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I'm a top-notch programmer, but a notoriously bad interviewee.

I've flunked 3 interviews consecutively because I get so nervous that my voice tightens at least 2 octaves higher and I start visibly shaking -- mind you, I can handle whatever technical questions the interviewer throws at me in that state, but I think it looks bad to come off as a quivering, squeaky-voiced young woman during a job interview.

I've just got the personality type of a shy computer programmer. No matter how technical I am, I'm going to get passed up in favor of a smooth talker. I have another interview coming up shortly, and I want to really impress the company.

Here are my trouble spots:

  1. What can I do to be less nervous during my interview? I always get really excited when I hear I have a face-to-face interview, but get more and more anxious as the interview approaches.

  2. How long or short should I keep my answers? Interviewers want me to explain what I used to do at my prior employment, but I'm a very chatty person and tend to talk/squeak for 10 minutes at a time.

  3. What exactly is my interviewer looking for when asking about prior jobs?

  4. During the interview, I'll be asked if I have any questions for the interviewer. I should, but what kinds of questions should I ask to show that I'm interested in being employed?

  5. How can I sugarcoat "I want to make more money" into something that sounds nicer? Interviewers always ask why I'm looking for a new job. The real reason is that my current salary isn't that great, and I want to make more money: otherwise the work environment is fine.

  6. I have only one prior programmer job, and I've worked there for 18 months, but I have the skill of someone with 4 to 6 years of experience. What can I say to compete against applicants with more work experience?

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Consider asking your current employer for more money if that is the real issue. I don't know where you are geographically but if your skills are as good as you say they will want to keep you. Most likely they will have to pay more the 27K next time and training a new employee. –  minty Feb 28 '09 at 21:37
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Yes, it's better to say "my previous employer couldn't afford me" than "they insisted on paying me peanuts". –  Mark Apr 30 '09 at 13:59
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So did you ever get the job? –  Cuga Jun 3 '09 at 17:54
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@Nosredna : " I think it looks bad to come off as a quivering, squeaky-voiced young woman" –  CaptainCasey Aug 19 '09 at 7:20
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I got my degree in May '09. Oh, and I got my job too, only to have my job outsourced to Mexico earlier this month December. Fortunately I'm geared up for another job this January :) –  Juliet Dec 13 '09 at 0:45
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45 Answers

up vote 765 down vote accepted

I interview a lot of people. Some freeze up. Some don't.

Here's what I'm looking for.

  1. What can I do to be less nervous during my interview?

    What are you afraid of? Really. This is a hard self-examination question, but you need to know -- specifically -- what terrifies you. 80% of the time it's the "what if I make a mistake?" question. Which is -- ultimately -- foolish. As a musician and a software geek, let me tell you that mistakes must happen. The question isn't "am I going to make a mistake?" The question is "when I make my usual mistake, will I recover gracefully."

    Do some research on Performance Anxiety. Read sites like this: http://www.sharonstohrer.com/performance_anxiety.html for more information on what you can do.

    As a consultant, my biggest mistake is misjudging politics. The influence the person actually has over the organization. As a musician, I miss the chord changes and have to leap ahead, mentally, to where the song's going and figure out what I'm going to do to arrive with the rest of the band and make it look like I meant it that way.

  2. My employers wants me to explain what I used to do at my prior employment. What do I want to know?

    I want to know exactly what skills you used. I want specific, technical verbs. Did you design? Code? Test? Write requirements? Did you use tools like configuration management, automated testing, continuous integration? Did you work alone or in a pair? How did you come to understand the domain? The specific problem? The users?

  3. What exactly is my interviewer looking for?

    See above.

  4. At some point, my interviewer will ask "do you have any questions for me while you're here?"

    You need to consider what it is about the job that appeals to you and scares you and ask specific questions about that.

    Many people ask how long I've been with my company -- it's a way of judging turnover and the possibility of getting cut. "30 years" is a conversation stopper -- not many folks expect that.

    I'm a consultant; when I'm being interviewed, I ask what's going on -- why do they need me? Who will I be working with? What do they want from me? I need to know about their processes, their tools and their organization. I need to know about the problem domain, the users, and the funding.

  5. My interviewer always asks why I'm looking for a new job.

    Do Not Sugarcoat. We actually need to know what actually motivates you. Not what you think we want to hear. We interview lots of people for a position; if money motivates you, then we can make that happen. If you left because you didn't get along, or you were arrested, or you got caught with a gun in your desk, we'd like to know that, too. Some stories run afoul of EEO guidelines, but we need to know what you want from life so we can find a way to dangle that in front of you and make you work your tail off (cruel, but true.)

    Say specifically that you are seeking opportunities to grow.

  6. What can I say to compete against applicants with more work experience?

    Skills. It's all about skills. What specific things did you do? What problems did you solve? How gnarly was the business problem? What was the technology stack? How did you cope with debugging? Testing? Users who lie? Deadlines?

As an interviewer, I need to know three things.

  • What do you know?
  • What can you do?
  • What kind of person are you?

Don't tell me what I want to hear. Don't sugarcoat. Lay it out there clearly, so I can fit you into the organization and find a compensation plan that will make you want to stay there.

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Excellent, excellent reply, S.Loot, I appreciate it :) –  Juliet Nov 30 '08 at 21:28
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Research the company interviewing you BEFORE...prepare a few questions / observations, even if it's "I couldn't find you anywhere on the internet - what gives!?" –  AndrewD Dec 1 '08 at 0:27
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Wow, your reply is so detailed, it deserves 1,000 votes up. –  TravisO Dec 2 '08 at 21:54
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"a hiring manger".. mmm... –  m_oLogin Dec 11 '08 at 16:20
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This should be in the top 10 SO answers. Great job S.Lott, you've made me more confident for my interview tomorrow with IBM! –  Yoely Sep 3 '09 at 8:26
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I had my second interview with a company here in Omaha last night, and it was easily the longest interview of my life (lasting from 3:00 - 5:30, speaking with 5 people one after another after another).

