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Ask HN: Getting over interview anxiety?
28 points by JessicaTG on Dec 21, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 30 comments
Hi HN!

So recently I applied for a software engineering role at a startup. A week and a bit ago I had an interview where they and I chatted for a bit and got to know each other a little, which I thought went swimmingly. Yesterday however, was my technical screen. I was confident but nervous beforehand, but when it started that's when my mind froze, I couldn't think at all and I was just a bumbling mess. It was by no means a difficult problem and almost immediately afterwards and when the pressure was gone the solution became obvious to me, but by then I knew it was too late to change anything.

Stuff like this happens to me all the time. Not every time I'm being judged in person, but every time I'm being judged where I need to think and I _need_ to succeed and I'm not in a position of power. I just get so much anxiety and my mind completely shuts down. It has caused me to fail things I shouldn't have. Not only technical interviews, but e.g. my first driving test I just freaked out and so couldn't pass it. Examinations at school I am fine as I don't have another person in front of me judging me.

The software engineering job I am currently at is a consultancy agency, but probably the only reason why I was offered it a few years ago was because I didn't have to do a technical interview. If I had, I probably would have failed that too.

I couldn't sleep at all last night, the night after the interview. And the email I was dreading I received this morning. As soon as I saw the rejection I just burst out crying uncontrollably. It took me an hour to regain my composure to send a reply email thanking them for their time and wishing them success. I broke down not so much because I failed, but because of _why_ I failed. Even now, hours after the fact, I am still quite shaken.

I was wondering if you or others in this community have experienced something similar, and what steps you have taken to remedy it?

Thank you all so much in advance!

Jess :-)

It is well documented in social psychology that individuals have a hard time with difficult tasks in front of others because their working memory is monitoring the social situation. It is called "social facilitation theory." Technical interviewing is not based on any kind of evidence based HR practices but is entirely instinctual. My pet theory is that the whiteboarding / coderpad epidemic is really a status hierarchy game where individuals make it clear 'if you want to work here, you are going to do what I say.'

As others have said here, practice. In my career coaching service, I guide clients to practice 10-20x the length of the interview. Have a close friend test you on concepts or talk about the biggest potential areas for red flags on your resume or LinkedIn Profile as employers are looking to minimize risk. Interviewing is acting but playing yourself under stress conditions. So replicate the environment you will be in. Only 5-10 hours will make a world of difference.

To reduce stress, think about it as a conversation between colleagues (of different seniority). You are transferring information not in a court of law defending yourself.

Good luck.

I teach coding on the side, and one of my interview tips for students is to practice saying "I don't know". Make it almost muscle memory so it doesnt throw you, because rare is the interview that wont try to find your boundary, and rare is the person that feels comfortable saying "I don't know" in an interview.

Sure, try to work in something you do know, or try to show interest in learning, but mostly just be comfortable. Confidence will be taken as skill, anxiety will drag down your display of strengths, and many companies are looking for someone that will be self driven enough to not need hand holding but will also be upfront about problems rather than committing then ultimately failing with little time left to correct.

I normally smile, nod, and ignore when someone tells me to practice a social skill out loud (that may be regrettably obvious in person), and I have long experience as a class clown so interviews arent very bothersome, but in this I say practice really does make a difference since the goal is not to establish what you can do but instead to make it boring and routine.

I recently had a few rounds of interviews, I think I said 'I don't know' a dozen of times. I did get an offer.

In an interview, especially as a software developer, you are in a position of power. It may help to remember that.

Companies are desperate to hire enough good developers. You’re evaluating the company as much as they’re evaluating you. If you’re currently employed elsewhere, you can walk away and they’ll still be scrambling to find someone to hire while you’re making your nice comfortable salary.

As a hiring manager, when interviewing a candidate I like, I’m as anxious about selling them on the company and position as they are about proving themselves to me. And a hiring manager who isn’t concerned about impressing you too is one you don’t want to work for anyway because they won’t value you.

If you can keep that in mind and flip the power dynamic in your head, suddenly you’re not on the spot trying to prove yourself to a stranger in a position of authority. Now you’re the one in charge showing your interviewer just how much they’ll be missing out on if they don’t convince you that they’re the one company you should choose out of the thousands that you could work for next.

