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.

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Tue, July 14, 2009

CIO — 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 (CBG), 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. ]

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