I got some good news this morning: I have a job! Pay = $27/hr, more than twice what I made at my previous employment. Start Date = December 15.

Here are some valuable job hunting lessons I've learned:

  • Dress professionally. Men wear a clean shirt, slacks, with tie. Women: clean shirt, slacks, no tie. I would recommend against wearing a skirt (this applies to men too).

  • First interviews exist only for the sake of getting you second interviews. Save your most hard-hitting material for your second interview.

  • I wrote a list of "second interview" questions. These are intended to keep my interview moving along at a rapid pace, to gather information about the company, and to show I'm really interested in being employed. My questions include:

    • Easy Questions (my own version of the Joel Test) - I introduce these by saying "I'm going to ask a few easy questions. They don't require an in-depth reply, just 'yes' or 'no' so I can get a feel for how things work". I then ask these questions one-by-one:

      • Do you use source control?
      • Can you make a build in one step?
      • Do you make daily builds?
      • Do you have a bug database?
      • Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
      • Do you have deadlines to meet and are you able to meet them easily?
      • Do you use a spec?
      • Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
      • Do you use the best tools money can buy?
      • Do you have testers?
      • Do you write automated tests?
    • More involved questions - I introduce these by saying "Alright, I want to ask you a few questions about your policies, coding standards, etc".

      • How would you describe the work environment here? More relaxed and casual, or more rigid and bureaucratic?
      • What kinds of projects are currently in development?
      • What kind of methodology does the dev shop use? Agile? Waterfall? Something in between?
      • How are requirements gathered and how do they get to the developers?
      • Are there any areas in your business process or development department which could use a little polishing?
    • Hard-hitting questions - I prefix these questions by saying "alright, now I'm going to ask few a more hard-hitting questions":

      • What particular qualities are you looking for when you're considering new employees?
      • Let's say that, by the end of this interview, you were really impressed and wanted to offer me a position. What top 3 priorities would you want me to accomplish in the first 90 days?
      • Now that we've takled about my qualifications, do you have any concerns about me fulfilling the responsibilities of this position?
  • Bring a notebook and pen to take notes during your interview. Write down answers to the questions above.

  • If you're a bad extemporaneous speaker like I am, then mentally rehearse your answers about your job history.

  • Your target salary should be the current market value of a programmer at your skill level. Its easy enough to find positions at salaries well-below the market value, but you'll do yourself a favor by staying away from these positions like the plague.

  • Recruiting agencies are hit and miss. Some are really really good, some are awful and will only waste your time. A good group will get in touch with you immediately, stay in touch daily, put your resume out to companies quickly, and get you interviews promptly.

  • If you work with multiple recruiting agencies, keep good tabs on where they are sending your resume. Having your resume double-submitted to the same company by different recruiting agencies is a death blow to your employability.

  • Do a little happy dance when you finally get that job :)

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a comment on Joel's questions - "Do you have/do X" is a bit offensive, especially keeping in mind that they make decision. "What kind of X you do/have" or "What tools/process do you use for X" is more appropriate and gives you more intel. –  DK Dec 26 '08 at 15:37
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+1 to dk and -1 for advising women against wearing skirts. –  Click Upvote Jan 5 '09 at 6:07
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It's good to dress up, but in an Austin Texas startup don't wear a tie. Really good developers never do. Pressed slacks, clean oxford shirt, and a blazer or suit jacket is plenty. Down here a tie just screams "I'M INSECURE!!!" –  Jim In Texas Feb 24 '09 at 3:44
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You need to ask your recruiter (or your HR contact) what the general dress level of the place is, then go half a notch up. At some places in California, a tie would take you out of the running (i.e, you'd be overdressed), so always check! –  Sarah Mei Mar 16 '09 at 0:22
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Don't mentally rehearse answers, verbally rehearse them. –  Christian Jul 26 '10 at 12:44
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  1. What can I do to be less nervous during my interview?

    When you walk in, say "Look, I'm a very good programmer, and my work and experience shows this. But I'm a HORRIBLE interviewee. I'm going to freeze up and squeak like a mouse in a food compactor. Please understand I'm not that way normally and look past this nervousness. Now excuse me while I sweat."

    HONESTY.

  2. My employers wants me to explain what I used to do at my prior employment. How long or short should I time my answers?

    Crib notes. Keep it to a paragraph. Read from it. When they ask follow ups answer in single sentences. Don't elaborate or equivocate.

  3. What exactly is my interviewer looking for?

    Probably something to do with what they're looking for. If you know what they want to hire you for, Hit the high notes in your crib notes.

  4. What kinds of questions should I ask to show that I'm interested in being employed?

    Ask a couple questions about what you'll be doing, but if you don't have any questions don't ask any stupid ones, like "how many days of vacation do I get?"

  5. My interviewer always asks why I'm looking for a new job.

    Say, "I'm not earning what I'm worth." HONESTY.

  6. What can I say to compete against applicants with more work experience?

    Unfortunately, not much. Experience is an easy yardstick that weeds out lots of candidates with little effort. If you can't explain exactly how this is possible, then you might be out of luck.

    Your lack of experience is a big hump to get over. I know you'd like to make more money right now (don't we all?) but don't forget that experience = money as well. If your current job is letting you get some good experience in the field of work you enjoy, then don't rush to leave. Bide your time; take every opportunity to expand your experience in areas you're lacking. Keep your CV up to date. When a better job you're actually qualified for comes along, you'll be ready to strike. That will also help with your nervousness!

