Skills 360 – Technical Job Interviews (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to succeed in a technical interview.

A technical interview can sound like a pretty scary prospect. The interviewers will test your knowledge and understanding of technical concepts, and your problem-solving abilities. You’ll also need to show them what you know and how you think. This is a pretty high-pressure situation, a difficult hoop to jump through for that job in finance or engineering or tech.

But there’s no way around it, so you’d better get used to the idea. Last week, I talked about how to answer those tough questions that you face. Today I want to talk about some of the common pitfalls that you might encounter in a technical interview. I mean those moments when your heart sinks because you don’t know what’s being asked, you don’t know the answer, or you make a mistake.

Of course, there’s a good way to prevent these things from happening in the first place. It’s the same key to success for any interview, presentation, or sales pitch. And that’s preparation. But even preparation can present challenges. One of the biggest mistakes is to over prepare or to cram too much new information into your head. What the interviewers really want to see is a clear grasp of fundamental principles and concepts. So don’t go trying to learn a new programming language before your interview.

Still, no matter how wisely you prepare, you might face some challenges. For one thing, you might not be sure exactly what the interviewer is asking. If you’re afraid of appearing dumb, you might just wing it and try to answer the question anyway. But that’s not such a great idea. It’s always best to get clarity first. You might ask “Could you please repeat the question?” Or you might say “could you rephrase that please?” Or even “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Could you explain?” That certainly sounds less dumb – and more honest – than giving an answer that’s way off base.

So, what if you understand the question, but you just don’t know the answer? Or what if you’re asked to solve a problem that you’re not really so sure about? Well, you can attempt to answer with what you’ve got. For example, you might say “I’m not certain about the programming language you’ve asked about, but I know that in C++ you could do it this way…”

But if the question requires you to actually know something and you don’t, then fess up. You can be honest about your ignorance and still maintain dignity. For example, you might say, “To be frank, I haven’t had to calculate such a thing before.” Or maybe, “That’s a very interesting question and one that I’d really like to find out an answer to.” In fact, many people report getting a job even when they couldn’t answer several questions in their technical interview. So don’t sweat it too much.

Now, what you shouldn’t do in these situations is show frustration. You see, it’s not just about what you know; it’s also about how you deal with pressure. The interviewer may be evaluating whether you’re a good person to have on a team with a tight deadline or crunching a tough problem. And in this case a good person is a calm person, one that doesn’t break under pressure.

There’s another situation in which it’s important to keep your cool, and that’s when you make a mistake. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked to calculate some financial ratios. And when you get to the end of your solution you realize the final number is way off and that you must have made an error. Do you just hope the interviewers don’t realize? Do you finish incorrectly and just apologize for messing up?

No, you do neither of those things. Instead, you calmly admit your mistake, back up, and correct yourself as you try again. Everybody makes mistakes. Only smart and dependable people admit it and try to make it right. And remember that the interviewers want to see your thought process. So you might say “Wait a second. It seems that I made a mistake. Let’s see… ah yes, here it is.” Or you could try: “Well that certainly seems wrong. I need to go back here and check my work…”

Now let’s go back and run through what we’ve just covered. Remember that good preparation goes a long way in tough situations. But if you don’t understand something, seek clarification. And if you don’t know something, be upfront about it. Do not show frustration. Instead, keep your head on your shoulders and face these obstacles calmly. Even when you make a mistake. Just explain what you’re thinking and move on. Technical interviews can be tough, but let your interviewers know that you’ve got a solid understanding of the basic concepts and that you can deal with adversity confidently.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.