What kinds of questions do managers ask potential hires?

Win the Interview Game

What kinds of questions do managers ask potential hires?

I’m getting ready to go through the interview process and was wondering if you could help me brush up on interview questions. I’m about to take my last test (TCP/IP) for my MCSE and have a couple of years of direct NT experience. Because I’ve been away from the interview scene for a while, I’m afraid I’ve forgotten basic interviewing skills—and perhaps the answers to things I know I can do. Any suggestions? As managers, what kinds of questions do you ask potential hires?
—Jeff Paul, MCP  
jdpaul@erols.com
 

Whoa, now, Jeff—we magicians, er, managers have our code. You know—never reveal your secrets. If you knew what managers were going to ask and do during an interview, why, that would put you at an unfair advantage, wouldn’t it? You’ve seen my picture—do I look pointy-haired to you? (Don’t answer that…)

But since Greg has spilled the beans anyway, let me fill in a few of the details. When it comes to interviewing, there are rules, there are common practices, and then there’s everything else. The rules exist to protect both the applicant and the company from trouble, primarily in the area of discrimination. For example, asking an applicant for place of birth or native language is prohibited because it may disclose national origin, which is irrelevant in the hiring process. Not hiring or hiring someone on the basis of national origin is a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both managers and candidates need to be aware of The Rules; www.eeoc.gov is a good place to start.

A brief note about age discrimination: in our industry, there is a real paradox—companies want young employees with lots of experience. More often than you might imagine, a hiring manager (especially a young hiring manager) will favor young over experience, thinking that they can always train a young applicant, but they really don’t want any old people around. This is a dirty little secret in technology, and one that will soon come back to bite us. After all, PCs have been around for more than 20 years—a candidate could have this much experience and be technologically current, plus be far beyond newbie mistakes.

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OK, off the soapbox and back to the issue. Common practices are the mechanics of the interview/hiring process. As Greg mentions, there are various stages along this path; two that he doesn’t cite are the phone interview and the pass-by.

The phone interview is sometimes with the hiring manager (for example, if you’re in a different city and they haven’t decided whether to fly you in). However, this “screening” interview is frequently with a Human Resources person, whose task is to ensure that the hiring manager’s time isn’t wasted by sending obviously uninterested or unqualified candidates. In this case, the questions are usually: Are you available? Are you interested? How much do you make now? When might you be able to come in and talk with us? That’s interspersed with: Tell me something about yourself (Greg’s “elevator speech”), and What would you like to know about our company?

View this as a screening opportunity for you to get a good idea about the type of position and the company, and decide quickly if it’s something you want to pursue. If not, beg off. If you are interested, remember you have to get over this hurdle to get to someone who can really evaluate your talent. If you’re not sure whether this position is in your league or not, the great qualifier is money—go ahead and tell them how much you make (or how much you would move for). Otherwise, try to avoid the money questions until later—say something like “based on what you’ve told me about the position, I’m sure we’re in the same ballpark—tell me more about your location…”

Greg has given you good information about the position and technical interviews. Remember throughout this process that it’s your decision as well as theirs. You must assess if this is the kind of job you want to do and the kind of company you want to work for. This is where pass-bys can be valuable. Pass-bys are usually just that—the hiring manager says, “Things are looking very good, and I’m impressed with you and your qualifications. I just want to pass you by a few other people.” For example, a prospective salesperson may get passed by the technical manager, or a help desk candidate may get passed by a technical lead. These people usually don’t have final veto power, but a bad recommendation can hurt you anyway, so stay on your toes. However, because these people don’t have an immediate, vested interest in you, use the opportunity to find out about the company: What it’s like to work there, how long they’ve been there, and so on. In other words, interview them.

Two final pieces of advice: First, be wary of interviews combined with meals, especially with decision-makers. There are too many distractions; plus you’re too flustered just trying to figure out what and how to eat to give meaningful attention to your answers, which means your career. I got suckered into an interview with the president of a company during lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Lunch went OK, but he seemed really distracted, and as it turned out, he had to rush through lunch to catch a plane. Needless to say, I really didn’t stand a chance.

Second, when you do leave your company, don’t burn any bridges. This really is a small industry—sooner or later you might end up working for the same person again, or, more likely, your old company may buy out your new one.

Good luck!

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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