When You Have More Technical Knowledge Than Your Job Interviewer

Picture this scenario: You’re interviewing with a recruiter or HR staffer, and they begin asking you highly technical questions. Fortunately, you’re an expert in the technologies under discussion, so you rattle off the right answers—only to see the interviewer frown and shake their head. “No,” the interviewer says. “You’re incorrect.”

“I’m sorry, but I actually believe that’s the right answer,” you reply, and provide a detailed explanation why, using simple terms and analogies that the interviewer can understand.

“No, that’s not right,” the interviewer says, and holds up the piece of paper in their hand. “That’s not what’s on this paper.”

How often does this scenario occur in real life? More often than anyone would like. Tech pros become frustrated when interviewers don’t understand how technology actually works; and interviewers (whether recruiters, HR staffers, or hiring managers) can miss out on great candidates due to miscommunications over skill sets.

A few years ago, for example, one of the writers of the G-WAN blog posted a blow-by-blow account of their interview with Google for a director of engineering position. The interview included a test of practical knowledge that, despite having 37 years of experience in coding (and 24 years in management), the writer failed. As you scan through the blog’s transcript, one thing is clear: the interviewer simply doesn’t know the technology well enough to grasp what the writer is actually saying. Here’s a sample:

  1. There’s an array of 10,000 16-bit values, how do you count the bits most efficiently?

Me: you shift the bits right on all the 64-bit words, the Kernighan way.

Recruiter: no.

Me: there are faster methods processing 64-bit words with masks but I can’t explain it over the phone, I must write code.

Recruiter: the correct answer is to use a lookup table and then sum the results.

Me: on which kind of CPU? Why not let me compare my code to yours in a benchmark?

Recruiter: that’s not the point of this test.

Me: what’s the point of this test?

Recruiter: I have to check that you know the right answers.

This is a common complaint among tech pros: they demonstrate their practical knowledge during an interview, only for the interviewer to chide them for giving an unexpected answer. As anyone who’s worked in technology for any length of time knows, there are often multiple pathways to a solution, and sometimes multiple solutions (of differing degrees of elegance) to a particular problem. But many interviewers—especially the ones from HR who don’t have a technical background—aren’t always willing to understand that fact.

What can a tech pro actually do about this conundrum? Frustratingly little. You need to remain pleasant and professional, of course; and whether or not you’re in the right, allow the interviewer to move onto the next segment. If the disagreement over an answer only occurs once or twice in the course of an interview, it may not have much of an effect on the overall outcome, anyway.

Most of all, remember not to provoke a fight or a protracted disagreement, which may doom your chances with the company for good. You can also attempt to discuss a “compromise” answer or some sort of middle ground, although that can prove difficult if the interviewer isn’t budging from whatever’s printed on the paper in front of them.

Fortunately, a number of tech companies are moving beyond this sort of testing, choosing instead to focus on analytical ability and problem-solving instead of trivia-style answers. In addition, tech industry unemployment is so low—and the need for skilled tech talent so high—that more companies are unwilling to lose a candidate to a recruiter’s lack of technical knowledge; they’ll often hold off on the technical questions until the candidate is face-to-face with a hiring manager who actually knows the material at hand.

Whatever a company’s interview process, it never hurts to review the relevant skills before speaking to the interviewer, and to run through a few practice problems beforehand. Check out Dice’s interview tips for a deeper rundown of what you can do to prep.

6 Responses to “When You Have More Technical Knowledge Than Your Job Interviewer”

  1. Michael

    Quite frankly, this is one of the character qualities that I employ in order to screen prospective clients, recruiters, fellow colleagues, potential employees, etc. If they aren’t willing to let the facts fall where they may, never mind the truth, standing on solid logic, then I don’t want to do business with them.

    • Humm
      I’ve been in several interviews where I can clearly see that 1) the person that is conducting the interview has no technical understanding further than logging into there computer and 2) is reading questions from a piece of paper
      What I do is throw the interview, because frankly I don’t want to waste my time
      I figure that the manager that I’d end up working for would be way to ridged and controling not to mention would also be an ace at micro management
      I like most intelligent people work best in collaboration, not in a space where only the manager has ideas and is always right
      So that type of ridged interview, I personally don’t see the point

      • johnr

        Step one of getting hired is the HR interview. They should be looking at you as an employee, how you fit into their company culture, will you integrate as a human answer simple questions with a complete sentence.
        Step two should be the technical interview. Step one should not have happened unless someone technical cleared your resume to the next level.
        If HR is vetting your technical skills, the company has other issues.

    • this entire article’s premise is that there are more ways than one to solve a problem and that this can cause a miscommunication that isn’t valuable to the person being interviewed. The author is blatantly providing the fact that the candidate is right and the interviewer is in over his head. That can happen… so it does happen… So you are going to need to imagine yourself interviewing someone that potentially has a correct answer that is presented in a manner that is, for whatever reason, over your head.

  2. Scott

    I have also had several interviews like this. In my opinion, these companies are trying to justify the H1b resources they hire, i.e. no qualified Americans. Having 20 years experience, I spend a lot of time contracting at companies that laid off most of the staff and went H1b. My purpose there is to stabilize the system(and train the H1s for next time).

  3. Lawrence Weinzimer

    An IT org, at large, is supposed to be an rational, technocratic structure. Egos normatively are checked upon entry to the firm. Idiosyncrasies, too. Hiring decisions are best when meritorious based, whether the new staff will fit in with the team, accept the compensation grade, and adhere to longevity and adaptability demands with proposal to extend offer of employment. The paranoia factor of the interviewer will most often result in no job offer at the table. The exception – If the interviewer has those intangible elements of affinity with trust.