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Ask HN: I seem to suck at interviews. I don't want to. Please advise.
14 points by interviewfear 2371 days ago | hide | past | web | 25 comments | favorite
Dear HN,

I have convinced myself I'm terrible at interviews to the point that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy now. In spite of being a good developer (never had any problems at work and have launched two side projects into the wild), I seem to always perform less-than-stellar in interviews. Something happens before and during an interview and I am unable to impress easily.

I have a Masters degree in CS from a good school. I code in C extensively and do a lot of RoR work on the side. I wouldn't say I'm at the top end of programmers by any measure but I'm good. I can get things done, intelligently and efficiently. Years ago, I didn't make it through a pretty major exam (one of the toughest entrance exams in the world - the Indian IIT JEE) and I suppose somewhere in my mind, a fear has been lodged. I am still trying to regain that lost confidence.

I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach before one, I never feel that I'm prepared and in fact, out of my fear I don't even attempt to prepare much. I just tend to wing it which makes it worse. I know I would have done well at most of the jobs where I didn't get through the interviews (google included). I hate the fact that someone gets to judge me sitting across the table. I just want to tell them, give me the damn job and I'll prove to you that I can do it.

I wish most coding interviews were of the kind where you went off to do a project and came back a day or two later with your code. Unfortunately, most still require you to think on the spot.

How do you deal with interview anxiety? I have one on-site this Friday and I really, really want this job.

You get good at interviews the same way you get good at coding... do it a lot.

Start applying to lots of companies, especially companies where you do not or are not sure you want the job. Go with the goal of getting practice interviewing instead of getting the job. Not caring if you get the job will take the pressure off of the interview.

When you do not get the job, ask for feedback as to why. Ask questions about the feedback, drill in. If it is a recruiter giving you the news, ask them if you can speak with the hiring manager or if she can request more feedback from the hiring manager, or since you got the managers contact information in the interview, email them and tell them you are trying to get better at interviewing and ask them for some feedback and advice.

Then one day, you will start getting job offers. As for this Friday, while you cannot stop wanting it, look at it this way: It is either going to be good practice, or you will get the job. Either way win-win.

Well, part of life and work is being able to deal with stressful situations gracefully and with a clear head. So, I don't fully agree for example that you would have done well at Google if you could not run the gauntlet of their interview process.

A big part of the issue is most likely that you are making the interview and job opportunity to be a more significant thing than it really is in the grand scheme of things. Don't approach it with a completely careless attitude, but go in looking at it more like a casual first date where you are BOTH getting to know each other equally.

If you don't know something specifically, then say so, maybe describe how you would find the answer in real life. Be aware if you rely too much on "crutches", maybe you need to reassess your skills if you can't write 100 lines of code without finding half the answers on Google (just generalizing here).

Social skills and work skills are neither inclusive or mutually exclusive.

I have a friend with high functioning autism that could not get a job to save his life, but can look at the symptoms of any production bug and tell you the problem in less than 10 seconds. Seriously we gave him 7 records from a database once that had date problem, by looking at the pattern he deduced that 1 of the systems was un-patched for a daylight savings bug. not only that but by the timestamp intervals he pinpointed which of the 50 servers it was.

In a production support environment this guy is indispensable and his social skills are of no consequence, but if it where not for me vouching for him over and over until the company hired him, he would have never gotten the position.

So much so, that I have gotten him every one of his jobs and at every job they love him after they get over the shock of his complete lack of social skills.

So just because the author experience stress and anxiety in social situations, it does not 1 for 1 translate into poor performance in work related tasks even if they are stressful.

I agree the part about being able to handle stressful situations in life. I think this particular part of life is something I've developed an irrational fear for. I realize I have to get over it or learn to deal with it well.

I said I could do well at Google after seeing some middle-of-the-road friends from college and grad school get in by sheer weight of preparing hard for the interview. They are doing just fine over there.

I don't even need Google crutches. In fact, since I have been coding in C (6+ years now), I can count on one hand the number of times I've looked up things on Google. It is just that I get flustered when told to write code in an interview with the interviewer watching over my shoulder. Give me a terminal and I could probably do it quickly. Or for that matter when I don't know the answer to some trivia-type question and in that instant, I feel like a loser for not knowing something.

It is this part that I realize my weakness is in and that I need to work on.

It might seem like a big scary test, but it's not. Sure, that's how things were in academia where you've been most of your life, but interviews are only superficially like tests. So the first thing is, stop worrying about the outcome and focus on the problem you are trying to solve. Not, 'how do I pass this interview?', but 'is this the right job for me?'. As soon as you start thinking like that, you'll see that you and the interviewer are there to solve the same problem, and you are on an equal footing.

