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Interviewing For A Technical Position, Part II: It’s Showtime

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Last time I covered how to prepare before the interview, including research beforehand, what you should bring, and prepared answers to common questions. Now it’s time to delve into the meat of the matter – the interview itself.

Interview Time

When it comes to IT jobs, there is usually a set of questions that are asked to gauge the candidate’s technical prowess. Yes, it is nerve-wracking. Often you will be asked how to do something, and you have to visualize the interface in your head and go over the steps, naming the pieces of the UI or specific commands to demonstrate technical competence. You might even be asked to write specific syntax or diagram an entire solution to a complex scenario on a whiteboard. The other kind of question is more of a high-level overview, where you need to explain enough of the concepts to show you are skilled in that area. They’re trying to confirm that your actual skills match your professed skills. Hopefully you didn’t embellish your resume too much, and you can answer the question! If not, be sure to be honest with them, and tell them you don’t know. If you fail a basic question, don’t expect a callback from the interview. However, if it’s something you’re not familiar with or don’t do every day (recall how you answered in the ”tell me about your current job” question), then it’s understandable if you’re not sure or can only provide a partial answer. The most important thing to remember is to be honest. Nothing is more of a turn off in an interview than people who act like they know everything under the sun, then attempt to tap dance their way through a topic.

What to do:

  • Very first thing, introduce yourself and remember the interviewer(s) name(s).
  • Be confident. Sit up straight, look people in the eyes. Smile!
  • Pay attention. You probably think that goes without saying, but interviews are stressful, and it’s a good idea to utilize that pen and pad you brought to take notes. It shows them you’re interested in what they have to say and you’re listening.
  • Answer technical questions as briefly and accurately as possible.
    • Try to avoid filler words like uh, um and other verbal pauses. The key to this is taking a little time before you answer to organize your thoughts and have a clear outline of what you’re going to say before you speak.
    • Try to avoid talking with your hands. This one is my Achilles heel – I’m from New Jersey and everyone talks with their hands there. To compound the issue, I used to teach, so I regularly gesture to an imaginary whiteboard. A few gestures here and there will keep it interesting, just don’t go crazy with it.
    • Relax and remember to breathe. It’s important so that you don’t pass out.
    • Think about exactly what it is they’re asking for. When people are nervous, they tend to go off on tangents. For example, the question may be about backup strategies, and you go off on a deep dive about file formats. Even if the tangent is related, it’s not answering the question, and that’s not good in an interview. You need to show that you can stay focused. Sometimes they will even throw a trick question at you, so listening skills cannot be overemphasized.
  • Ask questions. This one can easily be overlooked or forgotten when you’re in the middle of the interview, but it’s important to ask questions. It’s an indication that the lights are on and somebody’s home. It’s also your opportunity to turn the tables, so to speak, and make your own psychological discoveries. I’m providing this list with the obvious precaution not to ask the question if it’s already been addressed earlier in the interview.
    • Responsibilities – is the job more production or development? This may have been covered initially by the interviewer, but if you have any additional questions, be sure to ask so you know exactly what you’re getting into if hired.
    • If you’re being interviewed by a peer or even the direct boss, ask what he/she likes most and least about the job. These kind of questions are important for two reasons: the first is to get an idea of what it would be like to work there, and the second is to get a feel for his/her personality. You may find that the work environment isn’t what you were looking for, or that you wouldn’t like working with that person. Granted, it is hard to tell if the person interviewing you really is a creep from a 10-minute conversation, but sometimes you get lucky. This is really important in smaller shops, where you end up spending more time with coworkers than your family. Which brings me to general IT abuse… Sometimes when you ask questions like these, you can get a glimpse into how often you’ll be spending your Saturdays and weeknights at work. Don’t get me wrong – it’s often in the nature of the job to have unscheduled overtime on salaried pay; someone has to combat rogue code and random hardware outages. Keep in mind you won’t get the whole truth, especially if you’re interviewing the person you’re going to replace. This is where it’s important to pay close attention to body language, tone of voice and overall demeanor. Does the person seem happy or stressed out or depressed? It may be a good indication of how you’ll feel working there.
    • Why is the position open? Again, this is going to give you a feel for the place. Did they fire the last person, are they expanding? If given an intentionally vague answer, you might want to keep looking.
    • Holidays, overtime, everything but pay. Generally speaking, pay shouldn’t be discussed at the interview and certainly never during a group interview. This can vary, but it’s not a good sign if it looks like all you care about is money. You can ask general questions about bonuses and the like, though.
    • Expectations – how is performance evaluated? What is the management style like?
    • Training opportunities or other educational venues, like seminars. Many companies don’t think it necessary to send their IT staff to training and expect their employees to just learn on their own. If training is important to you, be sure to ask about it in the interview.
    • Questions geared toward the company or business in relation to the job, such as, “In supporting insurance-related databases, would you say the databases tend to be more OLTP or OLAP?”
    • Questions geared toward the company itself, especially one that shows you’ve done your research on the company, such as, “I know there are ever-expanding choices in insurance policies these days, and I noticed XYZ Co. has recently added to its list of offerings. Do you see that trend continuing, and has it positively impacted business?” Just be careful not to sound like a suck-up.
    • Towards the end the interview, be sure to express your gratitude and interest in the position, as well as highlight any strong characteristics or experiences that pertain to the job, and that you look forward to hearing back from them. Also be sure to address the interviewer(s) by name when you shake hands to leave.

