Interviewing 101: For the Unwashed IT Masses

Opinion: I asked some IT recruiters for their take on the top interviewing sins that tech professionals and others tend to make, and how to avoid them.

That headline isnt an exaggeration. Some tech-heads are showing up for job interviews unprepared, unpressed and, for pitys sake, even unbathed.

"I had a client say that a candidate showed up with big sweat circles under his arms," Angelica Schmiedecke, a retail account manager and recruiting manager for Harvey Nash, a global IT, financial and accounting recruitment firm, told me in a recent chat.

Readers have been offering valuable insight in Career Centrals TalkBack forums recently, on topics such as relative pay for workers with different certifications.

But after talking to IT recruiters, Im convinced that a large number of tech pros need to pay attention to a much more rudimentary step in the compensation game: namely, nailing the right job in the first place.

When I broached the subject, Schmiedecke was kind enough to outline a Top 10 list of mistakes techies tend to make in interviews.

Forgive the stereotypes about geeks—I know that increasing numbers of our tech readership are coming out of business programs or other non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. But there are enough classic tech types out there—i.e., introverted, inarticulate, with low levels of "soft skills"—that the advice bears repeating. Besides, its a good set of reminders for all of us on how to behave professionally during an interview, whether were talking about technology or any other field of endeavor.

Here, then, is a list of tips on how to avoid screwing up an interview:

  • Dont run late. Sounds too basic to even merit mention, doesnt it? A large number of people are guilty of the sin of arriving late to an interview, however; Schmiedecke estimated that some 20 percent of candidates she works with commit this error.

Most people understand about first impressions, of course. Where they go wrong, Schmiedecke told me, is when they assume that the interviewing company understands the candidates unfamiliarity with the neighborhood, for example, and why people would have difficulty finding their way to the companys location for the first time.

A good interview coach will prep candidates to get them to show up a good 20 minutes early. Not 45 minutes—thats too early, and youll wind up sitting around the lobby, Schmiedecke said.

Schmiedecke goes beyond that to suggest that candidates, if theyve never been to that citys downtown area, for example, do a test run to determine how long it will take to get to the interview site.

"If they interview three people and all can do the job, [theyre looking for a] differentiator, and if you showed up late for the job interview, that makes it easier to determine who they eliminate," Schmiedecke said.

  • Dont dress casually, and dont be wrinkled. IT is an increasingly casual field, particularly in locales such as Seattle or Florida. Along with that cultural shift comes an even younger generation that doesnt fully grasp the importance of first impressions even if were talking business casual.

A good advisor whos familiar with the hiring company should be able to tell you the best way to dress. Schmiedecke has one client, for example, where the work environment is so casual that if a candidate showed up in a suit, he or she probably wouldnt get the job.

But nine times out of 10, its best to be dressed more formally. That means a suit, or a shirt, tie and nice slacks for men, and for women a pantsuit, a skirt suit or a nice blouse with trousers.

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Whatever the clothing, make it polished. This relates to the first item about being late: If youre late, youre rushing, and thats how candidates get sweaty. Not good.

Make sure your clothes are pressed. Make sure youve combed your hair. Make sure you smell good. Make sure youre polished.

  • Dont skip research. Most companies out there have a Web site. Be knowledgeable about the company. Nobody expects you to be an expert about the company, but you should know what industry theyre in, at the very least.
  • Give specific examples of your experience and skills as they relate to the position. Many candidates can do three or four different jobs based on their background and experience: a functional position in IT, a project manager, an analyst or a quality assurance tester, for example.

Some companies have one job position to cover multiple functions, while other companies have distinct positions to cover each function.

The best thing to do if youre interviewing for, say, a project manager position, is to give examples based on your project manager experience.

"You want to tailor answers about your skills and experience against a job youre applying for," Schmiedecke said. "They want to know more than the bare bones of what your resume says. And the more you talk, the more your personality comes through."

  • Ask good questions about the company or the position. Schmiedecke was talking to a CIO recently who said that even if somebodys dynamite in an interview, if by the end of interview the candidate hasnt asked her a question, thats it—shes not hiring him or her.

Always have at least one question written down about the company and the position. Examples: Why is this position open? Is it new, or are you replacing somebody? What are you seeking to do with the position over the next 12 months?

Go further. If the company has been involved in lawsuits, you should know about them. Have they filed for bankruptcy? Web sites often have news releases that contain such information.

"Sometimes candidates come across as if theyre just interviewing for a job—Just somebody give me an offer," Schmiedecke said.

What impresses a company is somebody taking the time to really read about its business; if you make clear that youre not just interested in a job, youre interested in a job at that specific company.

  • Practice what youre going to say in the interview. IT pros must be knowledgeable and be prepared to talk about their tech experience, but there are a lot of questions you can be asked that are soft questions: Where are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years? Know what youll answer if somebody asks. Write it down the night before. Think of five good adjectives that describe you prior to the interview.

Dont jibber-jabber. Dont give 10-minute answers. If an interviewer had seven questions for you and only got to No. 3, theres a chance he or she wont get you back in to answer the rest of them.

Introverted personalities still exist in IT. If youre one of them, keep in mind that you need to give more than one-word answers.

"People talk too much or not enough," Schmiedecke said. If you are introverted, its a good idea to ask the interviewer if youve given enough information or if theyd like more details.

"Clients have said, Im not going to pull information out of them," Schmiedecke said.

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Dont be nervous if theres silence during a phone interview; the interviewer could be taking notes. But if they asked you specific questions, occasionally ask if youve provided enough details.

  • Dont badmouth previous managers or companies. Its the fastest way to turn somebody off.

Even if you worked in a sweatshop and worked 20 hours per day and got one 15-minute water break, you dont want to bring negative commentary to the interview. Try to come up with politically correct answers, such as a simple, "We didnt see eye to eye."

"I had one candidate yesterday, I asked him why he left his current employer," Schmiedecke told me. "He didnt have another position lined up. He said [the company] was installing software they didnt have licenses for. Apparently the president maybe knew that, and didnt appreciate [his employee] coming to him."

The candidate told the president that they could be getting into a lot of trouble. The two mutually decided it would be best for him to leave company.

Best way to relate such an incident? "We didnt see eye to eye." If youre not asked, dont even go there, Schmiedecke said.

If you avoid making all these elementary mistakes, youll be in a much better position show off that list of certifications, soft skills and project expertise.

Tell me about your own interviewing horror stories: Drop me a line at

Lisa Vaas is Ziff Davis Internets news editor in charge of operations. She is also the editor of eWEEK.coms Database and Business Intelligence topic center. She has been with eWEEK and since 1995, most recently covering enterprise applications and database technology. She can be reached at

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