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WARNING: My humor tank is running low today.  This one is a semi-quasi-serious post with sub-humor ramifications and subtle uses of pontificatory inflection.  cough cough…

Like many (most) of you, for years, I’ve been the one sweating through an interview.  I’ve had bad interview experiences, and good ones; maybe even a great one, once or twice.

On the bad list was one with a well-known hardware vendor, where I was introduced to three “tech reviewers” on the call who regularly speak at pretty much EVERY IT conference on Earth, and have written enough books for me to climb a stack and change a light bulb.  I was in over my head, but thankfully, they appreciated my humility and sense of humor (had an interesting follow-on conversation at the end as well, but I’ll leave that for another time).

On the good list was the most-recent interview I had (my current job) where the interviewer took the time to share some fantastic technical advise which helped me on the project I was working on with my previous employer.  More than an interview, it was like a mini-training session.  Needless to say, he liked my mental problem-solving process enough to offer me this job.  Very, very much appreciated.

But this post is really about the flip-side of the interview process; what I’ve learned from interviewing others for various types of positions.  At a former place I was the administrative “lead” of a team of six (6) incredibly skilled people.  Part of my role was to interview new hires for a very uncommon set of skills to fit into that project.

At my current employer, I’ve been interviewing like mad to help a customer fill staffing needs for another set of uncommon skills. Not that the individual skills are necessarily uncommon, but the mix of skills in a single person seems to be uncommon.  I have to say, it’s been both enjoyable, and educational for me.

I hope that this experience helps me with future interviews when I go looking for a new job (or a promotion).

I’ve tried to apply the “good” experiences from my interviewee past as much as possible.  For example, not just grilling candidates to make them sweat, but help them along the way, in a give-and-take discussion.  Not a lecture.  And not a cross-examination.  It’s been eye-opening for me, to say the least.  So here’s what I’ve learned:

1 – Keep it Simple

When asked to respond with a “what would you do if…” scenario, start with the most basic step.  A classic example question is “You have a web server, that relies on a separate SQL host, to support a web application.  After working fine for a while, it now shows an error that it can no longer connect to the SQL host.  What would your first step be?

Bad answers: “I’d check the SQL logs”.  “I’d confirm the SQL security permissions”, “I’d verify that the SQL services were running on the SQL host”, “I’d Telnet to the SQL host”

Better answers: “I’d try to ping the SQL host from the web server”

2 – Know the Basic Basics of your Platform

If the role involves system administration (aka “sysadmin”) duties, you should be familiar with at least the names of features, components, and commands.  You don’t necessarily have to know every syntactical nuance of them, just what they are, and what they’re used for.  For example, “what command would you use to register a DLL?” or “What command would you use to change the startup type of a service?”

If the interviewer doesn’t focus on scripting aspects, then ask if they want to know the command or what PowerShell cmdlet.  Then take it from there.  If they ask about the command, just give them the command.  You don’t need to describe the various ramifications of using the command, or how it would be better/easier/cooler to do it with PowerShell.  If they ask about PowerShell methods, answer with the appropriate cmdlet or just describe the script code at a 100,000 foot level.  That said, if the interviewer is focused on your PowerShell acumen, dive deeper, but ask if that’s what they want to hear first.

3 – Don’t be Afraid to say “I Don’t Know”

If the interview question leaves you stumped, don’t hem and haw, and don’t make up something.  Just say “I don’t know“, but, and I mean BUT…. follow that with some next-step direction.  For example, “I don’t know, but I would research that by going to ___ and searching for ____

4 – Ask Questions

A lot of the time, the interviewer is also looking for indications of how the candidate interacts with a situation, such as an interview.  They want to know if you’re inclined to question and discover each situation, rather than just react to it.  Sometimes, the interviewer will ask you “Do you have any questions?“, and sometimes they won’t.  Regardless, it’s often good to ask at least one or two questions, even if it’s just “what’s the next step?

5 – Get a Critique if Possible

At the end of the interview, unless you feel certain you nailed it, like this, I always recommend asking the interviewer for some feedback how how you did.  Ask if there were any areas you could have responded better.  Don’t worry about getting granular details, just general responses can be very helpful.  Whether it’s technical, personal, or otherwise, anything is pure GOLD when it comes to this.

It’s a rare chance to get some tips that will help you on future interviews.  This is particularly true when you feel pretty sure that the employer isn’t going to make you an offer.  That doesn’t mean you are a failure, it just means you didn’t provide indication for the position they’re looking to fill.

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