When job interviews go off-tangent

Four IT pros tell Mary K Pratt how they dealt with unexpected questions during the process

Santosh Jayaram always heads into interviews prepared to answer questions about technology and how it can be applied to business problems. So it’s no surprise he was caught off guard when an interviewer asked him instead either to tell a joke or discuss something he’s passionate about.

“I thought it was a difficult question. I was momentarily stuck. You’re all set with your technical questions and cases, and then this question throws you off,” says Jayaram.

Jayaram didn’t want to tell a joke that might offend, so instead he talked about his interest in cooking. “I took the safe route and talked about what I was passionate about,” he says. His response must have impressed the interviewer, who offered him a position.

Although Jayaram says he was initially surprised by the question, nonetheless he liked it because it gave him a chance to show more of himself than just his professional work. Plus, he says, the question allowed him the opportunity to demonstrate how quickly he could think on his feet.

Randy Gould has worked in IT for nine years, mostly as a systems administrator or a senior creative technology specialist, so in interviews he’s used to answering technical questions, discussing his knowledge and talking about his career path.

What he’s not used to is playing with fruit. But that’s what he was once asked to do when he interviewed for a job as a Mac specialist at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York. Gould and two others being interviewed were given a banana, an orange and an apple and told to role play.

“They wanted us to be original and comfortable talking in front of a group of people,” Gould says, explaining that he and the others put a comic twist on their presentation, making up a skit in which they used each fruit to portray different pieces of equipment (a Mac, a PC and a Linux unit).

“It’s not something you expect in an interview, but it works for [Apple] because they want people who can think on their toes. And it helps show originality and quick thinking,” he adds.

Gould landed the job and now works there full time.

“How do you feel about staff and peers who are different from you?” John Stevenson has heard that question in more than one interview, and every time he hears it, he thinks it’s the worst question that can be asked. Why? Stevenson, a former CIO who is now president of his own consulting firm, says it’s a masked question about race, gender and other differences among workers. “It’s getting at prejudices without asking it,” he says, noting that the legality of asking such questions is right on the edge of what’s allowed.

Stevenson isn’t flustered by such probings, though. In fact, he has a reply all ready: “I always answer, ‘It doesn’t matter who they are or what they are. If they are good at their jobs, I am delighted. The rest just doesn’t matter.’”

Sometimes a question isn’t so much a question as a bid to get a little — or perhaps a lot — of technical expertise for free. For that very reason, Frank Stasa still remembers the worst interview question he was ever asked, even though it was back in 1978.

Stasa — now CIO and vice president of communications with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a non-profit business organisation — was interviewing for a job doing thermal modelling and programming for one of the Bell telephone companies.

The company was having a problem with icicles forming on the back of its circuit boards. An interviewer asked Stasa how he’d solve the problem.

“That’s the worst kind of question. It’s extremely unfair. They had people spending months trying to find the solution,” Stasa says. Giving an answer would be tantamount to providing free consulting.

Stasa tried to salvage the situation by turning the tables, asking questions about the circuit board situation and trying to show how he’d investigate the problem and find a solution. In the end, that Bell division didn’t offer him a job, though the other four company divisions with whom he interviewed did extend offers.

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