Practical Interviewing Techniques (Part 3)

This week’s column follows directly from Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. The premise I submitted back in August was straightforward: as the hiring manager responsible for selecting the best-qualified IT professional for an internal vacancy, how can you be sure that your selection is truly the best out of all the available applicants? I submit that the optimal interviewing technique is to add practical exercises into the interview process – exercises that place the applicants in conditions very much like your actual working environment. Better yet, build your practical exercises in such a way that they place the applicant under enough pressure that their “interview façade” cracks, thereby allowing you to observe who the candidate really is when he or she isn’t putting on a show.

This week, I’d like to discuss how to increase the difficulty factor when you’re interviewing potential supervisory candidates. The first two parts in this series discussed good ways to evaluate production staff. These techniques are perfectly valid ways to rattle and analyze a management candidate, but the exercises discussed don’t necessarily give you insight into an individual’s ability to multitask or deal with scrutiny from on high.[1] For that, you need something more demanding. I call this the “project” technique, because it requires the applicant to define a problem on the spot, then craft a solution to said problem and “sell” it to management on their own.

This came about during a recent IT operations supervisor interview. After the HR department sent me a stack of what appeared to be applicants with no supervisory experience, I crafted a series of challenges that were designed to test whether the applicants could, independent of any support, improvise while under intense pressure specifically from “upper management.”

The hiring board started off with a round of basic questions: what operational functions do you think this position is actually responsible for? When the candidates inevitably gave a wrong answer [2], all three members of the board stopped and took time to clarify the actual roles and responsibilities of the position. Next, we asked why the candidate actually wanted the job. In almost all cases, the reasons given us were ridiculously generic – canned statements like “I want a new challenge,” or “I want to learn more about technology.” These non-answers gave us board members the chance to interrupt and deconstruct the candidates’ logic out loud – putting them on the defensive from the start.

Once these “warm ups” were out of the way – and once the board had clearly seized the initiative away from the candidate – we kicked off the multi-phase “project” questions. The junior-most member of the hiring board would challenge the candidate to articulate a “new and vexing problem” that might be afflicting our organization. In most cases, the candidate wouldn’t have a clue what we might want to hear … They’d already proven in the opening gambit that they really didn’t know who we are and what we do. So, they’d try and beg off the question. “I couldn’t really say.”

We weren’t having that, not by any stretch. Each time a candidate would try to weasel out of the challenge, I’d interrupt with clarification: “That’s fair; you don’t know about what’s happening internal to our organization. Tell you what … Tell us about an industry-wide problem that might be significantly affecting us.” That second strike usually caused a candidate some consternation – they’d come to the interview prepared to talk about themselves and their past, not to talk about our mutual future, or actual work that needed to be done.

The best candidates would take a moment, mentally review their breakfast table reading for the last few cover stories that had been in CIO magazine or the Wall Street Journal or Business Technology, and then throw out a topic they’d skimmed over their coffee and Corn Flakes. “Could computing” was popular, as was “that new killer virus.” These days, BYOD is the hip and trendy subject, as is whatever topic made the cover of the new copy of WIRED magazine.[3]

If the candidate tried to escape-and-evade on us a second time (and several did), I’d press them harder: “You can’t speak for our industry segment? No problem. You must keep up with the news. Tell me about a general trend or issue that’s been in the news as of late. Anything will do.” We wouldn’t allow the applicant to proceed on until they’d given us something to work with. From our perspective, anything would do, really; the entire hiring panel had reviewed the previous week’s newspaper headlines and lead stories from the major cable news services, so we knew what was fresh in the collective consciousness.

At this point, most candidates understood that they had to come up with a topic. Most people offered us something that they felt reasonably familiar with. One dazed fellow who had spent his career as an outside plant cable installer opined that we should replace our entire copper network infrastructure with fibre optics. Really.

Whatever. We expected that the question would catch them off-guard. No matter. We wrote down whatever they said and moved on. A few more supervisory questions would then be worked through. About ten to fifteen minutes later, without warning, we’d cycle back to the “project” question.

Interviewer: “Thinking back to the problem you described a bit earlier … ”

Applicant: “What?”

Interviewer [consulting notes]: “You described the difficulty of [whatever it was] … So, tell me. How you would go about mitigating that problem for us as the manager in charge. 

Applicant [feigning nonchalance]: “I don’t really … Er ….”

Interviewer: “There’s a white-board right behind you. Feel free to use it. Here’s some scratch paper and a pen. Feel free to get up and move around if you need to. Just sketch for us the technical and operational details of your proposal to solve your issue.”

Applicant [eyes widen in shock]: “…”

Interviewer: “In your own time. Oh, and also tell us what it will cost in man-hours and procurement to implement.”

You might be thinking that it’s completely unfair to ask a person to design a technical solution utterly cold and unprepared. That’s true. It’s downright appalling … and it’s also exactly what happens to us every day in the business world. You’re deep in thought, working the company’s pressing issues, when the phone rings. Out of the blue, there’s a big-wig from a line-of-business department ranting about some hot new technical subject about which he knows crap-all, but that an attractive newsreader recently said was going to cause everyone to die. C’mon, it was on the news! The iPhone 6 gives people cancer1 Our data is too big to fit in the cloud! The symbol for the Euro is going to change and none of our fonts will work anymore! What are you lot in IT going to do about it! AAAAAAAAAUGH!

Sigh.

