How to get unstuck during a pair-programming interview

One of the hardest parts of pair programming is figuring out what to do when you get stuck. Especially when you’re pair programming as part of a job interview. What do you say? How do you prove you’re a reliable, competent coder, when you feel…kinda lost?

We asked for advice from two experienced developers. Avielle Wolfe and Zach Gershman both use pair programming in their workplaces, day-to-day, and for interviews. They shared their experiences and tips.

We also assembled some specific examples of phrasing to use when you’re stuck. Read on to learn three problem-solving communication strategies that make a great impression.

What can you do when you’re stuck in front of an interviewer?

Advice from Avielle Wolfe, thoughtbot

“Do what you would normally do when you get stuck coding,” Avielle says. Feel free to look up the documentation, google for answers, or look at source code for clues. Do what’s familiar. “The difference is that you’re talking it all out with the person,” Avielle adds.

Usually an interviewer will supply some contextual knowledge for you. You don’t need to instantly master the whole codebase. Avielle says she usually selects interview tasks based on a candidate’s level of experience. She also tries to choose something with clear boundaries.

Learning during the interview is one hundred percent okay. This is definitely not a trivia quiz.

A candidate “might be coming into a language or a framework that they don’t know,” Avielle explains. That’s happened to her!

At one interview, “I had never seen Ember before and I hadn’t done much JavaScript work either,” Avielle says. “I had to talk a lot to with the person who was interviewing me. They got to see how I learned, and that’s what I’m going to have to do all the time in the job. It’s more important than coming in with all the answers.” Phew!

Advice from Zach Gershman, Pivotal Labs

“First and foremost, don’t panic!” Zach says. “Even the best programmers get stuck. Interviews are always stressful,” he adds.

Interviews tend to feel like a test. Remind yourself that your interviewer can help!

“To unstick yourself, use your pair as a resource! Ask as many questions as you like,” Zach says. “Your pair in the interview is there to work with you, not just evaluate you, so pretend like they are your co-worker already and use their institutional knowledge.”

Explaining your process out loud is also recommended. Though it may feel awkward, Zach sees value in saying you are stuck. Expose your gaps in knowledge. Explain how you are trying to break down the problem. That’s encouraged!

“Normally we want to see how someone works through a problem, not just that they got to the right answer,” Zach explains.

But what do you say when you’re stuck? 

Asking good questions can get you unstuck. It’s also important to highlight your competence as a problem-solver. Here are some strategies:

Example 1: Make connections
😑 “Oh no. I’m stuck. I don’t know how to x.”
😎 “Hmm. I know a and b usually work together. I think b would solve the problem I’m seeing here. But the program is asking for c. Is c like b? What does c do differently?”

Example 2: Highlight what you do know
You could even drop in references to completed projects you’re proud of. For example:
😑 “Uh oh. I’m stuck and I don’t know how to x.”
😎 “Hm. I know a and b usually work together. I used b in an app to do _____, and the result was ____. Is this the result we need here?”

Example 3: Look around the codebase
😑 “Crap, I have no idea what to do next.”
😎 “I’m looking at nearby code for clues. I think this part does ____ task to produce ____ result. Is that correct? Can you tell me how this fits with the rest of the program? How does it impact _____ that we need to receive/create?”

Interested in learning how to present your skills in a job interview? Check out Season 2, Episode 3 of the CodeNewbie podcast.

If you would like to try pair programming, here’s advice on how you can find a pairing buddy and get practice.

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What emojis tell us about encoding

They’re our punchlines. They’re our kisses. They’re our favourite way to share a lol. Emojis do a lot of work for us. But sometimes emojis don’t show up properly, even though the text around them comes through just fine. For example, this happens:

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Ah, the mysterious empty box. What is that? Why does it pop up from time to time?

This error happens because emojis are an example of encoding at work. Yes, emojis are transmitted as code! And sometimes compatibility issues arise. Something’s getting lost in translation between your device and the sender’s device. In this post, we’ll explore what’s going on under the hood.

You probably aren’t thinking about the rules of encoding when sending a text-based message. But when you see an emoji error like this one:

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you’re getting a tiny taste of the massive amount of translation work that’s happening between devices in the blink of an eye.

Let’s walk through how emojis work.


All of the letters and emojis that we type are encoded. Encoding is a set of rules that standardizes how we represent letters and emojis in a way that computers understand — binary.

At the end of the day, the computer boils everything down to binary, which is just ones and zeros. Our devices need to agree on encoding and decoding rules to say which combination of ones and zeros will mean “a”. And which combo means capital “A”, etc.

