IT Job Seekers: Can You Answer an Interviewer's 12 Gotcha Questions?

If you want to land an IT job--whether on the help desk or as a CIO--in this competitive labor market, you better be prepared to answer these dreaded job interview questions.

There's a dozen interview questions that fluster IT job seekers at all career levels. Give a surprised or weak answer to any of them, and red flags fly. Hiring managers may conclude that a candidate is ill-prepared, and thus the job seeker can look forward to more months of firing off résumés in the worst job market in years.

To help IT professionals prepare for job interviews, CIO.com asked IT hiring managers and CIO job seekers to share the most critical questions that came up in interviews—ones that often caused candidates to stumble.

Be prepared to answer the following "gotcha" questions.

[ For more interview tips, see How to Ace and Executive-Level Interview and Job Seekers: Get Ready for the Character Interview. ]

Gotcha No.1: Why have you been out of work for an extended period of time?

If you've been out of a job for a while, you better be able to explain it. Brian Nettles, director of enterprise systems at real estate company CB Richard Ellis, says candidates for the three open positions in the IT department sometimes stumble on this question. And he's asking it more frequently as the recession deepens.

Gotcha No. 2: How many people were on your team, and how many were laid off?

The typical answer to the first question is that you were laid off—but this could trap you. Nettles seeks to find out whether the candidate was the only person laid off. If she was the only one to have lost her job, that fact could indicate the IT manager used the recession and budget cuts to get rid of a weak link on the team. (Ouch!) But Nettles doesn't jump to any hasty conclusions. Instead, he moves on to question number three.

[ For more job interview questions, and to share the questions you like to ask (if you're a hiring manager) or that you've been asked (if you're a job seeker), see Meridith Levinson's Career Connection blog. ]

Gotcha No. 3: Why do you think you were selected for the reduction in force?

Nettles says a job seeker's anger toward his former employer sometimes surfaces when answering this question. Yet a candidate who speaks negatively about a former employer "shows a lack of self-control or discipline," he says.

Other candidates say they don't know why they got laid off, which Nettles sees as an acceptable response. That is, provided the candidate has answered other questions well and can confidently explain why he would be right for the position.

Another get-out-of-jail answer: "Sometimes, they say they want to mull over the question and come back to it, which is a good response if they're caught off guard," adds Nettles.

Gotcha No. 4: Have you ever fired anyone?

George Tomko, a CIO-turned-independent consultant, says he was surprised when a CEO asked him if he had fired people. "Well yeah," he says he answered. "I don't consider it notches on the gun belt, but I've had to do that."

The CEO indicated that he had interviewed a number of people who hadn't fired anyone and that he wanted someone with that kind of experience.

Arun Manasingh, a former senior vice president and department head at SMBC Leasing and Finance, says he would be shocked if the firing question didn't come up during CIO job interviews. If you're on the receiving end of this question, he says, it's a good bet you're needed to fix some serious problems.

[ Want to read about more interview questions, see Unconventional IT Job Interview Questions and 6 Job Interview Question to Identify Change Agents and Innovators. ]

Gotcha No. 5: If the CEO or someone very senior in the organization comes to you with an urgent problem, how would you handle it?

IT professionals at all levels seem to get asked this question. Manasingh says he's fielded it, and he and his staff would pose it to prospective junior-level employees "to see how they think on their feet" at SMBC Leading and Finance. Manasingh says the answer to this question helps him identify candidates who will take the initiative. He doesn't want candidates who would immediately call him and ask for direction.

Simon Stapleton, chief innovation officer with an insurance company in the U.K., also asks this question, but adds a twist: As soon as he asks it, he begins rapping his knuckles on his desk to create a sense of urgency and make people feel they're under pressure.

"The candidates who perform best don't show signs of outward pressure," he says. "I find it's a really strong way of distinguishing the level-headed people who can work under pressure from those who get flustered."

Gotcha No. 6: What books have you read lately?

This rather innocuous question is loaded with booby traps. Some of the senior-level positions inside CB Richard Ellis's IT department require research and self-study to stay current, says Nettles. So he asks about books to get a sense of whether a candidate is self-motivated—"definitely a positive" when IT department training budgets are slashed.

If a candidate says he hasn't read any books lately, that's not necessarily bad, says Nettles. "I dig into that more," he says. "I'll ask them if they're reading any technical manuals, or if they visit any technical websites to stay current. I'll lead them a little if they give me no for an answer."

Gotcha No. 7: Have you published any technical documents or white papers?

Some IT architecture and senior-level software engineer positions at CB Richard Ellis require heavy documentation, says Nettles. He wants to know what candidates have written about. If they haven't published anything, Nettles wants to hear what they plan to write about (and not the next great American novel).

Gotcha No. 8: A year from now, what is going to keep you at this company?

While working as an independent IT consultant, Tomko interviewed for a CIO job in 2006 with The Solae Company. The CEO asked if he would grow bored with a corporate CIO job. Tomko felt the CEO was sizing him up: Was he the kind of guy that liked to parachute in and shape up IT before running off to the next fire, or was he going to stick around for the long haul?

Tomko's response? "I don't know," he told the CEO. "All I can tell you is that I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't think this was something I wanted to do. I can't tell you if I'll still want to be here a year and a half from now. That's a chance we're all going to have to take." (Tomko was offered the CIO job, and he accepted it. He stayed a year and five months.)

Gotcha No. 9: How long will it take before you make a positive impact?

Every IT manager wants to hire someone who can get up to speed in a new environment without a lot of training or hand-holding.

Nettles tries to determine how confident the job seeker is in her abilities and how well she grasped the job description and key responsibilities, in hopes of gauging her ability to quickly make a positive impact. If the job seeker understands the job for which she's interviewing and the challenges associated with it, she ought to be able to explain how long it will take before she has an impact.

Nettles says that senior-level IT professionals say it will take them 30 days to learn their new environment and 60 to 90 days before they make a strong impact. Ultimately, he wants to hear a candidate say that they're the guy for the position and that they'll be an A-player as fast as possible.

Gotcha No. 10: What makes you think you had anything to do with that achievement?

As a CIO, Tomko encountered job seekers who were intent on discussing all of the accomplishments on their résumés. So he would press them by asking how much they really contributed to the accomplishment.

"It forces the candidate to clearly articulate what their role was in that achievement," he says, adding that he was sometimes asked this question when he interviewed for CIO jobs, too.

Gotcha No. 11: If you were able to get 20 percent cost savings, could you have gotten thirty or forty percent?

When candidates would "wear the accomplishments listed on their résumé as a badge," Tomko says, he'd bring in a dose of reality with this question. Not taking their statements at face value, Tomko wanted to determine whether the amount of cost-savings was high- medium- or low performance.

Gotcha No. 12: What are your weaknesses and some of your failures?

Despite the fact that questions about strengths, weaknesses and failures come up in every job interview, job seekers continue to stumble on them, says Nettles.

"There's no walking away from the failure question," adds Tomko, so job seekers should rehearse a confident response.

But don't say that your biggest weakness is working too hard, which makes hiring managers roll their eyes. Come up with something genuine and explain how you've worked around it.

Follow Senior Online Editor Meridith Levinson on Twitter @meridith.

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