Interview Tips From The Other Side

Having secured an internal move from infrastructure to cyber security, I’ve recently found myself on the opposite side of the (virtual) interview table, interviewing for my replacement (L3 sysadmin/network engineer).

I found it quite enlightening to be honest, and an experience that is going to benefit me in the future when I once again find myself in the interview hot seat. I thought I’d jot down a few of my observations.

The majority of these tips have been covered elsewhere of course, but these in particular are ones that I found actually ring true, as opposed to some of the pointless garbage I’ve read online – One that jumps to mind is to “ensure you hold any pre-interview drink in your left hand, so that you don’t give your interviewer a cold wet handshake with your right hand“! Come off it…!

Show Continuous Learning

So this is a huge one for me, and when reviewing CVs this is one of the first things I look for.

Maybe it’s bias on my part due to my own history in IT – my college education and first few years of employment weren’t in IT, so I put a big focus on certification and continuous learning – but it is a huge negative to me if you’re not pursuing additional technical education in the early/mid stages of your career.

A lot of people with years of experience in IT will feel there is no need after a certain point to maintain certification, but I disagree with that, particularly in relation to technical infrastructure positions. As harsh as it sounds, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that people I’ve seen in the past unhappily stuck in the same position for years are also those not pursuing certification to spice up their CV.

I would have a strong inclination towards certification as demonstration of continuous learning, but even something as simple as implementing a new tech in your home lab, conferences that you attended during the year, training courses you’ve completed recently, all fit the bill. I’m not saying that certification trumps experience, but even if you have 30 years in the IT trenches, you still have to be able to demonstrate that you are not technically stagnant.

One interviewee mentioned that he wasn’t studying for any certifications because there was no requirement from his current employer to do so. To me that shows a certain lack of ambition, initiative and hunger to learn.

Ask Pertinent Questions

Another big one of me, is to ask pertinent questions about the company, work environment and technology stack. This not only comes across as showing a keen interest, but it is also massively beneficial for the interviewee too. Asking questions is an opportunity for you to turn the tables and make sure the company is right for you, not just that you’re right for the company.

I’ve been burnt with this in the past. Just after passing my CCNA, I was very eager to work for a company that was primarily a Cisco shop, so I could use my newfound skills and expand into more advanced Cisco certifications. The job spec mentioned Cisco equipment, but during the interview I never bothered to asked about their networking stack. When I successfully passed the interview and accepted the job, I realised on day-1 that their Cisco equipment was simply a pair of internet edge routers, and that I’d likely never see a Cisco CLI in this environment! That was essentially the nail in the coffin of my Cisco certification path (for now at least). So make sure you dig into the company’s technology stack to ensure they align with your skills and ambitions for the future.

A couple of questions I came across during the interviews that I thought were well chosen:

“How does on-call work?” – If on-call is part of the contract, you absolutely want to be clear about the requirements and remuneration. You do not want to be stung with unexpected on-call obligations after starting a new position.

“What kind of educational and training budget does the company offer?” – This not only subtly demonstrates an ambition on your part to continuously improve your skills, but having your company pay for training and certification exams can really add up during the years with a company. This can literally be worth thousands each year to you.

“How big is your IT department? How big is the infrastructure team?” – This can give you a good indication of work volume. Is there somebody to take the slack while you are on annual leave? Is there somebody to share responsibilities with and spread the workload?

Don’t Over-Embellish Your CV

Whole articles, books and careers are based on CV writing. All I’ll say is, come interview time, it’s very damaging to your chances if you can’t talk about a technology listed on your CV. If you can’t talk confidently about a tech, we’re going to dig deeper to see what your true level of knowledge is, even down to asking what the acronym stands for (if it comes to that!). If you’ve clearly over-embellished your CV, it’s difficult to trust anything else written on it.

Likewise, be honest with your roles within previous projects. It comes across very negatively to me if you’ve claimed to have orchestrated a major datacentre migration of your virtual environment, only to find out when pressed on the technical aspects that you were just banging in commands given to you by a higher level engineer.

My bullshit radar also starts pinging when I say huge blocks of technology acronyms being listed as proficiencies. You’re an expert in PoE, eh…? Tell me more!

Be Virtually Prepared

Goes without saying given how interviews are currently conducted, but ensure your mic, camera and conferencing software are all ready to go and tested well before the interview. A smooth start to proceedings looks good and puts you in the best frame of mind.

In saying that, weird things can always happen at the worst time; in that case, it’s a good opportunity to stay calm and demonstrate your troubleshooting skills! One guy we interviewed did genuinely have some issues with Zoom. He stayed calm, joked it off, and after a bit of tinkering with his machine got it working. I think he salvaged it well.

Another obvious one, but being late never makes a good impression in any professional setting, so don’t let that be the first impression during an interview. If you genuinely can’t make an interview because something has come it, it’s fine to reschedule. If it happens twice though, regardless of circumstances, I think you have to accept that it’s going to have a negative impact on your application.

Be Honest If You Don’t Know The Answer

This is a bit of a cliché, but it’s worth reinforcing; if you’re asked a question in an interview and you don’t know the answer, particularly a technical one, don’t attempt to bullshit your way through it. Be honest and say you don’t know, but detail how you would go about finding the answer.

However, I will say that demonstrating a certain amount of logic and reasoning as you think out-loud about a question can come across very positively. Just don’t try and hoodwink the interviewer. I can tell you that any question I’ve asked in an interview, I’ve made double-sure beforehand I know the answer myself!

Know A Little About The Industry, Not Just The Company

One of the first questions asked by a non-technical member of our interviewing team is always “Can you tell us what you know about the company?”

I have mixed feelings about this question. I don’t feel like you should know a huge amount of detail about the company; for me, it’s good enough to know where the HQ is, what kind of national or international footprint the company has, how many employees, maybe a quick glance over any recent news articles etc.

What you should absolutely be able to talk about though is the industry. If you are applying for a technical position in a healthcare organisation, it comes across very positively if you talk about challenges facing healthcare, the standard departmental layout of a hospital, regulations that a hospital might be held to etc. Conversely, it doesn’t look good if you’ve done zero homework in this regard.

Have A Good Reason For Leaving Your Last Position

And finally, nobody wants to hire somebody who will leave in 6-12 months. If you’re leaving your current employer within this kind of timeframe, you should have a water-tight reason as to why you’re leaving.

One good response I heard from somebody leaving after 9 months, whether it was genuine or not, was that he felt the current position was being steered more towards the managerial side than technical. As we were looking for a technical person, this was music to our ears.



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