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Seems like everybody spends so much time trying to figure out ways to not be honest when the honest route is usually the best one... –  Will Nov 30 '08 at 21:55
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It's never a good idea to put yourself down right away. Let them decide if you are a horrible interviewer. Have confidence. Don't say that you are going to make mistakes when you first get there. Be honest, but do NOT say something like 'I am going to screw up'... if you do, say it in your mind. –  jle Dec 1 '08 at 0:29
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Completely disagree with item 1. It's forced humour and way too familiar/cutesy. I would be cringing if I interviewed someone who said that. –  20th Century Boy May 28 '09 at 16:39
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You certainly can. You can also ask how many breaks you get an hour, where your parking spot is, and if its okay to eat food without a name on it in the breakroom fridge. You can ask all kinds of classy questions like that. –  Will Oct 12 '09 at 10:21
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Another +1 for honesty. I recently turned down a candidate because I felt like I was talking to a chameleon: every answer sounded artificially "perfect," almost scripted. I agree with jle that you shouldn't put yourself down, but it's fine to say, "I know I have a big, red pimple on my nose, so let's acknowledge it and move on instead of pretending uncomfortably that it's not there." I taught a class years ago and had an awful case of "stage fright" the first day. As an introduction, I said, "Hi, I'm Adam and I'm terribly nervous today. So laugh now, and tomorrow will be fine." It was. –  Adam Liss Feb 24 '10 at 13:16
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Tell yourself "I don't need this job", and believe it. It's much easier to relax when you are not hanging all of your hopes on your interview performance. I always approach interviews focusing more on how the company can convince me to work for them, rather than the other way around (just be careful not to come across as arrogant and disinterested).

If you go in thinking that this is your one shot at success, you are piling pressure on yourself and it's only natural to be nervous when you perceive it to be so important.

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"I don't need this job" the times I have tried this I found that its easy to fall into a trap and really start believing it when the going gets tough and you end up not putting in your best efforts and loosing the job in any case. –  Sandeep Datta Nov 30 '08 at 21:11
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"I don't need this high paying job" isn't exactly the attitude I have in light of the car payments I have to make, student loans, and rent I still have to pay ;) –  Juliet Dec 1 '08 at 2:13
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If you're making $27k/yr, I think you DO need the job!! –  D3vtr0n Dec 1 '08 at 4:44
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Code talks.

Do you have a portfolio of projects that you've worked on in your spare time? You say that you have been a hobbyist for ten years. You must have something to show for that, no?

(p.s. modesty helps too.)

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Amen on modesty. –  unforgiven3 Nov 30 '08 at 21:42
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Prepare a few "cool things" or problems you've overcome...crib notes or portfolio. Try to keep it relevant to the particular interview. –  AndrewD Dec 1 '08 at 0:26
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Don't confuse humility for modesty. In a job interview, you are the only one who is going to speak up for you, so speak! But don't be afraid to talk about mistakes you've made, or that the achievement you were most proud of was not an individual effort, but one you made as part of a team. These kind of comments boost your credibility, giving more weight to that other shameless self-promotion stuff. –  Paul McGuire Feb 24 '10 at 5:18
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It's not just about interviews, it's about global social skills.

Making a good interviews is easy as long as you are competent and can show it. The first part, you are. The second one can be trained like anything else.

You can make you own bootcamp to drastically improve your social skills :

1 - Plan objectives for a week, a month, a year (and don't try to push it, it's hard) : being able to talk to a perfect stranger, been able to talk to a woman without any reason, been able to enter in a pub and spend the night with total strangers, been able to go to an interview completely unprepared, been able to screw something up in public willingly, etc...

2 - Choose what you are ready to pay to obtain it : number of hours you will spend a week as a training. Number of failures you can accept a day (you may be rejected 100 times a week, be prepared...). Number of money you are willing to spend in drinks, clothes, etc.

3 - Apply. Go out, and try to reach your objectives. Try something. Fail. Try the contrary. Fail. Try somehing new. Fail. Discover. Try again. One day, you will succeed in something. Then another. Then more and more.

It takes time. It's hard. Your entourage can make fun of you. But it pays. I was like you some years before. Then I practiced. It took me 3 years, but now I can talk to anyone : CEO, hot girls, children, strangers, smarter, dumber... First job, out of a 2 years IT course, hired 30 000 € (that's $35 000 ) a year. My friends and family are not making fun of me anymore, but having fun with me because I am much more relaxed. Okay, everything is not perfect, but really better. And now I know how to keep improving it.

You can do it. There is just no magic answer but knowing what you want and persisting to get it.

P.S : I know it feels artificial, but it's not. Practicing will get you closer to people you like, on subjects you like, in environments you like. Of course, in the beginning you will not "be yourself" to succeed. But with time, you will just learn to accept to be yourself anywhere. The "I try to fit / blend / match" part is just a stage, but you need to pass it. People who told you to be just "natural" forgot that if they can be now, it's because they passed this stage when they were teens, but we did not.

Update, one year later:

So you know it's not temporary bullsh***.

I kept doing just that and now I run my own business, doing IT for multinational NGOs. I travel everywhere in the world and meet very interesting people in crazy situations.

Getting social skills is hard, even harder for the nerds that we are, but it's really worth it.

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  1. Relax. Breathe deeply. Exercise. Run a few miles the morning before the interview. (rest deleted)
  2. When I'm interviewing I try to talk roughly 30% of the time and I expect the interviewee to take up the rest. If you feel like you're going on too long, ask the interviewer a question. I wouldn't talk for more than 3 minutes solid unless I was going through a programming problem.
  3. Problem solving skills. Pick 3-4 really fun problems you did on your prior job and be prepared to talk about them. Make sure you have them down pat. I'd learn more about them than I did when I was actually solving them.
  4. What is the work environment like? What type of testing do you do? Do you believe in unit tests? How are check-ins gated? (Can you tell I like testing :) ).
  5. Take a different angle. I'm looking for new opportunities. I feel like I've grown stagnant in my previous job and I want to expand.
  6. Use #3 to help you out. Pick really good problems and be prepared to go into them in depth.
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If you take Jared's advice, remember to do something about the smell of alcohol on your breath. –  Dan Dyer Nov 30 '08 at 21:04
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I love how people are interpretting "have one beer" as "get drunk". –  JaredPar Nov 30 '08 at 21:55
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@Jared for some people its /almost/ that easy. ( being a cheap drunk )++ ^_^ –  Kent Fredric Nov 30 '08 at 22:16
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@Jared, I don't see anyone interpreting it that way but if you have alcohol on your breath it isn't going to help, I don't want to hire someone who deals with their problems by drinking. I think the rest of your post is fine, but the "have a beer" suggestion isn't a good one. –  Robert Gamble Nov 30 '08 at 22:30
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To get better at something, you have to practice. A lot.

