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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?


migration rejected from Mar 9 '14 at 23:49

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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
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
So did you ever get the job? – Cuga Jun 3 '09 at 17:54
@Nosredna : " I think it looks bad to come off as a quivering, squeaky-voiced young woman" – CaptainCasey Aug 19 '09 at 7:20
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

45 Answers 45

Having been on both sides of the interview table, I've started my interview sections with a brief "instruction" whenever I interview. "Do not hesitate to ask me to clarify a question if it is not clear what I am looking for. Don't be afraid to say 'I do not know', it's better than guessing and getting it wrong."

It does seem to make people relax a bit more. Of course, saying "I don't know" to a pretty basic question (like "what does the .h extension usually signify?" in an interview for a C programmer) is not entirely great, but it is better than blurting out an incorrect answer without having clearly stated that you don't know.

I've found that once I accepted that the worst that can happen at an interview is "nothing changes", I stopped tensing up and being nervous. That resulted in doing much better at interviews (and initial phone screens), so "nothing changes" seems to have become less likely an outcome.

Good advice. I'm forever (as an interviewer) saying "please tell me what you're thinking". I hate it when interviewees go all silent in response to a question. The ones who don't know the answer but can explain their thought processes and how they're attacking it (deservedly) do much better than the ones who can't. – timday Nov 25 '10 at 13:56

Read as much as you can from the point of view of the interviewer. Examples are:

Before the interview do several mock interviews where you can show that you have the skills the target group needs.

Prepare an interview of your own where you are interviewing the company. Take into account your own needs and ambitions and the requirements you have for your work environment. I like the Joel Test but also consider the values of the company and how they line up with your own. The commute and the general attitude of the interviewees. (No amount of money makes it worthwhile to work for or with jerks)

Lean toward saying no. (Have enough self worth to feel that you deserve to wait for a good match)

Give them respect in the interview. Let them lead but make sure that there is a give and take between you and the interviewers. Don't be afraid to ask clarifying questions during whiteboard or technical questions and don't be afraid of saying you don't know an answer if you don't. Any hint that you are dishonest is way worse than a technical skill that you don't have.

Remember 50% of the interview is about making sure that you have the skills. The other half is making sure you are a good employee and coworker. It is like dating in this respect except in dating you can get by on good looks and a sense of humor. Here you need to display in the way that you conduct yourself that you are dependable, fun to work with can meet deadlines.

Another way it is like dating is that if you seem desperate they won't want you. Tell yourself that you are a good programmer(if this is true so that you carry yourself as such) and convey in your questions and responses that you are not desperate for the job but that is sound like a good option.

+1000 If I could to state - No amount of money makes it worthwhile to work for or with jerks. – Karthik Sreenivasan Feb 14 '12 at 5:54

My advice is:

Your first, last and only goal in the interview should be to remain calm. Do not worry about having the "right" answer. Do not worry about what you say at all.

Once and only once goal #1 is achieved, your second goal is to make the interviewer feel comfortable with you. There are no further goals beyond these two.

I have had similar nervousness problems on interviews, and keeping this strategy in mind when I was interviewing this summer I got a 75% offer rate from the companies I interviewed.

Aside from that, just remember to have a good question or two to ask the interviewer, as they invariably ask if you have any questions for them.


Regarding the nerves and the squeaky voice problem, there are some excellent techniques that you can apply to help. I've been enrolled in a public speaking course for some years now, and have found that I always have nerves before I speak (in fact it is a good thing to have those nerves - they help you to 'perform' at your peak). But applying the following techniques seem help me a lot (not just with public speaking but with situations like interviews):

  • Resist the urge to immediately launch into an answer when asked a question.
    • buy out for yourself a few seconds,
    • smile (it really helps you to feel at ease, and adds some warmth to the interaction)
    • acknowledge their question, maybe by repeating it... Or even saying something appropriate like - "I was thinking about how I'd answer that one...", "That's a good question", "Let me think about that one for a second..."
  • Breathe
    • concentrate on breathing slowly, in and out
    • especially if you feel your throat starting to tighten up (my problem is getting breathless and my voice sounding airy), slow down (stop if you have to for a second or 2), get control, breathe, then resume
    • did I mention, smile!
    • imagine a tennis ball in your throat as you breath
  • Relax your body
    • relax your shoulders
    • smile
    • sit comfortably
  • View it as a conversation, rather than an interview
    • feel comfortable with asking questions to clarify where they are coming from with their question

S. Lott lists very good points, but I want to elaborate a few.

Nervousness - This is the hardest of your questions, I have many words but no answer. It is OK to be nervous, the results of being overly nervous - being chatty, distracted and off-topic - are a problem. Suggesting this openly is a good idea, but will backfire with some companies.
For me, (amateur) stage play has helped a lot, because it requires me to focus on the script, taught me a lot about my appearance in other peoples eyes, and how to wing the "geek" label. Won't work for everyone, I guess.

