“Whiteboard Challenge” is a tech satire featuring the software engineering interview process in the form of a game talk show. Created by Michael Kureth, the series is the first and only tech show made by and with software engineers — not actors or non-tech people.
In addition to the registered trademark, Whiteboard Challenge® is protected by seven (7) federal registered copyrights with the U.S. Library of Congress and three (3) Writer’s Guild of America registrations. The pilot episode has been awarded winner for Best Television Series in sixteen (16) film festivals as well as a finalist, semi-finalist, and selected in thirty-three (33) additional festivals.
Currently in search of distribution, the tech comedy fills the viewership void left behind by similarly popular shows, “Silicon Valley” and “Big Bang Theory,” who both ended their series in 2019. With millions of viewers from those shows and more than twenty-five million software engineers, a new STEM comedy is in high demand.
What sets “Whiteboard Challenge” apart is the underlying message and intent. The primary focus of the show is to showcase solutions to improve the interview process, educate non-technical viewers, and aim to end discrimination in tech.
The idea originally began as an interview parody game show in 2015 about how absurd the interview process is for positions in software engineering. The process closely resembles a game show, where chance and personal bias factor more in the hiring decision over actual skill and ability to perform the job.
“We feel that the interview process is outdated and needs improvement,” explains John Deacon, an experienced hiring manager. “The show offers solutions for better ways to assess ability and improve the overall interview experience. The current process is very subjective based on personal preference.”
This theory was proven at Google during a study in 2007 when their hiring committee rejected all candidate interview packets which were later revealed to be from their own earlier interviews at the same company (1).
“The process is not only outdated, it is inflated by the tendency for humans to give more importance to what they do overtime. When interviewing, they make the process more difficult than what they had to go through to get the job themselves,” added Ed Collins, a senior game engineer with over 20 years experience.
I ultimately decided that the initial concept of introverted engineers competing on a whiteboard would be too boring for non-technical viewers.
In an effort to humanize tech talent as relatable people, I confronted controversial topics existing in society. These three topics were age discrimination, homelessness, and women in tech. The overall theme of the pilot became to give a voice to them and those who have been silenced.
Inspiration for the core concept and intent of the show was conceived by reflecting on when I was unemployed in 2018. After hundreds of interviews during that time, I began to recognize concerning practices in the hiring process which influenced all aspects of the show when I realized I was not alone.
Imagine an apprentice nurse with only internship experience interviewing a doctor with a quarter century of proven success. Why is it acceptable for the equivalent to occur for engineering interviews where someone with mostly intern experience can make the hiring decision?
“The problem can be explained by the Dunning–Kruger effect,” said Catherine Pierce, a hiring manager. “This in summary is when a person with limited ability is not able to measure the knowledge of someone beyond their own. As a result, these people mark themselves as higher and in their mind everyone must be lower. Although, the reality more than likely is the opposite.”
I had begun to coach an older engineer who was laid off by encouraging him to emphasize in interviews that he continues to learn and practice new technologies despite his age.
Keith, a contestant on the show, laughed when I told him a startup company run by 20 year olds discriminated my age with the excuse of culture fit. He thought I was joking until a similar scenario happened to him at an interview.
He described to me an instance where he was on a phone interview with a recruiter and everything was going great. This took a turn when his children in the other room could be heard. The recruiter commented, “Oh, you have kids? How old are you?” Quickly after Keith revealed his age, the recruiter disconnected from the call. Keith thought the line had been dropped, but after many attempts, it was clear that the recruiter had lost interest in presenting him to his clients.
“It is common practice for companies to employ third party recruiters to avoid legal concerns,” said Shayla Browning, a tech recruiter. “This loophole grants the company immunity to discrimination complaints.”
The industry’s treatment of experienced engineers is slightly reminiscent of a scene in George Orwell’s 1945 allegorical novella “Animal Farm.” After being evaluated as too old and of no further use, a horse named Boxer was sold and slaughtered to produce glue.
After further research, I started to get the feeling that the term “culture fit” was just a euphemism for a company to potentially discriminate against a qualified candidate on the basis of arbitrary factors such as age, race, gender, disability, and sexual orientation.
A common misunderstanding is that it is easier for seasoned engineers to find work. Unfortunately, companies prefer to promote from within for managerial positions and view overqualified candidates as a flight risk.
Another theory for age discrimination is that by hiring less experienced engineers, they will be willing to work excessive overtime without additional pay. Most tech companies assume older engineers have family and will not be available for overnight deadlines.