An emoji is just another character, like letters in the alphabet. So if emojis are all represented as characters, not pictures, how do we handle them in programming languages?


The Unicode Standard has assigned numbers to represent emojis. Here’s how it works.

In the Unicode Standard, each emoji is represented as a “code point” (a hexadecimal number) that looks like U+1F063, for example. Thanks to Unicode, our devices all over the world can all agree that U+1F603 is the combination that triggers a grinning face.

Even though we’re using the same number, what the user sees can vary. Let’s see how.


If you want to use the “beers” emoji, you’d use U+1F37B. Let’s see how it looks on various platforms.

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As you can see, each platform has its own style. The Unicode Consortium only provides suggested new emoji concepts and their assigned code points (those U+ numbers). Then, each software producer develops their own visual style for the concept. Apple choses to design graphics that aim for realism by using lots of gradients. Meanwhile, HTC and Twitter have bright colors and a more cartoony “flat art” style. And until recently, Google’s emoji set featured partially-empty beer glasses topped with magical, gravity-defying froth! (Google issued a redesign in late November.)


During the design phase for new emoji graphics, each company sets their own schedule to release them. As a result, your device may not be able to decode what friends are sending you, and vice versa.

This, my friend, is the reason why emoji display errors happen. When your device receives a U+ code it doesn’t recognize, or doesn’t have a matching picture for, you’ll see a replacement — the empty box, or a box with a question mark, or split emoji components, like a profession emoji + a gender sign 👮‍♀️ or a person + a skin tone swatch 👶 🏿 .

Here’s how the full emoji update process works, step-by-step:

– Anyone can suggest a new emoji idea through Unicode’s submission process.

– The Unicode Consortium accepts and reviews proposals for new emojis.

– Once a year, the Consortium announces which new emojis concepts they have accepted.

– Application vendors design and implement new emojis.

So what do developers do when new emoji specifications are released? Unicode describes the process on their website as follows:

“As part of normal software release cycles, platform vendors periodically make decisions about which Unicode characters to support in new versions of their software. Supporting new emoji characters involves additions to fonts, enhancements to emoji input methods (keyboards or palettes), and often updates to libraries that determine character properties and behavior (such as word selection or line breaking). Depending on release cycle length and timing relative to a Unicode release, it may take a year or so for new Unicode characters to appear on phones and other platforms.”

The Unicode Consortium does not require software creators to comply with suggested emoji updates, but they do filter new emoji proposals by anticipated adoption rates. According to their proposal submission process guide, Unicode’s homing in on ideas that are likely to be used by millions of people. They aim for popular ideas that will likely be picked up by the leading platform vendors: Google, Apple, Twitter, Facebook and Windows. All of these organizations are members of the Unicode Consortium and provide input on emoji selection.

Unicode also seeks input through public reviews, an annual conference, volunteer roles, and emoji proposal submissions from the public. (For more details on participation in Unicode decision-making, see Unicode’s list of members and their membership FAQ.)


If you’re building an iPhone app and want to let users type emojis:

– You do not need to add special code to allow emoji input in text boxes. Apple provides a framework called UIKit that includes a predefined keyboard with emojis.

– New emojis will automatically appear in your app when Apple updates their own libraries.

If you’re building an Android app and want to let users type emojis:

– You’ll use the Android Studio Layout Editor to add text fields.

– You can implement the EmojiCompat font library to help make that sure emoji will show up consistently.

If you’re building a website and you want to let users input text with emojis:

– Emojis will work in most text fields, like form fields you might add in a to-do list web app.

– Browsers and computer operating systems tend to have more emoji compatibility problems than mobile applications do. You may not notice this, unless your own content relies heavily on the latest and greatest emoji, like Emojipedia does. Better safe than sorry. Test, test, test.


If you’re building a mobile app and want to make it available on multiple platforms, your emoji might look a little different on each platform. You cannot force Android to use Apple emojis, for example. This would be breaking copyright rules. However, you can use custom emoji sets in your mobile apps if you want emojis to look the same everywhere.

You can license emoji fonts from vendors such as EmojiOne.

Open-source emoji libraries are free to use anywhere you want, for commercial or non-commercial purposes. For example, check out EmojiTwo.

Twitter has made their Twemoji set open-source, so it’s available for everyone to use. You can tell the browser to use the Twitter emoji set in your web apps by following this tutorial.


