Blame it on the Internet, says Jason Warner, who leads the recruiting team at
Bellevue, Wash.-based ECS Integrated Technology Solutions, an Oracle software
consulting business unit of Computer Sciences Corporation. Warner cautions that
information available on the Web makes today's candidates the most prepared job
applicants in history and can tilt the interview process in their favor. "Organizations
that, to some degree, relied on a combination of standardized interview questions and
aptitude tests to determine technical skills can no longer rely on those items today to
adequately assess candidates," says the former recruiter for Starbucks and
Web research allows a candidate an advance peek into the applicant screening
process. A sharp candidate might click to a site listing specific interview questions,
technical assessments, and other tactics commonly used during the interview process. To
level the playing field, Warner says recruiters must refine their arsenal of questions
and interviewing techniques in order to stay effective and hire the best qualified
Warner and others have done just that. InfoWorld asked a number of executive
recruiters and hiring managers for their toughest questions and the responses that
cause them to sit up and take notice. Here are some of the cage-rattling questions and
analyses of possible responses.
InfoWorld: Describe your last mistake. What was the situation and what did do you
to rectify the problem?
-- Patrick Burke, director of worldwide staffing at StorageNetworks, a network
storage provider and consultancy in Waltham, Mass.
Ideal response: "I got careless. I failed to close the loop on something. So I went
directly to the client to apologize and tell him what I was doing to clean up the
Inferior response: "I was able to take care of the problem on my own without
bothering the end-user."
Two elements are found in Burke's ideal response. First, if the problem impacted an
end-user, the staffing director wants to know if the candidate resolved it directly
with that end-user, as opposed to going to an intermediary. Direct interaction with the
end-user tells Burke that the candidate knows what is important.
Burke also wants a sense of the candidate's candor and thought process. "I'm
impressed by candidates who realize they made a mistake, clean it up, figure out a best
practice, and talk about it within the organization so other people learn from the
Any suggestion that the candidate covered up the mistake or simply solved it and
moved on doesn't make the grade with Burke. Nor do candidates that cannot admit to ever
making a mistake. Of these candidates Burke thinks, "If you're that perfect, how come
you are looking for a job?"
InfoWorld: Why are manhole covers circular?
-- Jason Warner, ECS senior technical recruiter and president of the Northwest
Recruiters Association (www.nwrecruit.org), a
nonprofit association for recruitment-related professionals in the greater Seattle
Ideal response: "Because only a circular shape prevents the manhole cover from
falling into the hole it was designed to seal."
Inferior response: "How am I supposed to know?"
The question gauges the candidate's core problem-solving ability, creativity, and
overall level of smarts. Warner also gauges the candidate's humility and his or her
willingness to engage in an abstract discussion: Does the candidate attempt to solve
the problem, or does he or she dismiss it as irrelevant? Does the applicant get excited
by trying to solve the problem or laugh it off as being beneath his or her position?
"It's all very telling of a candidate. I often use this question on more junior IT
professionals, but it's also particularly interesting to pose the questions good-
naturedly to a seasoned veteran and see how they respond," Warner says.
InfoWorld: Tell me your life story going all the way back to when and where you
-- Doug Brown, COO, PrimeSearch, a Dallas-based consultancy specializing in
disaster recovery and business continuity planning.
"I can get a lot of insight into a person's self-image and emotional maturity as I
listen to how they respond to this question," Brown says. As candidates tackle the
question, Brown finds that they eventually start talking about their career. "At that
point, I start asking specific questions about events and achievements that stand out
for them. Since I have a technical background, I can always probe into those areas as
they talk about the key accomplishments they've achieved in their careers and the
things that motivated them the most."
InfoWorld: What did you like most/least about your former boss?
-- Doug Brown
The COO believes this question allows a peek into the candidate's interpersonal
skills, adaptability, flexibility, and the likelihood that he or she will be a good fit
with the corporate culture.
Brown also looks for a positive, mature, and realistic attitude in the applicant's
responses. "If someone responds with a negative attitude or a 'victim' mind-set, that's
a good indicator they will probably repeat the behaviors that created the problems
before," he says.
