By Mark Feffer
Technology professionals dislike few things more than the technical interview.
That's no surprise: Here you are, an expert in your field, with code on GitHub and a track record of business results to point to, and you have to stand at a whiteboard to talk your way through using an algorithm or designing a database.
It's a standard part of the IT hiring process, and that's not going to change any time soon.
As grueling as they might be, these interviews help hiring managers answer fundamental questions. In addition to establishing a candidate's core technical knowledge, they offer insight into how you approach technical challenges, work under pressure, and engage with others.
Hiring managers aren't spot-checking your syntax, they're evaluating your thought processes.
For example, maybe they ask how you'd go about building a package-tracking system for a local delivery service. While you're not going to create a complete solution during the session, you'll have to identify the solution's key functions, then sketch out how they'd be executed and the results they'd provide.
In developing your answer, explain the reasoning behind any assumptions you make. It's OK to ask the manager questions.
For example, you might want to know how many drivers the hypothetical delivery service employs and how many packages it handles in a day. This is the kind of information you'd want to get while scoping out any project, and the simple act of asking the questions gives the manager an indication that you're thinking about end users and the challenges you're helping them to face.
If the manager tells you to make your own assumptions, go ahead. Just be sure to tell him what they are and why you're making them. For example:
"Let's assume there are five drivers, each one handling 60 packages a day. I'm assuming each driver can deliver eight packages an hour during an eight-hour shift because we have to allow for driving time between each address."
This illustrates the key to successfully navigating the technical interview: You have to talk. Again, more than anything else, the manager's trying to get inside your head.
By asking questions, explaining assumptions, and stepping through each step of the solution you're building, you'll provide a sense of your approach to information-gathering and problem-solving.
That's why even talking your way into a dead end isn't necessarily a sign of trouble. You'll recognize the roadblock, and you'll step back to try another approach. That kind of thing happens in the real world, and the manager knows it.
The technical interview also gives managers a sense of how you engage with others.
Though many tech professionals dismiss the idea, communication is an important part of their job. Coding may be a solitary occupation, but in the course of their work, developers interact with team members on a daily basis, and may be called upon to work with end users, clients, business partners, or other employees of their company.
So always keep your cool. Don't feel pressured to give the right answer -- focus on explaining your approach in a way that's clear and concise.
Be prepared for trick questions: Some managers will use them to throw you off balance and see how you react.
And don't be surprised if you're asked to define even basic terms. The manager may want to learn how you'll explain concepts to people who aren't as technically savvy as you are.
During the technical interview, the manager's interests go beyond what you know about syntax and arrays. Remember that by the time you've been invited in for face-to-face meetings, the employer's already decided you're capable of doing the job.
While the whiteboard session gives you a chance to reinforce your technical skills, it's also an opportunity to show off how you can bring your professional experience to bear, communicate with others, and be an effective member of the team. That's what managers want to know.
Mark Feffer has written, edited, and produced hundreds of articles on careers, personal finance and technology for leading business and career sites. He is currently writing for JobsinME.com, JobsinRI.com, JobsinVT.com and JobsinNH.com, the top local resources for job seekers, employers, and recruiters in New England.