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Really Great Ways to Ruin a Job Interview

on April 30, 2013


As an IT leader, hiring new talent can be an arduous task, but knowing that your next prodigy is hidden in that stack of resumes makes it worth the time and energy. And for the technologists on the other side of the interview desk, starting at a new company can be like time-traveling to another dimension. Enjoy this fun (and maybe scary) read by IT author Lisa Vaas about the tech interview blunders you’d want to avoid.

No, it’s not okay to answer your phone, answer questions with painful literalness, take an interview in the middle of another job interview, demand alternative beverages to those offered, or otherwise come off as if the interview isn’t your top priority. But those are, in fact, the boners that some techies pull during an otherwise-serious job search.

Oh, no, you didn’t. You answered your phone during a job interview? To start another phone interview?!

Job interviews can be stressful, especially when you know you’re up against tens or hundreds of other candidates. Anybody can make mistakes. Unfortunately, people in the technology industry aren’t always known for their emotional intelligence, to put it mildly, and that can lead to interview blunders al la mid-interview phone answering and, well, what you might call “inappropriately nested interviewing.”

Sometimes technologists bring up salary too early. Sometimes they show up late. Sometimes they dress funny for an interview. Sometimes they mimic the body language of their interviewers (common among people on the Asperger’s/Autism spectrum) so that they appear as relaxed and nonchalant as the person to whom they should be showing diffidence.

I asked people who interview technologists—i.e., career counselors, technical recruiters, and people responsible for hiring into companies—for some of the mistakes they see that are egregious enough to cause a possibly otherwise-qualified professional from nailing the job. Here’s what they shared.

1. Unfiltered truth-telling

The technology field is full of people with impaired social interaction capability—unfortunately, the exact type of intelligence needed to deal with the human resources or business types with whom technologists often have to interact in job interviews. Of course, there are technologists with high social ability, particularly in roles such as business analysts or project managers, where communication is part of the job. But technology is also home to many people on the spectrum, and their tendencies can create trouble in the interview room.

An inability to lie is a classic example.

“We struggle with being too honest,” admitted a user named Cicely who reported that she has Asperger’s when she chimed in on a Yahoo Answers forum about the subject. “We often don’t see the point of telling white lies or sugarcoating anything, which can be hurtful to other people.”

It’s not only potentially hurtful, it’s potentially murderous to your job prospects.

Kathy Robinson, a career and business consultant who founded the career coaching firm TurningPoint, remembers interviewing one techie in particular. Under an umbrella of technology-related questions, Robinson brought up the subject of software documentation.

“Well, everybody hates documentation,” the job candidate said. “No one likes to do it. It’s always the last thing you do.”

Which is absolutely true, Robinson admits, but it’s not what you say.

Developers obviously don’t want to give a potential employer the impression that they might do a lousy job at documentation because they resent the task or consider it unworthy of their time, but that’s exactly how the blunt answer might well be interpreted. A better answer, Robinson offers, might be something along the lines of, “Well, obviously developers love to code, and that’s why I got into it, but of course I understand the importance of documentation, of continuity, etc.”

To come up with an answer like that requires looking beyond the question itself to figure out what the interviewer’s really after, Robinson says. With that kind of filter in place, such a job candidate can then speak to the rationale for software documentation, for example, and its importance, as opposed to the fact that they hate doing it.

Other questions that literal-minded tech people mistakenly answer bluntly include the classic, “Why did you leave your last job?”

“If the particular candidate tends to be an open book or a black-and-white thinker, they might not give the nuanced answers people are looking for,” Robinson says. “They might say, ‘It was a crazy work environment where we had to work 80 hours a week,’ which may imply they don’t want to work hard, which might not be true. Thinking ahead to what the implications of their answer will be, or using a filter regarding what the interviewer is looking for here, would be helpful.”

2. Taking preparation a bit too far

One software engineer Robinson interviewed took the “prepare your filters” advice a bit far.

He arrived with a plotted paper of about 40 questions to ask Robinson. At the very top, in the tiniest print possible (“He thought I couldn’t see it,” Robinson says, but, well, she could), were printed the words, “Stop talking.”

It was good advice. Technologists are notorious for an inability to register listener cues that indicate that they’ve been speaking too long.

Fair enough. But the software engineer also had a watch that took pictures. Robinson asked what it was for. He said he had trouble remembering names, so he took pictures so he could remind himself later.

“What if you’re walking down the hall and see someone?” Robinson asked. “Do you scroll down your list?”

“No,” he replied. “I memorize them overnight.”

Bear in mind, of course, such is likely to be considered unremarkable behavior in the eyes of many front-line IT managers who regularly interview over-preparers. “I find that line management within tech kind-of understands if people show up in rumpled clothes, or if they have their resumes folded in thirds in wrinkled paper in their back pockets,” Robinson says. “If they’re kind of a mix of ‘Get to the point’ and not as personable.”

