It was a good interview.
James Bach, principal consultant at software testing consultancy and training center Satisfice Inc., was ready to hire the guy to be a statistician. That’s when his colleague, Cem Kaner, told Bach he was about to hire the wrong kind of statistician.
“You want a theoretical statistician,” said Kane, a lawyer, psychophysicist, test manager, and computer science professor. “He's an applied statistician."
A theoretical statistician is the kind who creates statistical models, rather than one who applies statistical formulae to standardized situations, Kane went on to explain.
"How do I tell the difference?" Bach said.
"If he's the kind you want, he'll be inquisitive," Kane said. "Bring him in for a second interview. But this time show him your product and ask him if he has any questions about it. Listen to the kind of questions he asks."
Bach brought the statistician back in. He asked the candidate if he had any questions. Each time, the statistician made a comment, but he didn’t ask any questions. Nine times, Bach asked if the candidate had questions, and nine times, the guy said no.
Frustrated, Bach asked him why he wouldn’t ask anything.
"Oh," he said, "I was brought up that it's impolite to ask questions."
Technical people are not renowned for their social skills. Many fall somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum or just feel more comfortable communing with ones and zeros than dealing with people. Unless an IT professional has full-blown Asperger’s, though, he or she should be able to finesse an interview better than Mr. I Will Ask You Nothing.
When IT professionals do display a certain lack of interpersonal finesse, it can come out at exactly the time when they think they’re shining the brightest – when they’re bragging about their knowledge or productivity, for example. What follows are IT hiring managers’ feedback on typical mistakes they’ve seen IT people make in interviews, along with what might have salvaged a scuttled job opportunity.
Mistake No. 1: Not asking questions because you already know it all
Not asking questions doesn’t just tell a hiring manager that you’re the wrong kind of thinker for the job; it can show an utter lack of curiosity and a prima donna’s belief that he knows everything there is to know.
Arnold Kirschner, currently an image artist, managed a high-tech pre-press department at a high-end printer for many years. He had to learn this lesson the hard way, after hiring a no-questions type.
This was pre-Macintosh, back when computers still cost an arm and a leg. Kirschner needed to hire somebody with a boatload of experience working with the new computers, then made by Scitex.
He found his man. Very skilled, highly recommended as being knowledgeable and a big producer.
It was all true. The job candidate was a star. The problem was, he liked to act like one.
“He didn't share his deep knowledge with the rest of the team. He was willing to put in the time but operated more for himself and not as a team member and exulted in the good words from the sales staff,” Kirschner said.
After talking-to’s followed by relapses, Kirschner had to let him go. The team morale had sunk too low. For his next hire, Kirschner picked a wallflower: experienced but not flashy. The team loved him, and in the end the company had a staff that worked well together, enjoyed coming to work, and made the clients happy with high-quality production, Kirschner said.
In hindsight, Kirschner realized that the star “asked very few questions and seemed to have all the answers,” he said. “I mistook that for extensive knowledge.”
The signs were there. Kirschner just didn’t clue in, blinded as he was by the star’s twinkle.
Some of the signs IT professionals give off that show they’re prima donnas as opposed to team players:
1. Not asking questions even when an interviewer gives you an opening.
Tip: Respectfully challenge the interviewer and show that you know how to accept criticism, Kirschner advised. At the very least, ask questions about the interviewer herself, recommended Mark Lyden, a Fortune 50 Lead Recruiter and author of the “Do This! Get Hired!” book series. For example, ask how the interviewer got started with the company, and ask for a little about her career.
2. Arrogant body language: Are you stiff? It can come off as arrogance.
Tip: Relax your body. It lets people know you’re open and approachable.
Mistake No. 2: Spewing acronyms
Bruce A. Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, is no tech genius. He doesn’t specialize in tech placement, either, but sometimes his clients need somebody to, say, staff the help desk.
He’s encountered two types of IT professionals in a long career. The bad ones are those who “know their stuff, throw out all the acronyms, and talk about their business as though they are not speaking a foreign language,” he said, when in fact they spout what sounds like gobbledygook to the non-tech set.
It’s not that these types are showing off. It’s just that they don’t know how to talk to non-IT people, Hurwitz said.
“This told me that they would not be any good at overseeing a help desk,” he said. “If they could not explain to me what they did, they would not have been able to explain to my client’s staff what they need to do and why. They may be great programmers, know code inside out and backwards, have great insight into security issues, know how to and from whom to purchase hardware and software, be able to set up a network, etc., but they just are not people persons.”
Hurwitz has rejected all of the acronym spewers he’s come across.
The second type of IT professionals—the kind he submits to his clients—both know their stuff and can explain it. “They take the mystery out of IT. They don’t make the interviewer feel like a dummy,” Hurwitz said.
