May 01 2006

Help Wanted: IT Managers

Executives and recruiters share their top 10 questions that small business leaders should ask prospective IT professionals.
Good communication skills are a must for IT managers at small companies, who will work with everyone from the newest hire to the president, notes Ken Richardson, vice president of MIS technical services at Cenlar.

Looking to hire an IT manager, but tired of hearing the typical canned answers to standard interview questions from job candidates? The problem could be in what you’re asking.


What are your strengths and weaknesses? Where do you see yourself in five years? Both are routine questions that candidates prepare for. To get the most out of interviews, business executives should ask probing questions that go beneath the surface and allow them to really get to know the candidates and help determine whether they’re the right fit, says Leslie Ayres, senior recruiter for PeopleConnect, a San Francisco-based recruiting and staffing firm.

“Many people are nervous about interviewing and what you are allowed to say and not allowed to say. The interview process becomes rote and robotic,” she says. “The real key to finding people who fit your company is to be honest and real in the interview, and allow candidates to be honest and real with you. Then you can each know what you are getting.”

Executives should ask a mix of specific and hypothetical questions about a candidate’s technology knowledge, work style, communication skills and problem-solving abilities, but they should also ask personal questions to gauge values, executives and recruiters advise.

Here are 10 interview questions that experts say can yield candid and insightful responses:

Question 1. How do you juggle your workload?

An IT manager rarely gets to work on one project or task at a time, so good time-management skills and the ability to prioritize tasks are critical, says Ken Richardson, vice president of MIS technical services at Cenlar, a financial services company in Ewing, N.J.

The same question can be posed hypothetically, notes Allan Hoffman, a tech jobs specialist at, the online job listing service. For example: You have to configure a Web server that’s scheduled to go online today, but your Web developer is out sick, and you’ve been asked to fill in on an understaffed help desk. How do you set your priorities?

“Asking the question in a hypothetical way gives you a sense of how flexible they are going to be,” Hoffman says.

Question 2. We currently have a problem with [BLANK]. (Fill in the blank with a challenge your IT staff currently or routinely faces.) How would you solve it?

This question is designed to illuminate how candidates think and solve problems. It will also reveal a lot about their attitudes, says Glenn Zahn, president of Staff IT, a recruiting firm in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which matches IT personnel with businesses.

“It shows you how well they react. If they go, ‘sure,’ and jump up and solve the problem on a whiteboard, it’s a positive because it shows they have a good attitude and enjoy solving problems,” Zahn says.

Another way to approach the same question is to directly ask, What is your troubleshooting process when a user calls with a problem, especially when the solution isn’t intuitively obvious?” The answer will show whether a candidate has good diagnostic and analytical skills, Richardson says. “Good IT people do not throw darts when attempting to resolve a problem.”

Question 3. What do you do when you can’t solve a problem?

Personal integrity is essential in any position, and this question probes that area. “The right answer is to tell the user: ‘I don’t know how to resolve this issue, so I need to do further research, either on my own or by calling a vendor’s tech support,’” says Richardson, who previously worked as an IT consultant for small businesses. But a common IT practice is to “fake it until you make it,” which is going through the motions and hoping to stumble across the solution. If an IT manager would deceive a user, then that person could do the same to management, he says.

Question 4. How well do you communicate with technical peers, nontechnical people and management, and can you cite specific examples?

IT managers at small companies will work with everyone from the newest hire to the president. Therefore, good communication skills are a must, Richardson says. In the span of a few hours, an IT manager may go from supporting novice users to justifying a major infrastructure upgrade to executives. These IT professionals must communicate effectively with each at their own level of understanding, without patronizing them, he says.

Additionally, a small business may sometimes need an IT manager to assist the sales team to explain technical elements of a solution to clients, notes Hoffman.

Question 5. Describe some examples of specific tools, applications or process improvements that made or saved substantial amounts of money for your company.