What Not to Do:

  • Be dismissive when corrected, if you answer a technical question incorrectly. Also don’t fight with interviewer, or try to make excuses. Be respectful and polite at all times.
  • Dominate the interview with grandiose stories of how awesome you are. This one can be hard for a lot of technical types (especially DBAs), as many of us are just a bit egomaniacal. An interview at its core is a conversation, so there should be some give and take. If you find the interviewer is keen on telling stories, engage but don’t compete and turn it into a contest.
  • Act superior. Even if the job is for less pay or responsibility, it’s never okay to be superior. If you honestly feel that way, apply for a different job, because anyone good at reading people will see it.
  • Discount the importance of character-based questions and focus all on the technical questions. Particularly in a smaller shop, personality is arguably more important than skill set. You could be the most knowledgeable person in your field, but if your personality is a poor fit, you’re not going to get the job. It’s also important to think about customer service questions and answer those properly. Most IT positions involve interfacing with end-users of some kind, and the ability to explain difficult concepts and have a good sense of customer support is critical.
  • Show up late or unkempt. Leave in plenty of time before the interview in clean, pressed business attire, regardless of the normal dress policy of the company. Rackspace in particular is known for its unique culture, and it’s the only place I’ve ever worked at where it’s okay to show up in flip-flops. But don’t get ahead of yourself – you don’t have the job yet! Showing up to an interview looking less than spectacular gives the impression that you’re either lazy or you don’t care.

Post Interview

  • It’s important to do a follow-up thank you correspondence, either by email or snail mail. In it you want to address the interviewers by name and thank them again for their time. Take the time to edit it, reading it aloud to ensure accuracy. Spell check doesn’t always pick up all the mistakes, and it reflects very poorly on you if you can’t compose a couple of simple sentences correctly.

So that’s it, all the interviewing nuggets of wisdom I have to share. Please keep in mind, these are my opinions and experience, your mileage may vary. Good luck and happy interviewing!

About the Author

This is a post written and contributed by Kat Hicks.

Kat Hicks, DBA extraordinaire, works at Rackspace in beautiful San Antonio, TX, and she’s been databasing for over 12 years. MS SQL has been her primary focus, from 6.5 all the way through 2012. She has a slew of letters after her name too – but she’s still more certifiable than certified. Her favorites (apart from her wonderful family) include horror movies, superheroes, great fiction, cramming as many words and commas as possible into a single sentence, and last but not least, writing random T-SQL scripts to make her life easier.


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  • Brian

    Great write-up Kat, if only I’d discovered it before the interview! Do you have any recommendations for Skype interviews? During mine, for example, I wasn’t sure if the awkwardness on camera angles is a common on both sides or I just hadn’t positioned it right. Seemed like I had to look directly into the camera itself to make it appear like I was chatting face-to-face instead of at an angle.

    Thanks!

    - Brian

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