10 ways to spot top technology talent during the interview process

Finding top talent can be a challenge, but these 10 tips can help you get the most out of the interview process and pick the winners.

Photo of candidates waiting for a job interview.

Image: Jovanmandic, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the course of my career in IT as a system administrator, I've interviewed dozens of potential coworkers. Some turned out to be stellar employees, others were average, and a few turned out to be abysmal hiring mistakes. Unfortunately, every now and again I have encountered a "Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde" candidate who performed well during the interview then proved an unmotivated or incompetent dud.

SEE: How to develop your IT team's capabilities (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

This is a problem companies should avoid as much as possible because a subpar employee who doesn't meet their deliverables and has a short list of accomplishments (or who doesn't even willingly perform any work and what they do work on seems never finished or finished properly) is a drain. Bad employees become a drain on resources, morale, and productivity.

Worse, once someone is entrenched in a position it can be very hard to get them removed, at least without having to engage in tedious documentation, putting them on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and engaging management and HR. 

I've even seen first-hand instances in which management didn't want to release a poor performer because "we might lose the position,and someone doing half the work is better than no one in the role." I've also been told an unproductive employee had a mythical medical condition and thus their faulty memory caused them to engage in a minimal amount of work.  I've even seen situations in which the employee in question had cozied up to management with just the right blend of manipulation to safeguard the position. Meanwhile, productive employees who are pulling their weight are often exasperated and resentful about the employee not doing their share. 

Correct the mistake before it happens with these ten ways to spot quality IT professionals during the interview process.

  1. They can cite specific concrete examples of their accomplishments

I used to play Mr. Nice Guy when interviewing candidates and just get a feel for their interests, what they'd been working on, and what applications and operating systems they've worked with.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. That easygoing nature of mine allowed some bummer employees to fly in under the radar. Now I question them for very specific details of what they've designed or built, what they support and how they do it, what their day-to-day tasks look like, and more.

It's not enough for someone to say, "I built some servers." How did you build them? Via which technology? How did you get them patched? Was configuration management software involved? How did they get inserted into the environment? How were they documented? How did you turn it over to the user community? Details, details, details.

2. They know the terms and lingo--and what they mean

I once asked an interviewee how he would troubleshoot a printer hooked up to a Windows PC that wasn't working. After stumbling his way through the basics he started discussing editing the registry of the Windows PC in what was clearly a non sequitur. It was embarrassing for us both. This candidate knew just enough about the terminology to make a Hail Mary play when answering the question, but not enough to present a coherent strategy.

Don't fall for any word salads, buzzwords, or rushed recitation of acronyms like, AWS, DNS, DHCP, SAN, NAS, etc. Ensure candidates know the technological terms and use them appropriately in their descriptions of what they've worked on or are interested in.

3. They are passionate about technology

The true stars I've worked with in IT don't see it as just a 9-to-5 job to draw a paycheck. They live and breathe it all day, all evening, seven days a week.

I'm certainly not saying you should look for someone who wants to put in 80 hours a week doing their job, but someone who sees IT as a hobby they happen to get paid for is likely a desirable candidate.

I once interviewed a man who had designed and built a fantasy football website which brought him a nice little side income from the advertising involved. He told me while the money was nice, figuring out how to set up the website and get traffic to it was the fun part. He wasn't even interested in or knowledgeable about football, but wanted to see if he could get it done. We hired him and he found all manner of creative ways to help extend and improve our environment because I could see his passion at work--and outside of it.

4. Find out how they would fix flaws in technology

Ask candidates what they don't like about technology--everyone has something; a pet peeve or issue with some well-known or well-used operating system, service or device. Then ask what they would do to fix it. 

The goal here is to determine whether a candidate has the drive and motivation to actually correct these problems or peeves, rather than just complaining about them. And when you ask how they would remedy the situation, don't take "to have that not happen" for an answer. See what they can come up with for concrete solutions.

5. Assess their ability to work independently

Use hypothetical scenarios on a candidate to describe a subjective experience in which they couldn't figure out or fix a certain problem. What would they do right off the bat? 