Let me just re-iterate practise, practise, practise. After you have done this sufficiently often, following things happen

1-You'll notice how similar interviews are and develop a routine

2-You'll become better aware of what you want and what your strengths are which will help you to sell yourself better

3-I believe each human being has a threshold of "capacity to being bothered". At some point, you will care less about how interviews go. Just imagine you had 5 interviews per week for four weeks. In no way will you be as nervous in your fourth week as you were in your first. You get used to it.

Try to not take any of this personally. It's a game anyone can learn to play.

This is called choking. It is explained in the course "learning how to learn" [1] which I'm shilling for (unpaid, sadly) because the knowledge is so valuable.

The key here is that you've never performed under pressure, so you have to train yourself to perform under pressure. This way you'll get used to it and you'll be able to function normally or even excel under pressure.

[1] https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

People will tell you to practice, which is fine, but the bigger issue is that companies are being stupid by interviewing anyone this way, period.

By all means, practice is good for you. But also try looking for companies that don’t involve unrealistic time pressure combined with trivia-oriented tech questions. Your experience at your current employer proves such jobs exist, and indeed they exist at many types of companies with good job offers.

Just decline the ones that do use algorithm puzzles / whiteboard questions / etc., and include your constraints about how you will be evaluated just as you would include constraints about salary, insurance, job duties, etc.

You’re not interviewing to get out of the rain: it’s about getting what you want in exchange for providing value to the employer.

If part of what you want is to be treated with basic dignity and respect while being evaluated during an interview — something incompatible with trivia / hazing style interviews that are ubiquitous in the tech industry — then just own that choice, be proud of it and straightforward. Just politely tell interviewers it does not work for you, accept that you may need to opt out of a lot of interview pipelines, and you’ll find options better suited to you.

> the bigger issue is that companies are being stupid by interviewing anyone this way, period.

I don't know about being stupid. I think it's an okay way to evaluate candidates, and as a person who does regularly interview people for engineering positions I see its value (I just get people to code a simple singly linked list with an insert and a find method). It's just unfortunate for a small minority like me that don't do well in situations such as these, particularly with the more difficult and involved problems.

> Just decline the ones that do use algorithm puzzles / whiteboard questions / etc., and include your constraints about how you will be evaluated just as you would include constraints about salary, insurance, job duties, etc.

> ...

> If part of what you want is to be treated with basic dignity and respect while being evaluated during an interview — something incompatible with trivia / hazing style interviews that are ubiquitous in the tech industry — then just own that choice, be proud of it and straightforward. Just politely tell interviewers it does not work for you, accept that you may need to opt out of a lot of interview pipelines, and you’ll find options better suited to you.

The thing is, I can't really do that. I want to move to America, in particular San Francisco, where I have absolutely no network I can reach out to like I do where I currently am. I can't imagine a situation where a company would forego a technical interview in a case like that, despite my work history or GitHub account

Thank you for taking the time to reply mlthoughts2018, I really appreciate it :-)

It’s strange that you admit the interview technique doesn’t work well for people like you, yet you choose yourself to administer a similar technique and see “value” in it.

Why do you think you’re in the minority? Belief that whiteboard coding puzzle evaluations are broken is very widespread. Even many people who do not experience anxiety from the time pressure or “gotcha” nature of these interviews also see them as a scourge of the industry.

San Francisco is a large place with many companies. Better to find the ones that really fit your needs than to compromise yourself by trying to fit into an interview procedure that isn’t right for you.

Plus, since you mention you already have a job, it means you can take your time to filter out companies. No need to rush or apply pressure to yourself to hurry up and meet some interview standards... you can take a longer, careful search before relocating.

That's fair. I recognise that it's quite hypocritical of me, but I don't really have a choice in the matter. :-( I've argued enough against the practice to reduce the problem from something that would take on average an hour to something that only takes 5-10 minutes at most, something that is taught and used extensively at universities around here. Thinking about it, no one has failed it at all.

For me, I do kind of need to rush. I'm transgender and not really in a safe environment to come out, and the time is fast approaching where it's near impossible to hide. Whereas overseas, where I do not know anybody, I can be myself. That is also why I also want to move to San Francisco in particular, it is very open and friendly.

I wouldn't call San Francisco open and friendly. Hacker News frequently has articles showing exactly the opposite.

