Worst -- and best -- IT interview questions

Why are manhole covers round? Why do you ask? Tech managers weigh in on the practice of using brainteasers to screen IT candidates and share their own favorite interview questions.

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You've probably seen them making the rounds on social media: the brain-busting, stutter-inducing questions asked in job interviews at places like Google (How many cows in Canada?), Apple (What are five ways to put a hole in a sheet of metal?), Dell (What songs best describe your work ethic?) and Novell (How would people communicate in a perfect world?).

Less likely to be discussed is whether such interview questions actually help employers find the right IT pros.

"We've heard candidates tell us that they faced three hours of pure tech-oriented questions that were specific and focused and extensively related to the job. Then at the end of three hours, they're hit with, 'Why is a manhole cover round?'" says Matthew Ripaldi, a senior vice president at IT staffing agency Modis in Houston. "It really put the person off."

There's Google, which can get away with asking offbeat questions, and then there are companies that imitate Google -- with mixed results, Ripaldi says. "There are companies asking those questions just to ask them, and it isn't clear whether they know what to do with the responses," he says.

That doesn't mean a challenging -- even difficult -- interview is automatically a turnoff. Over the past year, candidates interviewing for tech jobs rated their interviews as both more difficult and more positive than in the previous 12 months, according to Scott Dobroski, community expert at Glassdoor, a five-year-old social recruiting site that allows job candidates to share interview experiences.

"What this tells us is that making a tech interview more positive doesn't mean you need to make it less difficult," Dobroski says.

Hiring stakes are high

The debate over whether questions out of left field enhance or detract from the interview process is more than just an academic one for companies looking to hire IT talent.

The increasingly tight job market ratchets up the pressure to find, hire and retain the right people. And with recruitment and onboarding costs "in the thousands of dollars" per employee, Dobroski says, companies are intent on hiring the right candidate the first time out.

By the time a candidate reaches the interview stage, managers say that they're more concerned with learning about the individual's attitude, social skills and compatibility with the company's culture than they are with trying to assess his or her tech skills -- which the screening process should have already gauged. "We might ask a little bit about the tech stuff," says Joe Schmitt, a network support manager at U.S. Bank in St. Paul, Minn. "But really we're looking out for the right mix of curiosity, passion and initiative."

Schmitt, like other IT hiring managers interviewed by Computerworld, believes "gotcha" questions in general do a poor job of bringing those soft skills to the fore.

Instead, Schmitt taps the eight members of his network support team to conduct group interviews for open positions in their department. He himself doesn't attend; he wants candidates to feel comfortable asking about "the boss."

We might ask a little bit about the tech stuff, but really we're looking out for the right mix of curiosity, passion and initiative. Joe Schmitt, network support manager, U.S. Bank

Schmitt has found his employees to be universally willing to help vet candidates. "I do my best to get the team involved. They like to know they're really making a good decision about a teammate -- someone they may be spending more time with than they spend with their spouse."

If gotchas are out, what kinds of questions do help reveal the qualities Schmitt is looking for? He goes for a line of inquiry that's both open-ended and specific. "Tell me a time when you successfully adapted to change." "What does a good day at work look like?" "What about a bad one?" "How do you resolve disagreements?"

And one of his favorites: "Tell me about something you documented for others." This gets at the candidate's commitment to teamwork as shown by the effort he puts into making his work accessible to others, explains Schmitt, who has been in IT for 15 years, five as a hiring manager.

Such questions bring out a side to candidates that a skills-specific question may not. "People tend to come prepped to answer the technical questions," Schmitt says, less so the situational or behavioral ones. "I feel we're getting genuine responses to those."

Social skills, social questions

Thad Neal has been in the IT business long enough to see the way the interviewing process has shifted. "When I graduated in 1990, the questions were all the standard ones: 'Tell me about your successes.' 'Tell me a time you overcame a failure.'"

Neal, a consulting director for Junction Solutions in Englewood, Colo., which provides ERP consulting services for the retail and food and beverage industries, has watched over the years as IT has moved from being one business function among many to serving as strategic lynchpin. With that shift in focus comes a shift in the balance of skills IT departments are interviewing for. (Article continues on next page.)

Favorite IT interview question

"Do you like to travel?"

Thad Neal, a consulting director for Junction Solutions in Englewood, Colo., sometimes asks candidates for technical jobs if they like to travel. "What I'm looking for is not necessarily someone who says they love to travel, because the actual act of traveling is a pain," he explains.

Thad Neal

"What I want to identify is someone who can find the bright spot about traveling -- 'Getting to San Francisco was a pain, but once there, I took in a ballgame and went to the wharf.'"

To evaluate a candidate's critical thinking, Neal asks about a project he or she worked on. "What I attempt to do is key in on a specific nugget of information that the candidate shares and drill down into that to determine how they conduct themselves," he explains. "If they give me every facet of the project, discuss the environmental factors they faced, the personnel challenges, the complexity of the tasks, the constraints and so on, then I get a feel that this person who looks at every angle."

In his questioning, Neal tries to push hard enough to find out two things. "First, does this person know when they've hit a wall and need help? Second, are they not so ego-driven that they can ask for help?" he says. "If I get a candidate that says, 'I don't know the answer to that question but I know how to find it,' that's a win."

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