Tales From the Hot Seat

IT pros who have survived rough job interviews share their stories.

Storage. Security. Servers. For IT pros, prepping for a job interview by mentally reviewing your areas of expertise is a no-brainer. Then the interviewer asks you to tell a joke, and it all goes up in smoke. Or maybe not.

To be sure, an interview puts you in the hot seat. But that doesn't mean you can't take control when things start going off course.

Here's a sampling of how IT professionals reacted to unexpected questions, asked bold questions of their own or managed to turn around interviews that seemed to be going badly. Most ended up with the jobs they sought, and everybody came away with a good story.

What was the best -- or worst -- interview question you were ever asked?

Santosh Jayaram heads into interviews prepared to answer questions about technology and how it can be applied to business problems. So he was caught off-guard when an interviewer asked him instead to either tell a joke or discuss something he's passionate about.

"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 he talked about a passion: cooking. His response must have impressed the interviewer, who offered him a position as an associate consultant for the company's business technology office.

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.

He is not used to playing with fruit. But that's what he was asked to do last March when he interviewed for a job as a Macintosh 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 the fruit to portray a Mac, a PC and a Linux unit.

"They want people who can think on their toes," says Gould, who landed the job and now works full time at the Apple Store.

Frank Stasa gets miffed when an interviewer's question seems more like a bid to get technical expertise for free. He still remembers a query of that type -- the worst interview question he was ever asked -- from 1978.

Stasa, now CIO for the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a nonprofit business organization, was interviewing for a job doing thermal modeling and programming for a telephone company. The firm was having trouble with icicles forming on the back of its circuit boards, so the interviewer asked Stasa how he would solve the problem.

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

Stasa turned the tables, asking questions about the circuit-board situation and trying to show how he would investigate the problem and find a solution. In the end, that division didn't offer him a job, though the other four company divisions that he had interviewed with did extend offers.

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