Here, just 4 days ago, is an article about the city abusively forcing a person to build an undesirable house because a hostile neighbor wanted to cause trouble: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18695241

We've seen articles about violence too, for example in BART stations and against tech company buses.

I appreciate the challenge of your situation and hope you are able to address the many simultaneous constraints you’re trying to satisfy. I submit that Hacker News may not be the right forum to handle the particular combination of details relevant for you, and indeed anonymous online forums in general might not be the best option. If you can consider other methods of seeking career guidance and assistance, it may offer better information for you.

Interviews are stressful. I recall an interview years ago where I totally blanked on how to write an SQL JOIN. 3 seconds after the interview, it came right back. I can recall the two interviewers exchanging glances that I interpreted as "wow, this guy is a waste of our time." Totally sucked. Very defeating. A different place took me on a few interviews later, and it worked out really well for me (glad I didn't get that other gig!).

A buddy at work wrote this: "I’m Not Great at Technical Interviews. How I Got Hired": https://sendgrid.com/blog/im-great-technical-interviews-got-... (dang, those url slugs are terrible).

His 'briefcase problem' made hiring him a no-brainer; I recall our excitement to just hire him. He may be the best hire I've ever been a part of. Maybe a similar approach could help you.

To echo everyone else: practice. Last time I looked for work I immediately went after the job I really wanted, and since I hadn't interviewed anywhere in years it didn't go very well. I then did a bunch of interviews for places I didn't necessarily care about and after a handful I felt much more comfortable with the whole process.

Interviews seem like they should be something you should naturally be good at, but it's a very specific type of situation and it helps a lot to have recent experience in that type of environment. Even just hearing the types of questions other companies are asking for a similar position will be helpful.

I wonder if explaining in advance would help. Push as much of the screening into take home tests. Use a github profile to show your work. And the for any real-time screening have the option to split it into two where you can revisit stuff you think you didn’t do so well in because of nerves.

Not sure if this would work but maybe it is worth a try. Some employers might be understanding and help you out. And they’ll be better people to work for anyway.

End of the day if the job doesn’t require pressured presentation of your knowledge then why screen for that.

Two things that have helped me a lot are one speaking at toastmasters. It's a public speking community. Just show up as guest to one near you and pick a topic for an impromptu talk and speak in front of few dozen people. It will make interview seem like a piece of cake: https://www.toastmasters.org/

Second, speak more with people in events and stuff. It helps a lot. Talk to strangers, cab drivers, kids, elder, everyone. Good luck!

One way to change your mindset is to remember that the interviewers WANT to like you.

They're not bringing you in hoping you're an idiot and that they're wasting your time. Everything they know about you is positive and they WANT to hire you.

It's like going on a date. There's something about that person you like and you want to find more things to like!

Beyond practice, low doses of beta-blocker drugs (e.g. propranolol ~10mg), have been known to be helpful with performance anxiety and are commonly used by actors and musicians. I know at least one person who says it is very helpful for them when interviewing. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/04/can-you-treat-st...

With a doctor’s blessing. Self-medicating is often dangerous. Propranolol is Rx only in the US.

Practice. Basically exposure therapy for interviews. Also look into doing some CBT to change the way you react and think about people judging you.

Hi jryan, thanks for your reply! :-)

> Practice. Basically exposure therapy for interviews.

That's the thing though. I have and I do already do that. I like doing coding challenges, some time constrained others not, in my spare time. The difference is that I do not need to succeed in those. There is no person watching over me and everything I do, there is no environmental pressure other than the time. And if I fail, I learn from it and have the ability to try again.

I do currently see a therapist to deal with things, not sure if it's CBT or not. But what I'm told to do is to try and bring myself back into the present, which I can't really do during the middle of an interview.

Doing coding challenges doesn't count. It doesn't include the part your afraid of. They have to be real interviews. Maybe line up a bunch of interviews for companies you don't actually want to work for, and try that in your spare time?

On the CBT side you need to be aware of the various cognitive distortions that feed anxiety [0], and be critical of negative thought patterns. Critical in the sense of what they do to you, and which ones are cognitive distortions. Maybe sit down with a journal after the next interview and try to record lots of details about how you were feeling, and how your feelings made you think certain thoughts, and how it makes your body feel and how it's all related.

Let me do an example. You start the interview and you're asked a question, and you're brain freezes up. You start thinking, "oh no, it's happening again! It's already over, I know how this plays out. What are they thinking about me right now, just standing here doing nothing. I'm not going to get this job!" You can attack a lot of those thoughts. These are all distorted thoughts.

