Getting Over my Fear of Technical Interviews
My Experiences as a college student in Tech
“The best of us sometimes eat our words.” — Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
If you prefer listening or viewing a talk about this same topic and content, here’s a link to my talk at AlterConf 2017.
By the age of 22, I had two degrees in Computer Science, four SWE internships, and 7 job offers for various tech roles including Software Engineer, Cognitive Software Engineer, Decision Scientist, and Information Risk Manager. Most of the companies that offered me a full time job had previously rejected me for an internship (just a few months before!).
None of this was easy. I had a love-hate relationship with Computer Science when I was first introduced to Programming and often times felt very directionless in this field. Experiences like being the only woman on a team or being younger than everybody else in Grad school didn’t help either. I was overwhelmed by all the smart, driven, older and experienced students I met in my Master’s program. I was confident in my ability to do well in academics but felt totally unprepared to face job interviews. I had a lot of self-doubt and was afraid that I didn’t have the required technical and algorithmic skills needed to score a position at a Tech company.
I got rejected by a lot of companies at first. I either didn’t get an interview at all or when I did, didn’t make it past the first few rounds. But here are some of my experiences that slowly helped me gain more confidence and get over my fear of technical interviews.
Stepping out of my comfort zone
Traveling miles away from my home country to go to a university half way across the world was incredibly challenging but it has helped me become stronger, more aware, and also more thankful. I was introduced to a lot more opportunities, met incredible people, and got to do research with amazing professors. There is so much to learn when you move to a new place, meet new people, and understand new cultures. I highly recommend this!
Participating in Hackathons
Participating in hackathons provides you with a great opportunity to work on projects that you are passionate about. You get to decide what you want to work on, what tools you want to use, meet other amazing people in Tech, as well as network with company representatives and learn what they do. I participated in three PennApps hackathons at UPenn and worked on projects that I cared about. My teams made it to the final rounds all three times as well as secured the second place at my second PennApps.
While securing prizes helped in upping my confidence levels, it does not matter as much as how much you learnt, contributed, and enjoyed working on your project. During my internship interview, I was able to talk about my PennApps experience and put across my passion for using my CS skills to solve everyday and important problems. My manager later told me during the summer that that was what had differentiated me from the rest of the interviewees and me being able to successfully solve the given coding question was important but not necessarily what got me the internship.
Doing more internships
There’s a lot that you can learn during your Internships and it’s not all Tech related. I interned with companies of various sizes and domains. All of these experiences were very unique and allowed me to add a variety of different technologies and skills on my resume as well as decide on the field I wanted to specialize in Grad school.
Although I interned at four different companies, it was my final internship where I committed to underpromising and overdelivering. There were some things that I did differently at this internship that helped me deliver more than what was expected of me as an intern.
I interacted with employees in different roles and asked them about their career paths, with the other interns to understand what they were working on and asked them about their teams and products, with some members of the Senior Leadership Team (it was a medium sized company) and asked them about their vision for the company, with a mentor outside my team to help me get through the internship with the least number of challenges, and with my internal mentor, manager, and members of my team to better understand our product, their expectations of me, to receive feedback about my work and to provide them with new ideas and feedback. I held brown bag sessions, and participated in the technology as well as business decisions for my project so I could understand the project users and goals better.
I received great feedback, an employee social media highlight, as well as a return offer. This helped me feel great about the work that I did, challenges I successfully overcame and the problems that I solved, providing a satisfying end to an amazing internship.
Diving Deep, Teaching Assistantships and Research
I did a few Research and Teaching Assistantships as a college student. This was a great opportunity to work in new fields and with technologies I didn’t necessarily learn about in classes or course projects. Being a TA is challenging but it also teaches you how to dive deep into problems, create assignments, as well as derive satisfaction from helping other students succeed in the course.
My Master’s thesis was the most challenging project I had ever taken up. I spent many sleepless nights trying to fix one big issue and almost gave up multiple times. But it was all worth it in the end. I successfully defended my thesis, spoke at multiple conferences, and published a paper. Although I don’t directly use that work in my current job, multiple other teams at my company have reached out to me to discuss the work that I did in college and it feels incredible to listen to them tell me how they think this research can help them solve their hardest problems.
Conferences, networking, and presenting my work
Attending conferences and networking with people from various backgrounds and learning what they do is always exciting. You never know who you are going to meet. Last year at Grace Hopper, I met someone who showed interest in my work while I was presenting my poster at the ACM Student Poster Session. He was a senior employee at a company I had interviewed with prior to the conference. I didn’t do well at that interview but I got a callback interview after GHC because this person thought that my research was very relevant to a product he was heading. I ended up doing much better at my second interview and got the job.
No matter what stage you think your projects are in, try submitting your work to conferences for poster and speaking sessions. This was something that I shied away from at the beginning but it has helped me make more contacts and understand my work better. It felt great when people came up to me at the end of my talks to tell me how my work can help solve their problems.
Mentoring and being mentored
This is a very important one. I had great mentors, classmates, friends, and co-interns who helped me continuously challenge myself and deliver results that exceeded expectations, both at school and work. When you’re an intern, try to find a mentor both within your team as well as someone outside your team. Remember that it is always okay to reach out and ask someone if they can be your mentor.
Mentoring someone can be equally as beneficial as being mentored and my mentoring experiences have definitely helped me gain more confidence about my skills. I helped a girl from Mexico learn Python through Learn It, Girl! Last summer, I led a Lean In-tern circle where I was able to meet a lot of other amazing female interns in the NYC area. I soon realized that I wasn’t alone and a lot of others face similar struggles with job interviews. I also advised a Senior Design team that built a really cool NLP game. Networking and developing friendships at home with my new roommates, at work, and outside of work helped me learn a lot, gave me more insights about the industry and more importantly, increased my ability to help others.
Try finding an interview buddy too or try to prepare with someone who is interviewing for the same companies as you are. It helps to discuss coding problems with someone else and come up with better, efficient solutions and also review each other’s work.
I had learned so much from these new experiences the past two years that when I got back to campus last Fall, I was so much more prepared for the upcoming interview season. I got a lot more interviews and did much better. I went to conferences and made newer connections and secured more interviews. During these interviews, I was able to solve harder problems with more ease, had much more to talk about and was able to convince the interviewers that I bring more to the table than what they could see during a 45 minute technical interview.
The key was to focus on problem solving putting aside my fears and believing that my abilities weren’t any lesser than those of my peers.
Internship and job search activities can be very tiring, stressful, and can really affect your self-confidence sometimes. This is an incredibly challenging field that requires you to think outside the box, step outside your comfort zone, and push yourself to be the best that you can be. It will be hard. You’re going to want to give up at times. I certainly did. But, it’ll all be worth it in the end when you’ve finally landed your dream job!