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Skills 360 – Technical Job Interviews (Part 2)

Free Resources: Lesson Module | Quiz & Vocab | PDF Transcript | Mobile Quizzes


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to succeed in a technical interview.

A technical interview can sound like a pretty scary prospect. The interviewers will test your knowledge and understanding of technical concepts, and your problem-solving abilities. You’ll also need to show them what you know and how you think. This is a pretty high-pressure situation, a difficult hoop to jump through for that job in finance or engineering or tech.

But there’s no way around it, so you’d better get used to the idea. Last week, I talked about how to answer those tough questions that you face. Today I want to talk about some of the common pitfalls that you might encounter in a technical interview. I mean those moments when your heart sinks because you don’t know what’s being asked, you don’t know the answer, or you make a mistake.

Of course, there’s a good way to prevent these things from happening in the first place. It’s the same key to success for any interview, presentation, or sales pitch. And that’s preparation. But even preparation can present challenges. One of the biggest mistakes is to over prepare or to cram too much new information into your head. What the interviewers really want to see is a clear grasp of fundamental principles and concepts. So don’t go trying to learn a new programming language before your interview.

Still, no matter how wisely you prepare, you might face some challenges. For one thing, you might not be sure exactly what the interviewer is asking. If you’re afraid of appearing dumb, you might just wing it and try to answer the question anyway. But that’s not such a great idea. It’s always best to get clarity first. You might ask “Could you please repeat the question?” Or you might say “could you rephrase that please?” Or even “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Could you explain?” That certainly sounds less dumb – and more honest – than giving an answer that’s way off base.

So, what if you understand the question, but you just don’t know the answer? Or what if you’re asked to solve a problem that you’re not really so sure about? Well, you can attempt to answer with what you’ve got. For example, you might say “I’m not certain about the programming language you’ve asked about, but I know that in C++ you could do it this way…”

But if the question requires you to actually know something and you don’t, then fess up. You can be honest about your ignorance and still maintain dignity. For example, you might say, “To be frank, I haven’t had to calculate such a thing before.” Or maybe, “That’s a very interesting question and one that I’d really like to find out an answer to.” In fact, many people report getting a job even when they couldn’t answer several questions in their technical interview. So don’t sweat it too much.

Now, what you shouldn’t do in these situations is show frustration. You see, it’s not just about what you know; it’s also about how you deal with pressure. The interviewer may be evaluating whether you’re a good person to have on a team with a tight deadline or crunching a tough problem. And in this case a good person is a calm person, one that doesn’t break under pressure.

There’s another situation in which it’s important to keep your cool, and that’s when you make a mistake. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked to calculate some financial ratios. And when you get to the end of your solution you realize the final number is way off and that you must have made an error. Do you just hope the interviewers don’t realize? Do you finish incorrectly and just apologize for messing up?

No, you do neither of those things. Instead, you calmly admit your mistake, back up, and correct yourself as you try again. Everybody makes mistakes. Only smart and dependable people admit it and try to make it right. And remember that the interviewers want to see your thought process. So you might say “Wait a second. It seems that I made a mistake. Let’s see… ah yes, here it is.” Or you could try: “Well that certainly seems wrong. I need to go back here and check my work…”

Now let’s go back and run through what we’ve just covered. Remember that good preparation goes a long way in tough situations. But if you don’t understand something, seek clarification. And if you don’t know something, be upfront about it. Do not show frustration. Instead, keep your head on your shoulders and face these obstacles calmly. Even when you make a mistake. Just explain what you’re thinking and move on. Technical interviews can be tough, but let your interviewers know that you’ve got a solid understanding of the basic concepts and that you can deal with adversity confidently.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Technical Job Interviews (Part 1)

Free Resources: Lesson Module | Quiz & Vocab | PDF Transcript | Mobile Quizzes


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to handle a technical interview.

Whether you’re in finance, engineering, technology, or software design, your job search might involve a technical interview. In a technical interview, you have to do more than just answer questions about your background and experience. You have show you understand the technical ins and outs of your field and have a sharp mind. And you’ll do that by solving technical problems and answering brainteasers.

That might sound challenging, but if you get a technical interview, consider yourself lucky as they’re typically reserved only for the best candidates. But chances are when you face a technical interview you feel more anxiety than good fortune. So how can you head into your interview with confidence and deal with the questions effectively?

For starters, you need to make sure you actually understand the question. If it’s not clear right away what the interviewers are asking you to do, be upfront about it and ask for clarification. For example, you might ask “exactly which programming language do you mean?” Or “should my calculations be adjusted for inflation?” If you don’t understand the exact question right off the bat, your solution or answer will be off base. It’s always best to clarify everything right at the start, rather than finding out you’re confused in the middle of your response.

Once you understand what is being asked, you can craft a good response. And you should realize that a technical interview is designed to test more than just your technical know-how. You’re also being assessed on your communication skills and problem-solving abilities. So make sure your answers are short, concise, and well-organized. Keep this in mind when you prepare for your interview. You shouldn’t just be brushing up on formulas – though that might also be important – you should also be practicing giving good clear answers and solutions.

But good clear answers aren’t always easy, and being clear might require you to take the time to stop and think. Problem-solving is a process. For example, if you’re asked how you would design a program that manages customer information and sorts it for marketing purposes, you won’t be expected to rattle off a solution off the top of your head. You’ll need to think about it. And when you do, avoid filling the time with useless chatter like “hmm… that’s a tough one” or “well, maybe I could try… oh… no, that wouldn’t work…”

But while you want to avoid useless chatter, you do want to show the interviewers your thought process. That’s really what they’re interested in! So think it through out loud. Describe the mental steps you’re taking. Give them insight on how you’re approaching the problem while minimizing “ums” and “ahs” that are meant just to fill the silence.

Another good little strategy you can use when answering questions is relating your ideas or the problem to previous work situations you’ve faced. This is a good way to underline key experiences and show how you’ve learnt from them. For example, imagine you’re in an accounting interview faced with the question “is it possible for a company to show positive cash flow yet be in serious trouble?” You can answer “yes” and explain how a company might be selling off inventory and delaying payables. But you can also add “and I saw several examples of this during my time with KPMG.”

Some questions might require pretty long and complex answers, particularly ones in which you have to design a program or analyze a situation. You might even be asked to work out a problem on a whiteboard. Once again, you need to make sure you’re clear on the task from the get-go.

But you should also make sure your audience is clear at the end of your response. You might say “is that the kind of solution you were looking for?” Or “is there any part of my solution that wasn’t clear?” Or “would you like me to explain any of these steps in more detail?” Questions like that will give you the chance to clear up anything that you didn’t get across perfectly, and it shows that you care about making yourself understood.

Now let’s run through all of this again to make sure you’re clear on what I’ve suggested. Start by clarifying the question, if necessary. Next, craft a brief and concise response. Stop to think when necessary and walk the interviewers through your thought process. Relate problems or ideas to previous experience if you can, and finish up by checking that everyone’s understood.

And remember, this gets easier with practice, so don’t forget to spend some quality time preparing and rehearsing technical questions. In our next lesson, I’ll talk about some common pitfalls and how to avoid or deal with them.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.