First say it's just an interview. You can try again another time. It's not the end of the world.

This happens to other people. I'm not the only one who has this problem in interviews!

They are probably thinking "oh she's taking their time trying to think the problem though. I know how they feel, I've been in their shoes before too. This is a lot of pressure." Most people are understanding and empathic, pretend that you are the interview, what would you be thinking?

You can even be honest with them! Tell them that you get a little psyched out doing technically problems and make a little joke about it, that it might take you a second to get ramped up. I've done this on plenty of interviews. It really helps defuse the anxiety for everyone! Let me tell you right now that as an interviewer whose interviewed dozens of people I spend a ton of time worried about what I'm going to say or ask next. They won't even be super focused on you the whole time.

Some of the physical sensations could be heart racing, sweating, thirst, etc etc. Acknowledge them and do some breathing to slow down a bit, and come back to the present.

Think of your interview more as a stepping stone. A learning experience. It's not black or white. I get the job or I don't. It's a process. Care a little bit less of how they see you.

In regards to a therapist, it took me 6-7 tries to get one that knew CBT and could help me. I'm not saying stop seeing your therapist or anything, just telling you my experience. And finding a therapist that can actually help and is trained in CBT and exposure therapy was very difficult for me.

The good news is you can do it yourself if you learn how to, but it's very hard to observe yourself and put in the work to basically be your own therapist.

Also disclaimer that I am not a doctor! :P

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_distortion

Reading your comment again, I see some distortions:

> "I do not need to succeed in those."

You don't NEED to succeed. Most people go on many interview to find a job!

> "There is no person watching over me and everything I do"

Like I've said the interview isn't going to be watching everything you do. I can tell you from experience that a lot of your interviewers are bored and thinking of other things. You're not under a microscope.

> "And if I fail, I learn from it and have the ability to try again."

Why doesn't this apply to interviews? :)

This is just my two cents but I think lots of practice with various companies will help you get more confident. Apply to a bunch of jobs you probably wouldn't even want to do. You'll be less stressed about them because you don't care as much about getting them, then slowly ramp up to other companies.

The following beliefs helped me with my nerves.

Hold the belief that everything will work out and the future is bright.

Focus on doing your best regardless of the outcome. Even if you fail, you can handle it and other good opportunities will come up.

In my case, I found that giving talks at local meetup groups helped very much. It gets you used to talking about code in front of people.

Like everyone else said, practice, practice, practice. But I also have a little anecdote that may or may not help you. I'll share it, if you don't mind.

Many many moons ago, when I was in middle and high schools, I was terrified of getting up in front of the class to speak. I mean, absolutely petrified. In fact, I was so terrified of the prospect that I would take zeroes on entire assignments because I would have had to present them to the class. It's the main reason why I didn't get a 4.0 in high school and instead got a 3.0: entirely, 100% stage fright.

Then I went to college. Part of the core classes was a Speech class. It was required. We had to do it. I decided that I'd take it as a summer class, so I could get it over with in 3 weeks instead of stretching it out across an entire semester.

I got to the class, sat way in the back, and shook and sweated and just generally felt awful. The teacher gave us the first assignment. "Bring a book and read a passage out loud to the class."

OK. I can do that! I brought The Hobbit, one of my favorite books of all time, and I read the first chapter out loud. I could focus on the pages and not the people, and I just pretended I was reading out loud in my room. It went... okay. I was still nervous as shit, but I wound up doing it and I got an A, mostly because, I mean, how hard is it to read out loud?

The second assignment was to describe a quality in ourselves to the class. Serendipity struck, and I decided to tell the class about how terrified I was of speaking in front of people.

"Um, um... -cough- uh, hi. Um, my name is, uh, Jemaclus, and I uh... I mean, my quality is that I'm, uh, totally terrified of, um, speaking in front of people, because, um, everyone is staring at me likeyouareallstaringatmenow um, and uh.. it makes me, uh... nervous, and I say uh and um a lot, and I shake, and i, um..."

I basically spent my 5 minutes in front of the class describing anything and everything I was doing and feeling and I even acknowledged that we weren't supposed to be doing any of these things because the teacher had explicitly said "don't say um" before! But I was legitimately having some sort of anxiety attack or something. I just kept talking, and eventually, the timer went off and I shakily made my way back to my desk and hyperventilated until I calmed down.

