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Friday fun for the IT crowd: The interview questions IT candidates hate

April 03, 2015
By Lisa Dare

IT interviews are famous for being … well, a little bizarre. Candidates never know if they’re going to have a reasonable conversation with a potential boss, or face a panel of judges who shoot obscure technical questions at them, and then point out all the flaws in their answers. Or maybe they’ll have to figure out on the spot—without help from Google—how many square feet of pizza there are in America. Sadly, I did not make that last question up.

So without further ado, here are the IT interview questions workers love to hate. 

Question 1: Gotcha and brainteasers questions

A hallmark of the tech industry, gotcha questions might require the candidate to write the exact formula for an obscure algorithm, accurately estimate of how many golf balls fit in an airplane, or a solve a puzzler that defies logical analysis.

Adding to the pressure of these teasers, the natural stress of being in an interview—and not knowing what different interviewers are seeking—makes gotcha questions especially trying for candidates. And the answers typically reveal little about the kind of employee a candidate will make. So why bother with them?

Hiring managers would be wise to remember interviews are a two-way process; while you’re evaluating the candidate, they’re figuring out if they want to work with you, too. Gotcha questions often make you look unprepared, or worse, capricious. Smart candidates will avoid companies that ask these questions, which means you’ll be left with the scariest kind of job seeker: a desperate one.

But if you've made this mistake, don’t feel bad. Google asked famously inscrutable questions but backtracked on this policy in 2013, publicly admitting their famous brainteasers were "a complete waste of time."

So what’s fair?

In a technical interview, you can certainly ask a candidate to write code or demonstrate knowledge of industry standards. Just make sure your question doesn't stray out of normal work territory. Would a competent developer know a good way to accomplish the coding problem without outside resources? Then it’s not a gotcha question.

Question 2: Name each layer of OSI

It depends on whom you ask—this is either a purely academic question no one should need to memorize, or too basic to act as a screening tool. Either way, IT workers hate it.

Question 3: Where do you see yourself in five years?

This doesn't sound like a trick question, but many candidates perceive it this way. There’s often no good answer. Are you speaking to someone who may follow your career path? They’re certainly not going to tell you they see themselves in your job in five years! But saying they expect to be in the position you’re hiring for today makes them look complacent, also not an ideal trait.

Finally, the real answer for many candidates could make them look wishy-washy, but it’s actually a nod to the inherently changing nature of tech: IT workers will be at the company and position where their interests lead them in five years. That may be as much as they know today. In the meantime, you can get a couple of great years out of this worker.

Scare your top candidates away

These oft-repeated interview scenarios do nothing but send red flags to your best candidates. So the next time you really don't want to hire an IT pro, try this: 

  • Only ask technical questions. A good candidate can feel cheapened by an IT interview that just quizzes him or her on technical skills; beyond a skill set, her or she is a person and potential coworker. Technical interviews that don’t inquire about a person’s thought processes and don’t take the time to get to know them can make them feel like they’re in a cattle call.
  • Make the interviewee feel dumb. Many interviewees complain the interviewers only wanted to demonstrate their own superior problem-solving abilities or technical chops.
  • Fail to engage in meaningful conversations. Have a panel furiously throw questions at an interviewee, and don’t discuss any alternative ways they have at looking at the problem. Nothing says “a flexible, fun workplace that values workers” like a quiz panel. 

Some related posts you might enjoy

Common mistakes to avoid in your next IT job interview (or read our IT Interview Tips career resource page)

3 smart ways to keep top IT talent from leaving

Lisa Dare is a marketing writer for TEKsystems who enjoys learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in tech. She frequently blogs about IT career advice and the lighter side of technology, and on her off days loves to kayak and play with her toddler son.

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