Not that the acronym-addicted are talentless hacks. It’s just that, well, sometimes the brightest minds also have the most interesting workplace behavior, according to Elizabeth Lions, a career coach who specializes in high-tech professionals.
“One game is ‘knowledge is power’ and you don't have any—meaning they purposely do not disclose important information that can impact a project,” she said. This type of IT worker uses their introversion skills to observe and strategize, but not to disclose information—intentionally—to the detriment of the team.
They’re not all evil. Lions noted that engineers’ weakness correlates to their strength. “Their ability to have such a high intellect gives them a natural disconnect in terms of relating to others or building relationships within the office, which in an IT project is critical,” she said.
If the only way you can talk to people about technology is to sound like a user manual, non-IT interviewers may well get the impression that you lack confidence and have to turn conversations into “some sort of mystery—like physics or medicine—which only the initiated can understand,” Hurwitz said.
Tip: Remember to engage with the people in front of you. Never talk down to an interviewer.
Mistake No. 3: It’s all about you
Is it all about your accomplishments? Your hard work? Your stellar productivity? Your unparalleled subject matter expertise, etc. etc., blah blah blah?
If so, you’re not impressing anybody. You’re making your interviewer’s brain bleed, Superman. What you’re really telling them is that you’ve never worked as part of a team to get something done.
“If a candidate is only using singular personal pronouns (I, me, mine) and never using plural personal pronouns (we, us, ours), I’m likely going to give the candidate a thumbs-down,” said Jenson Crawford, Director of Engineering at Fetch Technologies.
IT candidates make a big mistake when they assume Crawford’s looking for the best individual, he said. “When I tell people this, they almost always give me a funny look and ask me why. My answer is simple: It is not my job to hire great individuals; my job is to build a great team. I’m not saying that I won’t hire a great individual; but I only do it when adding that candidate moves the team as a whole towards greatness.”
Arrogance is another, related, problem. Crawford’s been hiring IT people for a long time and has worked with some “absolutely brilliant men and women,” he said.
But, well, it’s “very unlikely” that a given candidate is the best IT person he’s ever met. “It’s even less likely that a candidate is going to convince me of that in an interview,” he said. We’re not talking about self-confidence here. Rather, it’s that a candidate’s confidence is best displayed by an ability to explain why he or she is the best thing since sliced bread, by describing such things as unit testing, code reviews, etc.
“I know that I can count on a self-confident developer to deliver quality work,” Crawford said. “But I’ve had an arrogant developer who assumed that it was impossible for him to make a mistake in something he’d written on the white board during an interview. Thumbs-down.”
Tip: Talk about the people you’ve worked with, not just yourself. Use plenty of “we” and “us” constructions.
Mistake No. 4: Dissing your peeps
Talking about the people you’ve worked with should not include calling them idiots.
Lyden is big into behavioral interviewing nowadays. Most interviewers are. That’s when they ask you questions that typically start with, "Tell me about a time when...."
The reason they ask you this type of question is because companies believe that attitude, above all else, is the most important attribute, Lyden said.
“An employee who’s brilliant in IT but has a poor attitude is poison to the morale of the team,” he said. “ It creates an unproductive environment where most people don't want to work. There’s an old saying that’s very relevant when hiring IT people: ‛Hire for attitude and train for skill.’ So what interviewers might now ask that they haven't asked before are questions prompting responses that would show an example of a candidate having a bad attitude.”
For example: One IT candidate had great skills. When talking about a member on his team, he referred to him as being "completely incompetent." He described all the things his teammate did wrong and groused about how it created more work for him.
Life, he said, was just unfair working with this utter boob.
Lyden’s takeaway: Oh, wah, wah.
Lyden ended up going for a candidate who conveyed the value of each member of the team, along with his own. “Clearly, you could see in his explanation that he was the anchor of the team, yet he was humble about it,” he said.
Tip: Say good things about the people you’ve worked with. Otherwise, you come off sounding like a crybaby. If an interviewer asks you to describe the type of person you don’t enjoy working with, the list shouldn’t immediately tumble out of your mouth. If necessary, pretend to mull it over. Then say something positive; for example, describe how you’ve learned to appreciate diverse personalities and their approaches to problem solving.
If all else fails, join Toastmasters
No, seriously, Toastmasters can save your bacon. Take it from Crawford, who completely understands having a deficit of interpersonal communication skills. “I originally got into software development because the compiler was easier to reason with than people,” he said.
When he first started interviewing and hiring software developers, it never occurred to him that the developers were nervous; he thought he was the only one that it happened to.
Crawford had to work to improve his communication skills, and it’s helped him in his career. He suggests that other IT professionals do the same: join a Toastmasters group or take a Dale Carnegie course.
As Crawford puts it, it’s a small investment, but it can help you communicate your real value to an interviewer.
What other big mistakes do you see IT job candidates make during the interview process? Share your experiences in the comments.