I've stressed many times that an interview is not just an exercise is convincing a potential employer that you're the best person for the job. It's also a vehicle by which a job candidate can find out if a company is suited for him or her.
This is important for any numbers of reasons, including determining if its a good psychological fit, that there is room for growth, that the position will utilize the skills you're best at, etc. But it's particularly important for those in the information technology field to know "what they're getting into." Here's why:
Knowing how a company views its IT department is a crucial element in making the decision to accept a job. Some companies view IT as they would the building's property manager—just keep the lights on and we're good. Other companies, particularly the more savvy ones who understand the connection between IT and the bottom line, will value input from their IT departments and will treat IT as a partner.
If you're being interviewed by an IT person, you can sometimes get the inside track. You wouldn't be offending the person by asking how the company views its IT initiatives.
If your initial interview is with someone in HR, you might as well save the question because that person will likely have no idea. But if, in the second interview, you meet the hiring manager, you should ask some guiding questions about IT's role. Ask the obvious ones like:
*"What OS does the company use?" It's not fiscally possible for all companies to stay at the forefront of OS migrations, but if you get an answer along the lines of: "We're sticking with NT, because if it ain't broken, why fix it, you know?" you have the right to be reasonably alarmed.
*"What mobile devices does your company support?" If the CEO refers to an iPhone as a "newfangled gadget," then that might be a red flag.
*"How does your company integrate its business intelligence?" Again, if by "business intelligence" the CEO thinks you're talking about Fred, the company accountant, you might want to flee the site.
I'm being facetious to some extent, but you get the idea. There are non-invasive ways of finding out how a company views technology.
Of course, you might purposefully choose to join a company that is a little behind on its technology. It might be a good way for you to become a leader for the company in a very important field. You will also more likely be the be-all end-all for all issues technical. It can be both good and bad if the other employees think of you as the go-to person for everything IT. You become known for a certain set of skills, which can raise your profile and make you indispensable in their eyes.
Of course, it also means that you'll be the one everyone turns to regarding anything remotely mechanical or technical. In other words, people will be asking you about their personal cell phones and their TiVo.
Either way, the interview is a good way to discern the atmosphere of a company before making a commitment.
Toni Bowers is the former 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.