Tales From the Hot Seat

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

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

Victor Chen realized that he was doing 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 decided to change his approach. He started asking interviewers, "Who in your opinion is the perfect person to fill this role?" Then he would 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 in 2000, and it got him the job. The interviewer told him that "it was the quickest interview he had had, but 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.-based provider of financial, human resources and IT services.

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

Then she put the information into context during her interview with HP Laboratories, the company's central research lab. Leighton asked about a pending patent and then used the question as a bridge to talk about what she could do for HP.

"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."

Carolyn Leighton

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

Adam Moskowitz began his first interview at Upromise Inc. by asking the interviewer what he most wanted to know about the company, a Newton, Mass.-based credit-card loyalty program processor. "My very first question was, 'So how does the company make its money? Specifically, who pays you -- the members or the vendors, and how?'" he says.

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

The effect on the interviewer was dramatic.

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