There's no quicker way to strike terror in the heart of an IT professional (or aspiring IT pro) than to speak those ominous words: "First, you'll need to pass a technical interview."
It seems there is no quicker way to strike terror
in the heart of an IT professional (or aspiring IT pro) than to speak those
"First, you'll need to pass a technical
I've had students who were at the top of their
network training classes call or write to me in a panic, asking what to expect.
As if a job interview weren't nerve-wracking enough by itself, when you add the
word "technical," it becomes a whole different - and even scarier
- prospect. This article will, I hope, help you to overcome your fears and
doubts about the process and tame the tech interview beast.
Before I get into the how-to's, though, I have a
confession to make. Even though I've sat on the other side of the
interview desk on many occasions as the hiring authority, even though I enjoy
the chess-like game of strategy of the job interview situation, even though I am
- after building a highly successful IT business along with my husband,
teaching hundreds of students in computer-related courses, and with eleven IT
books published - pretty confident of my skills and knowledge, I still dread
the "technical" interview.
A Fact of Life
But it's a fact of life in this industry, so it's
important to learn our ways around the tech interview, anticipate some likely
questions (or types of questions) that we'll encounter, and understand what the
technical interviewer is really looking for (contrary to what you may
feel during the interview, most are not sadists who stay up nights thinking of
new ways to torture job applicants with obscure and convoluted interrogatories).
The Purpose of the Technical Interview
The purpose of the technical interview is ostensibly to evaluate your level
of knowledge or skill in the topic areas relevant to the position for which
you're being considered. However, there's more going on in most interviews than
that. In reality, as you struggle to explain the differences between DHCP and
BOOTP or frantically search your memory for the best definition of
"asynchronous," your interviewer is likely to be judging you on any or
all of the following:
First and most obviously, how much
you know about the hardware, operating systems, applications, and/or
networking technologies with which you would be working.
How articulate you are, especially
for a position in which you may be called upon to write reports or
documentation, or give presentations to users or upper management.
How poised and
personable you are,
especially in a position like tech support or network administration, where
you will have to deal with many people at all levels of the organization.
How well you handle
especially if the position is in a high-pressure, time-sensitive
How innovative you are; that is,
whether you're able to "think outside the box" to come up with new
solutions rather than just spout the party line of the moment.
Whether you've had
experience with the products, or you only know the "factoids" you
read in books or learned in a classroom.
How vendor-centric you are; that
is, whether you only know one product line for example, Microsoft or
Novell), or have a broader base of knowledge that is necessary in today's
modern "hybrid" network environments.
How willing you are to take on
extra duties or work overtime when necessary; how much pride you take in
your work and in doing a good job.
How well you balance ambition and
leadership with the ability to follow the instructions and defer to the
wishes of management, even if you disagree.
How loyal you'll be to the company.
How honest you are (including
whether you're able/willing to say "I don't know" when you don't
know the answer to a question).
Whether you have the wherewithal to
find out the answers to those questions and the solutions to those problems
that you don't know.
Wow. That's a whole lot of evaluating going on. No wonder technical
interviews make us so nervous.
Now that you're aware of some of the underlying purposes of the interview,
you should go through the list, and consider how you can tailor your answers
to positively impact the interviewer's impressions in each of these areas.
Obviously, "knowing your stuff" is mandatory, but that alone is not
enough to get you through the interview with flying colors.
Practice Makes Perfect
Practice your interview skills with a technically-savvy friend or ask
yourself questions and then practice your answers in front of a mirror.
Videotaping your practice interviews can be an extremely useful aid. Although
you may be embarrassed the first time you watch yourself "perform,"
you may be amazed at the little nervous gestures or speech habits (for
instance, a peppering of "you knows" or "I means" or
"ummms") you weren't aware of before.
As you review the tape, ask yourself questions like these:
enthusiastic do you seem? Do
you project an image of someone who really wants the job?
body language send
undesirable signals (i.e. slumped posture that indicates laziness or
sloppiness, or shifty eyes that might be interpreted as a sign of
Do you respond clearly and
confidently when you know the answer to a question?
If you don't know the answer, do
you say so in a straight forward manner, without being overly apologetic or
appearing perplexed - and then tell the interviewer what steps you intend
to take to go about finding the answer?
Once you've identified the problems, you can work on correcting them. Make
additional tapes so you can see your progress. As you watch, ask yourself
honestly whether you would hire yourself, based on the impression you
make in the interview.
