The IT interview questions you should be asking

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Hint: One of them is not, 'If you were a fish... What kind of fish would you be?'

If you were a fish…what kind of fish would you be? 

If you have never been asked the "What kind of fish would you be?" question in an interview, consider yourself fortunate. If you have asked it, I hope it was in jest.

I assume you are reading this because you are either a senior IT person interviewing a candidate or a candidate figuring out how to interview with a senior IT person. (Or because you are related to me and like to read my blogs.)

The role of the senior interviewer

An interview by you as a senior IT person -- by that I mean as the CIO or VP of Technology, not as an architect or a senior developer -- is different. It is a safe bet that the candidate knows more about the day-to-day part of his/her job than you do. Any attempts by you to be tricky with specific technology questions in the vein of "How do you do degauss a toaster?" or "Have you considered the ramifications of using a self-replicating frabberjab?" are unlikely to tell you anything other than that your staff did a great job of bringing you a smart person.

There is a place for pure technical interviews, but this is not it. This is the time for you to figure out whether this candidate is going to help the company reach its goals, is going to help you reach your goals in IT, and is going be a cultural fit and be (gasp) happy.

Your interview questions, therefore, need to focus on three things:


  1. How the candidate has behaved in the past when faced with situations he/she is likely to encounter again in this new role. This is 'critical behavior interviewing' in a nutshell. The past in this case, unlike in the stock market, does predict the future.
  2. Why the candidate made certain choices when faced with certain situations and what, if anything, he/she learned from those experiences.
  3. How your expectations and the candidate's are (or are not) aligned.

If you search the internet for "Critical Behavior Interview," you'll find everything from scholarly articles to blog posts to "how to" guides. I'll leave this as a useful exercise for you, the reader.

Let's talk about the other two areas on which you are going to focus: The choices the candidate has made and the expectations for the role.


In each of our careers, we have had the chance to choose Option A or Option B. We might not have been given very many choices, but the choices we have made tell something about what we really want to do. You can come up with the specific questions yourself, but find out when the person across from you had the chance to:

  • Learn something new. Did he/she dive in, or remain comfortable and keep doing the same things?
  • Take on a new responsibility. Did he/she step up (or at least throw his/her hat in the ring) or hesitate and duck and cover?
  • Get out to a client site. Did he/she book tickets or stick with email and conference calls?
  • Present to the Board or to the CEO. Did he/she draft a presentation or stay in the background?

The questions above reflect what I look for in a candidate. If you turn this person from a candidate to an employee, you need to be comfortable that the behaviors shown in the past are the ones you want to see in the future.


What is the candidate looking for in this role? What are you looking for in this candidate? Hiring an extrovert and putting him/her in a cube alone is just as bad of a mismatch as hiring an introvert to cold-call.

An old friend of mine says there are people who move toward good things and people who move away from bad things. Is this candidate excited about the opportunity you are presenting or excited about getting away from the current situation?

Does the candidate's timeframe for measuring success match yours? Does the candidate see this as a role in which to grow, or is it a temporary stopping point? Does this matter to you for this role?

Getting the right result

No interview technique guarantees that a candidate becomes a successful employee. If, however, you can narrow the candidates down to those who have behaved the way you hope they would and who have made decisions consistent with your management approach, and if you have the same expectations for the role, you improve your changes of getting and keeping the right people for your team.


The opinions expressed in this Blog are those of Paul T. Cottey and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.

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