How to Ace the Technical Interview

There's no quicker way to strike terror in the heart of an IT professional (or aspiring IT pro) than to speak those ominous words: "First, you'll need to pass a technical interview."


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Posted January 21, 2008

Deb Shinder

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It seems there is no quicker way to strike terror in the heart of an IT professional (or aspiring IT pro) than to speak those ominous words:

"First, you'll need to pass a technical interview."

I've had students who were at the top of their network training classes call or write to me in a panic, asking what to expect. As if a job interview weren't nerve-wracking enough by itself, when you add the word "technical," it becomes a whole different - and even scarier - prospect. This article will, I hope, help you to overcome your fears and doubts about the process and tame the tech interview beast.

Before I get into the how-to's, though, I have a confession to make. Even though I've sat on the other side of the interview desk on many occasions as the hiring authority, even though I enjoy the chess-like game of strategy of the job interview situation, even though I am - after building a highly successful IT business along with my husband, teaching hundreds of students in computer-related courses, and with eleven IT books published - pretty confident of my skills and knowledge, I still dread the "technical" interview.

A Fact of Life

But it's a fact of life in this industry, so it's important to learn our ways around the tech interview, anticipate some likely questions (or types of questions) that we'll encounter, and understand what the technical interviewer is really looking for (contrary to what you may feel during the interview, most are not sadists who stay up nights thinking of new ways to torture job applicants with obscure and convoluted interrogatories).

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/or

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    networking technologies with which you would be working.

  • How articulate you are, especially for a position in which you may be called upon to write 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; that is, whether you're able to "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; that is, whether you only know one product line for example, Microsoft or Novell), or 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 us 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

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

As you review the tape, ask yourself questions like these:

  • How enthusiastic do you seem? Do you project an image of someone who really wants the job?

  • Does your body language send undesirable signals (i.e. 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 tapes 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. We'll consider how you can size up the interviewer's personality type and mood, and how this information can be used to "fine tune" your responses, on the next page.

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