I was recently tasked with hiring someone to essentially run the day-to-day tasks and ticket upkeep for internal IT support at a retail chain (this is in-person and remote support). I’d assisted with and led the hiring of people for entry-level positions elsewhere in the company, but this felt like the first time the hiring was pretty high stakes: not only would this hire affect my happiness first-hand, but also others company-wide.
I had a very clear idea of the sort of candidate I was looking for: someone with a year or two of in-person IT support, and with an outgoing and confident personality style. If they had experience supporting retail, that was a plus, but not necessary. I came up with these requirements just based on my personal experience working in IT at the company, and listening to the sorts of complaints most people had about IT over the years–mainly that historically IT has been very shy and hard to communicate with. Knowing what I wanted from the start helped me develop the questions I would ask during the interview process.
Due to the volume of applications I received–by the time I sat down to go through them there were close to 40–I decided early on that I would do something uncharacteristic for the company and conduct phone interviews. I chose around 12 candidates to phone interview, and I planned on each phone interview lasting around 15-20 minutes.
To determine which questions I would ask, I did some Googling around the terms “good phone interview questions” and “good IT interview questions” and things like that. There’s a lot of sources out there. The questions I settled on were…
What do you know about us?
The phone interview was scheduled a day in advance, so applicants had plenty of time to look the company up online and familiarize themselves. If they did, good on them, that shows curiosity and preparedness.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
This is a super open-ended questions that often got a question like “Do you mean professionally or…?” and I would usually just say, “You can tell me whatever you like.” In this case I’m just more interested to see what they choose to talk about, to get an idea of who the candidate is and how they see themselves.
What technology related blogs, podcasts, or websites do you follow?
If they’re really quick on the draw with some websites they read, then I know that it’s pretty likely that this candidate is a lifelong learner (a term that business seminars have pounded into my head), or in other words, is curious and interested in technology even outside of the work environment. I want a real nerd in this position, not someone who has wandered into IT by mistake.
What are your favorite and least favorite technology products, and why?
This is another open-ended question that receives a wide range of different responses. If I was asked this question, I would very quickly say “Apple products are my favorite, and least favorite are Android phones,” totally outing myself as a fanboy. But some candidates would list very specific hardware, or platforms, or even software. This is another question where the aim is simply to learn more about the candidate, the only wrong answer would most likely be no answer at all.
Why do you want this job?
I feel like this question is a bit of a curveball and I’m curious to see how I would answer it in an interview myself some day. I found that the people who did prior research on the company seemed to say something like “I want to do IT but I also would like to get involved in (company’s industry) on the side,” and that sounded like a line to me.
I felt like the best answers to this question were the people who had a good honest answer that went something like this: “I want to get back to doing the sort of work that this position would entail.”
The worst answer is the one I think I would be most likely to say: the half-joking, “I need a paycheck! Ha ha, but really…”
What is a typical day like at your current (or most recent) job?
I want to know if the job that they’re doing currently is like the job that they’re interviewing for. If it isn’t, is the experience still pertinent somehow? For a couple candidates I adapted this question into, “What was a typical day like at your favorite job?”
What reasons do you have for leaving your current (or most recent) job?
Another question where the purpose is more to learn about who the candidate is. In a way I can see this question as trying to bait a candidate into saying something bad about their former job or bosses, which is typically considered a red flag.
What skills have you learned recently?
One of those lifelong learner questions. Obviously the best answers would be something technical, but I received a couple interesting responses from new home-owners who are having to learn non-technical DIY skills.
What do you hope to get out of this job?
This question sounds like a re-hash of the previous “Why do you want this job?” question, but it did occasionally yield a different sort of answer. People who did their research would tend to say they hope to learn more about the company’s industry, but since an IT position would have nothing to do with that, I considered that even more of a wrong answer than before. A good answer would be something about gaining good experience, and being a part of something exciting and new.
What questions do you have for me?