The question 'is he good enough?' is just one among many - and at this stage it's the one you can do the least about, so try to let go of that. Sure, you can study long-term and increase your chances of passing certain types of technical interview. But if the job is really a good fit for you, you'll already be doing that kind of study because you're interested regardless of whether you need it for an interview.

Of course, practice is still useful. Don't just practice being interviewed, practice giving interviews - then you'll get an idea of what the interviewer is thinking. Will this guy fit in my team? Is he going to stay interested in the job?

One other tip- try and make sure you have other possibilities before you go into an interview so you don't have to feel like everything is riding on this moment.

Very well put, completely agree. A cursory interpretation could equate this to mere confidence, a trait that some people are able to exude more than others. But keep in mind that an interviewer interprets confidence on a scale as well, from 'lack there of' to 'hubris.' Acknowledging the importance of a successful hire from the interviewer's standpoint frames the dialogue on a more even playing field. I place a very strong importance on the two aspects nezumi mentions above, "Will this guy fit in my team? Is he going to stay interested in the job?" I want to make sure I do right by my current employees and hire an individual with an attitude/outlook that is complimentary; and I want to make sure I'm not wasting anyone's time by hiring below their payscale for a position they will abandon shortly thereafter. Empower yourself by thinking of the process primarily as a dialogue, one where you are also gaining perspective on the company. Nothing says 'pass' like a interviewee who has no questions of their own.

Note: I am not a hiring mngr on the programming side, I do work and hire for fairly technical marketing positions at large web company you know well.

Tell them give me the damn job and I'll prove to you that I can do it seriously can do attitude goes a long way. I got a job once a long time ago by saying, give me 2 weeks and I guarantee that I will be one of your best developers, that you guys will rave about me, and that you will wonder how you ever did it without me. I then told them, if they where not that overwhelmingly happy with me that they could send me on my way without paying me a dime of salary for that 2 weeks. I was unemployed at that time so I had nothing to loose and was confident in my abilities enough that I knew that they would be happy with me. The where impressed with my confidence and it showed that I was willing to risk none payment, because I was sure of my abilities. It is better than any reference you can provide, because only a fool would offer such a guarantee if they only had mediocre development skills.

May I say something regarding your experience with IIT-JEE? I know atleast three people whose parents had set their hopes unrealistically high about IIT.

When they didn't get through, they just lost it. They completely lost every bit of confidence they had, lost interest in studies, and fucked up their college and careers for good.

I don't blame the parents. Every parent thinks his son/daughter is the next Einstein and instills this "get into IIT or you are an utter failure in life", and sadly this gets drilled into their heads pretty early in life.

What needs to be understood is that not every genius in India gets into IIT, because there just aren't enough seats, and there are too many really smart people around. At the end of it, only those who are smart AND work insanely hard get into. And I really don't think any less of anyone who doesn't, like the parents and the students themselves shouldn't.

Get this in your head: It doesn't matter if you got into IIT or not. At some point, no one cares. Hell, I don't even have a college degree yet because I keep dropping years, and there are still companies trying to lure me with good development jobs and attractive salaries, which freshers start earning only a few years down the line! (I am still a student in India by the way)

If you have a masters degree in CS in a good school and have got to the Google interviews, you must be a pretty smart programmer.

Get this in your head, and build some confidence.

A couple things spring to mind:

* Acknowledge your fear/unease up front, hopefully with a little bit of humor. "I get a bit nervous during interviews" and the accompanying "don't worry - relax, can I get you a drink?" sort of banter may help take the edge off. You've explained that you're a bit uncomfortable, but ideally they'll see you working through that.

* Bring code samples. You may be more at ease discussing something that's physically in front of both of you.

* References - it might help to bring some written references with you. Depending on how the interview is going, you may be able to point out something in writing that pertains to what you're discussing (previous projects, etc). "Sometimes I forget some of these things and need to have my notes with me" or some rationalization like that, done smoothly, won't seem out of place at all. Some may see it as the sign of someone who's sharp and on the ball, able to go beyond 'winging it' and prepare with extra material even when it's something which is difficult to do.

There's no universal way to deal with it - everyone's reasons are different. That said, make an effort to prepare even if you're not at ease with it.

Simply tell the interviewer that you suck at interviews, but that you're willing to work for a week for free to show them what you can do in a realistic setting.

Almost risk free for them, and a win for you if you can deliver.

Also, it wouldn't hurt to have a previous employer on call that can vouch for your abilities. If the 'process' doesn't work well for you try to bend it to your liking.

This approach will not work with large companies by the way, they do things 'by the book' for fear of liability, but a sympathetic interviewer at a smaller company would be a good place to try this strategy.

If I were the interviewer and you'd approach me with such candour I would almost certainly give you the chance (the 'almost' is a caveat against some unknown quantity that would trigger my red flags).

The point of a job interview is to tell a narrative.

