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

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

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Sometimes a question isn't so much a question as a bid to get a little -- or perhaps a lot -- of technical expertise for free. For that very reason, Frank Stasa still remembers the worst interview question he was ever asked, even though it was back in 1978.

Stasa -- now CIO and vice president of communications at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a nonprofit business organization, and its three affiliate trade organizations -- was interviewing for a job doing thermal modeling and programming for one of the Bell telephone companies.

The company was having a problem with icicles forming on the back of its circuit boards. An interviewer asked Stasa how he'd solve the problem.

"That's the worst kind of question. It's extremely unfair. They had people spending months trying to find the solution," Stasa says. Giving an answer would be tantamount to providing free consulting.

Stasa tried to salvage the situation by turning the tables, asking questions about the circuit board situation and trying to show how he'd investigate the problem and find a solution. In the end, that Bell division didn't offer him a job, though the other four company divisions with whom he interviewed did extend offers.

What's the best question you've ever asked during an interview, and how did it land you the job?

In retrospect, Victor Chen realizes he used to do poorly in interviews because he spent too much time talking about skills that weren't pertinent to the open position. And he was hearing from recruiters and interviewers that his skills were all over the place.

So Chen, who started his career on a help desk and worked his way into the ranks of IT management, decided to change his approach. He started asking interviewers, "Who in your opinion is the perfect person to fill this role?" Then he'd use the interviewer's response to tailor his own description of how his skills, expertise and experience could meet the company's needs.

"I just kind of said, 'Hey, let me try this.' And it worked, so I used it again. And I realized after I started using that question that my success rate went up," says Chen.

He first used the question while interviewing for a help desk job back in 2000; it got him the job. The interviewer "told me it was the quickest interview he had had, but that it was the most eventful because I was able to focus it," says Chen, who is now a senior IT consultant at Insource Services Inc., a Wellesley, Mass., provider of financial, HR and IT services.

Like many job candidates, Carolyn Leighton did her homework before interviewing for a consulting job with Hewlett-Packard Co. She researched the company, read through past press releases, and learned about the executives and their backgrounds. She also studied their products.

But Leighton didn't memorize the information so she could simply recite it back. She put it into context and during her interview with HP Labs, the central research lab for Hewlett-Packard. Leighton asked about a pending patent, and then used the question as a bridge to talk about what she could do for the company.

"I was able to ask a question about a patent they had applied for a year earlier, which communicated the fact that I had been very thorough in learning about their company and their product before I walked in the door," Leighton says. "I believe the primary differentiator between me and the other candidates was that I focused on how I could contribute to the person interviewing me and to the company, as opposed to focusing on what I wanted and what I needed."

Leighton, who was offered the consulting position and worked with HP for four years after that, is now chairwoman and acting advisory board chairwoman of Women in Technology International, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., trade association.

During the first interview that Adam Moskowitz had at Upromise Inc., a Newton, Mass.-based credit card loyalty program processor, the interviewer asked right off the bat what Moskowitz wanted to know about the company. His response was just as quick: "My very first question was, 'So how does the company make its money? Specifically, who pays you -- the members or the vendors, and how?'"

It's not an IT-related question, but to Moskowitz, it's important. "I've been in the computing business for more than 25 years now and have seen far too any companies with unsustainable business models, companies I have no desire to be part of for exactly that reason," he says.

At Upromise, the response from the interviewer was positive, Moskowitz relates. "He loved it; in fact, I think his answer started with something like, 'I already like the way you think.' We spent nearly the entire time talking about business-level stuff: high availability requirements, ways to make the operation more efficient, personnel/management issues and so on."

Not only did Moskowitz get the job -- senior system administrator -- he and the manager ended up working closely together on a big project. "I'd work for him again in a minute, and I'm pretty sure he'd hire me again if he ever goes somewhere else. He's also one of my references," says Moskowitz, who is now a principal consultant at Menlo Computing in Chelmsford, Mass.; works as a senior administrator at a Boston-area ASP; and is a founding member of The League of Professional System Administrators (LOPSA).

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