I've developed a new philosophy... I only dread one day at a time. - Charlie Brown
January 26, 2011 8:23 AM   Subscribe

My mojo quite suddenly vacated during an interview yesterday. Help me get it back so I don't botch the other 2 interviews I have this week.

I had a job interview yesterday with a great company that prides itself on hiring smart people. To say it went badly is the understatement of all understatements. Though I was excited and confident and well-prepared, when the time came for technical questions, my mind went blank. Completely blank. I could not even process the questions given to me. Even though this was stuff that I know very well, I stared at the whiteboard like a complete idiot and eventually had to say "I don't know". I very nearly started crying. This led to the interview being cut short (4 hour interview ended after an hour and a half). I was given an exit interview by the internal recruiter who informed me that I was no longer a candidate. There was also the briefest implication that I may have misrepresented myself on my resume. I can't blame them for that as I came across as a complete moron who had loaded up his resume with bullshit.

I'm feeling rather useless and despondent now. I fear my anxiety is bubbling up and torpedoing me. I'm always anxious at interviews, but what happened yesterday is beyond anything that has ever happened to me.

I have 2 more job interviews this week and my confidence level is nil. I am so worried that I'm going to screw up again. Does anyone have any suggestions as to what I can to to help myself feel better and confident again? By tomorrow?
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Work & Money (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are two options here: the first is that you can practice. Call up a friend, offer them some pizza in exchange, and have them pitch technical questions to you.

The second is that you ignore it. Go for a run, or a walk, or do an art project. Do something you really enjoy and feel confident in. Remind yourself that your worth and the good things in life aren't dependent on this One Thing.

The key either way is to be proactive and not let your anxiety get out of control. This is a nerves problem not a skills problem. You are not a moron and worse things have happened to people. It was a mistake. Learn from it, and move on.

(And if it helps, here's my interview disaster story: was doing great, until they asked me what my greatest weakness is. I drew a complete blank despite the fact that it's a completely standard interview question! After what felt like ten minutes of silence, I stammered that I'd "have to think about that." D'oh! That was four years ago, and now it's a funny story to tell on metafilter, rather than the disaster I felt it was at the time.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:37 AM on January 26, 2011

Practice beforehand. Write down examples of questions you can think you might be asked and work through them just as you would in the interview (preferably on a whiteboard, etc.). Have friends sit you down and take you through a mock interview. It's hard to anticipate exactly what the technical questions might be, but I imagine you know what ballpark they'll be in and you can use the questions from the previous interview to practice as well. After several months of close-but-no cigar interviews, I started having friends in the companies I was interviewing with run me through practice interviews in the days beforehand. It boosted my confidence considerably.
posted by ga$money at 8:40 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everybody has a bad day. If you dwell on it, you only increase the odds of it happening again. The next interview has nothing to do with the last one. just go and be yourself. I think a lot of interview stress comes from trying to be something you are not.The interview is just a conversation. Don't build it up to something it isn't.
posted by COD at 8:44 AM on January 26, 2011

Don’t beat yourself up about this.

Way back in 01, I had a job interview with McKinsey – McKinsey! It did not go well and to this day I rue the missed opportunity. For all that though, I have enjoyed the trajectory of my career hugely and would have missed out on many opportunities which are some of the proudest achievements of my working life.

This happens to everyone; pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again. You will do better next time.
posted by dmt at 8:51 AM on January 26, 2011

I'm sorry you went through this. I had the same thing happen in an interview about 6 months ago.

I can't say that my actions will work in all cases, but I will tell you what I did when I hit this wall, and how it turned out.

I was asked to write a data structure dumping routine (fwiw, this was Perl, and I was asked to write a quick and dirty replacement for Data::Dump) on a whiteboard. Actually, it was a virtual whiteboard and I was being interviewed by a panel of technical people by phone. I completely froze, and everyone got to endure about 4 minutes of total dead air on the phone. Occasionally I would type out a line of code, only to delete it. Total nightmare. But what I did then saved me. I said "I'm sorry, I have to tell you that this environment for writing code is not going to tell you how I can program. Let me tell you how I would do this in general terms, and as soon as the interview is over I will write the program and email it to you". I did both of those things, and though I did not take it, I did end up getting offered that position.

This is just one data point, but as a general suggestion I think being honest about why your hitting a blank is better than not explaining it at all.

Practicing is also certainly good advice, including going through mock interviews.
posted by mcstayinskool at 8:52 AM on January 26, 2011 [9 favorites]

Here's a dirty little secret from 50 years of research on employment interviews: success in an interview doesn't really predict anything. All employment interviews measure well is how much two people like one another. Having a bad interview is about as likely as having a bad date. Just try to be happy you didn't marry---i.e., get hired by---these people who you are so interpersonally incompatible with.

