Technical Interview Brainfreeze

This week has been a job interview marathon. Tech interviews are an utterly different beast from the job interviews I’m used to. For one, they are much longer than non-technical interviews. Some companies have had me speak to half a dozen employees, from engineers to HR to management. The main differentiator, of course, is the technical portion of the interview itself.

Technical questions in the interview setting can be extremely tricky. Typically I’m already a bit edgy from meeting so many new people, and the additional mental strain of being so highly invested in a positive outcome is just too much. My creative faculties seem to just shut down, and when I’m faced with a challenging question and no creative juices it leads to a panic response. I’m desperately reaching out for resources that should be there, but in the interview room there’s…nothing. It is disconcerting, to say the least.

Once the process starts, it becomes self-reinforcing. Every passing second of staring at the empty whiteboard becomes an additional reason to doubt my capabilities. This downward spiral is very, very difficult to break. Here are a few strategies that have either worked for me, or are next on my list to try:

  • Go with what you know. Sometimes it can be a better strategy to answer a different, but related, problem that I’m already familiar with; then struggle unproductively with the problem I want to answer. If I can clearly walk through a familiar solution to a related problem, and articulate how it is related to the problem at hand, I’m expressing an understanding of the problem while building self-confidence.
  • Honesty. Sometimes I’ll just explain that I’m feeling nervous and ask for help. This won’t earn me any technical points, but it (hopefully) will let me recover from the downward spiral. Once I’m confident again, and the interviewer has a more accurate view of my skills, the earlier episode will be put in the proper context.
  • Ask questions. Questions serve two purposes. They clarify the problem, of course. More importantly for me, they buy time for my panic response to subside. If I can engage my interviewer in clarifying dialogue, it may distract my limbic system from the emergency it perceives. Once the limbic response is reduced, I can turn back to the problem with a clearer mind.
  • Breathing exercises. One of the most effective ways of dialing down a panicky limbic system is with slow, steady breathing. The key is to fully exhale with each breath. Done properly, you should feel a slight tension in the diaphragm at the end of each exhalation. Five repetitions is usually enough to start feeling more relaxed.

Give a shout in the comments if you’ve used any other strategies for working through technical interview brainfreeze.

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