thinking and reasoning.

Engineering managers need to prepare for pair programming interviews by selecting a problem to collaborate on. This problem could be a fresh question, or something that is half-written and needs extension. Or, this could be a take-home assignment the candidate wrote which the interviewer can build on top of.

The aim of the process is to have a problem with a scalable solution, and then assess the candidate’s ability to re-think their original solution when presented with such a problem.

03. Importance of pair programming in tech interviews

Hackerearth-USP

Writing code is a complex process requiring a lot of collaboration. Many times, a developer might be asked to work on a project midway or help a peer with their task. If they are not able to pick up the code midway and add to it or review it and find ways to improve, then they may not be the best fit for a team that relies on close collaboration to get things done. Therefore, conducting a pair programming interview gives an engineering manager a clear picture of a candidate’s potential performance in such situations

Here are some reasons why you should include pair programming as an interview technique

Helps to assess cooperation and communication

Since coding is typically a team endeavour, communication is vital in many programming positions, and developers must be able to communicate with their coworkers effectively. Pair programming allows applicants to exhibit their abilities to collaborate with others and effectively communicate about coding issues.

Demonstrates problem-solving capabilities

Pair programming interviews allow applicants to demonstrate their problem-solving abilities in a real-time, hands-on setting. The interviewer may ask candidates to explain how they approach complex problems, such as coding talents, algorithms, and data structures. The interviewer can examine the candidate’s coding style and suggest changes or optimizations that might align better with the organisation. It helps both parties understand and agree on communication styles right at the outset.

Showcases how an applicant would handle leadership and criticism

Pair programming interviews are an excellent technique to evaluate an applicant’s ability to deal with leadership as well as constructive criticism.

The interviewer can start as the navigator, providing comments and ideas to the driver as they work through the challenge. In addition, they might suggest alternative approaches to solving the problem or point out errors in the code. The interviewer can observe how the applicant responds to feedback or comments through this process.

A candidate open to feedback and prepared to investigate various problem-solving ways is more likely to accept constructive criticism well. They may ask clarifying questions about the comments they are receiving and collaborate with the interviewer to find a solution.

When the roles are reversed and the candidate has to act as navigator, the way they communicate and provide feedback can tell you a lot about their leadership style, and how well-suited they are to guide and mentor others.

04. Best techniques to conduct pair programming interviews

Hackerearth-Customer-Feedback

Theoretically, pair programming interviews sound like a hoot! However, it is important to be strategic and avoid hindrances during the interview. We asked our in-house tech experts to help us out with the best techniques to conduct pair programming interviews, and here is what they said:

Plan the program

Explain to the interviewee the role of both driver and navigator and the problem to be solved. In addition, ensure that the problem is relevant to the position and can be handled in the given time.

Establish expectations

At the interview’s outset, specify the interviewee’s expectations. Ask task-related questions, and also make a candidate feel comfortable during the interview because it can be stressful for them to write code in real-time. Also, tell them what the company expects of them and how they will be evaluated in the roles of both driver and navigator.

Provide feedback

Provide feedback throughout the interview. As the interviewer and the driver, observe small details and provide constructive criticism to help the interviewee improve their coding skills.

Encourage communication

Encourage communication between the interviewer and interviewee. The interviewee should feel comfortable to ask questions and seek feedback throughout the interview.

Use collaborative tools

Use collaborative tools like IDE, screen sharing, video conferencing, and real-time code editors to facilitate the pair programming process.

Evaluate problem-solving skills using a predefined rubric

Observe the interviewee’s problem-solving skills throughout the interview. Pay attention to how they approach the problem, break it down into smaller tasks, and collaborate.

05. Things to consider during pair programming in interviews

Implement PPI

Hiring the right developer for an organization needs mindfulness and strategy. No matter how well an engineering manager plans a tech interview, certain things can slip through the gaps. Use the best practices outlined below to conduct a pair programming interview and never leave any loophole during tech hiring.

Be aware of time constraints

Time management is essential during pair programming interviews. They could last longer than regular interviews, so plan extra time for the interview.

Use it only for the relevant skill level

Pair programming interviews are only for some developers and may be more effective when testing applicants at the intermediate or advanced levels of coding proficiency. But for beginners, it is advisable to choose different interview strategies.

Ensure collaboration and compatibility

The pair programming process hinges on effective communication. A certain amount of compatibility between the interviewer and the candidate is necessary for getting good results. To achieve a good interview, be careful to take both sides’ personalities and communication preferences into account, and set clear expectations and rules from the onset.

