Tech & Work

IT managers: How to answer tough questions in a job interview

A job interview for an IT position can be difficult, particularly if you are applying for a management job. Increase your chances for success by reading these suggested answers to general and specific questions you may face in your next interview.

Job interviews are nerve-racking for a variety of reasons, one of which is answering tough questions that you cannot prepare for in advance. Below, we’ve put together a sampling of some of the difficult questions an IT manager might face in a job interview. In addition, we’ve included some examples of answers that might impress your potential employer.

Tough questions and thoughtful answers
Most tough questions focus on the critical problems IT managers must solve on the job. We’ve asked a recruiter and an executive to describe the typical questions they ask IT manager candidates during a job interview. In addition, IT recruiter Susan Harvey of Bradford & Galt offers her recommended strategy for answering these questions.

“The most common technique is to ask questions that get progressively more difficult,” said David Friend, CEO of Sonexis, Inc., a voice-recognition applications company in Boston.

Managing the Q's and A's
Here are two typical interview questions Friend asks:

Question: Do you run Microsoft Exchange Server? What do you think of Windows 2000, and how have you been able to achieve reliability in servers in this environment?

Friend’s recommended answer: We ran a Microsoft shop on my last job. My view is that trying to keep two sets of developers, one experienced in Windows 2000 and another experienced in UNIX, is too expensive and wasteful. Since most desktop machines run Windows and most people prefer the Microsoft Office suite, we standardized on Microsoft because my prior company was committed to 99.999 percent uptime.

While we didn't quite achieve this goal, we were getting close. If you operate Windows in a highly distributed environment, you wind up running a lot of small servers instead of a few large ones, which would be typical in a UNIX shop. The key is developing a rigorous maintenance schedule and using good hardware. I use fault-tolerant servers throughout all the critical functions. The good news about a highly distributed environment is that it's relatively easy and inexpensive to swap out faulty hardware.

Harvey’s strategy: Be specific. Qualify and quantify your experience. Discuss your role, not what the team did in general. What did you do exactly? How long have you been doing it, and what percent of the time have you been doing it in terms of discussing a particular technology?

Don't talk around the answer. This isn't a game of dodgeball. If you have been doing support, don't claim to be the installation expert. Don't tell them you can read a book and learn quickly, because they hear that all day long. Companies want people who can hit the ground and go, especially during a soft economy when so many people are unemployed.

Question: On your last job, how many times did you have a service interruption in your company’s e-mail system?

Friend’s recommended answer: In my last job, I tried to achieve reliability, ideally no more than five or six minutes of unscheduled downtime per year. Just the rebooting of a server takes at least that long, so we're talking about no more than one interruption per year. With respect to the basic office systems, which would include e-mail, calendaring, and the like, we almost achieved this.

We completed 10 straight months with no interruptions and then had one 30-minute interruption. The total number of minutes exceeded our goal. Still, having only one interruption during a whole year was a significant achievement.

We did have a variety of other network problems that had nothing to do with the mail servers, however, including various firewall and VPN issues that made the network inaccessible from outside the company. We are working to correct these problems and keep them from reoccurring. Our traveling executives got upset when they couldn't access the network from the road.

Harvey’s strategy: This is a question where it is tempting to tell them that you were not involved in any way, shape, or form. What you need to do is be honest about what happened and how many times it happened. Focus on what you did to restore the problem, how you kept users informed. (An informed user is a happy user.) Describe steps to fix the problem.

Don't place blame. It's easy to say, "It's not my fault" or to blame it on antiquated technology. You won't win points for that.

Tough screening questions from a headhunter
Bobbi Knight, an account executive specializing in technology at executive search firm MRI Portland, has to carefully screen IT managers before she recommends them to clients. Here are some of the questions she asks during the screening process:

Question: What makes you think you can manage our Ecometry software applications better than anyone else can?

Knight’s recommended answer: I can come into your company and evaluate your system. I am familiar with the Ecometry software system. I could utilize the system modules that I implemented at my last company and train your people to use it better, leading to greater efficiencies and a cost savings of at least 30 percent. Based on what I learned on my previous job with the Ecometry module, I can train your people to use it properly to improve the process, cut expenses, and enhance timing and return—all the things that are involved in a warehouse management system. The result will be savings of at least 10 percent. I was also able to integrate it with third-party software so we were able to utilize other areas that were not included in the Ecometry system.

