How Hiring Teams and Candidates can Minimize Stress During an Interview

Charu Pasternak

Engineering Manager at Apartment List


The Stressors During Interviews

Due to the BitTitan (my previous work) acquisition, I found myself in the position to be back in the playground interviewing for new opportunities. With many companies requiring five-plus interviews, I quickly brushed up my skills. Interviews are seen as one of the most stressful experiences for many individuals, and stress is known to cause a lack of focus and preparedness. From experience on both sides of the spectrum, I compiled a list of tips to host and attend a successful interview.

Tips from the Interviewer’s Perspective

Giving Breaks:

There is the dreaded interview loop in the tech sector, a solid five hours of back-to-back interviews. When I am the person interviewing a candidate, I usually give the individual a break in between interviews for them to recalibrate and take a breath. During these interview loops, candidates have to put their best self forward, which can be difficult when they are speaking with different departments one after another. Giving interviewees short breaks allows them to evaluate their thoughts and reflect on the interview.

Live Coding Session:

The live coding session of a technical interview is one of the most stressful parts for many engineers. Candidates are asked to complete multiple technical problems while the hiring team evaluates their skills.

What’s unrealistic about these “You cannot use the getElementById() or eval() function”, the built-in functions in the programming languages is that it results in inefficient programming habits. And for senior engineers who are not fresh out of college, they would not memorize the implementations of these functions.

I believe the candidates should be given a choice of a live coding interview or a take-home project, which will be reviewed by the team and will be part of the interview process. This empowers the candidates to choose the option that best fits their schedule and showcases empathy towards the interviewee.

If you must have a live coding section as part of your interview process, it should replicate day-to-day problems that software engineers will solve.

Tips From the Interviewee's Perspective

De-Stressing an Interview:

Approach interviews like meetings. Have an open mind and genuine curiosity in learning about the company, their culture, process, tech stack, etc. When I begin addressing my interviews as meetings, it helps me ease my nerves, which in turn lets me focus and be present in the moment.

Another thing I’ve started to do is take a few minutes before interviews to sit quietly and gather my thoughts. It’s simple and scientific; I close my eyes and focus on my breath. I also write down my intention before going into an interview. It’s noted that during stressful times individuals don’t focus on breathing, so the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen as it needs to concentrate.

Being Reputable:

Over time I have learned that it is best to be exactly yourself during an interview. Putting on a special persona based on what an individual company is looking for only sets you up for failure in the long run. Over time and with many interviewing experiences, I have always been able to tell when somebody is faking it, whether that be their experience, technical skills, or values.

If you do not know the answer to a technical question, take it as an opportunity to express that you are a quick learner. Although it is probably not what the interviewer wants to hear, this answer conveys honesty and willingness to learn, which are highly valued qualities in candidates.

Technical Preparedness:

It takes time and practice to prepare for technical interviews. There are many free resources out there, with the best being YouTube. After watching multiple videos, you quickly gain an understanding or get a refresher of what a system design architecture involves. Practice some coding exercises on leetcode. In the technical interviews, the interviewer is looking to gauge your technical abilities, your thought process, how you break a problem down, and what type of clarifying questions you ask.

Ask Questions:

At the end of the interview, the interviewer always asks if you have any questions. Simply put: it’s a red flag if you don’t have any questions, as it’s seen as a lack of interest. There are many questions to ask, whether it be about culture, values, learning and growth opportunities, day-to-day work, or details about taking vacation time. Ask questions.

“A job interview is not a test of your knowledge, but your ability to use it at the right time.” - Anonymous

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Charu Pasternak

Engineering Manager at Apartment List

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