This question not only tests a candidate’s technology knowledge, but it also can show how effectively the candidate aligns IT strategy with business goals, a critical talent for any IT professional, but especially in small businesses, says Zahn. “At a lot of small companies, everybody is responsible for making the company money, so it’s important to have an IT person who thinks of ways to make money or save money.”

Question 6. Describe the budget authority you’ve had in past positions and some of your challenges and successes in negotiating IT purchases.

An IT person must have good financial sense and the ability to negotiate good prices for hardware and software. “If we’re buying hardware, I expect the best price and the best fit for our applications,” says Robert Lemancik, vice president and chief financial officer for Lincoln Laser, a Phoenix-based laser system and optical component manufacturer with 71 employees.

Question 7. Tell me about a project you were involved in that used your [BLANK] skills. (Fill in the blank with one or more skills your company needs from among those listed on the candidate’s resume.)

IT job candidates cram a lengthy list of technical skills on their resumes. This question not only explores a candidate’s technical proficiency and accomplishments, but can also expose any resume inflation, Zahn says. A satisfying answer should include a detailed description of the project’s specific nature, the outcome, the return on investment to the company and the candidate’s level of participation. Watch for vague answers that can be signs that candidates are taking full credit for team projects in which they played only minor roles, he says.

A related, but more open-ended question: Tell me about your most valuable contributions in a previous job, also illuminates a candidate’s accomplishments. The answer should indicate confidence and a realistic self-perception of their abilities, says Ayres, but it may also expose egotistical, irrational and judgmental thought.

Question 8. How much and what kind of training have you had in the past 12 months?

Because technology changes so fast, businesses need to hire IT managers who stay current on the latest technologies and regularly improve their skills, says Lemancik. IT managers who regularly gain new certifications, for example, can implement new IT projects that can boost worker productivity and cut costs. “I see an IT manager as similar to a CPA, doctor or lawyer, which means they need to constantly be trained and reading journals,” he says.

Question 9. What would former employers have had to do to prevent you from leaving?

This is an alternative to the standard question of why did you leave your last job? This question is more likely to elicit an honest or at least a more spontaneous, unrehearsed answer, if asked in a relaxed manner, Ayres says. This twist on the standard interview question that most candidates prepare for offers a better chance of uncovering the real story, she adds.

“What you are looking for are signs that they are impatient or impossible to please,” Ayres explains. “Some people are finger pointers, blame others or jump ship too fast because they are unwilling to work through a problem.”

Richardson agrees that this question about a candidate’s reasons for leaving previous jobs is important to weed out job-hoppers.

Question 10. What do you value most in life, and how do you incorporate it into your work-life balance?

This question goes beyond the typical workplace questions to help interviewers get to know candidates and their values. It’s important to determine whether your corporate culture fits with their work style and overall lifestyle, Ayres says. In many job interviews, values never come up, but it’s an important question to ensure whether a candidate is a good fit for a company and vice versa. “To get the best hires, you have to consider a mix of factors: their skills, abilities and values,” she adds.

IT managers must not only be a great fit for your company; your company needs to be a great fit for them. When interviewing, tell candidates your goals and what you want to accomplish through IT, so they can decide whether they want to work in support of that vision, concludes Ayres.

CEO takeaway
Because small businesses typically have small IT staffs that can be stretched very thin, they need flexible, well-rounded IT professionals who are proficient in hardware, software, networking and security and can multitask and troubleshoot, says Ken Richardson, vice president of MIS technical services at Cenlar and a former consultant to small businesses. Here are the keys to interviewing and hiring the right candidate for the job:
• Be relaxed and honest with candidates. Putting them at ease will increase your chance of getting honest, unrehearsed answers to your questions.
• Ask a mix of specific questions about candidates’ experience and accomplishments and hypothetical ones aimed at probing how they think, communicate and solve problems.
• Look for clues to candidates’ honesty and personal integrity, both in how they deal with people and in how they’ve documented their experience and skills on their resumes.
• Ask at least one question intended to illuminate candidates’ values, which can help determine how well they’ll share your vision and fit into the company’s culture.