Unfortunately, your actions and words and personality are only one
part of the equation, and whether they add up to a job offer or rejection may
also depend in part on the personality of the person conducting the interview.
We'll consider how you can size up the interviewer's personality type and
mood, and how this information can be used to "fine tune" your
responses, on the next page.
The Personality of the Technical Interviewer
Technical interviewers come in all flavors: male, female, gregarious,
reserved, friendly, rude, smiling and sour-faced. The tactics that work in your
favor with one interviewer may do you in with another.
A good example of when it's important to gauge your interviewer's personality
type and mood is when you consider using humor in answering questions. Some of
us (yes, I'm one of them) have a tendency to want to interject a little humor
wherever the opportunity presents itself. If this comes naturally to you
(and if it doesn't, don't try to force it), this can be a great technique for
disarming the interviewer, and making yourself appear to be confident and easy
to get along with. But that's only true if the interviewer: a) appreciates
humor, and b) is in the mood for it at the time.
Be Politically Correct
It also goes without saying that any use of humor must be of a type that's
non-offensive. Lawyer jokes are popular, but your interviewer's spouse (or
mother!) might be an attorney and this could be a pet peeve of his/hers.
Microsoft-bashing jokes might build a bond with an interviewer who views Redmond
as the seat of the Evil Empire, but may not seem funny at all to one who has
made a fortune off Bill Gates' products.
Watch For Non-Verbal Clues
Take your cue from the body language, facial expression and voice tone of the
interviewer. The study of kinesthetics has shown us that human
communication is more dependent on these non-verbal factors than on words to
convey a person's real meaning. In fact, it's generally accepted that as much as
80% of the message is communicated through gestures and other non-verbals. If
your interviewer appears to be solemn or sour, you're probably better off with a
brisk, competent "all business" approach. If the interviewer is full
of smiles and charm, a lighter demeanor on your part may be more appropriate.
Reconnoiter the Joint
Job search pros - those who have really made an art of it - will research
not only the company to which they're applying, but the interviewer too (if
possible) before ever setting foot into the interviewer's domain. You'd be
surprised how many IT people have their resume posted someplace on the web.
If you can find out something about your interviewer personally, such as hobbies
and interests, where he/she went to college, previous employment, etc., it will
help you to make the all-important introductory small talk that sets the tone
for the interview. It may also help you avoid making major gaffes such as
telling an Aggie joke to a graduate of Texas A&M.
The more you know about your interviewer, the better.
Regardless of the interviewer, though, you'll need to be prepared for the types
of questions that will be asked. We will address that on the next page
Types of Questions Commonly Encountered in the
A technical interview typically goes beyond the usual "tell us about
your background and experience" of a regular job interview. It may also
include questions that have nothing to do with computer hardware and software,
designed to measure your logic, reasoning and general problem-solving skills.
Some of the biggest IT employers are notorious for this tactic, and it's these
"brain teaser" questions that often throw the inexperienced
interviewee for a loop.
Why are Manhole Covers Round?
Famous (or infamous) examples include such questions as "why are manhole
covers round?" (Because a round cover with a lip cannot fall into the
manhole. A square cover could be turned diagonally and dropped into the square
Many of these are more involved, such as the old "fox, chicken and
grain" scenario that goes like this: a man has a boat and wants to
transport a fox, a chicken and a bag of grain across a river. There can only be
one item in the boat with him at a time. He can't leave the fox alone with the
chicken, or the chicken will be eaten. He can't leave the chicken alone with the
grain or the grain will be eaten. How does he get them all safe and intact to
the other side? (We'll provide the answer at the end of this section).
Many technical job candidates come out of interviews mumbling "what in
the heck do foxes and chickens have to do with administering an NT/UNIX/NetWare
network?" Believe it or not, your ability to analyze a problem such as the
one in the scenario, mentally evaluate your options, and come up with a solution
has a lot to do with network administration. If you can't think through
and apply logic to a simple non-technical fox and chicken problem, how much more
difficult will it be to troubleshoot problems that also require extensive
Luckily, there are numerous books and websites that will provide you with
practice for these brainteaser/logic tester type questions. One good place to
start is with http://www.brainteasers.net/.
You Don't Have to be Correct to be Right
In addition to logic questions, you will probably be grilled quite intensely
about specific technical topics. If you have an IT certification such as MCSE,
CNE, or CCNA, your interviewer will probably be looking for answers that show
you've done more than the "right answers" for the certification exams.
