How to Ace the Technical Interview: Page 3

Posted January 21, 2008

Deb Shinder

(Page 3 of 6)

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.

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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 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 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 technical knowledge?

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.

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