Tech Interviews: How to Answer Questions from Someone Who Doesn’t Know Tech

If you really understand technology, you’re bound to run into someone in an interview who doesn’t understand IT as well as you do. That person will ask their technical questions and disagree with your answers — answers that you know are right and they believe are wrong.

Tearing His Hair OutI’ve seen a lot of people on this site go off on the technical knowledge of people doing the interviewing, but is angry-at-the-interviewer the right approach? Or is there something different we should do when the technical interviewer doesn’t get it? After all, the intent of your interview is get an offer. Not that you’d necessarily accept the offer, but without one, you are not in a position to choose.

Grovel just to get the job offer? Well, if you know me, the answer is no. What to do, what to do?

1. Don’t Get Intimidated

Half the time, the interviewer has a big ego. After all, they were selected to do the technical interview and they think they are hot stuff. If you have a poor interviewer, any response that doesn’t match up with whatever reality they’re in (“Um…it doesn’t work that way…”) brings out intimidation toward the job candidate (you).

Don’t get intimidated. You have technical knowledge, you’ve earned that knowledge through education and hard knocks and there is no reason you should feel inferior. So don’t.

2. Don’t Lose Your Temper

Losing your temper is the kiss of death in an interview. Here’s where people who write those blog comments go off on the interviewer’s technical knowledge. Maybe they don’t do it during the interview, but they do it here. That’s okay, but never do it in an interview.

Grovel for the job? Nope. You game this. If you’re responsible for your career — and you are — you need to evaluate the company just as much as the company evaluates you. Losing your temper gives up your ability to evaluate the job and the company, and guarantees you won’t get an offer. You give it up because some person gets under your skin.

3. Ask a Question Back After Giving an Answer

Now, there’s more than one way to answer most technical questions. They are, after all, questions about a process (“How would you go about uploading a new upgrade on a critical server?”).

Recognize there is more than one answer and turn the question into a valid question back: “How does your company approach the upgrade?”

This approach does two critical things to help you in the interview. First, it shows that you understand there’s more than one way to do an upgrade. Second, you get to hear how the company does it (or if they even have a clue on how to do it). You want to know how your prospective employer goes about doing an upgrade, don’t you?

4. Get Your Interviewer to Tell You More About the Company

One of your objectives in an interview is to find out as much as you can about the company culture and the management. Why? Because you will work in that environment and much of what you love or hate about the job will be a direct result of management and culture. Information about what goes on inside a company is priceless — so go for the information.

That the person in front of you is asking those stupid technical questions tells you more about a department’s management and culture than anything else. Does the person get it? Does the person have an ego that tries to intimidate you? Does the person challenge you with complete falsehoods that have been routinely debunked over and over again?

Would you want to work for that company?

Look, you can get all ticked off at the level of technical discourse during a technical interview. I can too. But your objective is two-fold: learn about the company’s culture, and get an offer so you can actually have a choice about taking the job.

This isn’t groveling. It’s about getting your ego out of the way and getting information to make an informed decision.

How have you answered poor technology interview questions?

No Responses to “Tech Interviews: How to Answer Questions from Someone Who Doesn’t Know Tech”

  1. Some years ago I had a boss who did not know tech. Many times he’d ask a question, receive an answer, tell me I was wrong. He’d then search for the answer he wanted. But I was right so he’d then come back and tell me “I figured out …”. Eventually he eliminated my position. Eventually he was fired.

  2. Richard Janus

    So the advice for a question like ““How would you go about uploading a new upgrade on a critical server?” is to answer with “How does your company approach the upgrade?” Isn’t that saying (to someone with said lack of tech knowledge “Well, tell me how you do it so I can tell you what you want to hear?” Then again, if the interviewer is that weak minded to fall for such a thing to begin with, your might as well entertain yourself with a Jedi mind trick?

    • @Richard — there are two steps there. First, answer the question. Then, the second step, ask how that company does it. You can’t do Jedi mind tricks – as much as I would love to do so! – and avoid the question.

      I’ll do a bit of Jedi mind trick myself here — the “tell them what they want to hear” underlies a problem with interviews. We don’t want to tell people what they want to hear because it sublimates our desire to be right. We push back because our view is the way to go and we’re not going to tell you what you want to hear just to get a job.

      That conotation, I think, is incorrect (and not saying you are thinking that — I’ve just seen this pushback a lot). The reason you ask a question back after giving an answer is that you want to understand – not what they want to hear — but what they want to know from your background that fits into the job. Most of us have worked in more than one place. Most of us have more than one way of doing something. We can adapt to that. But, we need to know what pieces of our background apply to what this company does. So we ask to better focus our answers on their situation. That’s not telling them what they want to hear to get a job, it’s determining what parts of our background applies and figuring out if there is a fit.

      And, as a bonus, we find out if the company is totally crazy and we would never want to work there — but we have to ask or we’ll just be guessing.