Aso: if you're worried about performance anxiety in the next interview, let them know ahead of time that you're not great at writing out code (or whatever) on a whiteboard. They'll probably still make you do this, but you may be able to have them give you a much harder technical problem that you can work on overnight.
posted by eisenkr at 8:55 AM on January 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Constant drilling. A friend of mine interviewed at Google, and she prepared for a whole freakin' month, pretty much full time. And it worked.

If you have a whiteboard, use a whiteboard to do technical problems on, while you talk out loud. If you don't have access to a whiteboard, grab one of those cheap pads of paper that hang on walls or easels. If you find yourself not talking while doing this, start videotaping yourself doing it. (And you might as well watch the recordings, too.)

Grab technical problems from the web that are not only specific to your specific field, but also adjacent ones that would be very likely to stump you. Practice talking through those as well, maintaining a fairly regular stream of explanation even if you're not really getting anywhere.

Do this for hours each day, and by next week you'll have gotten through more of these than you've given up on (you've given up on one only), and that should help you with your confidence. The familiarity will also go a long way in keeping you calm and responsive.
posted by ignignokt at 9:00 AM on January 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

I was going to suggest something similar to mcstayinskool - when faced with a question that you either don't know the answer or you blank out on, you need to keep your communication intact. It's the deer in the headlights that you want to avoid. Figure out a way to SAY something:
that you are blanking out,
that interview settings make you nervous,
talk about or around the issue until you get your bearings,
appeal to their shared sense of OMG I screwed up an interview,
for something really technical, ask if you can do it at a desk by yourself and present the results

A lot of times when I gave technical interviews, we pretty much assumed that you knew the basics, but we wanted to see how your thought process worked when solving problems. So if you can't get the syntax details out, then just talk about how you would solve it. Preface that by saying that you sometimes get flustered in interviews, but here's the gist of what I would do...
posted by CathyG at 9:01 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sorry to hear about this, and it has happened to me. One thing that sticks out to me is this "exit interview" junk. If they would just jump to conclusions that you would lie on your resume rather than acknowledge that sometimes interviews go badly, think about what that says about them. Failure is not the same as incompetence, and f*ck those dudes for implying it. Get back on the horse.
posted by rhizome at 9:03 AM on January 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

Dittoing the practice. You've been to an interview, and now you have a much better idea of what you're going to be asked. Treat it as intelligence (in the military sense). You know have inside information on what to expect that you can use to better prepare, so prepare. over prepare. Prepare until you can answer questions with your hindbrain reflexes and no amount of panic can get in the way.

(OK, I exaggerated that a little).
posted by yeolcoatl at 9:19 AM on January 26, 2011

Good Answers here. The concept of preparation and thinking about how the interview (or any important activity) is called visualization and is used by top athletes, politicians and executives around the world.

Visualization is imagining how the interview will go, right from the moment you get up in the morning - what would you wear, when would you start (to prevent anxiety about delays in traffic), greeting people at the interview, sitting in front of a large panel, what will you say to initial questions such as "Tell us briefly about yourself", What would you do if a question comes up and you cannot answer it, blah, blah, you get it.

Rehearse this with best case, worst case and the in-between scenarios. Play it in your mind.

This helped me tremendously last year: I had to present monthly reports to senior management and client *at the same time*. Since this was information that was not seen earlier, there would be difficult questions asked of me - I was not doing any of the work or could not control the source of the data, but just answer for the team as best as I could!

One thing I find helps me do better is to schedule interviews late morning (around 11:00 AM) or early afternoon (most preferred). This allows early morning anxiety to dissipate and gives you a little more confidence rather than the 8:00 AM interview.
posted by theobserver at 9:32 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are used to relying on your unconscious mind to solve intellectual problems. I do the same thing, which creates a certain vulnerability to special kinds of panic. What I'd suggest is keeping your problem-solving heuristic in your conscious mind. Basically, you need a conscious plan for what to do when you blank out at the whiteboard.

"Okay, I'm blanking out. I need to talk myself through it. You asked me X (write X down) which is a question about Topic (write Topic down.) Topic is similar to Subject and Project which I have executed / Topic is important in programming because X, Y, Z. Here's how I would structure solving the problem."

Basically, if you keep that kind of script going, you're over-riding the blank-out. You will probably be able re-engage your mojo, but, even if you don't, completely, you're still demonstrating some cool under pressure and a problem-solving process for when something *isn't* necessarily instinctive. How this plays depends on the interviewers, but it's superior to complete breakdown.

