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Preparing for a Pair Programming Session

In a modern technical hiring process, you can expect to encounter one of three common approaches: a take-home challenge, an online assessment, or a live programming challenge, often involving collaboration with someone from the hiring team.

With the help of Nikita Belokopytov, Senior Engineering Manager at Scalable Capital, and Frank van Gemeren an experienced Engineering Manager we explore effective preparation strategies as well as key points to be mindful of during discussions, offering clear actions you can implement today.

We believe that their advice will help you identify any areas where your current practices may be lacking and empower you to make the right improvements. A big thank you to both our guests for sharing their knowledge here with us, and with you.


What do we mean by Pair Programming?

Pair programming interviews often evoke mixed feelings, and we understand the frustrations within the development community when investing time in tasks with minimal feedback. However, we firmly believe that pair programming interviews strike a balance between take-home assignments and timed assessments.

To clarify what we mean by a "pair programming interview," it's a live session that offers the first real opportunity for you to collaborate with the team on a genuine problem as Nikita explained. While the problem may not be slated for full production, this session serves as a vital assessment of how well you and the team can work together.

It's essential to note that most teams align the task with their usual work areas. This provides you with a glimpse into the challenges you may encounter if you were to join, offering a realistic preview of what to expect.

Despite the "pair" in the term, it often involves more than two people. A team member, whether a peer or a leader, may join the hiring manager to provide diverse perspectives on your experience and fit within the organisation.


Why do companies utilise this type of interview?

Like most interviews, this session aims to unearth essential insights about your experience and qualifications, helping the team gauge your compatibility with their specific job opening.

Both Nikita and Frank highlighted a primary focus for hiring teams is around your problem-solving abilities. While the specific tasks may vary depending on the role, company, and industry, the core purpose of this interview approach is to assess your thought processes and how they align with the team's expectations.

Additionally, this interview delves into factors like creativity, technical prowess, and how your approach matches the company's stage. For instance, are you inclined towards practicality or complexity and abstraction? These nuanced aspects can only be truly grasped in a live session where the team can witness your actual work.

Nikita further explained that this interview serves as a test of candidates' integrity. While your resume and preliminary interviews may touch on specific tools and knowledge, a live session allows the company to see your true capabilities and, consequently, your integrity regarding your skills.

Furthermore, this session serves as an effective means to assess your communication skills, both in spoken and written form. Can you establish a connection with the hiring team, build rapport, and adeptly explore for more information with your questions? Do you seek clarity from the team or immediately dive into the task? Are you able to articulate your thought process verbally, keeping them engaged, and do you invite their opinions, fostering open and collaborative conversation?


We present these open-ended questions for your candid self-evaluation and reflection, enabling you to identify areas for improvement based on the criteria typically assessed by teams.


How can best prepare for these types of interviews?

Nikita explained that the most effective approach to conquer these interviews is through hands-on experience. Apply for jobs, experience setbacks, acquire valuable lessons, and build your confidence. Even during periods when you're not actively job hunting, sporadically submitting applications will help you maintain a steady level of self-assurance in your approaches and lets you stay aware of the market - be mindful here however of wasted time for yourself and the hiring team, so we would suggest applying for roles that generally interest you, where you could see yourself working even if you were not unhappy in your current.

Frank further added that your preparation for these interviews will vary based on your experience level. Understanding the expected requirements in advance will provide you with clear direction during your prep work, particularly in areas where you may lack specific experiences. Keep in mind that this is not a rigid rule but rather a general guideline:

Junior: Are the basics are met? unit testing? the correct reading of the extraction? Execution on what is being asked?

Senior: Are you thinking of constraints within the question? The systems? Are you able to enhance what you are creating even if in words to show where you could take the solution? Are you structuring your code correctly? Are you able to go deeper around certain topics relating to the job? (use the job description as a guide here)

Lead: Same as the senior but with a shorter time frame and more in-depth in terms of information.


Using these general criteria as your primary focus will enable you to approach practice questions from various sources, whether online, in books, through mentorship, or within your current organisation. This approach allows you to self-reflect and identify areas that require further improvement before the actual interview.


Frank continued that the questions you choose to review before the live session should not be about achieving perfect accuracy. Instead, they should serve to prepare your mindset. These questions offer insights into typical question structures, presented information, and strategies to uncover more relevant details.


If you're interested in exploring questions in advance, Nikita recommended a valuable book, which you can find here:


If you prefer to examine real-life examples more closely aligned with your own experiences, Frank recommends establishing a question bank. A question bank consists of questions you collect, irrespective of the outcome, enabling you to continually revisit questions that pertain to your level and background. Additionally, he advised keeping a record of all feedback received, both positive and constructive. This will help you in the future by providing a basis for reflection and adjustments before embarking on any new interview rounds. Utilise constructive feedback to tailor your development roadmap and the question bank to identify recurring themes in questions or approaches, which is especially valuable if you have a specific industry in mind.


What should you be mindful of within these interviews?

When heading into interviews of this nature, there are always factors to be aware of – the "unknown unknowns" that, once identified, can help you navigate them more effectively. While this is a technical programming session, Nikita stressed that candidates should recognise that the interview isn't solely about their programming skills. Yes, programming ability is a component, but not the exclusive one.


Your capacity to communicate your problem-solving process, delve deeply into questions, provide insight into what it would be like to collaborate with you, and establish rapport is crucial. Even in the event of task failure, there's still a chance for progress. In the wise words of Nikita, it's important to chill.


Frank shares a similar perspective, adding that you should also pay attention to how the interviewer offers feedback during the coding session. Exclusive negative feedback might suggest a consistently critical code review approach, while only positive feedback might indicate a reluctance to provide candid evaluations. While not a strict rule, this is something to bear in mind for your own evaluation.


Furthermore, if the company you're interviewing with holds a special appeal for you, but you don't succeed, consider using this as motivation to enhance your skills and reapply after the appropriate waiting period. If you're unsure about the time frame for reapplying, don't hesitate to ask the company's team for guidance.


Pair programming sessions represent just one of several methods that companies may employ to assess your skills during the hiring process. In our view, they stand out as one of the fairest approaches, benefiting both candidates and employers by providing a genuine glimpse into problem-solving and the potential for direct feedback when executed effectively. It's important to acknowledge that these interviews may not be a perfect fit for everyone, and we understand this. We aim to offer insights from Nikita and Frank so that if you ever find yourself on the brink of participating in such an interview, you can take solace in their words.

To end this article, always remember, that one company's decision on you doesn’t define you. Keep moving forward until you find the right team. Please feel free to share this article within your network so we can collectively bring simplicity to the chaos of recruitment.



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