Technical Interviewing: How to Approach Concept-Driven Roles

As consulting firms strive to maintain the highest caliber of technical resources across multiple disciplines, it becomes more and more difficult to gauge potential candidate’s abilities beyond their development skills.  The most successful technical consultants have a deep background in the fundamentals of programming and cast a wide net when learning about, and staying ahead of, new service offerings and products in their industry of focus (or better, across multiple industries).

However, while fundamentals can easily be gauged through written exercises and verbal questioning, it is the adaptive, creative, and ambitious traits that serve consultants most and can be the hardest for both the candidate to express and the recruiter to judge.  Additionally, the latest technologies infrequently have tangible case studies for real-world examples than can be examined by the candidate, so the candidates understanding of the underlying concepts becomes of primary importance.  And candidate’s abilities for roles like business analysis, which still require technical ability but not to the extent of hands-on development, can only be quantified through a strong ability to consume and implement (not simply regurgitate) concepts.

As a candidate, there are some things you can do to help the recruiter get a sense of these attributes as you navigate the interview process.  These should provide you with a firm foundation to begin your candidate process:

1. Come Prepared with Company and Industry Awareness

This is job-seeking 101, but seems to be largely overlooked in importance: know the company you’re interviewing with and the prospective roles you could fill.  This doesn’t mean visiting the company’s “About Us” webpage 10 minutes before the interview (sadly, a frequent occurrence); rather, it means:

  • Understanding the company’s mission
  • Understanding the company’s esteem among industry
  • Gaining familiarity with the technologies embraced by the company
  • Identifying roles for which you’d be a good fit at the company

Spend the time to research these points and relate them to your education and experience.  Come interview time, be prepared to discuss these points with the interviewer, specifically how they relate to you and your career and how the two can build a symbiotic relationship.  Demonstrating a willingness to spend your own time to prepare by researching these points will speak to the interviewer’s desire for candidates that are self-starting, self-aware, and prepared to offer value to the company from your very first day.

2. Anecdotes Are Your Friend

Consultants are presented with challenges from a variety of sources and on a daily basis; where this differs from most jobs is the nature of these challenges and how they become apparent (here’s a good blog post about a typical crisis faced by a consultant and how they prepare themselves to meet the challenge in a professional and productive manner.)  The most successful consultants demonstrate these abilities, and interviewers need to find a method of determining a candidate’s capacity for facing challenges and the approaches taken to overcome them.   Candidates can give themselves a distinct advantage by keeping a few such examples of these situations readily available and relating them to the interviewer’s line of questioning.  Even situations that may not have had an optimal outcome can serve as good anecdotes, if the candidate frames the story to convey the approach taken, why it failed, and most importantly, what they learned from the experience.

3. Invest Your Personal Time to Yield Professional Success

As I mentioned earlier, one clear indication of a candidate’s drive and ambition is their willingness to do their homework.  This includes not only understanding the company and role you are seeking, but the best way for you to perform that job once you’ve been hired.  In many cases, candidates are seeking roles they have never filled previously but are intensely interested in. Don’t let a lack of experience in your desired role preclude you from consideration!  One way to overcome this experiential deficit is by doing projects on your own time in the areas for which you are interviewing. Here are a few options:

  • Find a project on GitHub that interests you, sign up for an account, and start contributing. It’s free and by working with folks who are established on the project, you’ll learn from them and build relationships all while creating something interesting (and something tangible that you can show to an interviewer).
  • Nothing on GitHub strikes your fancy? Or maybe you prefer learning and working alone on your passion projects?  With the proliferation of virtual machine applications like VirtualBox or VMWare Workstation, you can easily and quickly create a cluster of servers with diverse platforms (*nix, Windows, OSX) as virtual machines on commodity hardware.  This provides the added benefit of becoming familiar with operating systems and networking in addition to the applications to be deployed on the cluster.
  • Read, read, read! Read blogs by people working in the technology you’re interested in, and I mean actively working on, not a writer or blogger commenting on something they have little-to-no hands on experience using. (You can usually find these resources posting to message boards and newsgroups related to the area of interest.)  Subscribe to industry magazines and mailing lists; you’ll quickly be able to weed out the buzzword-laden fluff from the truly technical troves of information.
  • Attend MeetUps related to your field of interest. Sign up for MeetUp and browse for groups highlighting your interests; you’ll meet people who are genuinely passionate and interested in the topic, and most are happy to guide newcomers to the most helpful resources.

Interviewing is generally nerve-wracking for all participants.  If you employ these tips, you’ll demonstrate to the interviewer your eagerness and willingness to go above and beyond typical expectations and communicate a real desire for a job you feel well-suited for. If an interviewer finds you self-starting and willing to take the initiative, I guarantee you will make a favorable impression that will last long after the interview is over.

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