Also, you know, it's okay to pause and marshal your thoughts. It may seem like forever to you, but it's acceptable. Even if some of "marshaling your thoughts" is just breathing deeply and talking yourself down from the brink.
posted by endless_forms at 9:36 AM on January 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Practice beforehand. Write down examples of questions you can think you might be asked and work through them just as you would in the interview (preferably on a whiteboard, etc.).

This. I spend every day at work knee-deep in HTML/CSS, but I've found that I often have problems even doing easy stuff when I'm sitting at my computer at home. I have no doubt that I'd be totally lost if I had to use a whiteboard.
posted by coolguymichael at 10:25 AM on January 26, 2011

Yeah, I have been through this, and it sucks. I don't know if Tech interviews are actually getting more and more brutal, but it really really seems that way to me.

One thing that sticks out to me is this "exit interview" junk
That rubbed me the wrong way too. At one point there was a professional courtesy involved with interviews that you didn't put people on the spot. And if you did, no matter how badly they did, you shake hands at the end and say "We'll you let you know." Most people do still do that- sounds like these guys went above and beyond in being assholes.

There's a lot of good advice above- don't be afraid to talk- I usually do some combo of making excuses ("I'm not good on a whiteboard," "I could do this in a second in Actionscript"), joking about it, and straight up asking for a hint. I also just go ahead and write pseudo code if I can't recall the real code. Cool people realize that you can just Google or CTRL+space in your IDE anyway, so they're just looking for you to understand the concepts.

But overall, I would just try to forget it and move on to the next one. We all have to deal with assholes sometimes- be glad you will never ever have to see them again.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:38 AM on January 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just because this hasn't been mentioned yet: practice is key, but I also knew a guy who had a script from his doctor for beta blockers for performance anxiety during academic interviews and conference presentations.
posted by availablelight at 10:44 AM on January 26, 2011

Were you properly hydrated and fed? The only time I ever blew an interview like this, I was rush-rush-rushing to get there and didn't eat all morning. When it came time to talk intelligently just before noon, my brain was not working. The interviewer asked, with good reason since I'd flown from LA to SF to talk with her, if I actually was interested in the job. A good question--in retrospect, I think I really was not interested in any job, and not getting this one helped point me to a more satisfying and independent career path. Thanks, subconscious!

I followed up with the interviewer the next day, by letter, explaining that my poor performance was due to an unrecognized blood sugar issue, and apologizing for wasting her time. I recall she sent a nice note back. You may borrow my excuse if you wish. If it's what happened to you, pack a power bar next time.
posted by Scram at 11:59 AM on January 26, 2011

Everyone has days like this. I once interviewed for a job and was hammering home runs on every single question. Until I got to a single what-if question in which my answer made me appear totally unethical because of how I phrased an off-hand comment.

Now that your face-palm moment has passed, get some exercise of choice or play a game or two to de-stress. Make sure you feed yourself with nutritious meals and don't miss sleep. (None of that "I am ok on only x hours" where x <>
It may also make you feel better to send a quick note to your interviewer, internal recruiter or network contact who arranged the interview apologizing for your poor performance and explaining how embarrassed you were to have your mind go uncharacteristically blank.

Then forget about it.
posted by Hylas at 12:29 PM on January 26, 2011

Can you find technical articles to read that might help remind you about what your interests are and get you motivated again? I know I'm in the wrong field, but that helps me.
posted by maryr at 5:26 PM on January 26, 2011

So first of all, you just went through a very stressful experience, talking to strangers whose main purpose was to judge you. That's a horrible situation to be in, but sometimes you have to go through it. Forget about the outcome. You should let yourself relax for a little while. Watch a favorite movie, listen to your favorite music, eat some good food, play a fun video game. That's how I've dealt with situations like that in the past.

As for how to deal with the upcoming interviews, I agree with the people who are telling you to practice. Also, don't assume the interviewer is God or even a particularly competent engineer. I was in one interview where I sketched out what I thought was a brilliant technical solution to the stated problem, only to be told after I finished that the interviewer had been looking for me to write a sql query. Speaking as someone with a lot of interviewing experience, I've asked questions that aren't so good sometimes. I may ask questions that are kind of open ended--but of course I recognize that. If the candidate doesn't immediately have some kind of answer, I'm looking for him or her to ask some questions to explore the problem space. A good chunk of engineering is interacting with people to find out exactly what the problem is and what an acceptable solution would be. Feel free to treat the interviews the same way. Don't feel like you have to give a perfect answer on the very first try.

Anyway, I've seen your resume and it's good. I can't tell you exactly how to develop confidence in interviews--that's something you'll have to discover on your own. But I believe you can do this. Good luck.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:56 PM on January 26, 2011

Less related to moving on but probably useful for the upcoming interviews is a bit I wrote on a previous question regarding interviewing. Hope you might find some benefit from it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:32 AM on January 27, 2011

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