Tech Career Insights: 6 Tips to Improve the Things You Can Control in an Interview

6 Tips to Improve the Things You Can Control in an Interview

By Ewald Horn

No matter how many interviews you’ve been to, you probably still get nervous, and you probably still feel under-prepared. They never seem to get easier, but we also only tend to do them once in a while, which makes it hard to practice being good at them. As someone that’s been on both sides of the table, I’ve developed some useful tips over the years to help you prepare better for interviews, by focusing on what you do control, making them less stressful.

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If you are like me, just the thought of an interview turns your stomach. Usually, it’s a stressful experience where you’re in a room full of strangers and it feels like they are out to prove you are unworthy of the job. That stress tends to make you forget simple things and write pure gibberish on the whiteboard, when you would have written the same code half-asleep at 03:30am at home, on your laptop, within your bean bag.

There are so many great articles about what to do before and after an interview, like this one for example. But what about all that icky stuff going on in the middle? The part where you forget what you did at your previous job? Where the evil whiteboard pen writes the wrong thing and dooms your career forever?

Plus, even after reading all of that, you’re still nervous. You did everything they said in the article, so you should be prepared, but you still feel like you’re making a mistake.

I’ve been on both sides of an interview, and have learned a few things about preparing for the middle-bits of an interview, so that it doesn’t suck so much as you think it will.

Understanding what interviews are, how they work and what things you can control or influence during them will help you get through them with less scars and/or need for post-interview therapy. We’ll go through some hints and tricks you can employ to help you get through the dreaded interview with (most of) your sanity in check.

Note: Some of these points might overlap slightly, and that’s just the nature of interviews. They evaluate and explore different aspects of your technical abilities, personality, problem-solving and communication skills, often all at once. Nothing happens in isolation or sequence during an interview, and your preparation should mirror this where possible.

Interviews are a process of discovery

My perspective about interviews changed from being a ‘witch hunt’ to a conversation when I started interviewing candidates. I realised that there’s actually not a lot of fun to be had on either side of the table, unless you approach interviews from the right angle.

These days, I look at interviews as a discovery process. As an interviewer, I’m trying to learn about the candidate, how they work, think and act. Likewise, the interviewee is trying to learn about the role, team, culture and company, to determine if it’s a role that they’d feel comfortable in. Without knowledge around all these aspects, it’s a difficult task to know whether you should accept an offer or not.

The one thing you always control during an interview

Interviews are largely unpredictable, but there’s one thing you’ll always be able to control in any interview you ever do, and that is how you respond.

For example, when asked a difficult question, you don’t have to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, pause, reflect on the question for a second or two, and see if you have enough context to understand the question. If needed, you can and should ask clarifying questions. But more on that a little later…

In other words, you can practise for interviews - and here’s how

Practice makes perfect, right? Or at least, makes things a little better and a little easier! Interviews are the same, but changing jobs every two months for more interview practice isn’t the best idea.

Instead, I’ve found it helpful to do dummy interviews, either with your pet or favourite teddy bear, but perhaps a buddy, or someone you trust who can give you honest feedback. The more you practise, the more comfortable you’ll become and the easier it will be to breeze through the real thing.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned which you can practise, that might help you on your way to becoming an Interview Master.

Tip 1: Don’t be too casual

If you are serious about getting the job, you should show it. It’s great to be relaxed and comfortable, but keep it professional, and be respectful of others and their time.

I once had an interview with a chap - let’s call him Amos. He waltzed in, 10 minutes late for the interview, with a coffee and pastry in hand. Turns out he was peckish, and made a detour for a snack, opting rather to be late for his interview, because… well, ‘he’s awesome’ and we’ll wait for him.

As soon as Amos sat down, he kicked off his shoes, propped his feet on the chair and proceeded to chow down his pastry. At this point, he hadn’t greeted me yet, had not apologised for being late, and wasn’t ready to start the interview. Instead, he expected me to sit there and wait for him to finish, because he thought he was already ‘hot stuff’ at his current company.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a huge fan of being relaxed during an interview, and I - as an interviewer - try hard to make candidates feel comfortable. At the same time, however, I expect candidates to show they are serious about the interview, and that it’s not just another chore they need to get done today.

Your attitude towards your interview says a lot about you, perhaps more than you realise. Keep that in mind when preparing for interviews.

Tip 2: Don’t be too serious

Uh, wait - What? Didn’t I just say don’t be too casual? And now it’s don’t be too serious?

Yeah, but it’s all about striking a balance. I’ve found that neither extreme is going to help you make the best impression.

Remember, an interview is about way more than just your technical abilities. It’s also about your approach to challenges, how you handle situations where you are in the wrong, or don’t know the answer to, and - most importantly - how you handle a stressful situation like an interview.

If someone I’m interviewing is too uptight, as an interviewer, I’ve found that it often comes across as not being able to handle the stress of an interview. This makes interviewers question how that person copes in other stressful environments. Or, if you take things too seriously, you might come across as someone that’s difficult to work with.

While nobody wants to work with a full-time clown or joker, it’s also no fun to work with a Sour Sally. So, somewhere in-between is perfect.