The more you will do something, the better you will be at it.

And judging by your question, your problem is not knowledge but anxiety. Sort of phobia of interviews right? This is easy to solve. Guess how?

Desensitization

Expose yourself to what triggers your anxiety. The more you do it, the less anxiety it will trigger.

Before each exposure (interview), rate from 1 to 10 how hard it will be. After the interview rate hiw it was. Compare the results. Do that for all the following exposure.

You will see the rating decreasing by itself.

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oh, no, not 10.000 hours of technical interviewing =:-o –  user1249 Nov 23 '10 at 3:06
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  1. When you first hear that you've got an interview, start writing down why you are an awesome candidate. Brain dump all the cool projects you've worked on, even if they are silly. Ask your mom (sometimes she'll remember cool stuff you've done that you've forgotten about). The edit it down to a list of 10-20 things you are really proud of. Now, the day of the interview, pull it out, and voila: instant confidence.

  2. You only have 18 months to account for. I'd say give a brief summary, mentioning some really cool projects you did and the stuff you enjoyed. I'd say 5 minutes, at most (they have your resume, right? They know what you did, they want to see how you express it.) If anything catches their interest, they'll ask for more detail. In fact, if they don't ask for more detail, try a new summary for next time.

  3. I'm looking for someone who was passionate about at least one of their former projects. Positively or negatively (preferably positively).

  4. They're not just interviewing you, you're trying to see if you'd like working there and they are trying to sell you on the company. I don't know what you should ask, what's important to you? Good coffee? Flexible hours? A Wii? Try to frame questions in a non-lazy-bastard way. Instead of, "How many hours do you work?" try, "Can you describe a typical day?" or something. Also, "What do you like best/least about working here?" is a good, general one.

  5. If you could get a raise at your current company, it sounds like you'd stay there. Thus, maybe you could say something about how there wasn't enough opportunity for growth or advancement or whatever.

  6. You can compete by answering questions better than the other candidates at that level. If you've been in a low-level IT position, you may have to just take a non-senior level position, pay some dues, impress your bosses, present that master's degree when you're done with it, and get promoted to the position you really want.

Also, keep in mind, most of the people interviewing you are probably programmers with no social skills, too.

Finally, as a female geek myself, I'd recommend looking nice. Not sexy or slutty or anything, but most of the people interviewing you will probably be male it'll give you an edge, make you memorable, and probably make you feel more confident. Gah, I hate ending with "look pretty." Sorry.

Good luck!

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Just don't overdo the edge. The last thing you want a male interviewer to be contemplating is whether he employed you because you were good at your job or because his subconscious tricked him due to 'eyecandy'. Starting out with concerns of later law-suits is not cool. –  Kent Fredric Nov 30 '08 at 21:59
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There is a lot of advice in this thread that is absolutely great!

  1. Practice. You don't even need to go to real job interviews to practice. Do practice interviews with friends or colleagues. See if there are career-development classes at your local community college.
  2. Thirty seconds. If they want more detail, let them ask a follow-up question, and respond to these questions in ten seconds. Obviously this is oversimplified, but you can use it as a guide as you practice.
  3. Knowledge of course, but also initiative, focus, work ethic, how well you work in a team, etc. Read Joel Spolsky's book "Smart and Gets Things Done." It's a book for managers hiring tech workers, but it can give you insight into what they're looking for.
  4. Prepare your list of questions. Have some that are generic to any job, like "how much of my time do you foresee me spending on each of the tasks you have described?" Also prepare some questions specifically about their company, based on researching it before your interview. What are their three-year goals for growth? What does that mean for their product line (which you should have read about)? How many people are in your group? To whom would you report (hint: if the answer is vague or more than one person, run away).
  5. Don't tell employers your desired salary or your salary history. The best way to get a better wage is to let them make the salary offer. Read Joel Spolsky's recent article, "Exploding Offer Season." I also recommend the book, "Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1000 a Minute" by Jack Chapman.
  6. Focus on your accomplishments, not the duration of your last job.

Other thoughts:

  • When you are asked in an interview about some specific skill or technology, don't answer with a purely factual textbook answer. tell a story about how you used that skill or technology in some past project. Or perhaps you considered using technology X on that project, but decided on technology Y instead, and give the reasons.
  • Some people said, convince yourself that you don't need the job. I wouldn't phrase it this way -- but I think there's something worthwhile there. I was told early in my career that anytime you are negotiating, the best way to negotiate from strength is to be willing to walk away from the deal. Of course you need a job, but you want the right job. You're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you. You can turn down the job if it isn't right for you.
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+1 for Jack Chapman reference. Great book that I also highly recommend. Especially valuable for people who have no negotiating skills or find the process awkward. It not only gives you the concepts but the concrete words that you can use yourself. –  Tuzo Aug 19 '09 at 3:11
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+1 for "Practice" if you have a friend who works in HR somewhere or who has done interviews ask him/her to help you by doing a pretend interview. Interviews are a skill and having practice helps. –  Zachary K Sep 20 '11 at 9:28
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I have interviewed a fair number of candidates in the last year for a couple of positions that we had that were open.

  1. There is nothing wrong with excitement. A potential employer likes to see excitement, but some level of restraint is good. If your excitement has a manifestation of a physical tick, you can focus on that tick and when you catch yourself doing it, take a breath and pause a moment. The same technique works equally as well with nervous habits. The balance is to show enthusiasm, but controlled enthusiasm.