Think about what type of narrative you want to tell. It needs to be...I am the best X for you. You know your own life, so you just plug in those experiences into your narrative and you have an awesome interview.

Basically, once you do this you only have to worry about your competency. Which you sound very competent, so that is less of a concern and you can now relax because you have both the job down both is skills and narrative department.

Perhaps it helps you to look at those interviews from a different perspective. Since you would have to spend some time with the company, you have the right to ask questions too. Turn the interview into a discussion. At least for me this is much more easy to handle.

For example, instead of waiting for a question to test your knowledge about their language of choice, you could ask them whether they use it this or that way and mention your level of experience. If they still ask the question and you do not know the answer, you can at least say 'nope, no clue what you are talking about', without the feeling that they only know what you don't know.

If possible make some educated guesses about their infrastructure and ask questions that reflect that you did your homework.

Already said, but important enough to repeat: Be honest. If you are nervous, tell them. If you do not know an answer, admit it. If you are not sure if you understood something, ask again.

As long as you're capable technically, the best thing I can ask you to do is smile. When you smile, even on phone interviews, you come off as sounding confident. A smile changes 'I'm not sure, but I imagine it works like this...' from a 'nervous candidate' to 'honest but thoughtful' even though the words are the same.

I've dealt with this during every job search. The simple solution that's helped me is to simply go to as many interviews as I can. You'll always be nervous on the first interview. I don't know any way around that. But I've found it hard to not be nervous after having been to 3-5 interviews in 2 weeks.

Apply to jobs above and below your current qualifications simply for the practice of interviewing. That way when you interview for a job you're excited about you'll have been in the same situation several times and can focus on the questions asked instead of being nervous.

Good luck.

Two interview strategies I've always wanted to know how to hanlde.

How do you handle not knowing something in a trivia centered interview? For example; what datastructure does a database index use?

Is there a good way to say you don't know without looking unqualified?

Also what if you used a certain technology A LOT say 5 years ago and now you remember nothing about it off the top of your head. How do you say "Yeah, I can do that, but I can't tell you much about it"? This is assuming you didn't know about that requirement before the interview to refresh your memory.

There are really only a couple of uses for trivia questions in technical interviews: verifying someone's resume (i.e. if you claim to be skilled in some area, trivia questions should be, well, trivial) and as a jumping-off point for a discussion to see how you think.

So handle it the same way as you would in your day-to-day work: ask questions, try to figure it out.

If they really are just interested in your rote memorisation of documentation, consider that this might not be such a great place to work.

If you used something 5 years ago, sure you can't remember the fine details, nobody expects that. But you should still be able to discuss the technology intelligently. Even if the details are gone the concepts should still be there, and fluency in concepts is what a good technical interview will be about.

There are really only a couple of uses for trivia questions in technical interviews: verifying someone's resume (i.e. if you claim to be skilled in some area, trivia questions should be, well, trivial) and as a jumping-off point for a discussion to see how you think.

I have always found hiring managers who use this, tend to me developer come manager and tend to have a superiority complex. I have never liked trivia questions because the interviewer generally tries to find some obscure item, that is unknown to 90% of people just getting work done and the only reason they know it is that they goggled "really hard tech trivia that will make me feel superior when all the applicants don't know it"

I don't personally know you, so it's difficult to say for sure, but it sounds like you probably just aren't terribly comfortable talking in front of people you don't know well.

The key is to basically stop caring what strangers think of you. You could try doing karaoke or amature night at like a standup club or poetry reading. Strike up conversations with complete strangers.

Another thing to keep in mind, if your personality doesn't mesh well with the interviewer, there is a good chance that you wouldn't have fit in well with the corporate culture.

"I never feel that I'm prepared and in fact, out of my fear I don't even attempt to prepare much."

Well, try preparing then. Try doing a "mock interview" with a couple of friends. Practice answers to the typical dumb interview questions ("What is your greatest strength?"). Bring along a nice looking "portfolio" folder with your resume, samples of work, that kind of thing, that way you have something to talk about and visually distract yourself from being nervous.

One way to practice interviewing is to conduct more interviews. Yes, I'm suggesting that you volunteer to interview candidates at your current job.

Your problem sounds mostly psychological. You may have a case of anxiety disorder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anxiety_disorder). See a professional counselor if this is bothering you to the point that it is robbing you of your happiness.

As someone with anxiety disorder, I can say agreed and I suspect this to be the case. This is also my problem, but medicating before an interview doesn't help a whole lot more either.

While medications can help, they are short term solutions. Psychotherapy is a longer term solution and can help resolve the issue in a few years time.

I work as an IT recruiter in the UK so hopefully I can help.

The key to success in any interview is preparation. In the lead up to an interview it is imperative that you adequately research the company. I don't just mean reading the 'About Us' section on their website but detailed research. Look up previous press releases, media coverage etc. If you get an opportunity to talk to a past or present employee, regardless of whether they are in a similar role or not, take it.

