Surviving the Technical Interview Page 3
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Types of Questions Commonly Encountered in the Tech Interview
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? and Other Logic Questions
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 hole).
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 Ubuntu/Windows/Solaris 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 lotto 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 technical knowledge?
Luckily, numerous books and websites can 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 or her knowledge of the exam questions to try to trip you up.
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 Technical 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 Linux 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 Red Hat 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.
Revised, Dec. 20, 2010
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