CXO

Interviewing: Looking beyond the resume

Knowing the right questions to ask during an interview is sometimes difficult. But it's especially difficult when technical knowledge is a key requirement for the position you are seeking to fill. Bob Potemski shares four interviewing guidelines for technical trainers and developers.


Almost every day I hear about a shortage of candidates for IT jobs. Personally, this seems odd to me because, based on what I've observed, there should be no shortage. Companies are offering lucrative, non-traditional compensation packages to new IT hires; training organizations are churning out Microsoft Certified System Engineers (MCSEs) in matters of weeks; and publishers are devoting entire lines—sometimes even entire imprints—to books, CDs, and other products dedicated to helping individuals increase their market value in the Information economy.

If you're an IT training manager, HR manager, or technical recruiter, you're responsible for hiring technical trainers. With the proliferation of training credentials, the hard part is separating the good candidates from the rest, and the best candidates from the good. Here are four guidelines that will help you bolster your interviewing skills and make the very best hiring choices.

Guideline one
Look beyond the candidate's certifications. It's no secret that certification prep has become almost a cottage industry. Nor is it any surprise. IT certification has been touted as the ticket to high-paying jobs in the computer field. Nearly every trainer I interview, for example, has obtained, or is working on, an MCSE. This statement is not intended to diminish the accomplishment of those who have survived this rigorous testing procedure; rather, it is a caveat to interviewer and interviewee alike that all MCSEs are not created equal. They can't all be the cream of the crop. They will vary in experience, in the ability to retain information, in their knowledge outside the realm of testing, and other important areas. Look beyond the certification.
Investigate what the candidate has done since becoming certified. Ask what skills the candidate’s current job requires and how certification helped the candidate perform them. An interesting question to ask is, "Do you see certification as a necessary credential in today's IT environment?" followed by, “Why or why not?” The idea here is to see if you get a knee-jerk "yes" answer to the first question. Savvy interviewees will talk about certification’s increasing popularity and may even mention the fact that some cert tests can be passed even though the person taking the test has never actually done the things included on the test. I consider this kind of answer to be a good sign in an interview: it means that the candidate isn't afraid to speak openly or to have comments scrutinized by the interviewer. And if that's the case, perhaps the candidate has something more to offer.
I also recommend that you not make it a practice to require a particular certification for any given position. Legal issues aside, there are plenty of IT professionals who have specifically chosen not to pursue certification. These professionals may feel that they already have sufficient knowledge for the position they are seeking in addition to a performance record on which they can stand. Or, it is possible that because tests make them nervous, they don't perform well in testing situations and thus avoid taking them. Whatever the reason, don't write off a candidate on paper just because the person does not have the specific certification currently in vogue.

Guideline two
If you must take certifications into account, know what they are and what's required to get them. Many certifications can be obtained solely by passing a written test. Others require a demonstration of practical skills.
I am a Certified Technical Trainer (CTT). To receive that certification, I passed a written test. But I also had to submit a video of my presentation skills, culled from an actual training session. The test included specific requirements about the length and content of the video, and even instructions for the camera operator. A panel of judges evaluated the video to determine whether I had demonstrated enough of the requisite skills to pass the test. This kind of certification requires more effort to achieve. One way to choose between applicants is to give more weight to the certifications that are harder to obtain.
An inherent danger in test-only certifications is that a sharp candidate might be able to study hard enough to pass all the necessary tests without ever having to demonstrate actual proficiency. That phenomenon is so widely recognized with regards to Microsoft certification that the Microsoft cert has been given a derisive nickname—the "paper MCSE"—meaning that a person can pass the tests with only minimal hands-on experience. Again, my point is not to diminish the accomplishment but to remind interviewers that some certs mean simply that the applicant has a broad but shallow knowledge base. While this might not disqualify the applicant, it's definitely something you should think about before extending a job offer.

Guideline three
Have some technical questions prepared and know the correct answers to them. If you're the IT or MIS manager, this guideline is probably no sweat. But if you're an HR person or a technical recruiter, depending on your technical background, you may be dealing with someone whose technical knowledge outstrips yours. Don't despair. Enlist some technical guru type friends (or call in some favors) to help you prepare a list of technical questions (and answers) you can ask during an interview.
Consider a scenario in which you are interviewing a candidate for a position as a trainer for Microsoft Office suite. You might frame your question as follows: "I'm installing Office 2000 on my computer that already has Office 97 on it. What options does the install message box give me?" A reasonable follow-up would be "Under those circumstances, does anything unexpected happen during the installation?" Note that these are not "trick" questions. They are simply based on things the applicant would see or experience.
I try to function almost as my own real-life version of an adaptive test, revisiting areas where the applicant has missed a question, before deciding that the person isn’t well-versed on a particular topic.

Guideline four
Capture the intangibles. There are a number of characteristics that separate the "good" candidates from the standouts. Develop a set of questions that will allow you to see the interviewee's thought process in action.
To find out just how an interviewee thinks, you might try the following questions: "Tell me about the most difficult IT problem you ever faced and how you dealt with it. In retrospect, would you handle it the same way now?" These questions go beyond the simple "tell me how much experience you have" type of query and ask for self-reflection and insight. The follow-up can be used to assess the candidate’s poise and ability to self-critique. A question like "Where do you see the field of IT heading in the next 10 years?" will tell you whether the applicant has vision (or just tunnel vision). Of course, it's important to assure the interviewee that there are no right or wrong answers when you ask this kind of question, but think ahead about the kind of answer you'd like to hear. Savvy candidates will talk about hardware improvements, even further reliance on the Internet, and the ubiquitous nature of networking. They might even know that most new home construction offers household wiring for a computer network. They'll talk about increasing processor speeds and consumer hard drives of 1 terabyte or more. Or, they may offer an answer that's even more visionary and more creative.
Finding good IT job candidates can be difficult. Recruiting and hiring outstanding ones is an even bigger challenge. Many jobs in the IT field remain open. The next time you interview candidates for a technical position, try using the guidelines outlined above to stretch your candidates during the interview. You might be pleased with what they show you.
If you have any tips on interviewing IT trainers and developers that you’d like to share, please post your comments below. If you have any suggestions for future articles in the TrainingRepublic, please send us a note .

Bob Potemski, MS, CTT, is a writer and trainer transplanted from New York. He and his five dogs now make their home in the Midwest. Bob has a bachelor of science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master's degree in counseling from Long Island University. He has spent the last 10 years working in human development.

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