But techies don’t always interview only with other techies or with managers who are used to such behavior. The problem is, again, that IT job candidates like this get plunked in front of human resources or business-side people. These types of people can misinterpret this type of rigorous interview preparation. At the very least, such behavior can signal that a candidate isn’t at ease socially and might not work well on a team or with business customers.

Another over-preparation boner: writing speaking points on your hand. Then shaking hands, smudging your bullet points, and leaving a smear of black ink of the interviewer’s hand. This happened with an HTML programmer who interviewed with Mark Sweet, chief operating officer for, a marketing solutions and web-based ad agency.

“There were a variety of reasons he didn’t get the job,” Sweet says. “But it left an impression [!] on me, that’s for sure.”

3. Clipped or never-ending answers

The “get to the point” thing can be a problem in a job interview. Technical people tend to do well with nuts-and-bolts tech questions, not so much with general, broad, HR-type questions (i.e., “What did you like about your last position?”).

Robinson, and other career coaches, can work with people to rehearse how to answer such questions. If her clients are deep in the technical weeds, they tend to give clipped answers to broad questions that strike them as irrelevant. Unfortunately, during a job interview, these answers can come off as dismissive or even condescending.

A career coach will help job candidates to practice answers, working to get them more conversational.

Job candidates on the business analyst/project manager end of the spectrum have the opposite problem. They tend to talk far too long when answering questions like, “Why did you leave your last job?” Coaches work with such clients to mold their answers into a more succinct form.

No matter where you fall in the world of technology and whether or not you’re on the spectrum, practicing answers to typical questions is helpful, whether it’s with a recruiter in the field, with somebody who’s done hiring, or with a career coach.

4. Bellyaching about previous jobs, managers, or coworkers

Beyond working on appropriate answer length, it may make sense for the technorati to work with a coach to come across as trustworthy and positive.

A case in point to prove that not doing so can be disastrous: Sweet remembers asking a graphic designer job candidate why she was interested in applying.

Innocent question, right?

Oh, dear. Witnessing the ensuing rant was like seeing an apparently great candidate transform into a Greek tragedy. Think snakes sprouting from the head.

“Her rant consisted of bashing men in her county, vocally putting down single mothers, rants against the drama at her previous position, and how she demanded more of herself than to be left in this environment,” Sweet said. “Everyone’s mouth was hanging open, including the single mother in the room. Following this encounter, our content manager wanted to write her an email to explain how she might want to edit herself next time, but we were afraid that continued contact might be asking for trouble.”

Look, when you’re interviewing for a job, everybody already knows that something not so great happened at your last job, Sweet says. That goes without saying. But if you’re prone to trash talking, the first thing that’s going to pop into an interviewer’s head is, “What’s she going to say about us?”

5. Dissing the company’s programming language, web development platform, or choice of beverage

The guy came in to interview for a low-level help desk job.

The people at the IT recruitment firm DriveStaff were polite. They offered him water or coffee. No, they said, they didn’t have any Coke.

Oh, those clueless buffoons.

“You don’t have COKE?!” the job candidate said. “What do you mean you don’t have Coke? Everyone has Coke! How could you not have Coke? You really should have Coke.”

He didn’t get the job.

The story’s a bit whacky. A bit extreme. But it’s actually just one example of one of the biggest problems in tech interviews, says Paul Cameron, DriveStaff president and founder. More than any other industry, he says, technologists walk into an interview and ask about, for example, a tool or technology the business is using, such as C++ or There might be a more modern version of the tool available than the one the interviewing company is using—a fact that could be attributed to software dependencies, or because a client uses an older technology, or some other reasons, all very likely weighed by senior technical experts at the organization.

Some interviewees immediately ask, “Well, what are you using that for? You should be using this,” Cameron says.

Cameron can coach a lot of things: How to stay positive, how to show specific interest in an organization, how to not bash previous employers. But how do you see this stuff coming? How does a coach teach technologists not to ask for Coke when a prospective employer offers a beverage? How do you teach job candidates not to insult interviewers?

Because that’s exactly what such gaffes amount to.

“When you walk in and say, ‘You need to work with this tool, not that tool,’ it knocks you out of the running right away,” Cameron says. “It insults everybody.”

6. Answering or otherwise touching your mobile gadget in any way whatsoever.

Unless it’s, say, an insulin pump, don’t touch your vibrating or chirping gadget during the job interview process. Yes, you can ask for permission to answer your phone if your wife goes into labor. Otherwise, it’s verboten to take a call during an interview.