Working in systems and networks is, all things considered, fairly drama-free. You have tools, you have business requirements, and you put the two together in order to achieve the desired results. IT management, on the other hand, runs about two parts actual technical work to five parts crisis counselor. We have to not only know our industry in general and our business in minute detail, we also have to mitigate the damage that occurs when easily-spooked employees hear something new for which they have no frame of reference and start to panic. This is why we have management in the first place … to calm things down so that actual work can get accomplished. This practical reality requires us to have preternatural situational awareness about current and emerging issues, and have a ready-at-hand explanation for how any given issue might or might not affect the organization.

The last time we used the “project” technique during an interview, only one (out of a dozen) of the candidates actually used the white board to visually express their idea. Most of them simply stammered out a few abstract statements and indicated that they really, really wanted to move on. No problem – we accepted whatever they had to say … and we wrote it down.

More managerial and engineering questions ensured. The clever ones realized that there was probably a third round of artillery already on its way towards their position and made it a point to remember what they’d said for the “solution” to their “problem.” The hopeless ones forgot everything that they’d said and were unpleasantly surprised when the next wave of questions impacted. Sure enough, about twenty minutes later, we brought the subject up again:

Interviewer: “Thinking back to the problem you brought up in the beginning of this interview… ”

Applicant [growing pale]: “Um, yes?”

Interviewer: “I’m going to play the role of the VP of Manufacturing.  You have five minutes to convince me that your solution is the optimal way to protect our business from this problem. Sell me on this.”  

So, now that candidate had to remember what blather they had previously told us in terms of both a fired-from-the-hip problem and what they’d stammered out in terms of a mitigating solution. And they had to turn on the charisma in a one-on-one pitch to upper management. To up the difficulty factor, I impersonated (in both speech and temperament) one of our organization’s most notoriously technophobic executives. For every statement the candidate made, I fired off an immediate counterpoint that threated to derail the entire discussion. As so:

Applicant: “Sir, we need to move some of our core services to the cloud, in order to …”

Interviewer [interrupting]: “What does that mean? What’s wrong with having our services on the ground?”

Applicant: “Er, no … we need to move some computing services to …”

Interviewer [interrupting]: “You want to put computers on airplanes? What’s wrong with the data center you already have?”

Applicant: “We’re not actually going use airplanes; it’s more of a metaphor for …”

Interviewer [interrupting]: “Do you mean blimps? I’m not paying for blimps! This is ridiculous!”

            Applicant: “What? No! I mean … Blimps?”

            Interviewer [clearly vexed] “How else are you going to get something into the clouds? Rockets?! That’s crazy!

It was meant to be a no-win situation. Trying to explain complex technology issues to a determinedly non-technical person is almost always a losing game. On the whole, the hiring board didn’t care how important the “problem” was, or how comprehensive the “solution” to it might have been, or whether they candidate could articulate their position.  The three components to the challenge that mattered to us were:

  1. Did the candidate demonstrate a reasonable measure of awareness of current (or, better, emerging) issued in either business or technology (preferably both)?
  2. Could the candidate craft a reasonably convincing, impromptu solution to an abstract and ill-defined problem?
  3. Most importantly, could the candidate maintain their cool when an imposing authority figure demanded of them that they come up with immediate answers to difficult problems with little or no warning?

These are the kind of situations that our departmental and functional mangers find themselves in on a regular basis: It’s a running joke around our office that an IT department team member can expect to get ambushed at least once per formally-scheduled meeting with a complaint, problem or inquiry from an upset customer. This is why we place huge emphasis on cross-talk and department-wide situational awareness – at the end of each week, each of my department leads is expected to report to the collective: “You might hear about X later. Here’s what X refers to and what we’re doing about it.” Additionally, we encourage each employee (and require each manager) to push as much content as possible to the entire department. Notice a trend? Hear a story on the radio on the way to work? Overheard a complaint in the hallway? Tell everyone else about it and provide some supporting material so that everyone can make sense out of it.

Given that we recognize this state of affairs as illustrative of our natural environment, we aim to hire people for our management positions who are relatively quick on their feat, are calm under pressure, and can deftly handle a difficult audience. We’ll give our managers all of the breaking news that we can … But we need the individual manager to be able to make use of that information on their own. It’s akin to teaching a young knight how to win a fight against any weapon that an opponent might bring to a duel, We can prepare the knight to defend himself against a flail, claymore or pike, but we can’t make his nerves steady enough to accept a challenge. The knight-aspirant has to already posses the temperament to accept a challenge whenever and wherever it might occur, without warning.

I thought that I was going to get to the “belligerent actor” practical in this week’s column. Kind of ran out of time. If you’re interested in hearing about that particular variation, drop me a line and let me know that you’d like to see it in next week’s column.

[1] As a disclaimer: perhaps your work environment is regimented enough that you can have your managers focus exclusively on one task at a time; in most of the places that I’ve hired for, the pace of operations was so frenetic that the function- and department leads were expected to cycle swiftly from one crisis to another without ever losing control of multiple, simultaneous projects.

[2] There’s really no way that an outside candidate could realistically know what we do and how we do it, and I make sure that the candidate’s ignorance isn’t held against them in the interview. I prefer to use the opening question to frame the context for all the questions and exercises that follow. We’ll tell you what we want and will then give you a fair chance to give us what we’re interested in. That’s more than fair … If you’re paying attention.

[3] I’ve been reading WIRED since their first year of publication and I bring my copies to the office, tabbed and highlighted, for everyone else to review.

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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