Tales From the Hot Seat (Or, How I Aced the Interview)

IT pros who've survived a rough round of questioning share their stories

Storage. Security. Servers. For IT pros, prepping for an interview by mentally reviewing their areas of expertise is a no-brainer. Then someone asks you to tell a joke, and it all goes to pot.

Or maybe not.

To be sure, you're in the hot seat when you face an interviewer, either in person or over the phone. But that doesn't mean you can't take control when things start going off course.

Here's how a sampling of IT professionals reacted to unexpected questions, or asked bold questions of their own, or managed to turn around interviews that seemed to be going badly. Not everybody got the job they sought, but most came away with a good story to share.

What's the best -- or worst -- interview question you've ever been asked?

Like other IT professionals, Santosh Jayaram heads into interviews prepared to answer questions about technology and how it can be applied to business problems. So it's no surprise he was caught off guard when an interviewer asked him instead either to tell a joke or discuss something he's passionate about.

"I thought it was a difficult question. I was momentarily stuck. You're all set with your technical questions and cases, and then this question throws you off," says Jayaram, currently a business development manager at a telecommunications company in Washington.

Jayaram didn't want to tell a joke that might offend, so instead he talked about his interest in cooking. "I took the safe route and talked about what I was passionate about," he says. His response must have impressed the interviewer, who offered him a position as an associate consultant for the firm's business technology office.

Although Jayaram says he was initially surprised by the question, nonetheless he liked it because it gave him a chance to show more of himself than just his professional work. Plus, he says, the question allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate how quickly he could think on his feet.


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Curious about the questions IT executives like to ask in job interviews? See 'Why Should I Hire You?' and Other Favorite Interview Questions.


Randy Gould has worked in IT for nine years, mostly as a systems administrator or a senior creative technology specialist, so in interviews he's used to answering technical questions, discussing his knowledge and talking about his career path.

What he's not used to is playing with fruit. But that's what he was asked to do last March when he interviewed for a job as a Mac specialist at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York. Gould and two others being interviewed were given a banana, an orange and an apple and told to role play.

"They wanted us to be original and comfortable talking in front of a group of people," Gould says, explaining that he and the others put a comic twist on their presentation, making up a skit in which they used each fruit to portray different pieces of equipment (a Mac, a PC and a Linux unit).

"It's not something you expect in an interview, but it works for [Apple] because they want people who can think on their toes. And it helps show originality and quick thinking," he adds.

Gould landed the job and now works there full time.

"How do you feel about staff and peers who are different from you?" John Stevenson has heard that question in more than one interview, and every time he hears it, he thinks it's the worst. Why? Stevenson, a former CIO who is now president of JG Stevenson Associates LLC in Plano, Texas, and a foundation board member for the Society of Information Management (SIM), says it's a masked question about race, gender and other differences among workers. "It's getting at prejudices without asking it," he says, noting that the legality of asking such questions is right on the edge of what's allowed.

Stevenson isn't flustered by such probings, though. In fact, he has a reply all ready: "I always answer, 'It doesn't matter who they are or what they are. If they are good at their jobs, I am delighted. The rest just doesn't matter.'"

Stevenson can back up that assertion, too: He says he has successfully worked with many interesting people from diverse backgrounds throughout his career.

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