Interview Tip: Don’t Stress Out

I was just talking to a fellow blogger who’s going through an interview process, and we touched on something that bears repeating here.

Interviewers don’t always expect you to know the answers.

Sometimes they ask you a string of ugly, nasty technical questions that you can’t possibly have seen before.  They might not be testing your technical prowess or your research abilities, but instead, they may be testing your ability to keep calm under pressure.

Think back to the last time you had a server crash or an application fail.  Managers and business folks come running in asking all kinds of ugly, nasty questions.  “When’s it going to be back up? What caused this?  You did this, didn’t you? Is that whiskey in your coffee cup?  Did you try to quit sniffing glue this week?”  I know.  I’ve been there.

Asking tough questions in an interview is a way to see if someone will crack under pressure.  I rarely do this as an interviewer unless I smell weakness (it smells like the opposite of bacon), but when I do, I go after it.  I can’t have somebody on my team who throws up their hands and screams at the first sign of trouble.  In two cases, I’ve seen trouble during the interview process: one candidate actually laid his head down in his hands on the table and spoke without looking up.  In both cases, I didn’t expect them to know the answers to the questions – I just wanted to see whether or not they’d freak out, and they did.

And of course, this being reality, we hired them anyway.  They both still work in their respective jobs though I’ve moved on, and they both still freak out whenever something breaks. <sigh>

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • This is probably the single most important interviewing tip you can give. This also applies to any kind of testing. The more relaxed you can be the better your brain will perform.

  • I wondered what weakness smelled like. Thanks! 🙂

  • You know, I haven't thought of it quite like this, but it makes absolute perfect sense – in my environment, I'm regularly on a teleconference bridge with directors, VPs, and plenty of my fellow employees and the tough questions are flying. Its an important thing to understand saying "I'm not sure right now, but I'm looking into it. I'll have an update for you shortly."

    Maybe you should write tips for performing interviews, not just being interviewed! 🙂

  • Nice tip! A new outlook to those "tricky" questions. I was actually advised that saying "it's on the top of my head but for some reason I could not recall/remember (the answer)" is better than an outright "No."

  • Great points. Honestly, whenever I am interviewing folks (regardless of role) I am not looking for the answers to obscure questions with a 90% success ratio. Instead I am looking for a thought process, a grasp of common sense, the ability to admit what they know and don't know, the ability to know how to find an answer and how they apply what they do know.

    If I had someone that rattled off answers to nearly every SQL question I through their way but when asked a troubleshooting question ("You are an all around IT person for a small shop, a user tells me a printer is broken.. how do you resolve it.. go through the steps and questions you ask?") they hem and haw through the answer or go for the most complex issues first, I know they won't really do. I ask some questions that have controversial or debated answers and argue their "correct" (on one side of the debate) answer and see how they respond. Do they get arrogant, fly off the cuff, turn purple and start acting weird? Or do they apply rational thought and show calm? Much more important.

    The skills we use in SQL Server? Anyone can pick them up really, that's why there are so many of us blogging about it 😉 Common sense, calm under pressure, humility? The first two are quite hard to teach and I have found some folks who will probably never learn them. The latter, it can be taught through enough oopses but do you want to be the one having to deal with the lessons?

    No, I'm not saying don't hire every calm, common-sense filled person for that alone but if they know the basics, show available buffer pages in the mind for more learning, have the right level of experience and they appear great under pressure and show common sense, pick them up fast before someone else does. They can learn about the Halloween problem someday if they want to learn database cocktail party trivia.

    @brent – I wish I was there for that interview with the candidate who put their heads down into their hands! It would have been hard to resist the urge to quietly sneak out or sneak up behind them and yell "SURPRISE!!!!!" = ) = )


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