Since this was a phone interview, I didn’t expect candidates to have many questions to ask, but I wanted to leave this cue in for me to ask just in case. Candidates asked me for benefits details, some asked me for more details about our hardware that was relevant to their particular areas of interest.
When performing the phone interviews I tried my best to keep it a very informal, relaxed conversation. I opened each talk with an introduction of myself, and an overview of the position and description of the day-to-day duties of it–always asking, “Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?” because if they weren’t, then we’d save a lot of time.
After establishing that they wanted the job, I tried to get any potential “deal-breakers” out of the way as quickly as possible. I’d carefully reviewed their application and taken notes at the top of my form on anything I wanted to address. If they wanted too much money, I brought that up. If it looked like the position was under their experience level, we discussed it. I really wanted to make sure that the candidate and I were on the same page before continuing with the process.
Once I got into the main question portion, I kept the conversational tone going by going off-script here and there. If something they said interested me, I would ask them about it. If they were answering one question and happened to answer another along the way, I’d jot it down but when we’d get to that question later, I’d still mention it and give them an opportunity to elaborate or offer up another answer.
Like I said at the start, one of my top goals was to get someone in the position who was outgoing and personable, so more than anything the phone interview was about that. If I conducted the phone interviews very straight-faced, just rattling off my questions, they would not have been nearly as valuable. The answers to the questions and the tone of the conversation were equally important in my book.
After the phone interviews I’d ended up with 5 candidates that I felt were worthy of in-person interviews. I had a co-worker sit in on the interviews with me, but I lead the interview and did all the talking. It wasn’t necessarily meant to be that way, but I think that having a second person in the room who ended up just taking notes on what the candidates were saying was just slightly unsettling enough to get some interesting reactions from them.
That’s not to say that I believe in trying to unnerve candidates. My hope was that the phone interview would lead to candidates being more comfortable for the in-person interview so that I could get a more genuine experience out of them. At the same time, it’s good to see how a candidate is going to perform in unusual circumstances, but with me by their side to make it a closer facsimile to the actual job. Yes, I might be over-thinking this, but over-thinking is essentially how I handled the whole process and it worked out really well for me (so far), so why not?
I needed to come up with an additional set of questions for the in-person interview. I already had a couple I held over from the prior research, but I did some more Googling and came up with an additional set of questions:
How was the drive?
It’s good to make some amount of small-talk before beginning the in-person interview, so I would often ask this question while we were getting seated to get the conversation started and everyone relaxed. It’s also a good question to ask just to see how far away they live and what their commute is like, either to find out for the first time, or confirm what the candidate has reported before.
I’d really recommend trying to find a little bit more small-talk than this to get started. Crack a joke about the weather. Say something about how it’s been a crazy day for you, ask how their day has been. Don’t small-talk for more than just a few minutes, but do something!
In which IT areas do you consider yourself to be an expert?
We want to know where the candidates feel most comfortable. If they’re experts on networks and switches, that wouldn’t be applicable to this position. If they say they’re experts at supporting users and troubleshooting desktops and connectivity issues, then they might be perfect.
How do you explain a technical process to a nontechnical colleague?
Since this position would be dealing with a lot of nontechnical colleagues, a good answer to this question was really paramount for me. One candidate wasn’t able to come up with a good answer on their own, so I threw them a bone: “How would you explain DHCP?” They fumbled around with that, which immediately told me this candidate didn’t have the technical nor communication skills necessary for the position.
Tell me a time when you successfully adapted to change.
A very generic interview question where I don’t have a correct answer in mind, but am more curious to see what they talk about and how they talk about it. If they talk about change in a really begrudging manner like getting through it was a rigorous chore, then that might not be a good thing. If they talk about change as if it’s a fun challenge, that’s better.
Can you tell me about a recent project or process that you made better, faster, or more efficient?
A candidate should be aware of their abilities and achievements. Being unable to answer this question either means that the candidate has done nothing above-and-beyond the set requirements of their positions in the past, or that they are lacking the self-confidence necessary to recognize their merit and achievements. In either case, it’s bad.
