Acing the Interview

There's a lot more to a successful job interview than getting an offer.

You're sitting across the table from John Q. Smith, manager in a big corporate IT department. He and his cohorts have just spent two hours grilling you about Web services, architecture, project management or whatever it is you're so darn good at. Smith is smiling reassuringly at you; you're the best candidate he's seen so far, and he's ready to stop looking.

"That pretty much wraps up the things I wanted to talk to you about," he says, sitting back in one of the elegant chairs that litter the office. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"

You smile casually. "I can't think of anything," you reply.

"Good," Smith says, getting to his feet.

Two minutes later, you're back on the street. You wait until you're sure no one in the office building can see you before you pump your fist in the air, kick your heels or do whatever your patented "I just nailed that interview" move happens to be.

Sounds great, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, too many job changes aren't actually changes for the better. Instead, we eventually find that we have simply exchanged one set of problems for another. There's a saying about choosing between the dragon you know and the one you don't know. Unfortunately, when it comes to job changes, the dragon you don't know often won't bare its teeth until it has you in its clutches. And then it's too late.

So, what can you do to make sure you see the unknown dragon for what it really is before you commit? You only get one shot at evaluating an organization, and that's the job interview.

Remember when Smith offered to answer your questions after he'd finished? That's the point when you should change your focus and ask pointed questions designed to help you determine whether the company fits your ambitions and desires. Think about the things that have frustrated you in the past. Do you hate red tape? Poor decision-making? A demoralized workforce? Then, try to think of specific questions that could indirectly expose those aspects of the company.

Here are some sample questions that I've come up with, based on my own past struggles:

How long does it take from the time someone identifies a need for a new piece of hardware to the time it is connected to the network and is available? Tell me about the people and processes involved.

Even if buying a server doesn't have anything to do with the job you're considering, it's important to know how complicated the approval and decision-making process is. This is frequently one of a company's most process-laden activities, so it's good to know how painful it is.

If it takes four months to get a server, you can bet there's a mountain of process, people and organizations between you and the things your projects will need to succeed.

If the interviewer's answer amounts to "How long would it take you to go down to Fry's Electronics and buy it?" then you may be facing an employer with a very ad hoc decision-making process. Either way, it's better to know than to not know.

What's the most frustrating thing you've had to do this week?

This is a good question to ask tech leads and developers if you've established a good rapport with them. I'd save this question for them. It's not likely to reveal much about managers because of its vagueness.

What do you and your co-workers do at work for fun?

This is a tricky one. If the answer is all about formal, organized activities on a regular basis, there is a significant possibility of a big morale problem. Ad hoc celebrations or activities (like a pickup game of Nerf basketball in an empty cube) indicate a more relaxed, easygoing atmosphere that's focused more on performance than on formality.

In the middle of a project, a developer identifies a key technical improvement that will have significant benefit but also involves additional cost and risk. What's the process for deciding whether to make the change? Who's involved, and who makes the final decision?

The answer will help you figure out how risk-averse the organization is. It can also provide insight into the quality of the relationship between this IT group and its business partners.

Tell me about a time when you had to correct the behavior of a direct report.

Ask this one of your prospective manager, and pay careful attention to his response. If he is vague or won't give you a specific answer, beware. A manager who declines to answer this could be abusive, indecisive or simply incapable of resolving difficult issues.

Tell me about the different positions you've had in the company and the different organizations you've worked for. How long did you work in each? Did you ask for this position, or were you sent here as a result of an organizational change? Was the position change the result of a promotion?

This can tell you a lot about the frequency and nature of change in the organization, as well as the ease with which people move around.

Take notes on the answers. Then, as soon as the interview is over, go back over your notes and add any other thoughts that come to you. The key is to try to capture the tone of their answers in a way that will be meaningful to you later. Keep reviewing your notes as the hiring process continues, and watch how your impression of the company changes over time. If you have multiple interviews, use your notes to plan more questions for the next meeting. Try to think of questions that could help confirm any suspicions that may have formed based on previous interviews.

Finally, don't accept an offer without reading through your notes one last time. This will help you put the whole offer into perspective. Then, trust your intuition and make the best decision you can. Good luck.

Christiansen is a principal software engineer at a Fortune 500 company and the author of Information Technology Dark Side ( www.techdarkside.com), a blog about corporate IT. Contact him at dave@techdarkside.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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