Tough Interview Questions and the Answers Managers Want

Janice Schooler Litvin

For those venturing into the IT job market, landing that all-important first position is no accident. Obviously, skills and experience count for a lot. But it also requires knowing the best answers to those seemingly simple questions.

Janice Litvin

Interviewing is a skill like any other -- it can be learned, but it requires a certain amount of practice.

Remember, a hiring manager is making an investment in you. It may take months of training to turn you into a productive employee, but you will be receiving a salary from day one.

Without the proper chemistry between you and the people you meet from one company, you will NOT get an offer, no matter how technically qualified you are.

Use the interviewer's name in conversation occasionally. That single act will do more to endear you than you can imagine.
Your best foot forward

The purpose of an interview in IT or elsewhere, is obviously to get a job offer. It is your opportunity to sell yourself and demonstrate in person the skills and experiences you've listed on your resume. Of course, it is also your opportunity to get to know a company's work environment, both technological and cultural.

The first thing you have to do is mentally prepare yourself for interviewing. Interviewing is a skill like any other -- it can be learned, but it requires a certain amount of practice. It's not every day that one goes on an important job interview, and those skills are not usually taught in college.

You want to remove the emotional anxiety that acceptance and rejection can evoke. Planning and preparation is the best way to do that. Find out as much as you can about the company you will be visiting. A company's website can offer a multitude of information, including the types of technologies in use at that company. If not, check out Hoover's Database of companies, or go to Yahoo Finance or other company databases. Get to know the company's background, history, revenues, number of employees, and product or service offerings.

Remember, a hiring manager is making an investment in you. It may take months of training to turn you into a productive employee, but you will be receiving a salary from day one. Therefore, your job during the interview is to convince the IT manager or recruiter that you would be a good investment. You will be expected to demonstrate not just your technical skills, but also your ability get along with coworkers, both in the IT department and in the company at large. You want to be as pleasant and personable as possible during the interview process.


Without the proper chemistry between you and the people you meet from one company, you will NOT get an offer, no matter how technically qualified you are. This factor is quite often overlooked on a conscious level, but it must be considered.

Chemistry is not something you manufacture. It happens naturally, but there are several things you can do. Project a positive attitude, warmth and friendliness. Smile occasionally, ask intelligent questions and listen carefully to the replies. Maintain eye contact at all times. Lack of eye contact implies dishonesty, an inability to communicate, arrogance or lack of confidence.

Use the interviewer's name in conversation occasionally. That single act will do more to endear you than you can imagine. People like to hear their own name. Using it shows respect and makes the person feel important. A slight amount of nervousness gives you an enthusiastic edge about yourself that will come across as genuine excitement about the job.

Establish common ground

Before doing any talking, take a quick read of the interviewer by noting the look and feel of their office, including artwork, furniture, evidence of children or hobbies. More importantly, notice features, such as body language, pace, manner of speech and so on. Sit at the edge of your chair, unless the interviewer noticeably backs away. Do not speak too much faster or slower than they do.

Make niceties. Comment on one of the personal effects in the office, or talk about a vacation spot you see in a poster or photograph. Compliment the interviewer on a nice office environment, but don't be fake. By the time you leave their office, you want your interviewer to be thinking, "I feel better when I'm with that person."

For anyone preparing for that all-important IT job interview, here are some questions to anticipate, and the responses that managers are looking for.

Q : "Tell me about yourself."

HINT : Talk about personal characteristics and skills that translate into career strengths.

A : "I love to jump into projects with both feet. I like sitting in front of a computer or at my desk for hours at a time thinking about a problem, plotting out the solution, making the presentation. Object-oriented technology [or any new technology] is my newest challenge."

Q : "What books and/or magazines do you read?"

HINT : Obviously, a technical or trade journal is one answer they are looking for. The books you've read tells the manager something about your personality.

A : Whatever you do, don't say, "I don't like to read."

Q : "What are your greatest strengths?"

HINT : Discuss specific assets the employer desires.

A : "Pleasant personality/politeness, loyalty, willingness to work hard, motivation, persistence, tenacity."

Q : "What were your favorite subjects in school and why?"

HINT : Of course, if your major is Computer Science you want to mention some of your computer science classes. You might mention other related subjects. For example, if you're interviewing at a financial services firm, you might discuss why you liked your accounting or finance classes. If you did any unusual or special projects in that area, you would bring that up now. Mention anything that shows a keen interest this employer's particular kind of work.

If you are interviewing at a software or integration consulting firm, somewhere during the interview you would want to mention that you truly enjoy working with people. To illustrate this point, mention any volunteer work or part-time jobs you might have held anytime in your life that involved interacting with people. For example, "I volunteered at a homeless shelter during the holidays giving out food." This shows that you genuinely care about others and like giving back to the community, and that you would go out of your way for a boss or a coworker.

Q : "How do you let off steam after you've completed a tough project? What do you like to do in your spare time?"

HINT : Managers like well-rounded employees; your answer to this question illustrates some of your personal qualities. If you can mention pastimes that would be an asset to the job you are seeking, so much the better. For example, a bridge player must possess valuable analytical skills. Whatever your favorite hobby is, strong outside interests round out your character.

