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.
While 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.”