I had a phone interview for an IT position. It would be at the head office for a large chain of retail stores. Though I’ve had IT interviews before, some of the questions were so generic I had trouble answering.

For example

1) Describe at least 3 practical differences between Windows and OS X.

What is meant by “practical”? I guess I should’ve asked. Since people normally use the apps on the computer, and not the operating system itself, I did find it bit of a strange question. I talked about how Windows tends to need more maintenance for security and OS X tends to be used for more artistic endeavors with programs such as Creative Cloud.

2) What would you do if the network is down.

I started by saying I would try to determine the failure point by using a tool such as ping. He said this wouldn’t work for them, and I didn’t understand why. If the network can’t use ping, then that’s something I would need to know.

In general I wish they had told me a bit more about the setup they have and the tools and programs they use. I can’t answer “how would you fix a down network” if I know nothing about the network in the first place. How could I have answered the questions? What would a better answer have been? Could I have said something to get the interviewer to talk more about the kind of work, since it’s equally as important to me to know if I know the tools they use.

I know I probably should’ve asked more question, but the interviewer seemed to be rushed and speaking in a way that he didn’t want me to ask questions. Which I consider a red flag but don’t see the harm in doing another interview if I’m invited back.

  • 2
    Always ask more questions if you are unsure. The worst thing that could happen is they tell you that they want to see how you answer without any background, or they truly are pressed for time (which is not an excuse and would make me not want to work there). Rushing you through broad questions is a common tactic that interviewers use. They want to see how you approach a problem, not if you have the answer already tucked up your sleeve. By rushing you, it creates stress, another thing that they want to see you under in order to judge your work ethic and how you handle stress.
    – Prodnegel
    Jan 26, 2017 at 23:25
  • I guess you need more confidence. For example, you can just say "people normally use the apps on the computer, and not the operating system itself, so most people don't notice the differences except the look", which is an OK answer. Interviewer may disagree by "but some apps are available on one platform but not the other". Then you can say "yeah you are right, that'll make a difference". For Q2 you should have asked "why ping doesn't work". You can even throw more questions like "why you guys left the ping broken for so long?" to conceal the fact that you don't know many non-ping solutions. Jan 27, 2017 at 2:09
  • 2
    Honestly, this is a red flag for me too. Trust your instincts. I think you can find another position.
    – Makoto
    Jan 27, 2017 at 3:07
  • What would you do is network is down ? Afk time :D
    – Walfrat
    Jan 27, 2017 at 10:52

2 Answers 2


Honestly, alarm bells are going off for me with these particular questions, not because you're not getting better answers, but because the questions themselves are...terible.

There's no real context to ask what the "difference" may be between Windows and Mac, given that:

  • Most applications used in an office setting have crossover compatibility (and Office for Mac has existed for a very long time)
  • Both can talk with LDAP
  • Both can install certain tools to get jobs done (although specific tools may not be available on a particular OS due to vendor decisions)

...and, there's no real context to figure out why the network is down, since it could be all manner of things - power failure, ISP failure, some dude digging up the fiber, some dude taking the copper out of your building, etc.

But to answer the question more pointedly, what you want to do is understand what clarifying questions are and what purpose they serve.

For example, if I were asked the question, "Describe at least 3 practical differences between Windows and OS X," I'd look to frame it in context to the job I'm applying for. In context...

  • If I'm applying as an administrator or to support these, I'd list off differences between administration techniques between the two, including how and when to patch, and how and when to install software on a person's device.
  • If I'm applying as an end user or consumer of these devices (and yes, there are people at companies that just use these devices), I'd describe the differences between installing programs.
  • If I'm applying as an IT Operational Security professional, I'd list off ways to lock each platform down and prevent corporate secrets from leaking.

The same applies for the second question. If I were asked, "What would you do if the network is down?", I'd start by asking these questions:

  • What tools do I have available to diagnose the problem?
  • Is the network down globally across all services we provide, across a specific data center, or locally in our office?
  • Where is the infrastructure kept - in a closet, in a data center, or both?
  • Who has access to the wiring closet, and were they most recently in it?

Since that question is wide open, you have to ask questions to narrow the scope or context of what you're doing.


Depends on who is asking.

If you are being interviewed by an HR person who has a fixed set of questions and is writing down your answers, ugh, that is a bad situation. I'm guessing you would need to provide answers that contain the buzzwords they are looking for.

If you are being interviewed by a technical person, you need to engage him or her in a conversation that demonstrates that your thought process makes sense, that you are competent and effective, and that he can relate to you. It almost doesn't matter whether you get the answer right. Sometimes they will ask you a B.S. question just to see how you react.

"What are the practical differences between..." is an opportunity to demonstrate that you not only know about something but you have used it, hands on, and are aware of the quirks that only daily use will reveal. A practical difference between Windows and OS X, of course, is that one commonly runs on PCs while the other is common on Macs and iPhones. You could then get into the practical differences between writing software for those platforms (e.g. iPhone apps must be certified and associated with a provisioning profile, Windows apps tend to be .NET assemblies and require strong key signing before public distribution). Or you could just express how much you love OS X more, and banter with your future colleague about why you feel that way. Try to have fun with it; it ought to be a pleasure to show off and nerd out on something that you have chosen as your career and hobby.

"What would you do if...." The best answer for this sort of question is to tell a story of when it actually DID happen (in a prior job). If someone told me the network is down, the first thing I would do is ask him, "How do you know it is down?" then verify their findings. You could then talk about things like outage severity/escalation/ticketing, isolating the problem, various diagnostic tools you have used, etc. Then regale him with a story about that one time you were working in the NOC (Network Operations Center) and your friend brought pizza because you were up all night. Try to show them not just that you have the domain knowledge but that you are part of the subculture that is associated with the position you are interviewing for.

  • how do you know how technical the person interviewing you is?
    – Sammy
    Jan 31, 2017 at 1:58
  • I would read their body language and see if they are comprehending and thinking about your answer or just writing it down obliviously. Also, if their clothes are on the casual side, they are less likely to be HR :)
    – John Wu
    Jan 31, 2017 at 1:59
  • Phone interview
    – paparazzo
    Jan 31, 2017 at 9:39
  • I think you could draw rough inferences about their technical literacy by observing the nature and speed of their followup questions, even over the phone. If all else fails, ask them some Star Wars trivia.
    – John Wu
    Jan 31, 2017 at 9:51
  • I keep hitting the situation where it's an HR person with a list of technical questions that don't really make sense and since they don't understand them them self can't answer my questions to try to understand them. What can be done in this situation? For example one was asking me how I would fix a broken network and I was giving technical details but all she wanted was me to say "I'd talk to the people and ask questions"
    – Sammy
    Feb 16, 2017 at 7:39

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