  2. Don't focus on time, focus on the answer. Practice ahead of time. Pick your key points, outline them, and rehearse them. Make sure you hit the key points and don't wander too much. If you stay to the point and hit the important aspects, you will be fine.

  3. Many, many things... Depending on the position, it might be leadership ability, problem solving abilities, co-worker relations, attitude, etc. Of course, one of the biggest things that I am looking for is good communication skills.

  4. If you don't ask questions, I assume that you are not interested. I look for a candidate to ask a good amount of questions. Ask about the development architecture, upcoming projects, chances for advancement, whether you can do proof of concept work, etc.

  5. Don't sugarcoat anything. Be honest. Tell them that you have outgrown your current position and there is no room for advancement. It is the truth, and that is what an employer is looking for.

  6. This is a tough one. It really isn't something that you can say, in my opinion. It is something that you have to show. This is why I have candidates do coding exercises. It is the only true way you can see what anyone knows. Anyone can recite book knowledge. Unfortunately for you, though, experience is as important as knowledge to a lot of employers. It is the "trial by fire" that you can't get any other way than being in the trenches.

You might want to consider a new job that is more about room for advancement than an immediate starting salary. Salaries, and offers, are progressive. Don't instantly expect that because someone is making X, that you should make X, too. Depending upon the difference between your salary and your market salary, expect offers to be in the middle.

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I bombed quite a few interviews back in the day and I have done pretty well in recent interviews. I have come a long way. In fact, I just aced a fairly intense interview at a stealth startup and am about to start there in two weeks.

Work on your basic skills

Language skills; algorithms; data structures; operating systems; I am a C++ engineer, and I bought plenty of books and read a lot of them. I read Scott Meyers Effective series, over and over. I read the C FAQ and C++ FAQ over and over.

Expend your skill set

I taught myself Python by solving problems on Project Euler; I follow technical blogs and read about the latest technologies all the time. NoSQL, BigTable, HBase, etc.

Interview skills

Buy Gayle Lakkmann's book and her video, you can learn the basic whiteboard skills from the video. I practice interview questions all the time. Careercup.com, Stackoverflow, etc. Also read Steve Yegge's excellent blogs about interviewing: one, two, three.

Update your resume often

Update your resume while you are on a job, not when you think it's time to look for a job. By looking at your latest resume, you can reflect on yourself, on the work you are doing.

OK, how did I do recently? I went through phone screen and two rounds of interviews with Google, I didn't get a job, but if a year ago you told me I could go this far, I would say you were f'ing with me. Maybe I will never be able to get a job from a company like Google, but I can go into any company for a interview with a lot of confidence. Sometimes I even feel I like interviews, it's the fastest way of learning about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses.

Also see my answer to this thread.

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I have been there. I remember having an interview at Microsoft where I beyond choked on doing the whiteboard tests. "What were you thinking? I'm an idiot," and various other negative thoughts crossed my mind that day. In short it was horrible enough to almost make me call my mother and cry about it.

However, for as bad as that was, I did find someone at Volt who could show me how to do a whiteboard interview test and what were key things to notice and point out in giving a solution. While part of it filled in some knowledge gaps I had, there was also a sense of, "Where's the reset button? I want a do-over!" as once I got used to it I did do much better during my second interview at Microsoft. At least well enough to get the hiring manager to be on the fence which is much better than questioning the value of my existence which is what I had after the first one.

I didn't advance in either interview situation but it was helpful to have an outline of what are the handful of things to do, questions to ask, and various pitfalls that can happen when one is in this situation. While I have had a few jobs in my career, I've had many interviews that led to all kinds of results.

What do you do to prepare for the interview? Do you rehearse some basic questions like, "Tell me about yourself," or "What do you consider to be your top 3 weaknesses?" This can help sometimes. Other times you may want to see a counselor to see if you have anxiety or some other disorder that may contribute to the problem you have. I know I have anxiety and depression but I still soldier on in life and take my shot....

cue Eminem's theme to "8 mile"

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?

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@JB King - I have also anxiety and depression and just these takes so much effort for living then leave less power to deal with other problems. Before all of them we have to start to faced with our own fears. –  Freshblood Dec 28 '10 at 22:07
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Not a long dissertation from me. Listen to some of these podcasts: http://www.manager-tools.com/podcasts/career-tools?filter0=23 . Find a Toastmasters Club in your area: http://reports.toastmasters.org/findaclub/

The first one will help you start to understand the whole process. They reference "the Christmas rule" which means that something that happens rarely, but is important, is often something we do poorly. There are concrete things you can do to prepare for interviews, preferably BEFORE you actually need to interview.

The Toastmasters thing will feel VERY awkward if you are as introverted as your blog sounds like, but take heart in the fact that EVERYONE (and I do mean EVERYONE) at a Toastmasters meeting wants you to succeed. You can go through a gradual process of giving presentations and build your speaking skills but for you something FAR more important is going to be giving "table topics" which are random topics which you have to stand up and talk on extemporaneously for two minutes. It sounds trivial but it really forces you to limber up your ad-hoc muscles, and it's very helpful in an interview situation.

Best of luck with your future interviews!

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this is a great suggestion. –  Joel Spolsky Nov 23 '10 at 4:20
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If part of your problem is nervousness about presenting (in an interview, presenting yourself), then get some practice at presenting in front of audiences. For example, put together some 5-minute or 10-minute presentations on things related to your current job, and present them to your colleagues. Suggestions for how to improve the way things are done, for example. Simply gaining experience at being in front of people and talking, and answering questions, will help you in general. Then you can apply this in interviews. The other answers talk about interview technique in some detail, but practicing at public speaking will help you a lot.

Look at some of the 'presentation' web sites:

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Heres one thing, and its a biggie.

They will give you a basic competency test

And being as kick ass as you know you are at programming, just DONT PANIC keep calm, and nail the task dead on the head.

If you are enrolling for a job as a programmer, they should at least ask you a technical questions to gauge your ability at handling their problems.