Harvey’s strategy: If you don't know what Ecometry software applications are, don't pretend you do. Bluffing equals lying in an interview. You will run into serious problems if you claim you have expertise that you don’t have. If you get the job and can't do it, you may lose it.

Instead, you might answer with information like this: I believe I can manage Ecometry software applications based on my three years of experience with a similar proprietary software application. The company I work for is also an e-commerce company and utilized the software application for a similar tracking tool.

Question: How do you see your role as an IT manager?

Knight’s recommended answer: My role includes viewing the IT department as a service organization serving your customers, which are the critical components of your organization. This includes the accounting, warehousing, and shipping departments, for example. The IT department’s role is to serve them so that it brings the organization to the most efficient levels possible. I’ve done that on my previous job, and I can achieve it for you.

Additionally, I need to look beyond IT so I can understand your business and see the big picture. This will help me take advantage of state-of-the art systems that will facilitate your needs and help run your business in the best possible way.

Harvey’s strategy: Start by stating what about your background would lend itself to this position. What have you done that has separated you from other potential candidates? You should do your homework to determine what is expected of someone in this role.

Don't tell them your grand plans about how you are going to change the world. Don't tell them all of the things you see they are doing wrong.

Questions you should expect
You can greatly reduce the stress of a job interview if you come prepared. Prior to the interview, decide how you would answer the following questions. Jot down talking points and anecdotes from your job history.
  1. 1.       What contributions would you make to our company?
  2. 2.       What is the toughest employee problem you have had to deal with as an IT manager, and how did you resolve it?
  3. 3.      What is wrong with our IT systems? How would you improve them?
  4. 4.       What is your plan for off-site tape storage and hosting mirrored sites to preserve company information in case of destruction?
  5. 5.       How do you keep applications (i.e., financial, engineering, HR, etc.) running and supported?
  6. 6.       How important is budget management, and how much experience do you have?
  7. 7.       How do you stop unauthorized access to your network?
  8. 8.       How do you know someone has accessed your network without authorization?
  9. 9.      How do you maintain network stability and plan for network failure?

When to answer a question with a question
Many interviewers will try to stump you, warns Andrew Finlayson, author of Questions That Work: How to Ask Questions That Will Help You Succeed in Any Business Situation.

Finlayson believes the trick in answering questions that stump you is responding with a clarification question. Here is an example:

Question: How would you handle a crisis?

Finlayson’s response: Can you give me an example of a recent crisis your company has faced that I would be asked to help resolve?

Finlayson also provided advice for other uncomfortable situations. If a question is asked that leaves you generally confused, you should ask, “Could you help me with your question?”

When asked a rude or illegal question, you might ask: “I’m sorry. How does that directly relate to the job I’m applying for?”

Be prepared for the group interview
The group interview is a fast and efficient way to barrage you with tough questions. Group interviews can be tense. The idea is to stay cool and not get rattled.

Certain traditional questions always turn up at interviews such as: "Tell me about yourself?" However, during a group interview, even the easy questions seem more difficult to answer for some people. Here are some of the most common interview questions to expect:
  • ·        What is important to you on a job?
  • ·        What aspects of work do you enjoy most?
  • ·        What aspects of work do you enjoy least?
  • ·        What are your goals?
  • ·        What are your major strengths? Weaknesses?
  • ·        Where do you see yourself 10 years down the road?
  • ·        Why did you leave your last job?
  • ·        What did you learn from your last job?
  • ·        Why do you want to work for us?

Don't try to be the perfect candidate
No interviewer expects you to be perfect. They’re more concerned with how you handle yourself when asked a tough question. If you can’t answer a tough question, say so. It’s the smart person who admits: “I don’t know the answer to the question. This is an area I never worked with directly, but now I’m anxious to learn all I can. I can see that it will be valuable on the job.” Bravo! That’s what the interviewer wanted to hear.

Which questions are unique to IT management positions?
We’ve all heard the typical questions to expect on an interview. Tell us about the specific questions IT managers should expect? Post a comment or send us an e-mail.


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