Syntax errors don’t matter on the whiteboard; but they kinda do

The common wisdom is that syntax errors don’t matter when you’re up on the whiteboard for a programming interview. Who cares about unbalanced parentheses or a missing semicolon? Who cares if you forget a cast before passing a value to a standard function? The common wisdom is wrong.

I used to tell candidates not to worry about syntax mistakes. I did that until I had interviewed so many candidates that I realized that maybe 5% of them write whiteboard code without making syntax errors. The astuteness and precision of these candidates is inspiring. All things equal, if you make syntax errors on the whiteboard, you’re already behind.

I noticed a second issue when writing up interview feedback. When I transcribe whiteboard code, tiny errors like a missing semicolon turn into comparatively large problem descriptions like “// missing semicolon”. That’s 20 characters of problem description for a one-character error. I have to jot that down so feedback reviewers don’t think I made that mistake during my transcription. On the other hand, if the candidate only finds the naive solution instead of the dynamic programming solution I need just one sentence for that. That’s maybe 500 characters of candidate weakness summarized in 100 characters of feedback; a problem to description multiplier of 0.2 instead of 20 for the missing semicolon.

Of course, only finding the naive solution to a problem is a much bigger issue than a missing semicolon but how do feedback reviewers subconsciously process that? Do they think of the missing semicolon as a much bigger issue because the problem description takes up comparatively much space?

I now tell candidates that syntax is not the most important thing but they should still try to get it right.

Syntax errors don’t matter on the whiteboard; but they kinda do

One thought on “Syntax errors don’t matter on the whiteboard; but they kinda do

  1. blaa says:

    Your problem isn’t the syntax error, it’s that you feel the need to report on that and act as if it wouldn’t happen to you, totally neglecting the circumstances. Ridiculous.

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