And If you are as good as you say you are, you will have no problem satisfying this test.

If you're not sure, do a few warm up exercises before hand, brush off a few brain-cells by doing a crossword or sudoku challenge in the news paper, or do some basic problem solving.

If they don't give you a test I would myself be concerned how serious they are at employing you if they don't even bother to test whether or not you meet the technical business requirements to an acceptable level.

The complete absense of such a test, would to me indicate that I don't want to work for them, primarily because I've seen what's out there, and there are lots of companies that are run by horrible management that just scrape along with slave labour, and I don't want to be stuck working for one.

Also, you can get an idea of what they are actually looking for by their tests. Any company worth their salt will give you varying entry level and curve-ball tests to see what you are capable of. These should Ideally be practical questions about real-world problems and not rely on unrelated specific knowledge like 'how would you complete the billionth digit of PI' as question for a general web-dev position.

Of course, nothing we can say or do will really help you a lot, you can take the ideas to heart and try apply them, but my experience tells me the only way to conqueror the jitters, is by going out there and taking interviews and getting used to the idea. Sitting on the couch and thinking about it won't get you far.

Oh, and a good interviewer will try put you at ease.

Interviewers see lots of nervous peoples like yourself, and hopefully will understand the nervousness and anticipate the jitter. They want to see you without the anxiety too, because it gives them a better picture of who you are.

If you can't detect your interviewer trying to make you more comfortable, don't blame yourself for the anxiety, its half their fault for being such a horrible cold bastard interviewer. :)

Try consider them being a work mate, not godlike authoritarian figure with power over life and death.

If they don't like you considering yourself equal to them as a human, again, I would probably not want to be working there anyway.

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+1 for the statement "a good interviewer will try put you at ease". I've done interviews where the interviewer goes out of his way to make the process as nerve wracking as possible. Fuck those companies. –  nbv4 Sep 22 '12 at 4:55
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Since you mentioned that you know the answer but have trouble putting it into English properly, it sounds like your biggest problem is communicating clearly and succinctly. That's OK, that's correctable with practice. Some ideas:

  • Spend more time on sites like Stack Overflow. Practice writing clear concise answers to technical questions. Practice thinking in bullet points. Ask people to review the clarity of your technical communication. You may want to consider hiring a writing tutor over the Internet to critique your work.

  • Take a course in speech or technical writing. This is the kind of thing that community colleges often offer as night courses. Here is a sample course in New York.

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Wow, buddy I can totally relate to you! I wish people would realize someday actual skill/aptitude has got nothing to do with the number of years on your resume.

As for the anxiety if its extreme you need to see a doctor (psychiatrist) who might prescribe some beta blockers for you.

To be honest I myself would not prefer taking any drugs, they should be your last recourse.

Having said that here is a silly thing you might try - sleep deprivation or over sleeping! I have noticed when you are either deprived of sleep or oversleep the brain goes into an energy conservation state and you automatically stop thinking about miscellaneous things and start concentrating on the burning issue at hand. I have used this technique effectively to bail myself out of a particularly sticky situation.

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Have some practice. Apply to positions you don't want and pass a dozen of interviews staying calm, knowing you don't need the job. This should harden you a bit for the real thing.

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My advice to you is to keep up the hard work that you have been demonstrating. It will pay off eventually, even if you do not see or reap the benefits now.

You are at a dis-advantage in that you do not have your degree yet, this will be a hinderance to you. Although I know plenty of software developers who never received degrees or certification tests, most of these people have proven themselves with skills and years of project history. In my opinion, its much harder to excel as a career programmer without an education in computer science or technology. That being said, having a degree does not make you any better than the next programmer. I know plenty of over-certified, P.H.D types that cant code a lick!!

Taking a low paying job shows initiative. I did the same thing when I graduated college.

  • Always remember that they need you more than you need them. *

  • To be less nervous, try cracking a joke at the beginning of the interview. Think of something witty and make it come from left field, so they are caught off guard. Notice something strange or funny in the office or lobby and question them about it. It is usually good to break the ice and show that you are human and not a robot.

It's okay to be nervous, but you dont want to be over-nervous or on the edge of a mental breakdown. Maybe explain to them that you're nervous, in a polite way. Most employers are flexible in interviews. Some employers are more relaxing than others. Just find a medium and talk personably. Again, dont be a robot!!

  1. I would keep this answer rather short. Keep it to the point. Dont ramble on about your previous job, or how you like your coffee, etc etc. Give them highlights or bulletin notes. I usually keep my resume handy for this very reason. I point at the job and read off the list of projects/tasks I completed. Dont go off the top of your head, you will forget important things (atleast I do). So keep your paper resume nearby for reference. There are times I go blank in an interview, and it helps to have that sheet of paper that lists your previous jobs. You built it, so use it (resume)!!!

  2. They are looking for indication of project size, technology and the role you played. Since you are junior level, it's best to go into detail of the tasks you have listed on your resume. Dont use buzzwords or flashy tech lameness. Give them specific details about the tasks you performed. It's important to be detailed here, to demonstrate your strengths and understanding of what you have accomplished. This is where you can get a little technical and show them your aptitude. If you're a junior level programmer, and you start talking about how you architected and implemented this really cool new feature, or helped them migrate and implement a new system or whatever cool stuff you did. Dont go into unnecessary details but do highlight your accomplishments.

  3. To me, this is the best part of the interview. They usually expect you to say "No, I dont have any questions". But you really should have a few. Ask them about their coding practices and standards. Ask if they use silly notations, or naming conventions. Ask them about their development team(s) and their sizes. Ask how long the team leads have been on the project and if they seem happy with it. Ask them if they are fully licensed to use their tools. Ask how many end users do they have and what type of customer support they provide. Also ask about the project's scope, how long the project will last. Look at the company/employer's website and gather information for asking questions from there. Look at the management team or executives, ask specific questions about them and their roles within the organization. Always look at the company's website to gather ammunition for firing back questions. Usually employers are quite unprepared to answer most of these. This can really turn a bad interview around into a good interview, if you act generally interested in their company and projects. It also shows that you did your homework before the interview.

