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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Since the people Neal hires will be working with external client companies, they must have a strong range of social skills in addition to technical expertise, but Neal isn't fazed by that requirement.

"Identifying social skills is pretty simple," Neal says. "How do they speak -- do they look you in the eye or down at the floor? How do they dress -- purple oxfords with silver ties or fairly conservative? What are their hobbies -- do any of them include personal interactions with humans?" he asks, adding, "and I don't mean playing Halo online."

Not every company has mastered the art of assessing social skills, Neal asserts. "We've seen a lot of hiring at other companies go wrong," he says. "People get too focused on folks' technical abilities. They're so fixated on the fact that the guy in front of them is the best .Net programmer out there that they're willing to look past the fact that he looks like an unmade bed."

Rambling isn't always wrong

Joseph Morgan, a data power architect at Netsmart in Kansas City, Mo., says his company is on track to hire 200 people in IT alone this calendar year. As a senior employee with 25 years of experience in the business, he is often called on to conduct interviews.

Favorite IT interview question

"Tell me about Java's 'synthetic' keyword."

Joseph Morgan

Joseph Morgan, data power architect at Netsmart, has a few tried-and-tested BS-detecting questions in his arsenal, including asking Java programmers in what situations they should use the "synthetic" keyword.

"Many programmers don't know a thing about this keyword, so I would definitely expect most to give an 'I don't know' answer," he says. "If they do know what 'synthetic' means, they better know they can't use it, so it's an easy determination of both their skill level and their desire to bluff."

But Morgan doesn't stop there. "For those that do know the answer, I might follow up with something like, 'How do you get a pointer to the hyperbolic inhibitor of an inverse singleton instance?' Anything other than either 'I don't know' or 'Have you lost your mind?' and they're out."

He is not a fan of gotcha questions. "Asking the kind of questions that get candidates flushed and fumbling isn't productive," Morgan says. "When people get defensive, it's a bad interview on both sides."

At the same time, he believes interviewers ought to stay away from questions that begin, "Tell me a time when you..."

"I generally don't directly ask these kinds of questions. If the candidate presents an example of his or her experience, I might follow up and ask how they handled it or ask, 'How would you handle that if you were faced that situation again?' This way, we're homing in on their experience, but we know the answer isn't some rehearsed fantasy."

Beyond that, Morgan advises interviewers to "get off their pedestal" and be willing to consider answers that are not precisely the ones they were looking for. Having enough confidence to let the candidate run with an unexpected answer has rewards, Morgan believes.

In interviewing a candidate for a senior developer position, Morgan once asked a pointed question about a particular programming construct. He was looking for a simple, direct answer. What he got was a long and more abstract answer related to data architecture.

"Though he didn't directly answer the question, he gave me much more insight into the way he plans for problems in general, and in that context, he was right on," Morgan says.

"Though I could have pressed him for the technical answer, the response he gave was basically stating that if the application had been architecturally correct, the problem wouldn't exist," Morgan says. "This was way more valuable to me than any technical answer he would have given."

In general, Morgan, like Neal, believes in the power of questions that push a candidate to the limit of his or her knowledge. "I'm looking to weed out the people who would rather make up an answer than to say 'I don't know,'" Morgan says. "If they try to BS in the interview, they'll try to BS on the job."

Wanted: Work-hard, play-hard atmosphere

Aundrea Marchionna has been in the IT business -- and on both sides of the interview desk -- since 1989 in a variety of programming and development positions. Her most recent job interview as a candidate took place last fall, when she applied for the job she holds now as a technical architect at MRM Worldwide, a digital and direct marketing agency.

The way the interview was conducted ... you could tell there was a good dynamic between the business and tech people. Aundrea Marchionna, technical architect, MRM Worldwide

For Marchionna, the best questions are straightforward and predictable: "How do you explain a technical process to nontechnical colleagues?" "How do you break down a large idea into manageable pieces?"

The worst interview Marchionna has had in her career was one, not too many years ago, in which the interviewer didn't so much try to stump her with tricky questions as mislead her about the company she'd be working for. "Basically, he lied about the environment there and what the job would entail," Marchionna says. "I wasn't with them very long."

The best interview, by contrast, took place on Halloween, at the company where she now works. It began with the human resources person meeting her at the door dressed as a penguin. "You could tell this was a work-hard, play-hard kind of place," she says. "But beyond that, the way the interview was conducted, in a group, gave me a sense that this was a team-oriented place. You could tell there was a good dynamic between the business and tech people."

In the end, the number of cows in Canada notwithstanding, "that's what we all really want," Marchionna says.

Wilkinson, a Lexington, Va., writer, is the former publisher of Brain,Child Magazine.

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