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Tell me about a time when…

2011 March 18
by Shannon Lowder

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During many of the interviews I’ve been in, I’ll be asked a very open ended question.  To me this kind of question will give the interviewer some insight into how well you can summarize a larger topic into a brief, but informative comment.  This skill can be very important for knowledge workers.  Think about how much detail there is to know when improving query times.

You have to look at the number of times a query is run.  You have to look at what indexes already exist.  You have to look at how much those indexes are used.  You have to look at the construction of the query.  The list of things you have to consider when improving queries seems endless. But your manager doesn’t want to hear all the details on what you went through in order to make that query better,  he or she will only want to know a few key details. 

During the interview you are given open ended questions so the interviewer can gauge how well you accomplish this.

Now, I don’t want you to think the form of your answer is the only important part.  The subject can be important too.  But concentrate on the form first.  My general rule of thumb is I will try to answer the question in 60 to 90 seconds.  If there is more detail to share, I’ll look to my interviewer and ask if he or she would like more information… if so, I’ll continue.  But you don’t want to bore the interviewer.  Keep your answers brief, and lively.  You don’t want to bore the interviewer.

Now that we have the form, let’s look at some of the pitfalls in these open ended questions. 

Sometimes they will try to ask questions that look at how you handle stressful situations. I’ll be honest here, in the past I’ve struggled with how I handle stress.  I tend to internalize it.  Once the stress goes on for too long, I start getting a bit sarcastic.  It’s a weakness, and I’ve worked on this constantly for the past few years.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve moved on from some positions.  I like to be able to resolve stressful situations so that both sides are happy. 

I have had some positions where this was possible.  In those I opened dialog with my supervisors and co-workers.  I wanted to work out details that would let everyone involved work through that stress.  By getting all the “assumptions” out in the open, a lot of that stress goes away.  Everyone knows where everyone else stands, and as a result, everyone feels more at ease with the rest of the team. 

In those positions where it wasn’t possible to work out the stress, I did eventually move on to new teams with a dynamic that fit better with my openness and honesty. 

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Discussions like these allow the interviewer a peak inside what makes you tick.  It let’s them see how you’re going to work out in their team.  If you take the opportunity to turn these questions into dialog, you’ll be able to get insight into their team as well.  Doing that will help you decide if the position is one you want.  Remember the interview process is just as much about you interviewing them, as it is them interviewing you.

The more you learn to handle these open ended questions, and turn them into conversations, the better you’ll do in interviews.  It’s a skill well worth mastering. 

If you have had any open ended questions that stumped you.  Send them in.  I’d like to discuss them with you and work with you to handle them in the future.

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