  4. That's easy. Dont sugarcoat. Tell them up front that you feel that you deserve a pay raise and that you are going to find it, somewhere. Employers arent afraid of people who know what they want. Explain to them that you are content with everything EXCEPT your current pay. There is nothing more an employer wants is another company's underpaid staff who's skillset is impressive. Dont be afraid to let them know you are worth the money. Explain to them that you took the low paying job for experience and for the opportunity. I did the same thing with my first job, and after three months demanded a raise or I'd walk. I got my raise, even if they did grumble about it. $27k a year is very below average, and I think McDonald's employees get paid roughly the same. Put it in perspective and work out your hourly pay. You wont be impressed with it and you can use that in your interview. Dont come off as disgruntled, but let them know you cant pay the bills or buy that cool laptop or iPhone/GooglePhone, etc to further your skills. Besides, you work hard, you deserve it!! Dont let them fool you.

  5. How do you know you have the skills of someone with 4-6 years of experience? See, that doesnt even make sense. I know people who have programmed for 20 years and are worthless. I know people who have programmed less than 5 and could code circles around the 20 year old senior developers. It's not fair to yourself to compare against the "4-6 years of experience" guys. Regardless of THEIR experience, you have significantly LESS. What you need to prove is your motivation and drive. Since you dont have a degree, give them your GPA (hopefully its good?) and let them know what honors or activities you contribute in. If you dont contribute (since you are working full-time after all), try to get into some groups you can contribute in. There are many free groups and computer events/activities you can participate in. Take or study for certification/exams. Enroll in a training course. Show that you have some intiative to further your skillset. And most of all, show them that you can handle anything that comes your way, no matter how trivial or complex. Give them examples of how you impressed your current boss. Dont feel like you must compete with other developers for the job. Go in with an attitude of accomplishment and proven self worth. This will work to your advantage, rather than explaining why you feel like you already lost or have to compete.

I would suggest to you, that if you've been coding for 10 years, apply for mid-level positions as well as junior level positions. Even try Senior level positions if you feel comfortable with the job descriptions. It will be hard convincing them of your skillset if you dont have work experience or a software portfolio of examples to impress them with. The best thing on a resume is your experience or "time served". If you dont have much of that, I would suggest getting certifications because those will get you plenty of interviews. Then all you would need is to prove you can handle the work load.

I have had plenty of jobs (and interviews) in my 7+ years of professional programming. I recommend to you to believe in yourself, because if you dont, nobody will. At the end of the day, you employ yourself and answer to yourself. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses. Practice public speaking, maybe join a speech group if you have nervousness.

One interview experience I would like to share with you (and maybe you can think of this when you're nervous) is that I went to interview with a small credit report company, that moved from California to Texas. The CIO and technology manager gave me my interview. These guys came off as real cocky, like most Californians who migrate to Texas (they all think we are slow, which we are, we just think more clearly). Anyways, I did my "homework" the night before and went to their website. I noticed a login page, in which I clicked the "LOGIN" button. It instantly redirected me to a spreadsheet list, with all sorts of information, including 1000s of emails, phone numbers and even social security numbers. I didnt really think much of it at the time....

When I went to the interview, they started hammering me with some ASP.NET/web questions, which I had little problems answering. Then, in an explanation, I made a reference to their login page I had seen the night before. They laughed at me (being cocky that they are), and said there was no way I could have logged into their system and seen that report. I corrected them and told them exactly how I did it.

It was priceless to see these guys (CIO and Tech manager), walk out of the room into their office (which was glass by the way, I could see them attempt this)...and follow my instructions on logging in, anonymously, with no username or password. Surprisingly, and to their grief, it worked. They saw a huge bug in their login page, which apparently, their old developer left in tact for debugging purposes.

Immediately they came out of their office and apologized to me, and told me I was correct. They implemented the fix before I even walked out of the interview. It was very embarassing on their behalf. What was even worse was the lack of security around sensitive information, such as the 1000s of social security numbers I saw. I felt like emailing everyone on the list with the information I found.

Needless to say, I didnt get a job with them. Dont think I would have wanted one anyways. Sometimes it's in your interest to stay away from companies that have no idea what they are doing!! Good luck!! And dont be afraid to be yourself!!

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Why didn't you get a job with them? THey should have offered you a TON of money.. –  Andrei Rinea Jan 27 '09 at 2:22
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Because I didnt have enough MVC experience at the time. They wanted to make everything AJAX enabled and I had little experience with it. –  D3vtr0n Oct 29 '09 at 22:24
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Honesty is definitely a must. Additionally projected confidence is good to have too...but that comes with experience.

I once made it to the third round of interviews where the I was being interviewed by a partner and I got so nervous half way through that the words coming out of my mouth weren't making sense to me. So I stopped talking, explained to the partner that I was feeling particularly nervous at that moment and that I didn't think I was making any sense. After taking a few moments to regain my composure I started talking again and finished the interview.

I thought I had blow that interview for sure....but I was hired. From that experience I learned how important it is to be honest even if you think it will hurt you. In hind sight I've realized that its honesty like that that companies are looking for cause it means people like that will admit they're wrong and correct their mistake rather than letting pride blind them into walking off a cliff.

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  1. Hold a paper clip and channel your energy into it. Or, truly convince yourself that you are interviewing them before you go in, and get lots of interviews, so you have lots of practice, don't expect every one to pan out, in fact take a few you don't want, just to have the interview, and perhaps take a publick speaking class.

  2. Give them the raw data upfront, and then let them decide if you chat - watch them and wait for the que that says they want to hear more, or ok, quit now.

  3. They are looking for assurance that you are the right person for this job. Possibly for certain personality traits.

  4. Just think a bit about their company before you go in, and ask for info you actually want. They know you are interested in the job, because you are in the interview. Unless, you are there for interview practice, in which case they only think you want the job.