Former employment - first and on the surface, what exactly you did: What was achieved with which skills, technologies and and responsibilities.

When I ask an open question like "tell me about your past projects", I want to get an overview, and I am looking for hooks where I can dig deeper. If the list is long, pick the "best". Make it a conversation - neither a "yes/no" answer nor a monologue doe it.

If you are unsure about a question, don't hesitate to ask for clarification.

Beyond that I am looking for: Passion, Dealing with problems, Communication

I guess passion you get across easily ;-)
About problems I will ask openly, because people rarely mention it themselves. Can you name problems that occured with a project? How did you deal with them?
Communication - can you explain to me something I do not know? Can you describe the goal of a project to a layman, from a user, product or marketing POV, or is the only language you speak tech talk?

I am also looking for one project that is "special" - either you are most passionate about it, it has some interesting keywords, or it is promising for a further conversation. I judge coding skills by looking at how a candidate writes code, but I want to see how you talk about technology. Can you filter out what is relevant to the question? Can you hold yourself in an argument? Do you know what you are talking about?

I will try to push you to your edge of knowledge. I want to see what you do when you don't know. (This is somewhat questionable because it makes it hard to hire someone smarter, and it might destroy the positive atmosphere that's sometimes hard to build)

Your other questions have been answered well IMO, or are better answered by a native speaker who can provide better wording.

  1. Practice, practice, practice. Have a friend or family member quiz you by asking various things to see how you can do out of the blue in a way. Looking at the various conversations you have in a day may be another idea of where to look at how you communicate.

  2. The key on prior employment is to remember what were the main tasks you handled there: Did you troubleshoot issues, design large system integrations, do business analysis to determine feasibility? It may take a little work to get this into a 3 minute answer but I think you could practice various approaches that show you did this or that within the "Software Development Life Cycle" or methodology followed where you are?

  3. What did you do? How do you feel about what you did? Can you analyze what you did or is it always kept as a "we" rather than an "I?" What awesomeness will you bring here that makes you worth $X/year?

  4. I tend to have a few categories of questions like what is the methodology they use, what bug-tracking software do they have, what software do they generally use as well as release (do they use Visual Studio, Emacs, Vi and are they releasing web applications, Windows applications, console application). What hours do they work? How big is the team? What is the structure of the company in terms of its employees? Look for what kind of emotion and thoughtfulness is put into the answers given and followup where you want more information to determine if the interviewer isn't giving you enough detail for what you want.

  5. You could say that you are unsatisfied with your current compensation and want to make a more appropiate wage. Underappreciated may be a better way to hide that.

  6. The key is to explain what is the value you'd bring to the company: Would they have better applications, faster software, another person to troubleshoot issues? What do you know already? What suggestions and process can you bring as well as what to avoid in implementing changes to processes? These are the things I'd want to emphasize as don't forget you probably don't know what the company is looking for, e.g. how much will they pay as well as how much experience do they want in the new guy or gal?

+1 One of the ways of looking at Value Edition would be the amount of experience one has in a **functional specializations of development ( E.g Reporting, automation ) would become a priority to the employer as they would like to fit the candidate to that position. – Karthik Sreenivasan Feb 14 '12 at 4:54

I've recently had an interview, the first in ten years. The night before I was really nervous, however i got a good night's sleep, practised some answers and suprisingly felt really calm during the interview.

I feel this may have had a negative effect as the feedback I got was along the lines of: no problem with my technical skills but they felt I wouldn't fit the team as I was too laid back!


In regards to nerves: Its good to be nervous for big events. Your nervous feeling is your mind's way of preparing you to think fast on your feet, if you are prepared then they will help you act quickly. Expect to be nervous. Embrace it.


What do you mean by bomb?

Do you call the interviewer a twat? Do you fail to answer even the simplest questions?

One way of becoming better at sth is to do it many times - try going for a few interviews even if you're not interested in the position.

PS. You might want to improve your accept rate as well.

