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How to Answer Technical Interview Questions Like a Rock Star

        posted by , May 08, 2013

The bad news is that most IT professionals are terrible at answering technical interview questions.

I know because I've asked.

Early in my career, I conducted hundreds of technical interviews. Mediocre answers were common. So were terrible answers. Answers that made it crystal clear that the candidate knows her stuff were rare.

The good news is that if you master the art of the technical interview you'll stand out in the crowd — you'll have your pick of technical jobs.

These 7 interview habits will greatly improve your answers.

1. Answer Why, What, How

The most common technical interview mistake is to focus on what or how.

Why is important too. It's so important that you should start with it. Even better — begin and end with why.

By covering the why, what, how of each question you'll throughly convince the interviewer you know your stuff.

Example: Why, What, How, Why

What is SOA?

SOA is an architectural methodology that's useful for building a reusable, fault tolerate, scalable library of services. SOA reduces cost by allowing services to be reused. SOA fault tolerance and scalability improves quality and reduces risk.

SOA design principles say that services must be loosely coupled, reusable, autonomous, stateless, discoverable and interoperable. Services are defined by service contracts.

SOA services are building blocks. That is to say, a SOA service is often composed of other SOA services.

When done right, SOA are elegant architectures that solve business problems with high performance, high quality, low risk, low cost solutions.

The answer without the why isn't as convincing:

Example: Avoid What Only

What is SOA?

SOA is a design methodology that says services must be loosely coupled, reusable, autonomous, stateless, discoverable and interoperable. SOA services are defined by service contracts.

2. Answer The Question That's Asked

Technical interview questions are specifically designed to catch bullshit. That is to say, you've claimed technical skills on your resume and the interviewer needs to validate what you've claimed.

If a question is designed to catch bullshit, it's not a good idea to answer with bullshit.

Avoid the political tactic of ignoring the question and answering a question that you're more comfortable with.

Answer what you do know. If you don't know much — show what steps you would take to learn it.

Example: How to Answer When You Don't Know

How do you secure a SOA service?

SOA security can be a real challenge because the security solution can't violate SOA design principles such as loose coupling and discoverability.

I haven't secured a SOA for several years. If I was going to do it today, I would do a little research first. I'd also consult a few of my friends who are well versed in SOA security to determine an established set of best practices.

3. Avoid Trapping Yourself

Many of the technical interview questions you'll be asked come directly from your resume. Others come as follow up questions to your answers.

If you don't know a technology don't put it on your resume or claim to know it in your answers.

By focusing your resume and answers on what you do know — the interview is more likely to go your way.

4. Practice Your Answers

When you prepare for a technical interview it's tempting to spend much of your time studying.

Practicing your delivery is more important.

You have no doubt collected a great deal of knowledge over the course of your career. The key to technical interview success is unlocking that knowledge by answering questions well.

The day before your interview is a little late to be cramming more facts into your head.

Practice answering questions. Ask a friend to critique you, or critique yourself. You'll be surprised how quickly your answers improve when you work at it.

5. Manage Nerdy Interviewers

All the regular interview strategies apply to technical interviews.

Establish rapport, be candid, tell stories, be interesting and focus your answers on solving the interviewer's problems.

One tricky situation that pops up in technical interviews is ultra-nerdy interviewers who are completely focused on obscure questions.

Over ten years ago, I had a technical interview with a large investment bank in Tokyo. The position was a lead solution architect for a mortgage-backed securities business unit. Years later, mortgage-backed securities caused a global financial crisis and this particular bank imploded. I was glad I rejected their offer.

Anyway, I mention this interview because I ran into a ultra-nerdy interviewer that taught me an important interview strategy.

He asked me no less than a dozen Java compiler optimization questions. The position wasn't particularly focused on Java or compiler optimization. The questions came from the interviewer's strengths — he was a Java compiler optimization nerd.

When you live the Java compiler optimization dream, that's the only type of interview question you want to ask.

I answered the first dozen optimization questions, finally I asked — is compiler optimization going to be important to this role? He admitted it wasn't and switched back to relevant questions.

There are two lessons I took from this interview:

a. Interviewers often ask what they know, not what's important to the role.
b. It's important to help keep the interview on track.

If the interview goes on a wild tangent — your chances may suffer. If your interviewer unfairly focuses on obscure questions, find a way to get them back on track.

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