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Technical interviews are a standard practice in my industry, but I have a hard time thinking under pressure in those situations. How can I better demonstrate my technical potential in these types of interviews?
The growing popularity and importance of technical interviews have resulted in guide books, online courses, and even paid mock interview services to help candidates prepare. Many have come to see technical interviews as the standardized tests of the tech industry, since they require intensive preparation, and your results determine whether you get “accepted” into the role.
Considering the high stakes, it’s no wonder candidates feel anxious about these interviews. Fortunately, there are ways to feel more prepared and less nervous throughout the entire process:
- Customize your research. There are many different types of technical interviews, and companies tend to have their own unique formats. Conduct a detailed internet search to better understand what to expect from your specific type of interview.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. Reflect on your performance in prior interviews and create a plan that is catered to you. Start with topics you consider weaknesses so you have the most time and energy to dedicate to them, and end with topics you consider strengths to give yourself a confidence boost.
- Practice thinking out loud. Sharing your thought process is a great way to show interviewers how you solve problems, but it can disrupt your regular thought process if you’re not used to thinking out loud. Even if you’re practicing alone, pretend there is someone to whom you are explaining your solutions.
- Practice with another person. Having another person listen to your responses will give you more insightful feedback, better mimic a real interview, and let you get more comfortable with someone observing you in action.
- Create a “pregame ritual.” Set aside time to mentally prepare before your interview. The last thing you want is to be racing from a class or meeting straight into an interview. Someone else can be part of your ritual, like a friend who is great at hyping you up, or it can be something you do alone, such as going on a meditative walk.
- Reframe nervousness as excitement. A study by Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., found that replacing “I am nervous” with “I am excited” can put you into an opportunistic mindset and help you perform better.¹
- Don’t expect to be perfect. Interviewers almost never expect perfection and may intentionally try to see how you respond when you don’t know an answer. In these cases, be upfront about what you do and don’t know, and never make up an answer.
- If you can’t solve the problem, solve a similar problem. If you’re completely stumped by one of the constraints of the problem, start by explaining how you would solve the problem without that constraint. It could help you get “partial credit” or even lead you to the correct answer.
- If time permits, ask your own technical questions. Some interviewers may leave time at the end for you to ask questions about the company. In these cases, it’s helpful to stick to the “technical” theme while seeking out more of a real-world understanding. For example, you could ask, “What are some of the toughest technical challenges new hires face when they start out?”
- Follow up if you figure it out afterward. If a question stumped you during the interview, solve it afterward and include it in your post-interview “thank you” email. While it’s not guaranteed that your “late” answer will be considered, some interviewers see it as a sign of determination and curiosity when candidates continue working through a problem they couldn’t initially solve.
As with any interview, don’t forget that you are also interviewing the company. Your experience in a technical interview can give you useful insights into the company culture. For example, a well-trained interviewer can recognize and alleviate nervousness and make you feel like they are there to help you succeed — not to weed you out. This type of interviewer can be a great reflection on the company as a whole. Alternatively, an interviewer who is distracted, dismissive, or unprepared may be a sign of a broader issue in the company.
Once your interview ends, take some time to note the questions, how you responded, and a self-assessment of your performance. These can be valuable notes to look back on for future interviews, as well as subsequent rounds of the same process. Whatever the outcome may be, don’t let a tough technical interview make you second-guess yourself as a great engineer. The problems asked in these forums don’t always mirror the true day-to-day nature of the role, nor what it takes to succeed in the long run. Good luck!
Sarvenaz Myslicki (she/her), an avid SWE member for more than 10 years, provided the answer to this question. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as chair of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering for American Express, Myslicki holds a B.S. and M.S. in computer science and an executive MBA.