Could you explain technology to a non-IT person?

If an interviewer asks you to explain a technical topic like you would to a non-IT person, here's what he's really trying to find out.

I read somewhere that the best way to judge a job candidate's technical knowledge is to ask him or her to explain a technical concept in layman's terms. That sounded like a very simple statement at the time, but I have to admit that there's a lot of truth to it.

Think about the best teacher you ever had in school — it was probably a person who introduced you to complex concepts by first relating them to something you could readily relate to or understand. Now, of course, you can argue that, as an IT pro, your job is not to teach people (unless you're in the training sector).

But you do have to be able to put your theoretical know-how into real work. When an interviewer asks you to explain a technical topic like you would to a non-IT person, what he is looking for is if you can see how technical tools and practices relate to the business as a whole. You can't sell technology to end-users and executives unless you can effectively explain to them why it is needed.

On a broader scale, this is a form of IT/business alignment — a term you've heard so many times in the last decade that it has become jargon-ish. But it is important, and potential employers are looking to see if you have the ability to understand the business and translate technology to shareholders.

In a blog I wrote last year, I recommended analogies that can be used to explain complex concepts. Be sure to read the member comments following the piece for some great examples of analogies that work.

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Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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