How to flourish in an IT job interview

by Mindi Clews on 14/10/2015 10:00

How to flourish in an IT job interview - image of IT professional being interviewed

Your cracking IT curriculum vitae (read How to write an IT CV that gets you shortlisted) and top-notch IT skills have attracted an IT employer’s attention and you’ve been shortlisted for an interview for an exciting IT role. This is your chance to convert your strong IT CV into a great first impression and creates an opportunity to join the company’s team.

I have responsibility for the recruitment activities at Equinox IT, and in this article I share my recommendations for flourishing in IT job interviews based on my observations of hundreds of candidates in interview situations. The article will focus on what works within the New Zealand IT context.

IT job interview preparation

1. Get ready – more ready than anyone else

It may sound obvious but do your research, whether you’re familiar with your prospective employer or not. Visit their website and read their reports, blog articles, and marketing material. Do a quick Google search – what are others saying about this organisation? Do some research into the industry and domain, so that you can show you understand the broader context and constraints that the organisation operates within. It’s all information you can use to show you understand the organisation, the context in which it operates, and how you’re the best person to fit in and add value to it.

2. Get on the phone

As the recruitment contact at Equinox IT, I find it surprising so few candidates call in advance of an IT job interview to ask for additional information they feel would help them prepare. By making this call to ask a few questions you’d at least stand out in the crowd because someone in the recruitment team can already connect a real person to the CV.

3. Ask around

Who do you know who’s working at the company or has worked there? Use your networks to find out what they look for in a candidate, and what they’re like to work with. Remember, this process is also about you deciding if the company is a good fit for you.

4. Sharpen up your skills

Will your IT interview include a test of your IT skills? If you don’t know, ask. Many interviews these days require a presentation or exercise to validate that you have the core capabilities required. If you’re asked to prepare in advance, put in more time than others would.

5. Practise your story

I still find it useful to follow the ‘STAR’ framework when practising responses to interview questions. That means you think about what questions you may be asked and consider them in relation to Situations you’ve faced, what you were Tasked with, what Action you took, and what the Results were. Write down your answers to help you remember what to say, but remember to talk to this experience, not read from your notes during the IT interview.

6. Consider the curly questions

What’s the worst thing they could ask you? Related to the point above, is there anything in your IT CV that might attract a pointed question? Some interviewers like to throw something in to see how you cope with a curve ball, so think about what they could ask that you’re less than comfortable answering, and be prepared to speak to this.

7. Be prepared to fill in the gaps

Periods where you weren’t working, gigs of short duration and abrupt career changes can make recruiters and hiring managers uncomfortable. So be ready to explain, and be prepared to be open and honest. While the circumstances may or may not support your case for employment, your open approach to communicating the situation will say a lot about your character fit to the organisation.

Maybe you left IT for a couple of years to do something else? Me, I spent two years learning to be a cheesemaker, then came back to IT. Talk about what you learned during that time, and how that adds to who you are and what you can do today.

The IT job interview

Preparation done, it’s time to put it into practice at your IT job interview.

8. Dress the part

If you’re going for a corporate role, you need to dress professionally. But not all IT teams and organisations are so formal. If you can, ask around and find out what the company’s dress code is and dress slightly smarter. If you can’t find out, play it safe and go for business attire.

9. Treat everyone with respect

How you interact with everyone you meet, from the interview panel to the receptionist, to the barista who makes your coffee, will be used to gauge what kind of person you are. So be respectful to everyone.

10. Answer questions fully – but know when to stop

Because you’ve done the preparation you should know how to answer pretty much anything that’s put to you, but don’t get bogged down. Using examples to illustrate what you have done is essential, but don’t go on. I'd recommend answering the question fully but concisely, and then allow the interviewers to drill in further in any areas they may require or if they are satisfied they can move onto the next question.

11. Be a proof giver and be memorable

An interview is really a sales activity - you are selling yourself to the employer and the employer may be selling the company to you. Think about this, did you take the salesperson at their word the last time that you were being sold to? More likely you asked for proof of the benefit or feature they were selling. You need to do the same when you are selling yourself. Don't just say that you have written great user stories or specifications by example, take along examples of ones you have written. Don't just say that you have a reputation for the quality of your code, take some of your code along for the employer to review. Not only does this strongly reinforce your strengths and fit to the role, it also differentiates you from other candidates and makes you and your IT interview memorable for the interview panel. 

12. Failures are okay

If you’re asked, talk positively about the tough work you’ve done, projects that have failed and relationships that have been hard work. It’s the tough stuff you have done and the hard lessons you learned that give a prospective employer the truest picture of your potential. At Equinox IT we hire on attitude then train on skills, which means we’re most interested in how you failed then succeeded by applying what you’d learned.

14. Be positively opinionated

Your interviewers want to hear what you’ve got to say. They want to hear your opinions – your solutions – even if it goes contrary to current thinking. Just frame things as positively as you can – especially when talking about former colleagues and managers. Remember, lots of us know each other in the IT industry.

15. Be confident

In my opinion there is no such thing as failure when it comes to interviews. It you decide you want the role and you are offered the position after one or more interviews that is great. But if you are not offered the position or if the role is not for you, you have still completed another iteration of learning that will make you better prepared for the next interview. It's like agile software development - tight cycles of development give you immediate feedback for continuous improvement, and ultimately after a number of iterations you deliver the software product the business wants. Similarly regular interviews with feedback allow you to become great in interview situations, and ultimately, in time, you will succeed in being offered a job you want. If you can't fail there is nothing to lose, so you can be confident and this will help you make a stronger impression with the interview panel. Note that being confident is good; but being cocky, arrogant, or egotistical is not.

16. Ask questions, but not about pay

An employment relationship is not one-sided. Assuming you’ve had a jolly good think about what’s important to you at work, you’ll want to know some stuff from the company. For more ideas on this see our article How to pick an IT employer who aligns with your personal values. So ask some questions, but never ask about pay and benefits in a panel interview. Put simply, talking about money can make everyone uncomfortable. The panel may consist of team members who should not know your specific employment details or perhaps earn less than what you may be offered. Ask the recruiter or hiring manager privately if you haven’t already had the opportunity.

17. Be you

In other words, be likeable. How you relate to others – your interpersonal skills – will be under just as much scrutiny as your technical skills. In some ways, interviewing for an IT job is like dating. So be nice, be charming, laugh with them, make a point of remembering their names and use them, do what you can to make them start thinking you’re already part of the team. If possible, drop in something about what you’re reading, what you’ve been researching, what you’re exploring in your own time.

Show the full you

So there you have it - interviews are all about showing the full you. In a nutshell, prepare better than anyone else, be open and honest, answer questions fully but concisely, give proof, and be confident, respectful and positive. Follow these steps and you should be well placed to make a great impression at your next IT interview.

We're regularly looking for great people to join the Equinox IT team, so when you are ready to take your next step, you are welcome to check out our current vacancies or follow us on LinkedIn for notification of future IT job opportunities.

Good luck!

Recorded webinar: The IT professional - an unexpected journey

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