Feature: The art of the hiring interview

An information-technology department without good people is no more effective than an internet connection with severe bandwidth problems - neither will ever live up to its potential.

The gateway to connecting with the people you need is the hiring interview. It's where vital information is revealed and analysed, and it's an opportunity that is missed only at a high cost to your department.

The interview is more than a careful approach to asking the right questions. An IT manager wants to look for nonverbal cues and aspects of a prospective hire that may not be immediately apparent. Here's how some IT managers use the interview to their best advantage in screening job candidates:

Favourite questions

Steve Brilling says he likes a direct approach. The senior vice president and CIO at Swiss Reinsurance America in New York, asks applicants: "Tell me your philosophy; how do you manage people?" For senior-level people, what's important, he says, is how the person approaches people-management issues, not nuts-and-bolts IT expertise, which virtually all senior people have.

Bud Albers, senior director of technology services at St Louis-based Monsanto, will ask things like: "Where do you think the business will be in two years, five years and 10 years?" Or, "What will the Web look like from a technical perspective and a business perspective?" He wants to know if potential hires really are thinking about where their profession is going and how they will fit into it.

David Bass says he wants to see how applicants deal with uncomfortable issues. Bass, an IT manager at Time Warner's Time Customer Service division in Florida, asks applicants to describe projects they have led that resulted in failure. He's looking for an applicant to give a valid reason for the failure and to explain what he could have done to turn the situation around.

"I want them to be able to learn from their mistakes and be more successful in the future," Bass says.

Ken Hill, vice president of IT at General Dynamics in Virginia, says he likes an in-your-face question: "Why aren't you making more money?"

What he wants to find out is whether an applicant will answer with excuses. He says he likes to hear that a person is willing to be paid based on his performance and is therefore willing to take some risk.

Questions no longer asked

Albers no longer asks what he calls "obligatory questions" such as, "What are you most proud of?" Applicants "have rote answers for these," he explains.

Jeremy Seligman, vice president and CIO at Frontier in New York, says he feels the same way and similarly avoids such questions as, "Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses."

"People are well prepared for this question and generally share a weakness such as 'I work too hard' or 'I'm never satisfied'," he says. "You never get anything useful out of this kind of question."

Bob Jones, vice president and CIO at Moore Corporation, a printing and digital communications company says he used to focus a lot on academics and the applicant's biographical details. Now he just asks for a brief synopsis and usually gets a broad picture of the person in about five minutes.

"If they hit on the high points and finish in a reasonable time, that impresses me," he says.

Tip-offs

Nonverbal cues can tip off an interviewer to an applicant's suitability or even how well he might fit in at the organisation. Bass looks at what he calls the applicant's "presentation", which includes dress, confidence and oral skills.

Confidence in an applicant is important to Alan Cranford, vice president of information systems operations at hospital chain Tenet Healthcare, in Dallas.

"I don't want someone who's a wallflower, who can't articulate their strengths," he explains. "I also don't want someone who's very arrogant. I'm looking for a balance."

Seligman asks what the applicant has read lately. "I'm looking for people who are intellectually curious, who have a lifelong commitment to learning, people who read widely, both fiction and nonfiction," he says.

Eye contact is important, says Honorio Padron, CIO and senior vice president of process engineering at CompUSA Inc.

He says, "If you don't look me in the eye, I have trouble with you, because I want people persons."

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