We hope that the solutions presented on the show will resonate with viewers to understand that more experienced engineers offer great value to companies.
As I approached my fifth month of unemployment, I began meeting with a homeless engineer to get a sense of how I would be living in a short while. He was someone who I had worked with in the past and was willing to share how he managed to survive without a home. After being unemployed for two years, a key contributing factor to his eviction was that the average cost of living in Los Angeles ranges $3,500 to $5,000 per month in a city with more than 60,000 homeless.
In 2019, I had the honor of getting to know some of these homeless engineers as people in a more empathetic setting over dinner. While interviewing homeless contestants for the show, I noticed the commonality with most being middle aged, highly intelligent, and having traces of social disabilities.
Endless psychological studies have proven that most software engineers do not perform well in a standard interview setting. The simple act of staring into a candidate’s eyes or standing behind causes most people to lose focus and be unable to concentrate.
The interview experience is increasingly more difficult for an introverted software engineer with post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, or autism.
Grant Tyler, a seasoned software engineer added, “Interview candidates are expected to memorize algorithms solved in a Ph.D. thesis (2). More emphasis is given to the person who memorizes to pass an interview over someone who attempts actually solve the question in the limited time provided. In the cases of solving on the spot, most engineers go blank.”
Two related topics cut during rehearsal were scapegoating and blacklisting. When interviewing homeless engineers, each of them described situations where they had been scapegoated and blacklisted in different ways.
“An example of scapegoating occurs when an engineer who does not fit well with the group is targeted and accused of the consequences for a bad decision made by a high level executive. These individuals are mostly those with social disabilities. Sadly, they also become blacklisted by the company which makes references difficult,” explained James Mendoza, an experienced software engineer.
In my experience, most engineers who do not fit in with social norms perform exceptionally well on the job. By addressing these topics on the show, we hope that the industry can look past prejudice and focus on the value their talent can offer.
Women in Tech
One of our greatest regrets for the pilot is that it is missing a female judge to represent a woman’s leadership perspective on the tech industry.
The challenge faced in casting was to find someone with hiring management experience in engineering who was comfortable being on camera to discuss highly controversial topics.
“Historically, women were the pioneers for the tech industry,” added Lesley Allen, a software engineer from the premiere. “We feel that a great opportunity was missed in the show to discuss how societal influences over time have affected women in pursuing STEM fields.”
Due to time constraints, I needed to move forward with the project despite many advertisements aimed to encourage female engineers. This focus shifted more towards diversity leadership.
Viewers watching the show will notice how not only each contestant represents diversity and inclusion in tech, but the same is also true for each judge.
“Just as female engineers are paid less than their male counterparts, people of color in tech experience pay discrimination for the same work. Furthermore, suggestions and achievements by minorities and women are commonly overseen because they are held to higher scrutiny than their majority counterparts. Minorities overall are underrepresented in leadership roles in tech,” explained Daniel Munoz, a judge on the show.
We hope to influence change by showcasing diversity leadership in the form of the judge’s panel.
Overall, women in tech has been the most supportive group of the completed project. Hopefully, in future episodes, the show can encourage more women to be involved and open the discussion on their perspectives.
In following an underlying theme of the show, effort went into portraying how each contestant’s performance was equally qualified and could win in different circumstances based on subjective preference.
For the premiere in September, I conducted a voting campaign both to market the film and to showcase the prejudice of the hiring process. At the free public premiere, People Assisting The Homeless were on site to accept donations towards the homelessness crisis.
There are 36 versions of the pilot each with a unique lesson for the viewer. Using Cinedaptive® film technology, the show adapts to the person watching to establish an emotional connection and influence the viewer’s understanding of the situation in a personalized way.
With this approach, we aim to connect our message with more people and encourage a change in the tech industry.
In 2019, it was reported that 1 in 5 STEM roles were unfilled costing tech companies billions annually. There is an obvious problem in how hiring is conducted if many software engineers among the 140,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco are fully capable of performing these unfilled positions.
The tech interview process is outdated and flawed. With “Whiteboard Challenge,” we hope that the topics and overall theme of the show will influence change in the industry to address and resolve this multi-billion dollar problem and end discrimination in tech.
- Lettvin, Moishe — https://youtu.be/r8RxkpUvxK0?t=540
- Breadth-first search is an algorithm for traversing tree data structures invented in 1945 by Konrad Zuse in his Ph.D. thesis
Written by Michael Kureth, Creator of Whiteboard Challenge