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I had an interview for an IT position with the government and it had some very bizarre questions:

  • list components of software and hardware (do you just want a random list?)
  • define spam and firmware (I can see this one but how long of a definition are you looking for i.e. just a sentence?)
  • list common IT problems (this is subjective depending on the work place. Would it make sense to ask a developer "what problems do you face as a developer" when he's applying to a new company and doesn't know which tools they use yet. For example if I worked at a software lab maybe the common problems would have to do with IDEs, but I don't know if I will be supporting software developers in this job so...)
  • Give an explicit story of working with someone difficult and what you did (I've heard of this but they kept asking for personal details which made me uncomfortable, like what exactly the other person said that was offensive)
  • an employee reported difficulty with a program that he installed by himself. What do you do? (this has a lot of variables: is it against policy for a user to install a program himself? was he told to do so by his boss? is the program pirated? does the company have licences for the program? does the program appear to be for work or for recreation?)

A lot of these questions needed more information than what was given but when I asked they didn't specify much. For example the first one seemed like they just wanted me to list random hardware and software and when I asked to clarify they said "what parts are needed for a computer to run".

Also the last question I tried to answer in general but they kept asking for give specific details. I felt uncomfortable about this, for example didn't want to say the actual swear words used etc.

How should I have responded to such questions? After I gave a description they kept saying "anything else?" did that mean I should've kept adding more? All but one time they only asked "anything else?" once but the one time they asked it like 5 times.

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    Why would you consider those to be bizarre questions? THey seem quite ordinary to me. If they were asking "Anything else?" likely, you had not mentioned something they thought was an important part of the answer. – HLGEM Feb 13 '15 at 20:21
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    In addition to HLGEM's comment, if they are prompting you for "anything else", it might mean that they want you to brainstorm up all the different details - they're testing your depth of knowledge and possibly how well you think out of the box. – Telastyn Feb 13 '15 at 20:27
  • @EricWilson no, the language they used. Please try to focus on the entire question instead of one detail. – Jimmy Bauther Feb 13 '15 at 20:33
  • @EricWilson I actually flagged the comment as nonconstructive because it seems to be based on a misunderstanding and I don't really see any value from it? I guess you're trying to tell me not to swear which isn't very helpful. – Jimmy Bauther Feb 13 '15 at 20:42
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RualStorage provided a good breakdown of the questions, so I will try to provide the reasons of why the interview is conducted this way. I am assuming this was for a US Government job, or a government that has similar rules for interviews. I worked for the US Federal Government, and conducted many interviews in this fashion. The US Federal Government is extremely concerned about fairness in the hiring and promotion process. To this end interviews are required to be made as equal as possible, this means that each candidate should be provided with the same information, asked the exact same questions, given the same length of time for the interview, and the interviews should all be conducted in the same manner (e.g. all in person, over the phone, or video conference). Each member of the panel scores each candidates answer for each question (typically right after the interview finishes). After all interviews are completed they panel members need to reach consensus on a selection.

While the written policies are not this strict this is a simple mechanism for ensuring that there is little basis for any type of discrimination lawsuit.

My advice to anyone interviewing with the Government is to be prepared to give lengthy answers. One of the key things is to keep in mind the mandatory and desirable criteria from the job posting while answering the questions. From a strategy standpoint keep in mind the Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) format for answering questions.

  • These types of interviews also tend to be really monotonous for the interviewer(s) compared to normal interviews. As interviews go on despite efforts otherwise people tend to get bored, when they get bored, they're less likely to score you favorably. Try to engage these people. Instead of a "my boss and I had a disagreement, we got over it" yawn story, tell a story of something absurd that happened at work that you handled well. The quest to getting the fire sprinkler installed over your server rack relocated because well if the fire doesn't kill the servers, the water would. – RualStorge Feb 17 '15 at 20:18
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Most of these seem reasonable enough... Let's break them down and see what might be going on...

List components of software and hardware

This is clearly a poorly worded or idea of a question as it's more confusing than beneficial... Do they want to see if you just know a wide range of bits and pieces, really deep knowledge about how everything works, together, perhaps the question was actually intended to be confusing just to see how you handle confusion.

Define spam and firmware

This question actually isn't bad, it's just gauging if you can explain something technical clearly. Spam being any for of communication that is undesirable, firmware being software written to / controlling hardware.

List common It problems

Perhaps vague, but not a bad question. It might even be intentionally non-specific to see what sort of things you see as problems in IT. Some problems are technical failing hardware, maintenance plans, infrastructure issues. Others are administrative. Most people are better at one more so than the other which will likely affect their response.

Give an explicit story of working with someone difficult and what you did

This is a rather normal question, different wording, but normal. The goal here is seeing how you handled a difficult user. Hopefully the swearing was the user being unreasonable and not you, otherwise I'd gloss over that part. You could also say "the user colorful in their choice of language" or similar. The message gets across without actually needing to drop any F bombs.

•an employee reported difficulty with a program that he installed by himself. What do you do?

This one isn't bad. They've provided a scenario you have to explain what you would do in other words what you think is reasonable coarse of action. Either this is an issue they've had problems with our have established practices with, but in the end they want to make sure you're reasonable in how you handle and resolve it. Do you enforce policy? Do you let things slide? Do you handle yourself as a professional? Do you create more problems in resolving the issue than you fix?

Summary

In the end the listing software / hardware is the only really odd question. It comes across as something to catch you off guard or poorly thought out. Though probably not very effective.

What should you do?

Remember when responding to the questions you need to be honest, but you also need to think what they're trying to figure out. Often questions are asked for reasons other than the question itself. Some questions are actually intended to put you off balance to see how you handle it, because how you perform when something goes to hell is usually more important than how you perform when everything is in good order.

When you can't answer

When a question is so vague or confusing that you simply can't answer you can ask for clarification. If that doesn't get you anywhere you can apologize that you don't understand and offer to answer what you believe they intended to figure out. Even if it's a blind guess that's wrong it's better than nothing.

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    Awesome, you make some good points that clear things up. One thing I still have difficulty with is the employee with a problem on a program they installed. You say "Do you enforce policy?" I can't answer this because I don't know the companies policy. I've worked for companies before where it's perfectly acceptable for a software developer to download any software they see necessary. – Jimmy Bauther Feb 13 '15 at 20:38
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    @JimmyBauther it's perfectly fine to say "assuming the policy is..." or "If the policy is..." otherwise... That shows you're mindful of the rules while also not dodging the intended question. – RualStorge Feb 13 '15 at 20:40
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    @JimmyBauther how are any of those variables? The first and last are plain illegal - you seem new at this, so always assume that every company you interview wants you to 100% uphold and obey the law. The second... Safe bet that no company wants you to help a coworker install any software not directly relating to productivity. – bharal Feb 13 '15 at 21:10
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    @JimmyBauther true, but the big issue here is the employee install software without approval and it's not working. For the purposes of the interview it's safe to assume the software is legal but not approved. All other factors omitted unless they say "While you're looking into this you notice this is a pirated version of... what do you do?" or "This software is a computer game" or "this software isn't work related" now you take that variable into consideration. – RualStorge Feb 13 '15 at 21:15
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    The question you can't think of a good reason for, since the interviewer clarified it as "what parts are needed for a computer to run", I wonder whether it amounts to "do you know what bits to order to build a computer?". Of course the answer still varies by desktop/laptop/server/whatever, "computer" is hardly specific enough to list its components. So the question might also be intended as, "were you shown the same diagram in Computers 101 that I was?" and in that case is indeed a bad question ;-) – Steve Jessop Feb 16 '15 at 21:25

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