At the end of the class, the teacher handed out her scores, and to my very, very great surprise, I got an A+. On the side, she had written a note: "Great acting!"

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

I hadn't been acting! I was legitimately about to shit myself!

And that's when I had an epiphany, which is sort of the lesson of this anecdote. The epiphany was this: people project their desires onto you. My teacher wanted to believe that nobody could possibly be that bad, so she chose to believe that I was acting. She didn't want me to fail. Nobody in the class wants anyone to get up and make a fool of themselves. They want to see someone do something successfully. In most scenarios, they don't expect perfect oration or flawless performance, just enough to enjoy it! (Alternately, she just felt bad for me... but I like my version better.)

A second mini-epiphany came after class. I was talking about it with my classmates, and they all admitted they had been so terrified of their own upcoming performances that they barely noticed mine. Instead of listening to me, they were mentally rehearsing their own speeches. In other words: not only did nobody want me to fail, most people weren't even paying attention!

For the next speech, we had to teach the class how to do something. I decided to demonstrate how to juggle. It was physical, so it was something that would keep my mind off the people watching me. It worked... And not only did it work, but it let me sort of realize that literally nobody was paying much attention except for the teacher, and _she_ wanted me to do a good job. And I got another A.

I got straight As in speech class. It was the most terrifying three weeks of my life, but I made it. And I realized... it wasn't that bad. Not only was it not that bad, but I went on to change my major from computer science to theater. In the last 15 years, I've performed in over 40 stage shows in front of thousands of people. I eventually became a high school English teacher, and I stood in front of 150 teenagers a day for nearly two years before I switched back to computer stuff. (I'm now a Director of Engineering at a startup.)

With theatre, with teaching, I put my lessons to use: nobody wanted me to screw up. People who pay $30 to see a play don't want to see a terrible actor -- they're more likely to interpret any screwups I may have made as intentional and think "Huh, that's weird" and not "HAHAHAH THAT DUDE TOTALLY FUCKED UP". My students were a bit harsher, but at the end of the day, they saw me as an authority figure, and thus on some level, they wanted me to be competent. Any mistakes I made were chalked up to... I don't really know. But I've had former students come up to me years later and say they loved my classes.

This is a bit rambling, but here's the point of my story:

We (the interviewers) want you to succeed. We want you to do a good job. If you make a mistake, it's okay. Generally speaking, we're not trying to find any tiny flaw -- quite the opposite, we're trying to find promise that you can and will become better.

We're rooting for you. We really are. We want you to be awesome. If you're awesome, then we can hire you, and we don't have to sift through any more resumes. If you're awesome, then we don't have to talk to anyone else. If you're awesome, then our work load gets lighter. If you're awesome, then a lot less stress sits on our shoulders. If you're awesome, then we look good to our peers and our bosses and our employees. If you're awesome, then everyone wins.

I'm not looking for perfection, either. But I need you to demonstrate to me that you have promise. There are tons of things I can totally teach you. Don't know what a REST API is? It would take me 15 minutes to explain it to you. Don't know what an MVC pattern is? You can learn it.

It's nice if you already know those things, of course. But what I'm generally looking for are smart people with lots of promise, even if they have some anxiety.

Most of all, I really, really, really, really, really want you to be awesome.

Try framing it in your mind like that. It might not work for you, but it worked for me.

It's not really enough to just "not suck", but that's why you should keep practicing. Practice makes perfect. It's harder to blank out when you've practiced so many times that you couldn't forget it if you tried.

Good luck. I'm rooting for you. And if you're in the SF Bay Area, shoot me a DM. I'd be more than happy to practice with you.

Top story!

These interviews are designed to filter less visible people.

None of my friend went through these interviews.

Companies have two kind of employees:

1. Directioner 2. Executioner

If they are hiring for second role, they are put through mind numbing problem solving.

But if it's for the first kind of role, then you don't go through all that. The expectation is that you'll figure out the direction and solution as you go.

One thing is not everyone has to go through these interviews.

Do you've experience? Do you posses a lot of knowledge in a particular niche?

I hire people without these quizes based on their knowledge of the area we gonna work.

What't your tech stack and experience? Where are you based?

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