A : "For relaxation I like to read a mystery novel, go swimming, go skiing, make pottery . . ."

Q : "Where do you plan to be in five years?"

HINT : Everyone hates this question, but everyone asks it. The traditional answer is "management." But in recent years companies have started to develop a technical career track. Many companies call this position "consultant" or "senior software engineer" or "staff engineer." Of course, any other management position that you think would interest you is also appropriate: product marketing manager, application manager for a particular project (in other words, a first-line manager), or any other position that requires a technical background. Employers like goal-oriented workers, so saying you don't know will turn a manager off.

A : The generic answer would be, "I would like to try the technical career track," or, "I want to follow the management career path."

Q : "What are your weaknesses?"

HINT : There are a couple of approaches you can take with the "weakness" question. Whatever you do, do not mention any true weakness, such as, "I have a hard time getting to work on time." The ability to answer the question properly is half of what the manager is looking for. One strategy is to give a personal weakness that is considered a professional strength.

A : "I'm so compulsive about my work, that I can't stop until the job is perfect." Another approach is to turn the question into a discussion of your current professional goals. Example: "I plan to improve myself this year by taking a class in public speaking." Choose a peripheral weakness -- one that you may really need to work on, but not one that would disqualify you for the position in question.

Q : "Why do you want to work here at XYZ Company?"

HINT : Be very careful with this one. If you've researched this company then you can say something specific, like "object-oriented relational database technology really turns me on." Showing that you have done some research marks you as a self-starter with a solid grasp of the big picture.

A : "I've been following XYZ's growth and I want a company that I can grow with. Your company is solid and stable, with a growth rate of X percent last year and a great competitive position" Or, "I like a start-up environment where I can really make a difference."

Q : "Why should we hire you?"

A : "Because I would be an asset to your organization. I'm loyal, tenacious, motivated, and I learn fast. I'm someone who could be very productive very quickly."

Q : "What motivates you?"

HINT : Whatever you do, do not say lots of money. We all know that money, power and recognition are all basic motivators. But you do not want to appear selfish. You want to appear intelligent and hard-working and interested in doing a good job, interested in giving rather than receiving. If you've held jobs while in college or during the summers, be sure to reach from those specific examples to illustrate the above.

A : "A job well done." "A challenge." "Interesting work/technology." Any or all of these answers work.

Q : "Tell me about a conflict you encountered and how you handled it."

HINT : This is one of the toughest interview questions of all. It's sort of a trick question, as a matter of fact. Never speak negatively about anyone. The ability to successfully resolve conflicts is important for all members of an IS team.. It may be the most important factor if you're working in a service environment, such as a large consulting firm that deals with outside clients. The answer you give here could go a long way toward getting you a job offer. Managers want to see that you are mature and unselfish. The answer should involve proof of your maturity level. They are looking for your ability to handle conflict. Compromise and working it out without external intervention are the keys. A disgruntled person is not going to be productive, and tends to bring down coworkers' morale as well.

A : "I sat down with the other person and asked what his issues were. Then I outlined my issues. We talked about which were the most important ones and which we could compromise on. We looked for the common aspects of our goals and placed those first. Then we decided together what to give up and what to keep, so that both parties felt they were winning something. Both parties were satisfied."

Q : "What changes have you made in your life that you are most proud of?"

HINT : This tells the manager more about your ability to take control of your life. It illustrates your leadership potential, and suggests just how promotable you might be. After all, if he produces a star, he looks good.

If you're interviewing at a service provider, you will probably be asked to lunch. Remember that you're being judged on whether you know how to make small talk with a client and your overall manners and social skills.

Q : "What are your salary requirements?"

HINT : The use of the word "offer" is critical. It's a subliminal message that an actual job offer is what you are discussing, not just your salary needs in general.

A : "Salary is not my primary consideration. Of course, I have to pay the bills. I'd be open to any reasonable offer." Pause and maintain direct eye contact, even if it seems like forever. Do not be the first one to flinch. Do not over-talk. Be prepared for a long silence. Let the manager be the first to present a figure. It will give you power and control.

If forced to give a specific number, never give a broad range -- you will usually be offered the low end. Instead, be as precise as possible: "I'd be open to something in the low-fifties (or mid-forties, high-seventies, whatever)." Giving such a specific number presumes you've researched the local job market and know what entry-level people with your skills are making.

Q : "Are you interviewing at any other companies?"

HINT : You want the manager to know that you're extremely interested in his opportunity, but are keeping your options open.

A : "Yes, Mr. X, but at this point XYZ is my first choice."

Remember, all of these interview questions have more than one appropriate answer. If you are feeling nervous about an upcoming interview, keep in mind that the hiring manager gets just as excited about a potentially strong candidate as the candidate does about him or her. Strong, qualified, motivated technical people are very hard to find. Be direct, but think before you speak, and you will surely get an offer.

By Janice Schooler Litvin
Litvin is an executive search consultant with Micro Search in Lafayette, California. She can be contacted at .

Look for Janice's upcoming book about career search strategies and navigating corporate websites. She is accepting requests for job search advice as research for her book. Your privacy will be protected. She can be reached at

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