A common question during interviews is “How do you handle pressure?”. The standard answer is to give an example of a stressful situation where you came out smelling of roses, implying that to you pressure disappears when you put your mind to it.

However, if I wanted to be fair about my ability to handle pressure, I’d say I don’t handle it all that well. Put me in a situation where the workload is such that it can’t possibly be achieved in the allotted time, and watch me go to pieces. Maybe an exaggeration, but quite close to the truth nevertheless.

So over time you start to learn a number of strategies that make it less likely that you’re going to be confronted with the pressure cooker. One strategy is to cut corners by cutting down the task to the bare minimum that can be achieved in the allotted time. This happened when I was studying for my hydraulics exam in my second year at university: I had less than 24 hours between exams, and concentrated on the “tuyaux” questions (the ones that often came up and could sink you if you weren’t prepared).

A stroke of luck came my way when I had a few hours in the morning prior to the exam, and decided to go over one of the diagrams where you have to predict pressure and flow in complicated set of bends, valves and pumps. Fortunately for me that question came up, and the professor was so pleased that I was the first in that session to get the answer completely right that he gave me really high marks. Something that definitely helped me pass since in that year I only scraped through with 61%.

Other solutions that I developed over time was to be highly organised and prepared. It’s not easy to predict what will need to be done, but once you’ve been in a job for a while, you tend to get a feel for the type of things that might trip you up, and like a good chef in the kitchen, you have a few items half-ready so that the final product can be achieved so much more quickly.

The other side of the same coin is to manage expectations – you know that the only correct answer to the question “Is this an easy job?” must be countered by the sucking of air through the teeth and any variation of a reply that means it’s not. Also, when someone comes to you with the introduction of “I’ve got a little job for you, it shouldn’t take too long”, your immediate response should be “Let me be the judge of that”.

And the final response when all of those tactics prove insufficient is to put the hours in – especially in IT extra time means extra output. You may have developed all the tools in the box to streamline your production process, but in the end it’s almost a given that development time will exceed the original estimated time, so you have to calculate that in from the start.

Also, in order to make the best use of your time when doing IT developments you must minimise the amount of non-productive time: cut down on meetings (unless they’re specific to progressing your work), reduce the likelihood that you’re going to be interrupted when you’re “in the zone”, and don’t be too proud to re-use solutions from previous projects.

So my real answer to the question “How do you handle pressure?” is : at all times I’m trying to avoid being caught in a situation where pressure will become an issue. Does it always work ? No. But at least you can try and minimise the number of situations where you’re going to be caught between a rock and a hard place.


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