"Ask a coworker" should be far down the list. Take it from me, hiring people whose first reaction to any tough situation is to just drop everything and beg a colleague for help is a grave mistake. I've been there, and I call it sleeve tugging. It gets to be intolerable after a while, and people will start actively avoiding this person.

I'm not saying employees shouldn't be trained to do their jobs properly or that they shouldn't seek input from a fresh set of eyes on a troubling problem. I am saying an essential skill set is the ability to figure things out on their own as best they can rather than passing the buck.

What you want to hear is that someone will research the problem, check the documentation (both internal and external), look on the vendor's website, check community IT forums, contact vendor support, maybe even contact a colleague they know is an expert and so on.

This kind of independent initiative is critical to locating someone who will be a valuable and productive team member, rather than someone who just tries to farm out the tough stuff to other people who have their own tasks to worry about.

6. Make sure they can bring value to a team

It's great to hire someone who can work alone, but you don't want someone so isolated they can't pitch in and help out when needed, such as for on-call coverage, crisis situations, or other efforts where everyone has to row in the same direction.

Ask some creative questions along the lines of "Name something you did to help out your team in a tough situation" or "what do you think defines a good team?" You'll want answers like, "I responded to a critical situation to brainstorm with my coworkers during a difficult outage," along with how they got the job done, and "People with unique perspectives who can all bring different strengths to the table to make the group stronger."

It's also worth asking questions such as, "Describe the types of coworkers you align with the best." If they've really pulled together with their peers and gotten results, you'll see an interesting and diverse array of answers, but if they're solely interested in looking out for Number One, this will be a challenge to provide a detailed response to.

7. Determine how they handle deadlines

Asking for concrete details on how they handled difficult and challenging deadlines and what their perspective is on time management can yield bountiful results. Look for candidates that have gone the extra mile and put in the time necessary to make critical deadlines.

That's not always possible, of course, so also determine how they handled the situation when they knew they could not make the deadline. Did they engage the stakeholder or customer? Inform management? Own the situation and come up with a reasonable alternative?  Or did they blow it off or point fingers?

Keep in mind that this question, like all others, can be answered either accurately or inaccurately, depending on the candidate's skill for merely telling people what they want to hear. However, deadline management is an important trait for an IT professional, and this question can help ensure how aware they are of its criticality.

8. Establish their ideal workday

Ask a candidate what their ideal workday would entail. See if their response indicates that it would involve a cornucopia of productive examples detailing how they would earn their pay. You want specific details, not just "fixing problems" or "helping users."

The answer, "Getting through the day with nothing breaking" is a bad sign; it indicates a passivity and lack of curiosity about how to manage and improve the environment to which they're assigned.

You might also ask related questions such as, "What do you do when things are quiet?" and "Would you rather be overworked or underworked?" to get a feel for their work ethic and habits.

9. Find out what they would do if they were the boss

Rather than asking the tired old cliche, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" ask what they would do if they were in charge. What technologies would they implement? What processes would they put in place? What kind of people would they hire?  What would their quarterly and annual goals look like?

It's not that they have to think like a manager, it's that you want to get their insights as to how they would operate as a leader. You want to see what sort of vision they have, what would be on their roadmap, and how they would enact positive changes to help the organization.

Someone only focused on dragging themselves through the workday and going home is going to have a very different (and less impressive) set of responses than someone who cares about the role and what they can bring to it.

10. Make them pass an actual technology test

Depending on the role you're hiring for, ensure the candidate can prove their mettle in a hands-on scenario. Make them troubleshoot an application or operating system issue, to configure a network switch, to write a puppet module, or some other element they'll be doing every day. Have the spare software or hardware (or simulation software or virtual machine) handy and available for them to show their skills.

Hopefully these tips will assist you in weeding out the subpar candidates and locating the prime employees who will make your company operate more efficiently and successfully.

One last tip--make sure to thoroughly check candidate's references: The more, the better.  Their references should involve individuals in management roles, not just their peers or friends. 

Not every company is allowed to give out certain information about a current or former employee, of course, but if possible, determine how the candidate managed their workload, dealt with adversity or outages, and interacted with customers. Make sure to get examples of their accomplishments, skills, and professionalism.

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