How to nail the technical job interview
Career coaches weigh in on how tech pros can shine in their job interviews
By Chris Nerney | IT World | Published: 11:17, 14 April 2012
Interviewing for a job is a stressful experience for just about anyone who's not being aggressively recruited, and thus fairly certain about getting an offer.
Technology professionals are no different. No matter how confident you may be about your tech chops, you never know what questions you'll be asked, what skills you'll be required to demonstrate, or how you'll relate to the people conducting the interview. On top of that, you usually have no idea how you stack up against other applicants.
Of course, technical job candidates have absolutely no control over the competition by the time they walk into that interview room (or get on that conference call). What they can control is how they handle the interview.
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We asked several career coaches for tips on how tech pros can shine in their job interviews, and we also found some interesting advice online.
First, let's stipulate that you already are aware of the importance of dressing appropriately, being on time and researching the company you're interviewing with. What else can a tech pro do to turn their interview into an exciting (and hopefully lucrative) offer?
It's been said that 80% of success in life is just showing up. But showing up simply isn't enough when you're trying to land a job in the fiercely competitive world of technology. Rather, you need to go the extra mile in conveying your desire for the position.
"Sell yourself, and sell yourself hard," says Bud Bilanich, a career success coach, speaker and author who bills himself as 'The Common Sense Guy'.
"One mistake a lot of technology professionals make when they're interviewing for a job is assuming that because their skill set aligns so closely with an enterprise's needs, they don't have to push to 'close the deal,'" he says. "But the truth is, it's hard to be too aggressive in letting the interviewer know you want the job."
Specifically, Bilanich advises, "Come to the interview prepared with three or four solid reasons why you want the job, not just why you have the perfect tech skills for the position. Find a way to express them forcefully to the interviewer. For example: 'I am really happy to be here speaking with you today. I'm a big fan of your company. I admire your (creativity, solid position in the market, etc.). I want to work here because I'm a creative person who will flourish in your environment'."
Be the solution
Search giant Google is well known for hiring talented people and then finding jobs for them. Most companies don't have that luxury; they're looking to fill a specific position, and thus desire candidates with certain skill sets and track records.
Which means you not only must "sell yourself hard" as a boundless bundle of vibrant talent, you must sell yourself in terms of the specific "problem" the people interviewing you are trying to solve.
Thus you should consider an interviewer's "biggest pain point and show them how you'll make things better, not more complex," advises Alice Hill, managing director of Dice.com, a career site for technology and engineering professionals.
That, however, requires an understanding of the interviewer's role, she says.
"A team leader interviewer will be looking for a culture fit and your track record hitting deadlines," Hill says. "An engineer will focus more on how current your skills are, and how you solve complex problems."
Running the gauntlet
Since tech pros invariably are destined to be part of a "team" should they be hired for a job, there's an excellent chance you'll have to endure several interviews during your visit as you meet various team members.
"Interview gauntlets," Hill says, can leave job candidates "drained and searching for something new to say as the day goes on.
"One tip is to listen for a repeating theme and hone a few key responses that resonate and hopefully will get talked about when people compare notes," she says. "If the team seems to be talking a lot about resources, give them all a few stories about how you made it to the deadline with a resource constraint."
The write stuff
Speaking of problems, if you're interviewing for a developer or programmer position, invariably you'll have to prove how well you write code.
Obviously, at this point, you either can or can't code. But even experienced code jockeys can tighten up in a stressful interview situation and underperform if, say, they're asked to step up to a white board.
Puramu Elitist, who writes a blog called The Bleeding Edge and has interviewed numerous tech candidates, advises, "Write some code by hand on paper the night before. Writing code by hand, and writing code by IDE are very different. You don't want to get derailed on a simple question because you can't remember the syntax for a command line program in C#. Make sure you can write a basic 'hello world,' that compiles and runs, in any language you might be asked questions on.
"During interviews I give people a lot of slack for things like this, because IDE's do a lot of the basic set-up work, and I imagine that's pretty typical. But if you can smoothly whip out a running program, you look a lot more competent than you do trying to explain that 'whatever the namespace definition looks like goes right here, and the main would go here with arguments I think,'" he writes.
There's no 'I' in team
A smart tech-job candidate researches the organisation. A smarter candidate doesn't wait to demonstrate that knowledge during the interview; he or she makes a point of bringing it up. The smartest candidates not only prove they care enough about the job to do their homework, they show they're already thinking in terms of the team.
Bilanich says candidates can even go so far as to ask what they could do in the prospective job to help the interviewer succeed in his or her job.
"This demonstrates that you're a team player, someone who is interested in more than just himself or herself," he says.
Steven Lefkowitz is a project manager at Sierra Vista Group, a Boston-based firm that offers IT and advisory services to companies ranging from Fortune 500 giants to start-ups. As someone who has sat across the table from numerous technology pros interviewing for jobs, he likes to know "if the individual can work under stress."
While he believes it's important for candidates to be able to discuss in detail successful project stories, Lefkowitz says he's "more interested in the projects that aren't successful, and how they respond to questions about that."
"Those kinds of responses are interesting to see how the candidate places the blame for failure, and how they framed their role," he says. "Those kinds of questions put job candidates in a stressful situation because someone's going under the bus, and how do you handle that?"
The best way for candidates to handle "track record" questions, Lefkowitz says, is to be prepared.
"If they haven't done the prep work and they're trying to think on their feet, it could appear to be disingenuous," he says. "Candidates should go through the last five years of their professional career, hone in on two success stories, and be able to discuss them without stumbling."
Sure, they may hire you, but will you hire them?
While you may be talking with an organisation about a specific job, you also have a career to think about. Demonstrating a long-term vision is a great way to command more respect.
"Ask what your potential career path would be if you joined the company," Bilanich says. "Say something like, 'I can do a really good job in the position we're discussing, but I believe I have more to offer your company. What are the potential opportunities here once I prove myself?'"
Dice.com's Hill adds, "Convey in a non-arrogant way that you want to find the best fit, because you are going to be putting in a lot of time, and effort, and want it to be meaningful."