Job interviews: Ask the right questions

Some technically-oriented people I recruit and place get very uncomfortable when it comes time to interview with other companies. “Uncomfortable” is being nice – I’ve heard the job search process described as “traumatic”, “gut-wrenching”, and “hell on earth” by even the most talented and intelligent engineers and scientists.


Well, it goes against their very nature – while an extrovert in sales or marketing wakes up each day with the intent to influence and engage people with their ideas and message, the technically-oriented person is more likely to engage with a product or system that they’re creating…rather than actual people.

In the job search, you have to sell yourself, even the most technically savvy Engineer MUST influence a group of people(the hiring team) to choose you out of a handful(sometimes more!) of other prospective candidates.

I’ve sat in on and conducted thousands of interviews with technically-oriented folks. If I were to impart one piece of advice on these reluctant job seekers, it would be this: ASK BETTER QUESTIONS.

I included a couple questions below that can serve you well in the job search process as well as personal settings – try them out amongst your friends or colleagues during every day conversations – you’ll find that these questions take the pressure of you, gives you control of the conversation, and gets the other person to share their agenda with you.

What’s the benefit of asking these questions??

1. It eliminates one word answers, which creates an awkward moment in the dialogue. Note that all of these are open-ended and require the other person to extend their thoughts out.

2. It gives the impression that you’re attentive, engaged, and listening, all of which are judged consciously or unconsciously by the interviewing team.

3. It reduces the chance of you putting your foot in your mouth or coming off as a “know-it-all” – a candidate projects a really, really negative vibe when they make a declarative statement to an interviewer with limited or no information about the context of the question.

4. It allows YOU to control the conversation and direct it, rather than be back-pedaling or defending your experience or skill set.

These are only a few of the questions I recommend – as you can see, they’re really general and short, but they have a dramatic impact on the tone and direction of an interview and ultimately, whether you are chosen for a role.

Really? Wow – this is best used with an enthusiastic facial expression.

What it does: it allows you to express amazement at someone or a group’s actions/accomplishments – this can get the interviewer/interviewee bonding emotionally over a shared opinion of what’s being discussed – it also gets the interviewer to discuss the accomplishment/shortcoming further.

Why do you think that is?

What this question does: It helps you extract how the interviewer and/or department/company has already dissected the challenge.

It also gets the interview to share THEIR assumptions or THEIR attempts at solving a problem – as they’re doing this, you have the time and option to:

1. Come up with an example of how you’ve experienced something similar in your career.

2. Ask another question that takes the conversation deeper into solving the problem(always looked at positively by the interviewer).

3. Assess whether or not what they describe is something you want to take on in your new role.

What’s been done to fix that?

What this does: Along the same lines of “why do you think that is?”, this question allows you to extract from the interviewer what’s already been done or attempted to fix a problem.

This is where most candidates skip a line of questioning and go immediately into presenting a solution to the problem – when a candidate does this, they run the risk of coming off as a know-it-all and someone who rushes to decisions with limited amounts of information. Don’t be that guy or gal.

You can ask follow up questions from here to further your understanding of the scope of the challenge – when the interviewer gives you the full picture, it’s at THAT point where you can share you’ve experienced a similar challenge in the past or offer up a rough assessment of how you might go about solving the challenge.

Can you help me understand the context of that better?

What this does: Some interview questions are asked as if a work challenge or decision-making process was done in a vacuum – this question forces the interviewer to reframe their question. It usually elicits the following…”Well, one of the challenges we have is xyz, and I’m curious how you might handle that?”

This question is really powerful, as it can really de-claw those “gotcha” interview questions that can come up in interviews. It keeps you from giving one-word answers or making declarative statements with limited supporting information.

Try some of these questions in your daily interactions – you may have others that you like and use that are effective.  Which ones do you like?

Bob Pudlock is Managing Partner of Engineering Jobs in Florida, a practice group within Gulf Stream Search that identifies, attracts, and places top Engineering talent with Florida-based employers.

He can be reached at (561) 450-9490 / / Connect on Twitter / Connect on Linked In

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