Make Sure Interviews Don’t Turn Into Free Consulting

You expect managers to ask about your experience and skills during an interview, but it’s hard to know what to say if they throw you a curve ball and ask for a step-by-step solution to a complex technical problem.

We’re not talking about a coding interview here. We’re talking about a fishing expedition to see whether you’ll provide free consulting advice, and it’s often difficult to discern the difference.

Job InterviewWhile you should be ready to prove your expertise in a white board exercise, a standardized test or simply fielding questions from certification exams, you should be suspicious if the manager migrates away from theoretical discussions to your approach to specific problems and your strategy or suggested sequence of events for dealing with it, an actual deliverable, or a solution that requires in-depth analysis and unique know-how.

“It’s reasonable to ask about your work history or problem-solving methodology, but not to request a road map or knowledge that contributes to your value proposition,” says John Hadley, a search counselor based in Somerville, N.J. If you, or anyone else, make a habit of giving away that kind of information, he notes, managers won’t need to hire so much.

How to Respond

If you find yourself in this situation, be polite and offer proof of your ability to handle the problem and offer references to your expertise. Only after that should you suggest that the manager hire you to solve it. If they hesitate, one way to assess their motives is by asking how long the position you’re interviewing for has been open and when the manager plans to make the hire.

That approach, essentially, is calling the manager’s bluff. Another option is to push the conversation to another level by asking questions that demonstrate your familiarity with the issue and reveals the source of the manager’s pain.

Before asking about the fixes they’ve tried, start by acknowledging the depth of the problem and find out whether the manager has the resources to solve it. Then, just like a consultant, use their answers to highlight your experience and explain the approach you’d take. It’s fine to share some ideas and general knowledge, as long as you don’t give away the store. Also, taking that kind of consultative approach will make you seem like a highly paid insider, help you stand out, and further prove why you’re the best person for the job.

“The more you can engage the manager and get him talking about the problem and his pain, the smarter you’ll seem,” says Hadley. “The key is to convince him that you’re the best person to solve his problem without actually solving it.”

6 Responses to “Make Sure Interviews Don’t Turn Into Free Consulting”

  1. Fred Bosick

    I’m not sure this is the best solution. So what if they want a gimme. That’s one problem. They can’t run an IT department grabbing solutions from successive interviewees. They’ll have more. If they don’t you don’t want to be working there.

    I got my break by, during the interview, unpacking and setting up an HP laser printer and hooking it up to a PC running Windows 3.1. I, then, only owned dot matrix printers and never touched a laser printer before.

  2. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out how this could actually be a real-world problem for any industry, from IT to construction to burger flipping.

    At absolute best I can figure it is a fool’s Google alternative… At which point anybody “abused” by this scam would quickly find that *NOT* getting the job is a perk!

    What information could you possibly get from 1 interviewee (or a hundred) that wouldn’t be returned from a single search online? Is your problem so amazingly unique that nobody has ever discussed it online, and so amazingly simple that a *GOOD* solution was thought up by a random interviewee AND communicated to you sufficiently in perhaps 60 minutes that you couldn’t think of it yourself?

    AND you’re NOT hiring this person who is quite obviously better than every single person in your organization currently that couldn’t think of the solution?

    I do not fear this situation *at all*. I welcome it to weed out the worst job opportunities.

  3. I have had this happen a few times. In one instance, the interviewer clearly asked me what I would do to implement a new change. They suggested that they are looking for new ideas.
    One company asked me few automation related ideas, they were frustrated with their outsourced company, and wanted provide them some procedural steps. I gave then some great ideas on what can be done. Needless to say, the interview went extremely well, and I never heard back. Also, there are times when these companies will reel you in and may ask you for 2nd or even 3rd interview.
    The key is see if the employer is really serious on hiring. If the vacancy has been open for more than two to three months, then it’s just waste of time. There is no urgency and they may just be fishing around for free advice from people who have great resumes and professional skills.

  4. Thanks for the article! I have been in consulting for a number of years and have had this happen to me a few times. In fact, one time, I was asked to provide strategy and solution while the entire staff was in the room. I wish I had walked away from it.

  5. IT Professional

    I went to work for a small biotech company where the only other developer, a person with an advanced education (albeit no education/experience in IT), openly admitted to using this tactic during the “dotcom boom” when applicants were *plentiful*.