A user tells you that their internet isn’t working. What’s your first step toward diagnosing the problem?
I didn’t realize what a great question this was until I started asking it. Based on a talk with the current IT staff, the most-right answer is something like, “Step one would be to check that the internet is working on other computers in the area / on the same network,” which sounds about right to me as well.
That said, no candidate got this question completely “right”, but without a malfunctioning machine in front of you it’s really hard to troubleshoot what’s going on–it’s kind of a trick question. Candidates universally ignored the “first step” part of the question and ended up rattling off a laundry list of various troubleshooting steps, from checking with the ISP to checking DNS settings. Only a couple eventually landed at, “Oh, and I’d check if the internet was working on other machines on the network.”
In the end answers to this question told me a lot about whether or not the user had any real first-hand experience dealing with random IT issues. If they were able to start with the lower-level tests before progressing to higher-level troubleshooting, that was a good answer. If they said “Call the ISP” right out the gate… not so good.
As an aside, I realized early on that I had to specify that the candidate was supporting the user in-person because several candidates assumed I was talking about phone support.
How do you resolve disagreements?
Another very generic interview question, possibly too generic because it invites a very safe answer: “Communication, of course! Understanding and compassion.” Some candidates asked for clarification, like a specific example, and I would offer: “Imagine that someone is unhappy with your solution to their IT problem.” But still, the most common answer was the generic correct one, and it was hard for anyone to come up with a bad answer.
What does a good day at work look like?
This question is nearly a repeat of one from the phone interview. My main aim is to figure out what makes the candidate happiest, and weigh that against the actual day-to-day of the position to ensure that they’re compatible. The way a candidate talks about their good day can say a lot as well: is a good day exciting, or is it dull or monotonous? Their body language will let you know.
What does a bad day look like?
For an IT support position the most common answer to this was “wide network outage” or “500 tickets at once”, and I don’t think this question is useful for this sort of position. I can see the question being more open-ended in a different field and yielding interesting responses. Not sure what that field would be.
Tell me about something that you documented for others?
This was actually a really important question for this position. I wanted to make extra sure that we got a candidate who is not only good at communicating live, but also recording what they know for future reference. This was a hole I needed to fill in the department for sure. An elaborate answer to this question was absolute gold to me.
Do you have any other questions for us?
Since there was a phone interview and a good day or two between it and the in-person meeting, candidates had plenty of time to think of questions to ask. When I was on the other side of interviews in the past, I was usually that candidate who replied, “No, not at this moment,” to this question. Now that I’m on this side, I really do see that as a shortcoming and wonder how I was ever hired anywhere.
The top candidate for this position had a page of questions to ask. I don’t even remember what they were now, but it demonstrated that he was passionate, enthusiastic, and was really interested in the job. The candidates who simply shrugged and had nothing to ask in response didn’t seem disinterested, but they didn’t have that little bit of extra icing on the cake.
When I was originally going through resumes, I began to have serious concerns that I was getting too many top tier candidates and that I would be faced with making an impossible decision between multiple candidates who could all be a good fit.
I am happy to say that ultimately wasn’t the case. After the phone interview and the in-person interview, I ended up with one candidate who I felt was undoubtedly a great fit. I was prepared to end up with two or even three, and have the tie-breaker be the people who would handle the second in-person interview, but that wasn’t ultimately necessary: the one candidate was enough, and ended up getting the position.
I am reading a book about leadership, and the main thing it has emphasized so far is that you need to make real human connections with the people you work with. This is something I tried to do during the interview process. I wanted to make sure I felt like I had a good understanding of who the candidate was, how they work and what excites them, and I tried to craft the whole process around that goal. I think I did a pretty good job of achieving it. I encourage you to try to work more personality into your interview process, especially because company culture and the relationship you have with your workers is (in my opinion) the primary driver of productivity.