I would even recommend applying for positions that one is not interested in first (sometimes you can tell from the description). One less reason to use a headhunter - you do not want to be pressured into accepting the positions that you did not fall in love with. Replying to direct Craigslist job ads should be good enough. It also helps to have a killer-looking resume, and someone confident who can convince you that you can do it. – Job Nov 22 '10 at 21:10
Accept rate doesn't mean much on this site, since so many questions don't necessarily have a clear "right" answer. – Adam Lear Nov 22 '10 at 21:23

I think the perfectionist tends to be shy. Also, the person who expects a perfect world often became cynical later.

My advice is not to care. There is no right or wrong. As some say, the interviewer initially already has an idea whether to hire you or not. He/she only try to justify his/her answer.

So be carefree. Try it once and twice, and see how it goes. It may need to be a few times before you can let go and not be so tense about it.

  1. I generally view interviews as opportunities to meet new people - it's not the start of a war, e.g. "D-Day". Try to keep the language you use (and think) relaxed and you'll become relaxed.

  2. Reply as you would in a normal conversation: look at the other person and watch their reactions. When they look ready to talk, stop, when they look puzzled, ask them if they have a question.

  3. I'd start with an overview of my previous experience, then watch their response to see if they want more info. Just watching someone's face is usually a good guide to how to pitch your answers.

  4. Ask yourself some questions about the company and job before you walk into the interview room: is this company right for me?; am I a good fit? What things do I want from a new job?

  5. It's okay to ask for more money, but is this really the only thing that motivates you?

  6. Success is ALWAYS better than plain experience. Talk about what you've achieved.


Face Your Fears

Regarding nervousness, ask yourself, "what's the absolute worst that could happen?"

  • You screw up your explanations
  • You fail at solving example problems
  • Your experience sounds weak in discussion
  • You accidentally insult your interviewer
  • You throw up on the carpet

Then picture all that, as bad as it can get, and come to terms with it. Be able to say, "if that happens, I will be OK. It will suck, but I'll be OK, and I'll have a funny story later."

Better than that: even in this scenario, you'll learn from your mistakes.

If the worst possible outcome no longer scares you, then guess what? It's probably going to be better than that. It might be great.

And anyway, you're not scared anymore.

One of these 'worst' situations happened to me, I had a cut on my finger from cooking the night before and I'd avoided wearing a plaster (band-aid) to cover it as I thought it be unsightly. Halfway through the interview I was fidgetting with my hands and knocked the cut and it started bleeding, and I had no tissues. I had to ask the interviewed to go out of the room to fetch me some! So the worst did happen, and it actually didn't make me feel all that bad, and from then on I knew nothing worse than that could happen so I felt pretty relaxed :-) – rohancragg Mar 24 '10 at 8:43

I will only answer the first question, as I believe it's something I know a little about. I was once a pretty shy person and got nervous too, but I have been working on myself and got pretty good result. I bet your nervousness and discomfort are result of similar reasons. This is also pretty common for hackers, but it's something that can be worked on. If you wish to be less shy, you can try one of those two books by Zimbardo or Carducci. Or you can try program like Demonic Confidence, which is basically directed for getting confidence in contacts with women, but this also makes you less nervous in other situations (according to Zimbardo's research, the two most common factors for shyness are women and people with higher status - when you apply for a job, you have to face at least the second one).

It's worth to develop self confidence. Hackers are usually very well educated and trained people, but they lack confidence to aspire for higher offices in the company. That's why we have to live with all those managers, that don't really understand, what we are talking about ;-) I have the comfort of having a boss, who has very solid programming and administrative background. It would be great, if more of us had :-)


Your first strike should be "Showing you are confident?", no matter how you answer his questions, whether they are bad, average or excellent, be sure to look him straight in the eye with a light sarcastic smile, while you two are interacting to show that you are confident.


The easiest trick to get rid of nervousness is to consciously try to be nervous.Every night before going to bed simply imagine an interview situation and force yourself to be nervous.

In an interview learn to be spontaneous rather than giving prepared answers.Just understand the concepts and when the interviewer asks the questions respond appropriately.Better not mug up anything because it can give unnecessary fear of forgetting them.

You can try Vipasana which is a meditation technique.It is a technique of continuous awareness of your actions,thoughts,emotions.So you can do it throughout the day without spending extra time for meditation.In the simplest sense vipasana is carrying out all you activities of the day just as usual but u keep on watching(monitoring) your physical,mental and emotional activities.Its a bit difficult in the beginning but I can tell for sure it's worth it.

That is an interesting trick. It kind of reminds me of helping children get over the bogeyman by discussing his scary features, why he is scary, until you start making fun of him. Then he is no longer scary. – bobobobo Jul 26 '10 at 20:21

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