In fact, a savvy interviewer will use his/her knowledge of the exam questions to
try to trip you up. For example, if all the "brain dumps" for an NT
exam say you should be sure to answer on the test that "callback security
doesn't work with PPP multilink," your interviewer might ask you under what
circumstances you can use callback security with a multilinked ISDN
connection (the answer is when both B channels are assigned the same telephone
number, but most "dumpers and crammers" who passed their exams by
memorizing answers don't know this).
The key here is not to try to pass yourself off as having more experience
than you really do. In today's tight job market, people with "paper
certs" do get hired - and if they've been honest upfront about their
experience level, they can get valuable training and work their ways into
excellent, high-paying positions. On the other hand, those who misrepresent
themselves often get thrown into situations they can't handle and end up being
"let go." Remember that one of the things your interviewer may be
evaluating is how honest you are. Nobody is eager to hire a liar.
Treat the Interview Like an Exam
However, it's not dishonest to do all you can to present yourself in
the best light possible. And it's not dishonest to study for your
technical interview. Review technologies with which you're less familiar, if you
think they may be discussed in the interview. For example, if you've been
working for three years in a pure Microsoft environment, and you expect the
technical interview to include some questions about NetWare or UNIX, there's
nothing wrong with refreshing your knowledge by reading books about those
technologies before the interview. If you can get your hands on a NetWare or
UNIX box and do a little hands-on practice, that's even better. The more
comfortable you feel with your level of knowledge and skill, the better
you'll come across in the interview.
We'll take a look at a few specific tips and tricks that
you can use to prepare yourself for your tech interview on the next page
Answer to Fox and Chicken Dilemma
The answer to the fox and chicken dilemma is really very simple, but many people puzzle over it endlessly because of their one-way mode of thinking. Here's the solution:
The man takes the chicken across first, leaving fox and grain together on the other side.
He returns and gets the fox, but when he deposits the fox on the other side, he takes the chicken BACK across, so that the fox and chicken aren't left alone together.
He drops the chicken off back on the other side, picks up the grain, and takes it across to deposit with the fox.
Finally, he returns to retrieve the chicken and takes it to the other side.
At no time were the fox and chicken left alone together, nor were the chicken and grain.
At no time was more than one of them in the boat with the man simultaneously.
The reason this puzzle is so difficult for many people is that it never occurs to them that they can take something back once they've transported it to the second side. Your ability to solve this puzzle demonstrates a willingness to think "outside the box" and come up with creative solutions that still fit within the specified parameters.
Tips and Techniques for Surviving and Succeeding
in the Technical Interview
Although it's fine to review some of the technical facts the night before
your interview, staying up all night trying to "cram" is not productive.
You should get a good night's sleep so you'll be fresh and awake and your brain
will be working properly during the interview. Other do's and don't's include:
Be on time for the
interview. "On time" means don't be late, and don't be significantly
early, either. It's best allow yourself plenty of time to get there,
just in case you hit a traffic snag or have to take a detour. If you don't
encounter problems and end up arriving far ahead of time (more than fifteen
minutes), go find a convenience store and have a cup of coffee, or wait in
your car for a while. While tardiness is a pet peeve of interviewers, most
are just as put off by the candidate who comes in much earlier than
scheduled and sits around in the reception area looking impatient.
appropriately. Appropriate dress for an interview is not necessarily the
same as appropriate dress for work after you get the job. Just how formally
you should dress depends on the company atmosphere and the position and
demeanor of the person who's interviewing you. It might be
appropriate to dress up more if your interview is with the company
president, than if it's with an "in the field" tech manager. It's
better to err in the direction of too conservative than to dress too
casually, but if you overdress too much (i.e. you're much more
formally dressed than the interviewer), you may come across as stuffy and
lose points. If you've researched the company and interviewer beforehand,
you'll have an idea of what type of dress is most appropriate. That brings
us to the next "do":
Do your homework.
Many, many candidates go into interviews - technical or otherwise -
"flying blind." If you don't care enough to find out about the
company so you can talk intelligently about why you want to work there, why
should the interviewer care enough to hire you?
