Surviving the Technical Interview

Surviving the Technical Interview

December 20, 2010

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 networking technologies with which you would be working
  • How articulate you are, especially for a position in which you may be called upon to wriemte 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 stress, especially if the position is in a high-pressure, time-sensitive environment
  • How innovative you are -- can you "think outside the box" to come up with new solutions rather than just spout the party line of the moment
  • Whether you've had hands-on experience with the products, or you only know the "factoids" you read in books or learned in a classroom
  • How vendor-centric you are -- do you know only one product line (e.g., Windows or VMware) or do you 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 people 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 at the Technical Interview

Practice your interview skills with a technically-savvy friend or ask yourself questions and then practice your answers in front of a mirror. Videoing your practice interviews can be an extremely useful aid. Although you may be embarrassed the first time you watch yourself, you may be amazed at the little nervous gestures or speech habits (for instance, a peppering of "you know"s or "I mean"s or "umm"s you weren't aware of before.

As you review the recording, ask yourself questions like the following:

  • How enthusiastic do you seem? Do you project an image of someone who really wants the job?
  • Does your body language send undesirable signals (e.g., slumped posture that indicates laziness or sloppiness, or shifty eyes that might be interpreted as a sign of dishonesty)?
  • 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 recordings 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.

Revised, Dec. 20, 2010