But people do. Robinson was interviewing a network infrastructure manager who wasn’t paying attention to the time. In the middle of the interview, the candidate answered his cell phone. The interviewee was 2 feet away from Robinson, so she could hear the caller say, “Hi! I’m calling for your phone interview. Are you ready?”

The interview candidate made up an excuse and wandered away.

Eliassen Group senior corporate recruiter Adam Sposato has seen tech job candidates answer text messages midstride during an interview.

Is it supposed to be a demonstration of how important the job candidate is, he wonders? So important he can’t answer the call or text after the interview is over? So vital that she gives constant connectivity higher priority than the interviewer’s time?

Maybe, Sposato says. But then again, he asks, “How important can somebody be if they’re trying to interview for a job with you?”

Maybe it’s indicative of a lack of business sense, Sposato says. Texting is so ingrained into their everyday lives that maybe they think it wouldn’t be looked at as taboo in the IT world. “But even if you’re interviewing with another tech company, it’s one of those things you can’t do,” he says.

Sposato has, actually, interviewed a man who asked if it was okay to leave his phone on in case his wife called to say she had gone into labor. That’s an appropriate way to address leaving a phone turned on, Sposato says—not taking a call from a daughter asking to stay over at a friend’s house.

Which has also happened.

In sum

This, unfortunately, is just a sample of the interview stumbles technical people are prone to making. Others include using tech jargon with interviewers who don’t speak the language, wearing a dress inside out, or putting one’s feet up on the coffee table.

Being confident is good. Being relaxed is good.

But bear in mind that when you’re looking for a job, there’s such a thing as being a little too relaxed.

Keep your phone off, and keep your filters tuned to figure out what questions really mean. That way, you’ll stand a better chance of nabbing the job.

What bizarre behavior have you seen during job interviews? A little schadenfreude might not go amiss. Tell us about it in the comments.

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About Lisa Vaas

  • Hi Lisa,
    I’m an adult student and currently work in the tech industry, soon to graduate with my Bachelor’s of IS. I’ve been applying for a lot of jobs and expect to be going out on several interviews, but recently I read something that really put me off. Aside from the real concerns of being female and a bit older, I read that if you bring a note pad and pen to an interview–especially a tech interview–you’re pretty much dating yourself as a pre-Millennial, pre-tech person, thereby taking you out of the running for the job. The article mentioned that you should bring a tablet, such as an iPad, to the interview to take notes if necessary and perhaps show examples of your work online, code, etc. Do older tech workers really have to go as far as to use props to signal that our skills are relevant? What are your thoughts on this?

    Heather Stone

  • Kevin Peck

    “Never bash your old job – we know you hated it that is why you are leaving it”. I always love this one. What can you say? How far is too far? They asked the question “Why are you leaving your old job?”

    You say “Because there was no room for growth”

    They hear “I will take this position but I better move up fast”

    You say “They used old tech and did not want to upgrade”

    They hear “We use old tech and we are hiring you because you have experience in it so you will be bored here and leave too”

    Why do interviewers love to ask this question if everyone knows you are job hunting because you think the current job has issues? Is it just a fun trap question? I always hate that question. You want to be honest but not too honest, you want to give a little info but not too much. Generally the interviewer loves to hear dirt on other places, it is fun to find out where they are working is better than what is out there.

    Having just changed positions I figure I answered that one in a little too much detail but still got the job based on my technical skills.

  • Anybody who would frown on a prospective employee for preparing too much, or being too honest, or expressing concern about working 80 hour weeks, clearly has absolutely no business working in this industry.

    It sounds like the best takeaway from this article is, if you want to hire competent developers, DO NOT LET HR INTERVIEW THEM. You will turn off or exclude the good ones and be left with the dregs.

    In fact, it’s startling that any company would even consider allowing HR to interview technical candidates. Why not just let them write code while you’re at it? Turns out we don’t need technical people at all, HR can do everything! Awesome!

    And by the way, excluding a candidate for indicating a healthy behavior not atypical to people on the autism spectrum? Way to get your employer whacked by the EEOC.

    And Heather, it depends. I have a tablet in part to show off applications I’ve written along with code and such, since that’s what I do for a living. But I could make a very similar case with simple screenshots printed on paper. And I’ve known many professionals, myself included, who prefer to take initial notes on paper rather than electronically, since batteries can die, software can fail, interfaces can be a little flukey, etc. For every $100,000+ application I’ve written, I have somewhere a tiny stack of paper containing the original notes.
    But who knows? You might turn off a prospective employer by wearing grey slacks instead of brown, or brown instead of grey.
    Focus on figuring out what works for you, and on improving yourself so that you can effectively create value for others. That habit will show clearly whether it’s on a tablet screen, or a piece of paper, or scribbled on a whiteboard. And the people who matter will see it.