A recent post on Coding Horror about “Non-Programmer Programmers” kind of terrified me. Not because I think that my job is going away, and not because I think my skills aren’t up to snuff, but because the technical interview terrifies me like nothing else.

Jason, with performance anxiety? Yes, it’s true!

As a performer, I come from the world of improv, where the mantra is “Just make it up! What you say will always be correct!” Naturally, this level of bullshittery, while it might get you through a real interview, will never do in a technical interview where you will be eviscerated if you don’t know the systems you claim to know. (Or even some detail of a system you really do know, but had never previously used.) Now I’ve never put something on my résumé that I did not actually use, but in some cases, it’s just been a while and I need a few minutes with my friend Google to get back up to speed.

Part of the problem is that the tech interview is like flying an airplane. Once you stall once, it’s really hard not to crash and burn. You just get more and more flustered until you can’t even answer questions about things that you do know extensively.

I had an interview like that just before I interviewed for my current job. It was October/November 2001, and as you could imagine, New York City was on edge and not in a hiring mood, especially in the “dot-com” world which had gone bust. I interviewed downtown with a famous phone company for a unix administrator job. I can’t remember what question started the stall… I think it was something about rpc, or what port something listened on… But after that, I was dead in the water. They asked me a bog-simple RAID question that I totally blew. As they escorted me out of the building, one of the managers sypathetically said to me, “It must be hard getting a job in this economy…” Shellshocked, I agreed.

Reading that article on Coding Horror, and remembering that interview, kept me awake far too late last night. Again, I’m reasonably confident that my job’s not going anywhere, and I’m confident in my abilities, but one has to plan for these things.

Then today, sitting in the office that I’ve occupied for almost nine years now, I remembered a tech interview that was tough, but I knocked out of the park. (In particular, I remember totally killing a question about DNS.) Naturally, its the one that got me the job I have today. And they seem to like me after all these years, to the point where they actually let me write production code.

Scary though the tech interview may be, if I keep my skills up, keep my cool, and remember how to pull out of a stall, I should be okay. Besides, the “weed out” questions on that Coding Horror article are laughably easy. And if your tech interview feels like the Spanish Inquisition, did I really want to work for you in the first place?