5 Interviewing Tips for IT Job Candidates

Having interviewed fair number of individuals who applied for information technology jobs, I wanted to share my tips for candidates pursuing IT positions. Much has already been written about locating job postings and preparing strong resumes, so I won’t get into that. Instead, I’ll explore how job candidates who were invited to an interview can prepare and conduct themselves throughout the multistage interviewing process.

I wrote these tips for IT job seekers from the perspective of a hiring manager. If I wanted to be sensationalistic about this article, I would’ve titled it “Top 5 Interviewing Secrets IT Hiring Managers Don’t Want You to Know,” but that would’ve been inaccurate. Hiring managers want you to be well-prepared for discussions; this will allow them to have timely and non-nonsense conversations with job candidates.

So, here’s my list of 5 tips IT hiring managers want you to know:

#1: Know the organization where you’re applying.

You need to be familiar with both technological and business aspects of the organization where you want to work. When the interviewer asks you, “To what extent you are familiar with our company?” your answer needs to offer more than what one can gather by merely looking at the top page of the organization’s website for 60 seconds.

Find out how the company makes money, what challenges it’s facing, what its competition is doing and the role that IT plays in that ecosystem. Consider what it might be like to work in that environment and what contribution you could make. Be prepared to explain what past experiences have prepared you to excel at that company.

Your information sources should be not only the organization’s website, but also social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, people who used to work or still work at the company, the company’s customers, news publications, analyst reports, and so on.

#2: Know the position for which you’re applying.

Building upon your knowledge of the organization, consider the role that the position will play within the company. If the job is on the revenue-generating side, how will you help the company meets its revenue, profit and related business goals? If the job is within a cost center, what success factors has the company defined for the position? Be prepared to explain what experiences and skills will allow you to contribute and succeed in that context.

Understand “must have” and “nice to have” skills the hiring manager expects the candidate to possess. Some job postings use generic titles such as “Senior Consultant,” “Director” or “Information Analyst” and describe the position is high-level and abstract terms. Dig beyond the generic description to understand what the hiring manager is actually looking for. This will help you understand and explain the extent to which the position is a good match for you and vice-versa.

#3: Know thyself.

These tips assume that you possess the baseline skills the position might require. However, you might not remember all the details of the projects you delivered throughout your career.  Practice describing your contributions to past projects so that the interviewer thinks, “Wow, I want this candidate to help me in that way!”

Jot down the work you’ve done and how the skills you learned map to the position’s requirements. In your discussions with the company, highlight not only your overall experience, but clarify how it directly applies to what they organization wants you to accomplish.

Review the technologies that you may be expected to know, but haven’t used recently. Remind yourself of the terminology and key concepts that might come up during interviews.

Understand your professional strengths and know how to explain them clearly, succinctly and in the context of the specific position for which you are applying. Be realistic about your weaknesses; know how to discuss them with the interviewer so you can assess the extent to which they might prevent you from being effective at the job.

Practice discussing the job and your candidacy. You might be a perfect match for the position, but the interviewer might not realize this unless you know how to articulate how your learning and experience prepared you for this job.

Notice how often the word “practice” came up in this section. It’s true what they say: practice makes perfect. You can conduct mock interviews with your friends or professional coaches.  At the same time, don’t over-prepare—you answers during the actual interview shouldn’t sound canned.

#4: Know the people you might work with.

Sometimes we think of companies as monolithic entities, forgetting that organizations are comprised of individuals with various personalities, backgrounds, priorities, strengths and weaknesses. As part of the interviewing process, you will probably speak not only with the hiring manager, but also with your potential colleagues. Learn about them prior to the conversations. If you don’t know the names of these people, ask the HR representative or the hiring manager.

Chances are, you’ll find some information about the people with whom you’ll interview by mining the public web and social networking sites. If you find any blogs, Tweets, articles or books they have written, be sure to familiarize yourself with the content before talking to them. This will help you anticipate the questions they’ll ask and the answers they might expect. Even reviewing their LinkedIn profile to see their work history can help you understand the perspective they may have on the job position.

Also, ask the HR representative or the hiring manager to give you some background details about the people with whom you will interview: What is their personality, what role to they play on the team, what is their history with the company, what are their interviewing and work styles? You may be surprised how much information you can gather by simply asking for it.

Don’t overdo your research, though. You can freak people out if you tell them that you found out where they live, what their kids’ names are and what food they like. This information might be discoverable, but you don’t want to seem like a stalker, nor do you want to invade the person’s privacy.

You should know what “pain points” the interviewer experiences as part of the job and what help they are seeking. If you don’t know this, then probably haven’t done enough research, but you may be able to simply ask about this during the interview. Knowing how you may be able to help the person, once you’re hired, can allow you to position yourself in a way that is personally relevant to the individual.

Connecting with the interviewer at a personal level is no less important than matching the job’s technical skill requirements. Knowing the person’s background will make it easier for you to “click” with him or her. (By the way, I wrote about how professional certifications can also help build rapport earlier.)

#5: Know the timeline of the interviewing process.

Some companies seem to always have job openings, especially for positions with high turn-over, such as sales. However, when recruiting for IT positions, time is often critical factor: the company may have created the job opening only after a specific project got funded. The hiring manager may be in a hurry to find and hire the right candidate. If you are a good match for the job, you’ll increase your chances of getting hired by understanding and supporting the employer’s hiring time table.

Another issue related to time is the availability of the interviewers to speak with you. You might have a busy schedule, as do they. By making it easier for the interviewers to schedule conversations with you, you will help speed up the hiring process. This might put you at an advantage over candidates who cannot move through the process at a rapid pace.

Also, consider how quickly you will be able to start the new job if it is offered to you. Will you need to wrap up a project with your current employer? Do you plan to give a resignation notice 2 or 3 weeks prior to your departure? Discuss these items with the hiring manager to set his or her expectations and to avoid any surprises after your receive the job offer.

There you have it: the 5 key topics you must know to get the IT job that’s right for you. Having the prerequisite skills and knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. To succeed in the interviewing process you should look at it from the perspective of the people who will make the hiring decision. That’s why I presented my tips from the hiring manager’s point of view.

For additional tips on performing background research in preparation for an IT job interview, see my follow-up post on this topic.

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About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and technology leader with extensive information security experience. He builds innovative endpoint defense solutions as VP of Products at Minerva Labs. He also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. Lenny frequently speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. He has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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