What to expect on your first technical interview?

When you are interviewing with a new company, whether it is for your first tech job or you are moving your way up in your career, you will very likely be asked to take part in a technical interview. If this is your first time being invited to demonstrate your skills, this can absolutely be anxiety-inducing. There is just so much to know, do you know enough? What will they ask? What will I do? Who will be in the room? There are many variables, let’s take a closer look at what to expect during a technical interview for an IT job.

When you are interviewing with a new company, whether it is for your first tech job or you are moving your way up in your career, you will very likely be asked to take part in a technical interview. If this is your first time being invited to demonstrate your skills, this can absolutely be anxiety-inducing.

There is just so much to know, do you know enough? What will they ask? What will I do? Who will be in the room? There are many variables, let’s take a closer look at what to expect during a technical interview for an IT job.

What is a technical interview?

Hiring for a technical position is a difficult task. Anyone with this responsibility knows the challenges of finding amazing people, who are available to start soon, within the budgeted salary requirements, and who will be a good fit for their team.

Hiring managers will be looking at you from every possible angle and trying to get to really know you in as little time as possible. Perhaps you will talk to someone by phone, meet someone else in person, do a group interview, and so on. Putting job candidates in these different settings and seeing how they cope is a good method to find quality candidates amongst many mediocre ones.

The technical interview is just one more possible scenario for you to let your prospective employer know who you really are. Each company has their own way of performing the interview, and there may be multiple variations of the interview within a single company. Unlike most other forms of interviews, however, the technical interview is where you stop talking about knowing how to do something, and instead you prove it.

This can sound intimidating! There will be nowhere to hide if you don’t know the answer to a question. You won’t be able to dance around answers and wow anyone with witty insights- instead, you’ll have to solve a problem, or multiple problems, all while some people watch you do it. Ack!

What can I expect to do in a technical interview?

In the larger tech-world, it is well known what kind of hoops our coder brethren need to jump through to work at companies like Google and Facebook. Most people, however, are not going to find themselves at one of the tech giants, but instead at small to midsize businesses around the country. Perhaps the company is focused solely on Information Technology, such as at a consulting firm or Managed Services Provider.

Perhaps the company, on the whole, has nothing to do with tech but instead sells unrelated products and services. These variables can create vastly different experiences in the interview process.

If the job you are chasing is on the help desk, in Systems Administration, or Network Engineering, then expect to work through some simulated problems. A handful of mock tickets will be thrown your way, and you may be asked to respond verbally, use a whiteboard, or pull out a laptop and log into a test environment. The interviewers should make themselves available to you if you have questions throughout, and will often provide written or verbal instructions as you move throughout the process.

If there is anything you should keep in mind to calm your nerves, it is this: the interviewers want you to succeed! Interviewing is a time-consuming, labor intensive, and expensive process. Many companies don’t begin that process until they need to make an immediate hire. As a result, the people on the other side of the table will be hoping that you are the best possible candidate and that you will be a good fit for their team. Now it is time to show them what you’ve got!

WHAT ARE THE INTERVIEWERS LOOKING FOR?

Many times during a technical interview, non-managerial staff will be brought in. These may be your potential peers or team leads. They will likely be technicians themselves, and will quite possibly have worked through the very same technical interview you have before you. Don’t lose sight of the fact that these are ordinary people, with similar backgrounds to your own, similar interests to your own, and they don’t have much interest in tricking you. They want you to succeed, and they almost certainly want to get back to their day job!

COMMUNICATION IS KEY.

This is the technical interview, sure, but you are still interviewing with other human beings. You will need to shake hands, speak clearly, make contact, present yourself in the best possible way.

Nearly every aspect of IT is a customer service job, whether you know it or not, or whether you like it or not. IT supports people, and if you can’t communicate effectively with people, then your interviewer will find someone who can.

BE A PROBLEM SOLVER.