Have a list of relevant questions prepared. Not questions you think may impress but questions that relate specifically to your role and questions based on the direction the company are heading always go down well. One ridiculous mistake I see people make time and again is bringing in a copy of their CV to the interview and referring to it for dates or specifics, this basic error tends to leave people thinking that they shouldn't bring in any material to an interview which isn't entirely true. I have had some outstanding feedback from various clients who were massively impressed with candidates who pulled out a concise, printed list of questions at the point of the interview where they asked them if they had any questions for them.

More and more companies (with the exception of Google) now acknowledge the fact that an important aspect of the interview is that it is an opportunity for the candidate to ensure that it is the right company for them.

If you go in to an interview thinking, I need this job, I need to impress then you will always be on the back foot. Take a consultative approach to an interview and you will blow them away. What I mean by consultative is that you need to acknowledge the fact that the company is already confident that on paper you have the skills that they are looking for, otherwise they wouldn't waste their time seeing you. The reason they want to speak to you face to face is to ensure that you were being truthful about the claims you make on your CV and to ensure you have a likeable, professional personality and to ensure you have a genuine interest in joining their company.

Unfortunately 'personality fit' is a huge factor in the recruitment process these days. I say unfortunately as it is almost impossible to quantify so the advice I give my candidates is to be honest and be yourself, that way, if they feel that your personality doesn't align with what they look for in an employee you have just avoided joining a company where you would have to suppress your personality and conform to what they feel is acceptable. In my opinion this would be a nightmare over a long period of time.

I know I would have done well at most of the jobs where I didn't get through the interviews At some point during an interview you will most likely be asked to point out some of your weaknesses. I would honestly recommend repeating the above quote from your original post verbatim. Let them know that you strengths shine through when you get your head down and get stuck into the actual job but you sometimes struggle to communicate that during an interview without sounding clich├ęd. Everyone says 'I'm a hard worker with a great work ethic' but how many of them fulfil that claim on the job? You know you're a hard worker, you know that you can prove it if given the opportunity and at this point I would turn it around on them, ask them: How long does it take you to figure out if someone is as good at the job as they claim to be during the interview? Honest employers will say anywhere between 2 to 6 weeks. I would then point out that you are not interested in telling them what they want to hear but you only want to be honest and you know full well that you can do this job and you can do it really well and that will become immediately evident when they hire you.

Once again, be prepared. I know you struggle with this but if you really want the job, put time aside to make sure you are prepared.

Feel free to ask any other questions & I'll do my best to give you honest answers.

Good luck.

When you go to an interview, think about the guys on the other side, the interviewers. Imagine they are also under stress, that they are having a hard time finding a decent candidate, they are scared they won't be able to do their job properly, or that their lack of knowledge on the subject will show through, even though they're the ones asking the questions. Try to see the interviewers as human beings, find some natural point of empathy with them (children? a bad cough? traffic difficulties ?) unrelated to the interview. If there is more than one, concentrate on whoever you feel most affinity with.

Even if your technical knowledge is limited, concentrate on your strengths: practical experience, a positive attitude, fluent communication, a good fit with the company ethos, a positive contribution to the working environment, etc. That's two thirds of it right there; it's not all technical. Investigate the company and make sure you understand what distinguishes it from the competition in terms of company culture. Try to understand the company's vision statement and what it entails.

Also think that you have a broad choice of jobs on the market, that these guys have to convince you to work for them: they have to show they are offering a good working environment, decent career prospects, a competitive salary package. Be the opposite of desperate: you're in a strong position, you have all the choices, they have to entice you.

Even if I can't answer all their questions. I generally behave as if I were a very valuable potential asset for the company, which they will have to work hard to acquire. I certainly don't think they are doing me any kind of a favour by offering a job: how would their company function without decent workers?? If I have any doubts about the company, its training policy, its promotions, its financial viability, I ask them, I put the interviewers on the defensive, so they try to convince me that it is worth my while to work for them.

When you get to the financial part, don't sell yourself short, and don't look greedy either. I find that a 10% raise on my previous package usually strikes the right balance. Sometimes you can ask for 15%, and then let the guys negotiate it down to 10%, so they have the impression they got a bargain.

Usually this approach catches interviewers on the wrong foot and reverses the roles. I get a lot of offers, even though I don't have a degree in IT, and I'm an average programmer (I studied philosophy).

To sum up: - be empathic with the interviewer - be positive about your market prospects - have a deep understanding of this particular company's vision, why you want to work for them, what positive contribution you can make - be upfront if you have any qualms about the company or the role - be clear about your strengths and know that you are not being judged exclusively on your technical abilities - make the interviewers work to convince you to sign a contract

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