Build a Simple User Interface [TUTORIAL] A good place to start learning Android user interface fundamentals. (Source: Android Developers)

iOS From Scratch With Swift: First Steps With UIKit [TUTORIAL] Suitable for absolute beginners, this tutorial introduces UIKit and the ever-so-important MVC (model-view-controller) concept. TutsPlus includes excellent screenshots as they walk you through the steps to get started building a single-view iPhone app. (Source: TutsPlus)

How a 16-year-old Muslim girl made the “woman with headscarf” emoji a reality [NEWS] Learn about the Unicode submission process and recent moves to make emoji more diverse. (Source: Vox)

Exploring the Android Emoji Compat Library [BLOG] Learn how Android processes emoji and replaces missing ones with emoji look-alikes. (Source: Joe Birch on Medium)

Emoji 4.0 [BLOG] Ole Begemann wrote an excellent blog post that explains multi-code emoji. Read this for more details on the new skin tone modifiers and gendered profession emojis. (Source: Ole Begemann)

Membership Levels and Fees (Unicode) [REFERENCE] If you’re curious about how the Unicode Consortium works, their membership rates are listed here. Most members are tech companies. Note: it’s $75/year for individuals or $35/year for students. Top tiers (paying over $17,000/year) have voting power. (Source: Unicode)

Emoji Versions [REFERENCE] See how Unicode has developed over the years with this chart of emojis grouped by year of release. (Source: Unicode)

Choosing and Applying a Character Encoding [REFERENCE] Learn more about website encoding with beginner-friendly definitions of encoding terms.

Learn more about encoding in Season 1, Episode 2 of the base.cs podcast.

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5 Possible Reasons Why Your Codeland CFP Talk Wasn’t Selected

We’re hard at work planning Codeland 2018, and we just selected speakers from the CFP. Out of the hundreds of submissions we received for talks (we’re still working on workshop submissions), we could only choose 16 talks. It’s frustrating to find out your talk wasn’t selected and not knowing why or what you could’ve done differently. So I wrote this post with the goal of providing some information on our decision. And if you’re considering applying to a future Codeland, hopefully this will help strengthen your CFP!

1. Not enough of a story
One thing we did differently this year was to replace topics with problem-solution setups. Last year, we had topics like art, gaming, health, and education that you could pick from. One of the things I want to do with the CFP process is to show people who don’t think they have anything to talk about that they actually do! So instead of topics, I created problem-solution setups like “How I solved a technical problem” and “How I took a side project and made it something more.” My goal was to have people who may not normally submit a talk look at the list and think, “Hey I’ve done that! Maybe I can submit something.” I also hoped that these setups would encourage people to think of their talk as a story instead of a lecture.

To be honest, this strategy didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. Last year, we had half the number of submissions, but there were more stories than this year. One of the most common patterns I saw was a tendency to approach the talk like a lecture, with a lot of emphasis on providing information and instruction, and not enough on telling a story. Conferences have different goals for their talks, and one of ours is to inspire and inform. A common issue was not having enough on the “inspire” side. Depending on the conference, that may be just fine! But for ours, the story is really important.

2. Lots of comparable talks on the same topic
Two of the most popular topics covered in this group of talks were open source and accessibilty. There were probably a dozen “How to get started in open source” talks. Besides being very instructional (see point 1 above), they tend to sound about the same. That means if you’re submitting a talk on this topic, you’ve got a lot of competition. Your submission’s gotta really stand out. One way to differentiate yours in the future is to make it personal. Tell us your interesting/surprising/frustrating open source experience. If you have a hard time with that, another strategy for a future submission might be to pick a topic that’s less popular, and so won’t have as much competition.

3. Too niche
There were a number of really great submissions that were simply too technically specific for our audience. What makes Codeland different from most tech conferences is that we’re language and framework agnostic. Our attendees come from different technical backgrounds, interests, and skill levels. While our talks are technical, we opted for talks that were likely to resonate with our audience regardless of their specific stack. As a whole, we wanted to design a program that covered a range of interests and had a high likelihood of being relevant to our attendees.

4. Not enough information
Some talks sounded like they could be good, but we just weren’t sure. Usually this means there wasn’t a lot of detail, or the information provided didn’t paint a clear picture of what the talk would actually look like. These submissions often did a great job establishing the premise of the talk, but didn’t provide enough examples/facts/details for the programming committee to have a good sense of what the talk would actually contain.

5. Not technical enough
There were a number of talks on soft skills, tech culture, and other themes that are relevant to being a developer, but not exactly technical. These topics are definitely important, and we unpack of lot of those themes on our podcast and twitter chat, but for the conference, we opted for more technical talks that were more directly related to coding. The exceptions to this were talks on learning how to code and building a career.

As you can see, about half of these reasons are more about fit than an issue with an individual talk. Your submission may be perfect for a different conference! The fact that you submitted is already a win, and I hope you keep submitting <3

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Velofel – The Best In Male Enhancement?

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