Technical interview coping strategies for when it’s all going wrong

Don’t worry – it happens to all of us. Even though they’re a common part of the engineering and IT recruitment process, technical interview questions can be tricky.

You may well know the answer. But under interview stress, it’s hard to get the words out clearly.

Worse, your mind goes blank. You’re left mumbling something completely unrelated to the question. Or just sitting and sweating.

If you’re worried about feeling it’s all going horribly wrong, here are some key technical interview coping strategies to employ.

5 technical interview coping strategies

1) Make a good first impression

It sounds pretty basic, yet earning some “brownie points” early on is a great way to more easily ride out any possible later mistakes. This means doing all the usual interview essentials:

1. Greet your interviewer properly – smile, make eye contact, and go in for a good handshake.

2. Dress appropriately – don’t let a choice of casual shoes or shorts let you down. You might not need a full suit, but this is a professional position you’re applying for.

3. Prepare – take the time to do your research about the company, its culture, and the industry you’re applying to work in. Being interested in larger business problems is a strong look.

4. Have a good attitude – being positive and friendly helps you form a rapport with your interviewer. Don’t be too casual though. Strike a professional tone and manner.

5. Aim for confidence – if you work in something like machine learning or data science, there’s a high chance you’re pretty smart. Don’t let confidence in your skills bleed into arrogance though. One is a desirable trait. The other is a warning sign for most IT recruiters.

2) Understand the interview process

A sensible common interview preparation technique involves rehearsing common questions. A technical interview benefits from this approach too. You might want to:

  • Search for some common technical interview questions and topics
  • Get specific about those that might apply to your industry or desired role
  • Research around topics and go over any you haven’t interacted with recently

3) Plan your recovery

Uh oh. You fluffed that answer. It was an obvious one and you fumbled it. Don’t panic though.

Stage one of recovering from a bad answer is to accept it has happened. It happens to everyone. It’s normal. Next, have a recovery plan already in mind. For example:

1. Rambling explanations – plan that if you sense your answer is wandering off-topic, you’ll catch yourself, perhaps say so, and explicitly redirect your answer toward the actual question.

2. Mind blanks – plan that you’ll calmly say you’d like to think about your answer for a moment. Or perhaps plan to start on a smaller part of the question and build your answer from there.

3. Inappropriateness – on the hopefully rare occasion you feel you might have answered inappropriately, always immediately apologise and explain that didn’t come out right.

4) Know that one wrong answer won’t ruin your interview

One of the key things about an interview – even a technical interview – is that it’s just as much about how you answered the question as what you answered.

Your interviewer wants to get to know you a little. Will your personality fit in with the company culture? Will you be a good fit for their specific team?

If you can communicate clearly even when you don’t know the answer, that’s good. Perhaps you worked swiftly and logically, even if you didn’t get the right answer in the end. That’s great.

Try to use opportunities to talk when they present themselves. For example, consider a question like, “Have you worked with ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software before?”

You could simply say yes. On the other hand, you could tie in some relevant experience to demonstrate why it’s worth hiring you. Not to mention show off your communication skills.

5) Practice makes perfect

If you haven’t interviewed for an IT job in a while, your first one might be something of a pancake.

Don’t beat yourself up about it. Selling yourself – and that’s essentially what the interview process can boil down to – is a skill and it takes practice.

By all means, plan, prepare, and practice coping strategies for technical interviews. But do also bear in mind that, like your engineering or IT skills themselves, they’re something you will get better at the more you do it.

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