Follow up after the
interview. The end of the interview is not the end of your candidacy (unless
you really bombed, and even then a good follow-up can sometimes turn
things around). I have been told personally several times in my working life
that the reason I got a particular job was because I was the only candidate
who sent a follow-up "thank you" note to the interviewer,
restating my interest in the position. It takes about five minutes and costs
only the price of a postage stamp (and this is one instance where snail mail
makes a better impression than email), and can make the difference between
coming out on top or getting that "we are sorry that your talents don't
fit our needs" form letter.
interviewer. It's great to be enthusiastic, but don't bubble with
enthusiasm - it 's a quiet, professional sort of enthusiasm that you want
Ramble. Answer the
interviewer's questions thoroughly and in appropriate detail, but don't veer
off the topic to attempt to demonstrate everything you know about
everything. Make your answers as concise as possible. On the other, don't:
monosyllables. For instance, "have you worked with DHCP?" is not,
despite appearances, a simple yes/no question. The interviewer expects you
to follow your "yes" with examples of how you've deployed DHCP in
a routed network, or how many DHCP servers you've configured, or how you
implemented a DHCP superscope on a multinet. If you must
answer "no," you should add (if true) that although you haven't
had a chance to work directly with DHCP yet, you have studied the topic and
know x, y and z about the protocol and when and how to use it.
Let one mistake
cause you to give up on the interview. Everyone makes mistakes, but some
candidates will stop trying if they realize they've answered a question
incorrectly or incompletely, or didn't know the answer at all. If the
interviewer corrects you, accept it gracefully and tell him/her that you
appreciate the opportunity to learn something new. If you realize you've
bungled a question but the interviewer doesn't mention it, you may want to
bring it up at the end of the interview: "you know, I just realized
that when I answered (whatever the question was), I was thinking about
something else. A better answer to that would have been -" This lets
the interviewer know that you really do know the correct answer, and
that you're honest enough to admit it when you make a mistake. Because
employees who try to hide, cover up or deny their mistakes can be costly to
a company, most interviewers will appreciate this quality.
This article has been based on the premise that your tech interview was of
the on-site, in-person variety. However, there is another type of technical
interview, conducted over the phone. Some of the tips we've given will be the
same, but in some aspects, the telephone interview is different. We will discuss
those differences on the next page.
Telephone Interview vs. In-person Interview
You might think that having your technical interview over the phone would be
easier than doing it in person. After all, you don't have to worry about under-
In some ways, it is easier - but you also lose some of the
advantages of the face-to-face interview. Most crucial is the inability to
observe the interviewer's body language for clues to his/her demeanor. Remember
how we said up to 80% of what is communicated is based on body language? It's
difficult to gauge the response to your words when you can't see the
interviewer. One result is that you must be much more careful about using
humor, or deviating from the subject. You won't have the interviewer's physical
reaction to signal you that it's time to get back on track.
Expect the Unexpected
Another problem with the telephone interview is that it may occur
unexpectedly. Many interviewers are courteous and will set up a specific time to
call, but some will surprise you, phoning and wanting to do the interview right
now, at a time that may not be optimum for you. This can be disorienting and
even cause your mind to "go blank."
You may think that if you're interviewed by telephone, it will be easy to
"cheat." You can have the books or your computer in front of you, and
look up the answers to questions you don't know. You'll probably find, however,
that it's very difficult to do this without the interviewer knowing. Unless you
know ahead of time what the questions will be and have your books and WebPages marked and ready, it's going to take too long to look up answers for you to
pretend you're not consulting a reference. And of course, if you know the
questions ahead of time, you can go ahead and learn the material and not have
to look it up during the interview.
Dress For Your Telephone Interview
Finally, although a telephone interview may seem less formal and less
intimidating than an in-person interview, it is just as important that you
prepare for it, and that you present yourself well. To hire or not to hire -
it's not uncommon for that decision to be made based on a telephone interview.
At the very least, the telephone interview will determine whether you advance to
the next step, which is usually an in-person interview. And the first impression
that you make on the phone can pave the way to make that next step smoother, or
it can be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
I have attempted to give you a very insights into
the technical interview process in this article. I'll provide a resource
and suggestion for how you can obtain more information on this very important
subject -- look for that on the next page.
Summing it Up: Survival of the Fittest
Surviving and thriving in the technical interview is both an art and a
science. Interviewing is a skill, and as such, the more you do it, the better
A few resources to help you along the way include:
Ace the Technical Interview, by Michael Rothstein, published by
Osborne/McGraw Hill. Includes updated information about Java, Visual Basic,
UNIX, PowerBuilder, Oracle, and other "hot" technologies.
Finally, remember that if you don't get a job offer as a result of this
interview, that doesn't mean the time was wasted. Consider it a learning
experience. After all, many people pay good money for "practice exams"
that allow them to get familiar with what the experience of taking a
certification exam will be like. You got this "practice interview" for
free - and if you're smart, you'll analyze it and use it to help you prepare
for the next.
This article was first published on Server Watch.
Original date of publication, 9/18/2003