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Advanced job interview techniques for IT pros

Being interviewed for a position can be stressful. Follow these tips to help you stand out amongst your competition.

Are you considering looking for a new job? Join the club. Whatever your reasons for circulating your resume, chances are you're facing stiff competition. A recent report from the University of Illinois-Chicago showed that over 400,000 technology jobs were lost in the US between March 2001 and April 2004, likely putting thousands of highly qualified IT professionals into the job market in your immediate area.

So, when you do get an interview it's important to do everything you can to shine. You know the basics -- be on time, nicely dressed, minty breath and no dandruff on your shoulders. But how do employers separate the merely good candidates from the great ones? Here are some tips on how you'll have a better chance of standing out in the hiring manager's mind.

Research the company beforehand and come with questions.

You may be going to a lot of interviews, but before a company is going to offer you a job, the hiring manager is going to want to know that you're familiar with the corporate mission and that you've put in the time to learn a little bit about the job you're trying to get.

"Always research the company that you're interviewing with," suggests Matt Ripaldi, Area Manager for Adecco Technical in New York City. It's good to be familiar with any recent press releases, major projects and the technologies that the particular firm uses. This information can help you understand what the company is looking for and be ready to showcase how you fit the organization's needs.

Bringing a few questions of your own is also a good idea. "Think up some thoughtful, meaningful questions," says Jeff Pulliam, an engineering manager in Silicon Valley who has conducted numerous job interviews. Pulliam suggests asking about issues such as the work culture, how much time is spent collaborating and in meetings, teamwork approaches and how disagreement is handled in meetings.

Practice your speaking skills.

Good communication skills are one of the most important things that potential employers will be looking for during a job interview. "Companies don't just want someone who can write code," says Ripaldi. "They need someone who can communicate what the business requirements are in different units."

If you're really confident in your technical skills but not so sure about your people skills, it's important that you can recognize this in yourself and be ready to do something about it. "The first step is to acknowledge that [soft skills] are really important to employers of technology professionals," says Alan Hoffman, technology jobs expert at Monster, a popular career information portal. You can then try to improve your skills by taking public speaking classes at a community college or looking into training programs offered by industry agencies.

Sometimes, being prepared can be as simple as doing a dry run of the interview with a friend or spouse beforehand. Prepare a list of ten questions, then sit down and ask your partner to read you the questions with a blank expression while you respond. "Videotape yourself," Hoffman suggests. "You might not want to do it the night before the interview, but it can really help people improve."

It's also good to think of some of the questions you're likely to be asked and have some answers prepared, particularly if you're not an overly talkative person or don't think well on your feet. Be ready to provide specific examples for how you solved problems or what you achieved in the past. "Some people can come up with these off the cuff, but most will do best if they think of several examples of work situations where they've achieved something," says Hoffman.

Be prepared to take a technical test, and show your enthusiasm for the technology.

Interviewers are aware that many applicants pad their resumes, so when a position requires intimate knowledge of technology, you'll sometimes be asked to take a technical test as part of your interview. Consider asking about the test beforehand, suggests Ripaldi, so that you can be ready and not freeze up.

However, it's also important that you be aware that technical knowledge is frequently not the only factor in play when making a hiring decision. Employers want to see candidates who love what they're doing, because these are the most likely employees to be dedicated and conscientious about their work.

"What makes candidates stand out isn't that they have another year of experience with Java or a particular technology," Hoffman points out. "What make people stand out are those characteristics of extreme enthusiasm and interest for their work, as well as stellar communication skills."

Demonstrate your problem solving skills.

Job seekers frequently come in prepared to recite the information on their resumes. In the information technology field, it's common that employers want to see your problem solving skills in action. Be prepared for questions that may not seem immediately relevant to technology.

"It's pretty easy to find somebody who can pass a technical test, but it's harder to find someone who can effectively demonstrate problem solving skills in the course of the interview," says Pulliam. When interviewing potential candidates for his department, he frequently asks candidates to explain how they would solve the traffic problems that plague Silicon Valley.

Ripaldi concurs. "Candidates often go in thinking they'll be asked 40 different technical questions, but often they'll be asked questions for which they're going to need to provide a business answer," he says.

"They need to show ability to clearly define the problem and resources required to find a solution," Pulliam says. "It's less important to find right answer and more important how they approach the question."

Be cautious about the salary issue.

Finally, salary is always an issue on the forefront of everyone's mind. You know the salary you'd like to make, but it's a frequent mistake that job seekers will approach the subject prematurely and in the wrong way. If you want information about the potential salary for a job, it's fair to ask about the range, but be careful about your wording.

"A good question is, 'What's the salary range for this position,'" Pulliam suggests. "A bad question is, 'I need to know if you'll give me a certain amount of money.'"

Krissi Danielsson is a freelance writer and former TechTarget editor. You can reach her at kdd at danielssonarts dot com. 

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