Sunday, February 16, 2014

A follow up on the interview anxiety post

First off, I'm really surprised how many views yesterday's post got: over 17,000 views in about 24 hours.  It also got a surprising number of upvotes on Reddit as well as Hacker News.  I was expecting views to be in the hundreds at best, so it seems my post struck a nerve out there.

As for the responses they seem to fall mainly into the following categories:

"Why don't you medicate?"

I'm really hesitant to go down the medication route at this point. My concern is that I don't need to take medication to cope on a daily or regular basis and I don't want to have to. I guess I'd worry that popping a Xanax once for an interview might actually feel too good and I might be tempted to start taking it in other situations. In the past when I experienced situational anxiety issues around more common activities (driving for example) I decided very early on that any kind of drug that would take that feeling away would also become necessary.  I figured that if it really worked I'd quickly become dependent and never want to leave home without it. That's why I went with a cognitive approach to work through it. It's not as fast as a pill, but it eventually worked and I didn't need a prescription. I realize there are people who do take these medications and I do not want to sound like I'm saying that no one should take them. This was what I decided was best for me. Your mileage may vary.


I think it's a very mixed bag. Works for some, other go through years of therapy and don't see much difference. What does seem to work, in my experience, is talking to others who struggle with the same issue. It helps to realize you're not the only one. It also helps to share ideas about what has worked and not worked. I guess it comes down to this: if the therapist has never experienced a panic attack, I really don't think they have the cred to talk me through it. I'd rather talk with someone who has gone through it (therapist or not) and come out the other side.

Of course, I can hear the arguments now: "But if you had pneumonia you'd go to a doctor for treatment whether or not that doctor had had pneumonia before." Sure, that's absolutely true, you don't care if the doc has had disease X as long as they can treat you for it. But when it comes to something like anxiety it just seems quite different. I think someone who has struggled with the same kind of issue can actually be a lot more helpful than someone who hasn't.

"Blame the interviewer!"

There were some responses like: "An interviewer shouldn't ask certain kinds of algorithmic questions in an interview, you should refuse to answer!". I have to say that I absolutely do not agree with that. The interviewer is trying to find the right candidate for the job and most programming jobs require that you write code. So the interviewer has every right to ask. 

Other responses had to do with the attitude of the interviewer. Situations where the interviewer is being a jerk or trying to purposely stress out the interviewee. But in my experience, that's generally not been the case. Some interviewers have actually been quite accommodating. 

Ultimately, it's my issue. I own it. I need to work through it. Putting the blame elsewhere only prolongs that process.

"I'm an interviewer, how can I help you have a good interview?"

These responses were very gratifying. My motivation for the post was mainly to raise awareness and a response like that show that there are interviewers who want to be aware. So I really commend the folks who had that kind of response.

As for the answer to that question, it's going to vary depending on the anxious interviewee. I think in my case the following could be helpful:
  • A coding problem given prior to the interview. Then go over the resulting program in the interview.
  • A written 'test' with a few different questions delivered by the interviewer. Interviewer then says, "I'm going to head out for a coffee, I'll be back in 30 minutes or so to see how you're doing."  I had an interview where that happened and it was fine and apparently I did well on the test.  I think there were a couple of factors here: No one was looking over my shoulder while I tried to solve the problems. If I got stuck on one question, I could go on to another and come back to the problematic question later. 
  • REPL instead of whiteboard.
  • Walking and talking outside. Walking, especially outside, calms me down.  A walking conversation actually sounds quite nice. 
  • Going over code in my github, perhaps?

"I've had exactly the same (or similar) experience."

There were lots of these. It's not an uncommon story. It's good to know you're not alone. 

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