Tip 3: Don’t sweat the small stuff

Sometimes, you forget things. It happens to all of us, and that’s why Google and Stack Overflow exist. Even I can’t remember exactly how to implement a quick sort algorithm, simply because I’ve only ever had to write one in an interview!

In an interview, it’s more important to show that you have the general knowledge and skills required, than trying to prove you’ve memorised all 1500 pages of the Java Enterprise manual.

Take a copy of your CV with you - it’s expected; but, depending on how long your career has been, it might be difficult to remember exact dates, technologies, awards, certificates and other details. So, rather than trying to remember everything, have a hardcopy on you that you can refer to.

Once again, remember it’s a discovery process and not an interrogation. It’s OK if you get something wrong; don’t let it break your rhythm. Preparing for the interview should include going over your CV and career highlights a day or two before. Anything that highlights a moment where you were recognised for going the extra mile (employee of the month, etc.) or perhaps solving a challenging problem, is a good career highlight to share with your interviewer(s) at the appropriate time.

For example, if you end up talking about a particularly technical aspect of the role, and you’ve done something similar at a previous job, make sure to mention that you solved a similar challenge previously.

Pro-tip: Bonus points if you have a LinkedIn recommendation that mentions this particular accomplishment.

Tip 4: Nobody is good with whiteboard questions

Almost no one is good with whiteboard questions. Sure, some people practise them, and that’s great, but nobody expects you to be 100% comfortable scribbling some code on a board during an interview.

So, why the heck is it so popular during interviews then? Because, at some point during an interview, you need to prove you can actually write code. It’s often easier to have someone write a few lines on a whiteboard than setting up a machine for them to work on.

But the whole point of the whiteboard question is not to see if you can write solid code that can be typed in and run as-is; rather, it’s to see how you think. Did you understand the question, and does your proposed solution address concerns like null pointers, etc., correctly?

The best way to prepare for this scenario is to practise writing code on paper. A little bit of practice will go a long way to boosting your confidence when it comes to whiteboard questions.

Pro-tip: When you are working on a board question, and you can’t remember the exact syntax to open a socket connection to a Docker image on AWS, for example, just write a method called connectToSocketInDockerImage() and use that. That way, it’s easy to see what you are trying to do, and you can continue solving the real problem, which is reading the number of times people forgot how to write a socket connection in Python from AWS.

Tip 5: It’s OK to ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask your interviewer to explain a question or a problem statement differently when you aren’t sure you understand it. Asking questions shows that you’re actively listening to what’s being asked, and that you’re engaged in the conversation.

Clarifying questions are also a great strategy to hone in on what exactly an interviewer is looking for. For example, if you get asked how you’d approach moving a company to a cloud-based solution, a good clarifying question would be to ask whether they have a cloud provider in mind. This will help you determine how to answer this question, because there are significant differences between many of the cloud providers.

Another example could be that someone during the interview mentions Pandas, but you are there for a Java interview. It’s worth asking whether you will have the opportunity to work with Python and Pandas, if it’s something that interests you. The answer to that question might tell you about how the company helps facilitate career growth.

Remember that you are on a voyage of discovery, and part of that voyage is asking exploratory questions to find out more about the role, team, company or culture.

Tip 6: It’s perfectly fine not to know everything

In our day to day jobs, we use the internet to find answers. Given how complex IT has become, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to have all the knowledge you need to do your job locked-up in your head.

A far more important skill to have is the ability to look for and identify good quality answers to your challenges. I’m not going to expect you to remember exactly how garbage collection works in Android, but I do expect you to have a vague understanding and the ability to look up the answer, should it be required.

The first step to getting better at this is accepting that you will get things wrong. You will sometimes give the wrong answer, and you will forget things. If you suddenly remember something, even 20 minutes later, say so! We all have those moments where the answer is on the tip of our tongues, but we just can’t put it into words.

Then, if you don’t know something, tell your interviewer and carry on with the interview. When I interview someone, I don’t expect them to have all the answers, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up for not knowing everything. I’ve had so many candidates be disappointed in themselves for not knowing an answer, to the point where it affected their ability to get through the rest of the interview.

In the end, only you control how you respond

If you take nothing else away from all of these tips, just remember that interviews will always be hard; but, you can always do more to prepare yourself in order to better handle these often stressful encounters.

I find that it’s really comforting to know that everyone has some challenges around interviews. Personally, that knowledge helps me relax a bit more when I do them. By going in feeling prepared with your interview strategy, you can go in with confidence and feel more relaxed during the process.

If you’d like to explore this in more depth, and for a slightly longer, more thorough read, visit this post. In it, they dig into the different types of technical interviews and how you can prepare for them. I’d also suggest that you practise interviewing with a friend who you can trust will give you honest feedback.

And lastly, good luck! You’re going to do great!


Ewald Horn has been in IT for far too long (over two decades). He’s done many things, but is currently situated in mobile development. When he’s not writing (dubious) code as a freelancer for NoFuss Solutions, he’s usually giving talks or out walking his dog. For fun, he volunteers at TEARS - and thinks it’s about time you do too!

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