major.io words of wisdom from a systems engineer

Do your homework before a technical interview

If you work for a growing company like I do, it’s inevitable that you’ll have to do your fair share of interviewing. I love it when I leave an interview with a good feeling about the candidate. That “wow, they really nailed it” feeling is always great to have when you need to fill a critical role. Most often, the successful candidates are the ones who do their homework before they ever walk in our office doors.

What do I mean by “do your homework?” Here are some bullet points to get you on your way:

Know what the company does.

This one is critical and it should be easy. However, make sure to do thorough research first. For example, if you interviewed at a company like Apple, becoming familiar with their hardware lineup should be a no-brainer. That’s their bread and butter. On the other hand, remember that Apple isn’t solely a hardware company; they write lots of software, provide online productivity services, and they distribute music, movies, and other entertainment media.

While you’re doing this research, try to discover what makes the company unique. Sure, Apple sells laptops and desktops (just like a lot of other companies), but what makes their particular products unique? Is there something unique about the way they provide their services? Have they cornered a certain market segment by providing a combination of products and services to that group of consumers? Answering these simple questions may help you tip the scales in the interview process.

Try one or more of the company’s products.

The feasibility of trying a company’s product before an interview could be debatable. For example, if you wanted to interview at Cray, you probably don’t need to drop $2M USD on your own XE6 before walking in the door. For companies where the barrier to entry for purchasing a product is much lower, such as cloud computing companies, there’s no excuse to not try things out first. Amazon has a free tier and a Rackspace Cloud Server could cost you as little as $2.50 per week.

It’s concerning when I talk to an applicant about a job working with Rackspace’s Cloud Servers and they haven’t tried out any cloud products from any provider. How can I take a candidate’s interest seriously when they haven’t shown interest in any portion of my group’s market segment?

Know what the company’s competitors do.

It’s often more impressive to an interviewer to know what a company’s competitors are doing and how it compares to what that company is doing in the market. For example, if you can walk into an interview and say “I like the way your company makes these widgets, but Company X is able to make them more lightweight, and I value that more than the added customer service your company offers.” This shows the interviewer that you’re familiar with various products in the segment and you’ve used them enough to understand what makes them different.

Some of you might be thinking: “Why would I say something like that to the interviewer? They’ll think I’m being too negative about their product.” That’s always possible, but you can guard against it by wording everything carefully. Make sure you have a solid reason for the way you feel that is based on something substantial (usability, price, features, etc). I’ve had candidates talk for five to ten minutes about why one of our product is inferior to one of our competitors’ products and I was very impressed.

One quick gotcha: your interviewer might turn your comments back on you and ask you how you would improve one of the inferior products (I do this regularly). Make sure that you’re prepared for that question and consider offering up a suggestion before the question is presented to you.

Can’t get the information you need? Ask!

When you reach the end of the interview and the interviewer asks if you have questions, be sure to ask any questions about topics you had trouble researching. Going back to the Cray example, compare what you know about an XE6 to servers you’ve used before. You could mention a problem you had with the density of your previous configurations and ask how they overcame that hurdle at Cray. If it’s a proprietary trade secret, you might not get an answer, but they’ll know that you did some serious research ahead of time. If they can share the answer, they might still be impressed, and you might end up learning something you didn’t know prior to the interview.

Conclusion

In summary, doing your homework and learning about the company shows the interviewers that you not only have what it takes to do the work, but that the work interests you as well. I’ve interviewed folks in the past who lacked on technical ability but had plenty of desire and drive. More often than not, those people are now Rackers.