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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How did you turn around an interview that was going south?

As a group, it's safe to say, technology professionals dread being asked questions beyond their expertise or the reach of their experience. "The questions can be so niche, highlighting stuff that you can't answer. The interviewer can get the impression you don't know what you're talking about," says Mike Woycheck, an IS technologist at the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

Woycheck keenly remembers having that experience while interviewing for a job as an IS manager at a small financial services company. The interviewer's questions betrayed Woycheck's unfamiliarity with the financial services industry and statistical modeling, two areas of experience the company ideally wanted in the successful candidate.

Woycheck thought the interview was a lost cause, but he turned it around by talking about his previous experience, highlighting the fact he was able to learn new technologies and industries' requirements quickly. To prove the point, he says, he talked about his systematic approach to learning new material.

"I showed them I could learn the business and the sector and the statistical aspects of the job. It helped show that even though I didn't know everything about their topics, I was still a valuable candidate," he adds.

The approach worked: He landed the job and stayed there for about 18 months.

Talk about intimidating. Michael Jones is now corporate vice president and CIO of Children's Hospital and Health System Inc. in Milwaukee. But back when he was interviewing for the job of chairman of the division of medical informatics at the Cleveland Clinic, a not-for-profit, multispecialty academic medical center, he found himself in a room with 25 physicians and Ph.D.'s who were given free rein to ask him about his qualifications for several hours.

Problem was, many of the doctors didn't find his sense of humor amusing ("You had to tell them when you made a joke," he says), and others didn't care for his responses to their questions. "Some of the answers they didn't like. You could tell with their body language and their facial looks," he remembers.

In other words, the interview wasn't going well.

Rather than panicking, Jones "decided to relax, give the best answers and advice I could, and let the chips fall where they may." He explains: "It was a very uncomfortable position. But what I could I do? I just stood back and responded the way I felt. I responded honestly."

That perspective actually helped Jones, who is now also a vice president of chapter relations for the Wisconsin chapter of SIM, to deliver strong answers and convey the information and expertise he wanted. After he took the job, he learned from some of those doctors in the room that they had appreciated his frank assessment of the technical challenges that were ahead for the organization -- and the fact that he didn't get flustered even when things weren't going well.

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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.

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Jesse Trucks is blunt in his assessment of an interview he had during his most recent job search: "I thought I had blown it completely," he says.

He was talking with a hiring manager, who was doing initial telephone interviews to make sure candidates had the technical experience required for the job. "The beginning of the interview was focused very tightly on an area where I have some experience but am far from being an expert -- high-capacity storage systems," he remembers. As a result, he was forced to punt on the first several questions, saying he'd have to "investigate or look up the details, commands or other information needed."

However, instead of giving up, Trucks says he tried to introduce into the conversation areas of knowledge in which he had more expertise, such as security architecture. Holding on was a smart move.

"Eventually, the interviewer asked me a question directly related to security, so I could answer with authority. After that, the interview continued down the paths of my more robust experience and knowledge," he says.

As a result, Trucks was asked to come on site for an interview. And although the company expressed interest in hiring him, he says he took another offer instead. Trucks is now a systems engineer at Telephone and Data Systems Inc. in Chicago and a member of the LOPSA board.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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