A loss of color to the face.

Sweaty palms and clammy handshakes.

Cracking voices and fumbled words.

Yes, I am describing one of the most-feared elements of any job search: the interview. At Atlassian, we’re all about teams and how they work together to create great things. And in this pursuit, it’s essential that we build and grow our own great internal teams. To succeed at this, we need to nail our interview process. In this post, I’d like to share my thoughts on how interviewers can allow candidates to perform their best, despite the pressures of an interview.


My experience

Most of the interviews I conduct are for our Sydney graduate program, in which we offer roles in development, design, security, and infrastructure. Usually, a graduate interview day has a group of three candidates. Almost always, at least one of these candidates comes in extremely nervous, to the point where it will have a profound effect on their performance.

Having been one of these candidates myself, I think there are a few things we as interviewers can do to help bring interviewees back from the edge of hyperventilation. It starts with putting ourselves back in their seat and adopting an empathetic mindset for their experience.


Their goal is our goal: aim to reach it together

Conducting an interview is not an exam, it’s a collaboration. As interviewers, we are not trying to assess how well a candidate handles interview pressure. We are trying to fairly assess their abilities to fill a role, and doing this, particularly with a nervous candidate, requires collaboration.
Interviews are not an exam, they are a collaboration.
When interviewing any candidate, I see it as my role to:

  1. Create an environment where the candidate can maximize their performance.
  2. Assess their abilities, despite the stressful circumstances.

From experience both as a candidate an interviewer, I’ve found that the coding interview has the potential to be the most anxiety-inducing, and it’s no surprise why. We are asking candidates to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in front of us, under time pressure, with as few mistakes as possible! For coding interviews, I like to keep the following in mind:
9 ways to facilitate a coding interview

  1. Settle them in without wasting time. If a candidate is visibly nervous, take a minute to talk to them before diving in. Help them calm down. But remember, every minute you spend chatting is a minute less for them to complete the task.
  2. Don’t make them read. Reading and understanding a task under extreme pressure is hard, and not part of what you’re trying to assess. Communicating directly with the candidate is less stressful for them, and gives you more opportunity to ensure they understand the task before starting.
  3. Make the goal clear. Make sure they know that you’re trying to assess how they approach solving a problem, not necessarily that they complete the entire task. Letting them know this will alleviate some of the sand-through-hourglass anxiety.
  4. Don’t watch a candidate over their shoulder. Sit next to them. Approach this as you would a pairing session. It takes the pressure off.
  5. Make it conversational. Everyone needs some time to write code undisturbed, but try to keep the candidate talking about their solution throughout the process. Provide positive feedback to what they’re saying. Be engaged. This will make them more relaxed, and also make it much easier for you to assess their knowledge.
  6. Ask the candidate how they intend on solving the problem. Ask for alternative ways to solve the problem. Which is the best way of solving the problem? Why? You want them to pick the solution that’s best for them (i.e. one they will finish on time).
  7. Tell them, “This is not a language test.” Tell them this – verbatim. This is not a language test. If they need help with syntax, or language-specific knowledge, let them know that they should ask without hesitation.
  8. If they get stuck, help them. Almost always, candidates will get stuck on basic mistakes despite knowing better. Start by giving them time to solve it on their own. If they can’t get unstuck after a couple of minutes, try to lead them through the problem. Use this as an opportunity to assess how well they understand the mistake they made. Often these are the times I learn the most about a candidate’s abilities.
  9. Finish on a positive note. Regardless of how they performed, think of something they did well and share it with them to end the interview on a high note.

While interviews are seldom fun, by developing empathy for candidates and trying to understand their perspective, we can optimize for their, and consequently our, success. At the very least, our candidates should feel like they’ve had a positive experience, and at best, we’ll find ourselves face-to-face with our next teammate.

Psst, we’re hiring. Check out our careers page for the latest positions we have open in our offices across the globe!

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The importance of empathy in coding interviews...