Use the right tools and technology

Choose the right technology and tools for the pair programming interview, such as a good coding environment, screen sharing software, and video conferencing software.

Establish assessment standards

Ensure the interviewee is aware of the evaluation criteria and clearly define the rating scale before the interview starts.

Thus, pair programming during interviews may help assess candidates’ coding prowess and collaborative abilities. Yet, considering the elements above is crucial to a successful interview process.

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06. How to evaluate pair programming interviews?

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Evaluating pair programming interviews involves assessing the candidate’s coding ability, communication and collaboration skills, problem-solving approach, and overall fit for the role. Here are some ways to evaluate pair programming interviews:

Review the code

Examine the code written during the interview, paying close attention to its quality, clarity, and effectiveness. A few things to look out for are:

a) Modularity and extensibility of code

b) Use of design patterns

c) Effective use of TDD (test driven development)

d) Ability to refactor code

Observe problem-solving skills

Examine the candidate’s ability to tackle an issue, break it into manageable tasks, and work with the interviewer to find a solution. Given a technical task, the candidate should be able to suggest a good High Level Design (HLD) and pick specific components that are detailed into Low Level Design (LLD).

Check collaboration skills

Examine the candidate’s effective communication and teamwork capacity through a collaboration skills assessment. Search for indications of attentive listening, transparent communication, and open-mindedness.

Consider the bigger picture

Remember that the pair programming exercise is just one part of the interview process. Consider the candidate’s overall qualifications, experience, and fit with the company culture when making your final evaluation.

Evaluate technical skills

Analyze the applicant’s technical abilities, particularly their familiarity with programming languages, frameworks, and tools.

07. Challenges involved in conducting pair programming interviews and how to overcome them

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Evaluating pair programming interviews involves assessing the candidate’s coding ability, communication and collaboration skills, problem-solving approach, and overall fit for the role.

Here are some ways to evaluate pair programming interviews:

1. Technical challenges

If the interviewer and the interviewee are not versed in the same programming language, framework, or tool, technical difficulties may occur. It could result in impaired communication and clarity during the interview.

Solution

Choose a programming language, framework, or tool that both the interviewer and the interviewee are comfortable using. If you are using something entirely new, then make sure to provide the candidate access to materials that will enable them to become familiar with the programming language or tool. Furthermore, check the tool and equipment before the interview to reduce the chances of any technical issues during an interview.

2. Communication issues

Communication issues may occur if the interviewer and interviewee have different communication styles or language issues.

Solution

Establish explicit communication standards to resolve communication issues at the interview’s outset. Send across writing tests and specs to the candidate prior to the interview prep to help with their prep and reduce communication gaps. These specs should define the interviewer’s expectations clearly. So, now all the developer has to do is “make the test pass”.

Representing the problem as a flowchart or a block diagram can also help resolve communication barriers. HackerEarth faceCode has a built-in diagram board which can be used during the interview for representation.

3. Time management issues

Time management issues may occur if a candidate cannot finish the coding problem within the specified time. It may result in more timely solutions.

Solution

Plan the challenge, and provide enough time for the interviewee to find a solution without running out of time. Give the candidate precise instructions and expectations for the coding test.

Here are a few pointers to help you manage your time

1.Choose a problem statement that allows the interviewer to evaluate the candidate’s work in multiple parts. You can also use a problem that needs to be solved at an increasing level of complexity to understand the candidate’s competency level.

2.Drive the conversation/interview in a manner so that solving for the first case will automatically lead to the second case, and so on.

3.Take care that there is some atomicity in the way the solution needs to be written. For example: a DB optimization problem should be separate from a business logic change problem. This way, you can always move on to the next challenge if time is running out.

Conclusion

Pair programming interviews might be a valuable tool for tech hiring managers to assess applicants’ coding and collaboration skills, especially in modern remote work. Recruiting teams may maximize the advantages of pair programming interviews and find top talent for their businesses by putting best practices into practice, anticipating and overcoming problems, and continually improving the process.

The secret is to set up precise parameters and expectations, communicate well, provide enough time, and offer the interviewee a supportive and cooperative environment. Don’t forget to use the right tool and coding environment to help your candidate feel comfortable and code with ease.

HackerEarth FaceCode can help you conduct coding interviews, including pair-programming interviews, with ease. With its built-in code editor, advanced question library, and nifty features like real-time feedback rubric, HackerEarth FaceCode can help you identify and hire top tech talent while improving the overall candidate experience.

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