Julia Evans

Sounding confident in interviews

Confession: I am often terrible at sounding confident. I have been known to answer questions like “do you know statistics?” with “no, I don’t know anything about statistics”, followed by an eventual admission of “well except that I have a math degree and I know at least what a biased estimator is and a whole bunch of probability and I did a bunch of Bayesian stats in my last job and…“.

So, I struggle with underselling myself, and I forget sometimes that “I don’t have a PhD in this” isn’t the same as “I don’t know anything”.

Some strategies I’ve been using:

1. Being factual.

If someone asks me how familiar I am with Linux, I could say “well, I know enough, I think, probably, kind of”. Instead now I say “I’ve been using it every day for 10 years.“, which is not an exaggeration, and doesn’t undersell my experience.

I find saying how long I’ve been using a technology and talking briefly about what kinds of projects I’ve done with it easier (and more helpful to the interviewer) than giving any kind of value judgment on my experience (I am a wizard!).

2. Pretend that they actually don’t know the answer to the question

This of course don’t mean be condescending. Pretend that they don’t know the answer, but that they’re really really smart.

Someone asked me what a filesystem was. I floundered for a second here, and then remembered this principle! Then I answered something like “Well, on a hard drive you have a bunch of binary data, and a priori it’s not organized in any particular way, which makes it hard to find the data you need. Filesystems are a way of organizing all that data, typically into a directory tree, so that you can find things!”

3. Saying what I do know, instead of what I don’t know

Someone asked me what I knew about making database systems more reliable. I could have said “oh, I don’t know anything!”.

Instead I said “Well, I know that people use replication and sharding. I haven’t worked much with either of these, but I think replication is …. and sharding is …“.