The magic IT job interview formula
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
A couple of months back, a cartoon showed up on my LinkedIn feed when one of my connections commented on it. That cartoon spawned the idea for this article and I wanted to display it here. Unfortunately the LinkedIn poster had taken a published cartoon and changed the words for it resulting in mixed copyright ownership.
The cartoon depicted two people: an interviewer labeled “Junior DBA,” and an interviewee labeled “Senior DBA.” A paraphrase of the captions follows:
Senior DBA: I’ve been an Oracle DBA for 15 years and have worked with multi-terabyte databases using RAC, Data Guard and Exadata servers. Will we be discussing any of that?
Junior DBA: No — that’s not part of our DBA interview process. We have a standard set of questions developed from command syntax pulled straight out of the Oracle manuals and topics that are covered in the Oracle Certified Professional exams.
A number of people had “liked” the post, and a few had added comments like “So true,” or similar indications that the scenario was realistic or familiar. Despite those comments, I seriously doubt that any of the people who responded has experienced an interview that actually was a close match with the scenario depicted. What the cartoon portrayed was a caricature of a bad IT job interview.
Political cartoons have caricatures of elected officials that exaggerate their facial features to make them easily recognizable. In a similar fashion, this cartoon exaggerated an HR fail that can occur when an IT job interview is conducted by someone not fully qualified to be inquiring about the qualifications of others.
I have experienced a large number of interviews over the course of my career, from both sides of the table. While I have never been present for one that unfolded like the cartoon, I can think of individual elements from several that could (after considerable exaggeration) fit in with its message.
I suspect this is the reason for the “So true” comments on the LinkedIn post. Any professional who has participated in enough IT interviews can probably pick one or more that they feel was handled poorly and could associate with the general sentiment of the LinkedIn cartoon. This is not the same thing as suggesting that the cartoon depicts what someone should expect to happen during an interview.
I point out the distinction, because I see many people go to great lengths trying to determine exactly what to expect in an upcoming interview. That is simply not a practical goal. The nature of an interview is highly dependent on the position, the people performing the interview, and the individual being interviewed. And that last element is always going to be a wild card.
One time when I was the lead technical interviewer for a position, human resource rules required that every candidate be asked an identical list of questions. I pushed back on this requirement because not every candidate had the same experience, so it made no sense to ask candidate ‘X’ about a given skill when it was clearly not on their résumé.
The HR representative insisted that the only time I could ask questions not on the list was in response to information received from the candidate during the interview. I therefore had to ask every candidate the exact same leading questions, so that I could follow up with questions about the subjects I was interested in. Despite this artificially constrained set of questions, each interview varied considerably due to the responses from the candidates.
Individuals who are just entering the workforce or are moving into a new field often want to know ahead of time what questions might be asked, so that they can “cram” for the interview as if it were a pop quiz. This pre-interview anxiety is the driving reason for the ongoing popularity of lists of “common interview questions.”
One of my earlier articles on CertMag.com, Much ado about job interview questions, discussed this phenomenon. Very few interviews, however, are conducted in such a way as to make such lists useful. None that I have ever taken (or given) have centered on a list of general knowledge questions. Frankly, an interview that is conducted in that fashion should send up a huge warning flag. It strongly suggests that no one at the organization is knowledgeable enough to perform a technical interview.
If someone who needed to memorize a list of interview questions in order to appear knowledgeable were to actually be hired via such an interview, the results would likely be grim. It would be the equivalent of convincing someone that you know how to swim, only to have them throw you in the deep end of the pool and leave the room. Additionally, no one else at the organization would be able to swim, or even recognize that you were drowning.
If you submit a résumé to an organization for a given position and are called in for an interview, what you can expect is to be asked questions about the experience and credentials that are listed on your résumé. No company is interested in wasting their time talking to people who they have no interest in hiring.
You can be certain that something on your résumé has made them decide you are a potential candidate. Unless your résumé contains information that is inaccurate or exaggerated, there is no reason to expect that interviewers will ask questions that are far outside the realm of your experience. At the very least, if they do ask these questions, they are unlikely to expect you to be able to answer them.
The conditions that will result in a spectacular failure are generally in place well before the interview itself. Candidates who have résumés that exaggerate their industry experience are likely to fall flat when asked questions about their non-existent bona fides. The same is true of individuals who pass certification exams through the use of brain dumps. It is very difficult to convincingly fake knowledge that you do not have when dealing face-to-face with someone who does have it.
For job seekers, the best strategy for IT job interviews that will lead to a positive outcome is to create a résumé that accurately represents the skill set that they have. When seeking a job, apply for positions that lie within that skill set or just beyond it. Interviews are a lot less scary when you simply have to be yourself.