5

I write software. In my job I frequently run into times where I'm unsure how to best proceed. I've learned that, personally, I can often solve this by taking a quick break and walking around. This usually entails getting away from my monitor and taking a 5 minute walk outside. I know when I'm blocked this way, and I can spend hours staring at a screen or piece of paper without progress, but after these short breaks I will often sit down and be able to immediately write a good solution. I do this every hour or two.

I've run into this problem in whiteboard coding or online technical phone screens (coding in a shared IDE or whatever). I "lock up" and can't really proceed, and I'm not producing a useful stream of thoughts. I know staring at the code I've written is futile and I won't be able to find the bug or optimize my solution or whatever without a short break. However I think it's unreasonable to ask the interviewer to be on hold for 5 minutes while I go take a walk.

Is there a reasonable compromise to be had here? It can be very frustrating, especially if I struggled with a tricky problem and then find a great solution on my walk 5 minutes after hanging up.

  • Since I never encountered this, I wonder if any other interviewers here did, and how frequent it is – Mawg Aug 23 '18 at 7:06
  • At least for phone interviews, they might indeed be judging candidates based on how they react particularly to on-the-spot questions. They know your answers are not likely to be well-thought out or verbose. – user34587 Aug 23 '18 at 8:51
4

Any break during an interview is risky, because the interviewer doesn't know what you are really doing. You could be walking aroung, but you could also google the solution to a difficult question you wouldn't know otherwise or even silently let someone else solve the problem for you.

Compare a job interview with a TV cooking show. The cooks are always speaking to the audience, even when they're doing easy things clearly visible like chopping onions. They have to constantly entertain their audience without major pauses.

Try to act like a TV cook in an interview. If you need a break, fill it with different thoughts and meaningfull chatter. Walk a turn around your desk, but don't take a 5 minutes walk in the park.

Also, telling an interviewer that you are nervous in an interview is acceptable for most people. Tell them that you realize that your solution is not optimal and doesn't meet your own quality standard and why. That way you might not have to deliver the perfect solution during the interview.

2

Note: the answer might change depending of the culture.

First of all, everyone need a break from time to time. The human brain is wired so that he cannot focus on the same subject more than 45 minutes without a break (after that time, the brain is less effective and you end up introducing stupid bug in your program) (source: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/gabrielle-bernstein/michael-eisen-youth-wellness-network_b_1076416.html?guccounter=1 and https://dariusforoux.com/takebreaks/).

For the question itself, I guess it depend since how long the phone screen/interview is going on. But if it has been two hours, I see no problem in asking for a break. Just tell them something along the line of:

Hey people, I'm kind of stuck in this problem right now, if it's all right with you I gonna take a break to clear my head. I'll be back in 10.

I think a lot of people have the same process than you, so they will understand.

Also, if you see a meeting that is going no where, maybe suggest a 10~15 minutes recess for everyone. They will probably be gratefull that you suggest it and the meeting should be more productive after that.

If you feel unconfortable telling them why you are taking this break, use the bathroom excuse, no one can expect you to control that. If you do it too often, you will probably end up with the reputation of someone needing to pee a lot, but if it's all right with you...

1

I can completely relate (and I have a feeling this question might be a little opinion based even from a recruiters perspective) I don't think it is appropriate to ask for breaks.

By asking for a break you are:

  1. Showing them you don't value their time
  2. Showing them you buckle under pressure
  3. Showing them you need special treatment as opposed to all the other candidates that were also stressed but didn't ask for a break.

tl;dr No.

  • 2
    How is asking for a break "not valuing their time"? – Erik Aug 23 '18 at 5:21
  • 1
    @Erik just wait 5 minutes while I think of how to answer your question, – solarflare Aug 23 '18 at 5:23
  • 5
    Sure. It's not like I'm going anywhere. – Erik Aug 23 '18 at 5:23
  • I would much rather have my team say "I'm going to take 5 minutes here to check this is the right thing" rather than keep ploughing on and make a mistake. That's not "buckling under pressure", it's sensible. – Philip Kendall Aug 23 '18 at 10:22
  • @PhilipKendall I was talking about interviews not work. Obviously at work you take breaks when you need to. – solarflare Aug 23 '18 at 23:33

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