4 IT job interview questions that must die – and what to ask instead

Many hiring managers think tried-and-true when preparing IT job interview questions – but some of the classic questions have become groaners, or even illegal. Try these instead
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The IT job interview – a critical component in the hiring process – helps both job seekers and hiring managers judge if a particular opportunity will be a fit. But when it comes to IT interview questions, it’s far too easy to go on autopilot. Certain questions are so commonly asked that there are entire websites devoted to the best ways to answer them.

Certain questions are so common that there are entire websites devoted to the best answers.

Yet some of those familiar go-to questions aren’t actually as effective as they might seem. They may fail to elicit the kind of information for which they’re designed. Some have become outdated. Others may turn candidates off. Still others may now even be illegal.

[ Is your interview process reasonable? Read also 5 IT hiring mistakes leaders are in denial about. ]

Given the importance of the in-person interview to effective hiring, it makes sense to step back and rethink the rote questions to determine how much insight they actually provide and look for new lines of inquiry that may be more revealing.

4 IT job interview questions to avoid

Here are four common interview questions to consider ditching, along with what you might ask or do instead.

1. “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

On the surface, this one makes perfect sense. Understanding how an IT professional imagines their professional life progressing helps IT leaders understand whether the trajectory of the open role and the company overall is a good match for the candidate’s career and development goals.

The problem here is not the goals, but the time span. “The five-year timeline doesn’t mean the same as it used to,” says Jim Halpin, team lead for Technology Services at LaSalle Network. “Especially in tech, professionals move around to gain exposure to new systems and keep learning, so five years isn’t realistic anymore.”

What to ask instead: “What are your long-term career goals?”

“This gives you a bigger picture of where a candidate’s head is at and what their ultimate goals are,” says Halpin. “They don’t have to limit themselves to five years, and instead can expand on what areas they’re specifically interested in, whether management is something they’re working towards, any additional skills or certifications they’d like to pursue. Then the hiring manager can decide if their long-term goals align with what their company can provide.”

[ Are your job descriptions scaring off good people? Read also: How to write to better IT job descriptions: 8 steps. ]

2. “How much are you currently making/did you make in your previous position?”

The salary history question was always awkward for all parties involved, potentially shifting the tone of an otherwise pleasant and comfortable conversation. However, today the question is not only uncomfortable, but it’s also illegal in many geographies. The reasons for the salary history ban are varied, but the main rationale is eliminating gender or other pay bias from the equation; the compensation for the position should be based on the value of the role to the organization and not the amount the candidate is willing to accept. “Multiple states have made it illegal to ask about a candidate’s salary,” Halpin says, “so even if your state hasn’t yet, it likely will.” Note: The bans also apply to asking about benefits as well.

What to do instead: Do your homework on industry averages

In some jurisdictions, employers can still ask candidates about their salary expectations, or the amount of money they would like to make in the new role. However, the best strategy is to do appropriate due diligence on the value of a role. “Employers will have to do more market analysis to understand the labor market and the types of salaries the position they’re hiring for is commanding,” says Halpin. “Companies won’t be able to rely on what a candidate was previously making to help them determine salary.”

3. “How many golf balls can you fit in a school bus?” or “How much should you charge to wash all of the windows in Montana?”

Some of the most successful tech companies in the world have been known to ask these kinds of problem-solving questions, so why shouldn’t you? But unless the role you’re filling involves heavy math, these types of inquiries do little more than jar the applicant. “Asking off-the-wall questions like this, which are meant to throw a candidate off and get them to think on their feet, aren’t as helpful as many think,” Halpin says.

What to ask instead: “Walk me through your planning process when you get a new project.”

Asking a more practical question – that’s rooted in real day-to-day experience and that describes a sequence of actions – is a better bet. “You can see their thought process throughout each step,” says Halpin. “This gives you insight into how the candidate would actually approach the problem. Making it a more real-world situation helps hiring managers get a more realistic picture of the candidate’s critical thinking skills.”

4. “What is your greatest strength /weakness?”

This is a recipe for hyperbole, canned answers, and spin. “People often embellish during this question – whether it’s stating weaknesses that aren’t actually weaknesses or stating strengths without evidence or proof,” Halpin says.

What to ask instead: “Tell me about a time where you had to overcome a challenge at work.”

Like the problem-solving and critical thinking prompts above, it’s easier to assess someone’s strengths and weaknesses through their descriptions of real-world situations they’ve experienced. “Flip the strengths/weaknesses question to be more behavioral,” advises Halpin. “Have candidates walk you through examples of where they’ve used their strengths. This requires them to provide evidence of their strengths and provides insight into how they would react to a challenge in their role.”

[ Download our free eBook: IT job searching in 2019: A practical guide. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.