  5. Tell them that, just like that. There is nothing wrong with advancing yourself, just don't give them the idea that they are a stepping stone too. "My current job I took as a learning position, and have outgrown it, both in terms of knowledge and income"

  6. I'm not sure if you can. It may take more than one job to get where you want to be. Or, if it's a good company, they may be hiring for native talent. Just make sure they know that you know what you are talking about. Make sure they see some great code from you, and that you obviously have mastered what you are talking about.

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A paperclip is a dangerous tool. Ask MacGyver. They even open CD trays!. The only useless place for them is in an office application ;) –  Kent Fredric Nov 30 '08 at 22:20
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Also, don't be afraid of not getting a job from a single interview. You need to expect to go on several interviews (maybe 7 - 10??). You will get better with each successive interview, and hopefully you will calm down a bit more.

Another suggestion going forward would be to continue to interview occasionally even when you are not looking for another job. This will help to become less of a big deal.

Good luck!

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If I had to recommend a single point of advice, especially for someone who gets squeaky and nervous, it would be to prepare a portfolio. The one that I put together, and have added to for years, is a pretty nice 8x10 art folio with removable page protectors. I have my resume (slightly out of date now), code samples, UML diagrams, piles of screen shots, our JavaOne slides, basically anything that I would like to be able to talk about in a face to face discussion.

It sounds like this sort of physical prop would help you in a variety of ways:

  1. It would give you something to do with your hands. Hey, if you're nervous, it's good to have a physical focus to use to center yourself.
  2. It would give you a venue to anticipate questions. If there's something that you "flunked" on a previous interview, write up your own answer in your own time. Put that into a "Frequently asked questions about me" document and slide it right in there on page two (resume is page one, obviously).
  3. It would give you a place to put physical examples of your work. School projects, hobby work, non-proprietary examples from your job (stealing is bad), whatever you want to be able to show.
  4. It would set you apart from the other new grads. "Look, see? I'm ready to play in the grown-up leagues!" and all that.
  5. It would give you a chance to drive the interview. "Next, could I show you an example of some of my Java / .net / etc. I think it applies directly to the question that you just asked."

In short, this is what I do and it has worked for me in the past.

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Just a point about the money aspect. I used to wonder about the same thing--that if an employer asked why I'm looking for this job, the true answer would be money. But recently I realized that I've been missing the point of this question. Granted, almost everyone wants their job for the money. But I think this question is not concerned with that. What they are really asking is "why do you want this job", say as opposed to a job at McDonalds, or some other company. Money aside, what is something about this company that you like.

So, it's

why do you want this job?

not why do you want this job?

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I like to have the first interview be over the phone. These days, the initial developer interview is likely to just be a technical screening. Those always make me very nervous, too. Like you, I don't "look right" for the kind of work I do. Invisibility can enhance your professional credibility. Once you've established your knowledge and competence over the phone, you won't have to overcome stereotypes (age, race, gender, nationality) when you appear in person for your second interview.

When you're being interviewed on the phone, only your voice counts. You can fidget all you want, even pace around the room.

You can also have reference materials handy. Whether you use them or not, you may feel more confident just knowing they're there.

Whenever I've gone a long time without interviewing, I try to have a couple of interviews for positions I may be lukewarm about. This way, I can practice my spiel. I can hear what the latest interview questions are. Then, when I start getting interviews for positions that I am really interested in, I am much more confident and better prepared.

As for questions to ask, there was a wonderful discussion here recently on SO about "Dealbreakers for new programming jobs." Reading through these might help you get an idea of things to listen for carefully, and to compose your own tactful questions about.

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Research who you are meeting with, you can find people on google with no problem - especially people in tech, know something about that person - are they a gamer etc, find some way to relate quickly to the person who is interviewing you. If they find you have something in common it disarms them and eases you into a more conversational mode with them.

Which leads me to the second point - have a conversation, dont try to 'talk pretty' or seem like some super smart scientist type geek. Be as normal and as 'cool' as you can be.

Know the company well, read their website, know who their customers are. This will give you plenty of ammo for the 'do you have any questions for me' segment which is sure to happen.

Why am I looking for another job? Because your skills have accelerated fast but your earnings didnt keep pace. It is pure honesty and will be appreciated - you have know idea how many times I wanted to laugh at people who I interviewed who told me crap like 'I am just not growing in my current position'. People see through that crap and consider you a phony.

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By the time interviewers get you into the interview room, they already know they're dealing with someone who is good on paper. I suspect you are getting nervous from concentrating on giving a perfect answer.

Most interviewers won't be looking for what you say, but rather than seeing how you communicate your answer and if it's a tricky question designed to catch you out - how your thought process goes. They also want to see that the person they're interviewing is personable and has a good work/life balance.

Clearly you've got confidence in your ability, use that as a foundation for when you are walking into that room.

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Work on your soft skills.

If technical skills > epsilon then
        soft skills >> technical skills

There is an enormous amount of evidence that suggests that the above statement is true for almost everyone.

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My attitude at interviews (to avoid nervousness) is to convince myself that I don't need this particular job. That I am using this interview oppurtunity as a practice / test on how I answer questions and handle my nerves. Being a contractor, I have interviewed so many times, it's a breeze now.

Also reading this board and talking to other developers, I have learned that just because I failed an interview or didn't get a job, doesn't mean that I don't know my stuff.
The interviewer might have been having a bad day;
The position might have been a bit senior for what I am comfortable with
The interviewer might be just a fruitcake.

The other thought is that these days, so much needs to be considered in selecting a good candidate (and vice versa, selecting the great position) such as personality, ability to get along with others, the type of projects, the role and influence of management, that I am convinced that a position is a jigsaw puzzle and the candidate is a jigsaw piece. The two need to be the right fit, else you can jam the jigsaw into the big puzzle, but it wont fit.

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