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Tips for Technical Job Interviews

by Allan Hoffman

You walk into an interview and minutes later you're being asked to set up a user's email account on a workstation. Sound unusual? It shouldn't. Interviews for technical positions, whether for database administrators or Perl programmers, often include challenges far beyond the usual questions about career goals.

The interviewing process is increasingly rigorous, given constraints on IT budgets and the pressure to hire just the right candidate. Interviews may include everything from an informal meeting with a group of peers to an impromptu programming exercise. Candidates should approach the process with confidence, yet be prepared for the unexpected. (Avoiding common interview blunders helps, too.)

Here's how to ace your next technology interview. Expect a Test With so many people sporting certifications and other credentials, employers are turning to written tests to screen potential employees and gauge their level of expertise. Karoline Hough, assistant branch manager at the St. Louis office of IT staffing firm Bradford & Galt, says her company uses TeckChek to test job seekers. TeckChek offers 150 vendor-independent tests on topics ranging from C++ to Unix. Before an interview, be sure to take tests in your areas of expertise. Be Ready for Hands-on Exercises A company may even ask techies to perform hands-on tasks as part of the interview process, says Jason Berkowitz, chief operating officer of Hunter Recruitment Advisors, a recruitment outsourcing company. "They could literally sit a candidate in front of the computer and ask him to configure it in a certain way," he says. Other interviewers provide coding problems for would-be programmers. Even if last-minute prep wouldn't help much, you don't want to be caught off guard by such requests. Be a Communicator Techies have a reputation for lacking communication skills. Do your best to work against that stereotype. Technology pros who can clearly and easily explain technical concepts to clients or non-technical managers have an edge in seeking employment. Think of the interview as a forum to demonstrate your strengths as a communicator Offer Specifics and Can-Do Examples Hough advises job seekers to be specific in answering questions, rather than resorting to generalities. "They have to be able to give concise, qualitative answers," she says. "Anything else will be perceived as slush."

If you're asked how familiar you are with C++, don't just say, "I consider myself to be an expert." Talk about how long you have worked with the language, what percentage of your time is spent on programming, what percentage on testing and what milestones you've achieved. In describing what you've done, Hough says, use action words (planned, initiated), leadership words (organized, directed), and results words (increased, contributed to) whenever possible. Avoid Arrogance Employers looking for technology professionals have seen one too many stereotypical 24-year-olds who think they know it all. "Watch out for arrogance," Berkowitz says. "Don't come across like you're doing them a favor just by being there, even if you fit all of the job's technical requirements. Express interest in the job and talk about what you can do for the company." Know the Company Companies don't simply want technical functionaries these days; they want people who understand the company's goals, competitors and industry. Research the company as a way of indicating your interest in the position. "You want to engage in a dialogue about how this company differentiates itself in the industry," Hough says. Ask the Right Questions Whatever you do, don't say you don't have any questions about the company. You don't want to come across as a know-it-all, or as not being particularly interested in the firm. If possible, Hough says, ask this question early in the interview: "What does the ideal candidate bring to this position?" Once you know that, you'll be able to explain why you fit the bill.