You will be asked to work through some simulated problems. These may be delivered to you very plainly, or they will come in the form of mock tickets. Your interviewers will want to see you bring these simulated problems to a resolution in whatever way you are capable of.

When I do technical interviews, I allow the candidate to have every resource available to them just like in the real world. By this I, of course, mean Google. I would rather see a candidate work through a problem, get stuck, find the solution, and carry on solving the problem than to simply reach a stopping point. Much of what we do in this field is research problems online, so a bit of an “open book” approach is fine by me.

As you work through the problems, continue communicating with your interviewers. Explain what it is that you are doing, and why you are doing it. What is your decision-making process? Let them inside your mind and don’t be afraid to speak out loud. Even if you aren’t successful in resolving all of the problems you are tasked with, your interviewers will want to have insight into how your brain works. Only you can give that to them.

Tip: Do not give up too quickly! You may think that it does not look good to struggle through a problem, but if you are working hard and following a method while troubleshooting (rather than just shooting in the dark), then that persistence will be rewarded.

DON’T LOSE YOUR NERVE.

The pressure of a technical interview can be a lot to take, especially if you are new to this field or this practice. You might be working on systems that are unfamiliar to you or troubleshooting software you have never seen before. Your mind may be working overtime to solve problems, all while your interviewers are asking unrelated questions or talking amongst themselves.

It is not uncommon for candidates to sweat, stutter, or even possibly tremble during these interviews. Don’t let that be you. Take your time, breathe, and stay calm. You interviewers will be looking for someone who not only knows the technology but who they can put in front of their end users or clients and know for a certainty that they will leave a positive impression.

BE HUMBLE.

Something about the added pressure of a technical interview seems to bring out the worst attitudes in some people. My take on this is that when people are thrown into a stressful situation, with many unknowns and variables, and they want to have all the answers they tend posture a bit more than they should.

You are smart, and you should both celebrate and demonstrate that to anyone you interview with. Let your technical skills do the talking, however, and be sure to not talk down to your interviewers or about their teams, end users, or clients. You might ace the interview, but no one wants to work with someone who must always be the smartest person in the room. Be honest, show humility, ask questions, and just be a normal person. That’s far rarer than you might think!

IT IS OKAY TO BE DIFFERENT.

After interviewing dozens of people using the same process, watching candidates work through the same problems in the same ways can become tedious. The ones who stand out and get remembered are the ones who show me new ways of solving old problems.

Perhaps the candidate has been instructed to do something that is often accomplished via the GUI, but the candidate decides to use PowerShell. Now I not only know that they know how to accomplish the task, but that they have an added weapon in their arsenal- and that they will take the time to learn how to use it. That is all valuable information that I will remember.

You must assume that your interviewers are meeting lots and lots of qualified candidates. Even if you do well during the interview process, be certain to take time to leave a memorable impression. Strike up a quality conversation, tell a good joke, ask interesting questions, or solve a problem in a new way. Do anything you can to set yourself apart from the rest.

IT MIGHT BE TECHNICAL, BUT IT IS STILL AN INTERVIEW.

It is easy to think that since this is the technical interview, that many of the interview norms enjoyed during other steps of a company’s recruiting process no longer apply. This is most definitely not the case.

Be certain to be on time, dressed for success, and be continually polite and respectful to every person you encounter. This may sound obvious- at least I hope it does- but some people just get a little too casual when they learn that they will be interviewing with a potential future peer, rather than potential future boss. Don’t lose sight of who that peer will be making their recommendations to as soon as you leave the building.

The technical aspects of the interview are important- if they weren’t, employers wouldn’t take the time to do them- but it is still very much an interview. An opportunity for people to get to know one another and ultimately see if you are a good fit for their crew. Do everything you can to present the best image of yourself possible, just as you did on the phone when you scheduled your interview, or when you first met the people sitting across from you now. Stay calm, be humble, and show some determination while you work through their simulated problems. Do this and you will walk away as a high-quality and memorable candidate, ready to start a new job.

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