Brown, Warner, and Burke weren't afraid to go on record with their interview
arsenal. But not everyone wanted to be as publicly candid as the recruiters and hiring
managers quoted above were. Following are questions and responses submitted by
recruiters on the condition that they not be identified.
InfoWorld: How do you best measure user satisfaction with IT?
Ideal response: "Since the end-user always defines satisfaction, I would, together
with the users, develop service-oriented metrics aligned with business
Inferior response: "I would conduct a survey of end-users."
Hiring managers say that service is not an after-the-fact business: It must start
with the users. Satisfaction is impossible if end-users do not participate in
establishing baseline metrics and service agreements.
InfoWorld: How do you distinguish a good program from a bad one?
Ideal response: "On the most basic level, a good program meets the user's
articulated and unarticulated requirements. A good program is also intuitive and well
Inferior response: "A good program is well structured, has an effective GUI, makes
good use of XML [or another technology du jour], and has elegant middleware."
Recruiters and managers using this question also want to hire candidates who put
the user first. Candidates who respond with terms such as GUI or XML are technicians;
they might be skilled technically, but they do not understand the big picture.
InfoWorld: Why are you looking for another job?
Ideal response: "After five successful years with my [current] previous employer, I
am ready for new challenges, more customer contact, additional training, etc."
Inferior responses: "I can't stand my supervisor or co-workers, I want to reduce my
commute, I need more money."
Nothing turns off hiring managers more than a candidate with a negative attitude.
Satisfied, productive employees give positive reasons for instigating a job search.
InfoWorld: On what occasions are you tempted to lie?
Ideal response: "Like most people, I suppose I'm tempted to lie when I have messed
up. But I resist the temptation and tell the truth because it's in the customer's best
interest that my team understand exactly what happened so others may learn from my
Inferior response: "I never lie."
Most humans are tempted to lie when they make a mistake or are accused of doing so,
hiring managers say. The question is worded carefully so attentive listeners can
address the issue of temptation. Recruiters look for a candidate who admits being
tempted but states a commitment to the truth. Candidates who protest that they never
lie are probably insincere and didn't listen to the question.
InfoWorld: Tell me about a recent experience in which you brought together a team
to interpret functional specifications and translated that into a sound technical
Ideal response: "The first thing we did was convene a meeting of the development
team to make sure we understood the user's business requirements. We wanted to make
sure everyone saw the application in the context of the business, so that once we
started working on the individual modules everyone understood how it all fit
Inferior response: "I inspected the functional specifications and made the changes
that were necessary."
Managers hiring for teams want candidates that use "we" and "us" instead of "me"
and "I." If candidates do not emphasize collaboration in the interview, hiring managers
question whether they can lead a team.
InfoWorld: Here's a blank sheet of paper. If you had no constraints, how would you
reinvent our business from an IT perspective?
Ideal response: "From what I can tell about your business requirements, a major
challenge is integration of your Web-based front-end customer service applications with
your back-end legacy systems and databases [or other specifics]. So if I had no
constraints, I would start by ... ."
Inferior response: "What's hot right now is Linux-based applets enabling object-
oriented databases leveraging XML applets ... ."
Hiring managers want answers that show the candidate understands that business
InfoWorld: Describe an important technical project, the participants, your role,
and the outcome.
Hiring managers did not recite a single, specific ideal response. Rather they use
this question to probe the applicant's ability to spot problems, work with people,
manage his or her ego, use resources, be creative, plan, organize, and recruit support.
An effective response suggests a high level of enthusiasm.
Any answer focusing on something petty or the "solution" shows a lack of long-term
vision, hiring managers say.
IT is no longer a back-office process. Soft skills -- the ability to interact,
negotiate, communicate -- are paramount. In the days of the centralized data center,
companies emphasized technical skills. Today the focus is on creativity, teamwork, aand
project management. In short, many companies hire on attitude and then train for skill.
Job interviews not only test candidates on technical expertise, but simulate the
stress, insecurity, informality -- even chaos -- that characterize business as usual in