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I am looking for work and recruiters are something I’m new to. I keep getting contacted by recruiters from recruitment agencies, through LinkedIn. I’ve had some bad experience. Some ask very strange and generic questions. My background is technical and the jobs I am applying for are too. The recruiter I just spoke with was asking me questions like

  1. Tell me about yourself. I gave a run down of where I’m at in my career but I didn’t expect a recruiter to be asking this question as I’ve only heard someone say it in interviews, and I didn't expect the first contact with a not-in-house recruiter to be like an interview.

  2. How do you trouble shoot issues with LAN or WAN? When I asked for more of a background she said I shouldn’t need it, and when I said I think it makes a difference she added “the issues are happening at the enterprise level”.

  3. What do you know about LAN, WAN and TCP/IP?

I said “you basically just asked me what I know about the internet” and she just repeated the question.

I had set aside other responsibilities to take the call and was a bit upset it was going so poorly and she commented she has never gotten resistance when asking these questions before.

I told her I needed more context to better answer the question and she said she wanted to see what my process was based on previous experience and I don’t need specifics. I asked her to give an example of an answer she thought was good and she said “use remote desktop to connect to the computer with network problems” (which made me laugh) and she also said “if your tier 1 you would talk to the person on the phone to diagnose the problem and if you were tier 2 you would go to their desk”. Then it struck me: she was nontechnical but trying to ask technical questions! What do you do in this situation? I caught on to this and said “for the network problem I would check to see if there were any issues, maybe a tree fell on the wires” and she took offense to this and said she’ll contact me if there are any other positions. I normally wouldn’t say something like that but I know some nontechnical people like those answers. She also mentioned she wanted me to talk about ticketing systems. Am I right in thinking that we didn’t see eye to eye as she was nontechnical but asking technical questions? What do you do in these situations?

Also, it seemed like it was an interview and I thought that recruiters are supposed to help find you placements and prepare for interviews. Am I correct?

How can I find out at the beginning if the person is looking for technical answers or more soft skills?

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    I've removed one part of your question that's answered here: How should I respond to the classic “Introduce yourself” question in an interview? – Lilienthal Feb 16 '17 at 12:14
  • To be honest, you haven't lost anything. This wasn't a job interview. Recruiters are sales people, and you're the product they're selling. She needed to impress you, not the other way around. It's a cut-throat industry, and there are no shortage of recruiters vying with one another for your attention. Don't worry about it. – Jonathon Cowley-Thom Feb 22 '17 at 16:33
  • @JonathonCowley-Thom thanks for saying that, I can't tell you the number of times a recruiter has contacted me only to not reply to my responses. I guess they're paid for just reaching out to people. – Sammy Apr 13 '17 at 18:42
  • why could you not answer 2 there are obvious steps you take ie is dhcp working can I ping the gate way logging onto the router and checking the status of the wan link sis another – Neuromancer Jul 11 '18 at 20:36
  • @Neuromancer just saying there's a problem is a bit vague, is there an error message? What specifically isn't working? Or is something slower than usual? – Sammy Oct 26 '18 at 9:50
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This is an interesting question because both you and the recruiter dropped the ball here. let's break it down.

I didn't expect the first contact with a not-in-house recruiter to be like an interview.

That's exactly what it is. Good recruiters invest time in you and they want to get a sense of who you are, where you're at in you career and what your skills are. They do that to avoid wasting time if you're, in their view, a bad hire as well as to determine what kind of clients or positions would fit you.

I had set aside other responsibilities to take the call and was a bit upset it was going so poorly

Avoid getting upset. It will be apparent in your voice and doesn't help you. A lot of interviews, especially initial phone screens, won't pan out.

she commented she has never gotten resistance when asking these questions before.

And that's because they're not really technical questions. What they're checking for if they ask you this is how confident you are in your domain and how good you are at explaining technical issues to non-technical people. Those are absolutely vital skills for anyone working with technical stuff, whether that's IT, physics or biology.

Now this is also the part where the recruiter messed up: she should never have tried to answer the question herself given her lack of technical knowledge. She gave a good "soft' answer, focusing on what steps to take to resolve an issue, but of course she got it disastrously wrong from a technical point of view. And you probably jumped on that instead of realising what she was doing. I hope you at least didn't laugh out loud but both this and your initial reaction to her question are incredibly condescending. Your bizarre answer also comes across as facetious to me.

How can I find out at the beginning if the person is looking for technical answers or more soft skills?

The type of question should tell you that. "If I wanted to frazzle the flux capacitor but it gave me an Irdial error, what would your first instinct be to troubleshoot?" is a technical question. "How would you approach a poorly defined issue that's assigned to you?" is a behaviour question. "What are the shortcomings of TCP/IP?" and "Can you describe LAN and WAN?" are softball technical questions that are really looking at your soft skills.

In summary, and since you mention that this is a recurring problem, you're approaching this all wrong. The fact that you have a technical profile does not mean that you don't need excellent soft skills. You do. Especially if you want to get past recruiters (whether internal or external) instead of applying directly with hiring managers, which is only really an option with small companies or personal contacts.

This is not to say that you should just accept anything as normal and that there aren't recruiters who suck at their job and ask nonsensical questions. But you admit to being new to the process and that means that you don't yet know what is and isn't normal. That kind of calibration takes time and experience.

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    And, in particular, an important soft skill is to be able to explain something to any of: the technical lead, the accounting person who needs to approve your budget request, the CEO, the intern, and the customer's sales people. (And, for that matter, your non-technical grandfather.) – Monica Cellio Feb 16 '17 at 19:07
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    This is a good answer and I fully agree, but I would also add that often when recruiters are asking questions like that it's because they have a specific client/job in mind and they are trying to feel out if you'd be a good candidate for that role...they are essentially pre-interviewing you to avoid being embarrassed when they send over a bad candidate to a big (read: important) client. – Aithos Feb 24 '17 at 17:45
  • Any tips on avoiding sounding upset in phone interviews? – Sammy Apr 13 '17 at 18:37
  • "Your bizarre answer also comes across as facetious to me" let me explain. I had a similar experience with another recruiter and he said he was looking for answer like "the internet was out and that's why people couldn't connect to it" – Sammy Apr 13 '17 at 18:39
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How can I find out at the beginning if the person is looking for technical answers or more soft skills?

Asking works well.

Alternatively, you can give a short answer and ask - "is that what you are looking for? I can be more/less technical if you'd like."

Out of curiosity why do interviewers ask this question when they’ve already seen your work experience and resume? It suggests to me they didn’t read it.

This may be true but also, a decent percentage of people either blatantly lie or creatively increase their actual responsibilities/tasks to look far more meaningful than they were.

It's far cheaper to pay a recruiter for 30 minutes of time to determine it vs bringing someone onsite and paying a technical person to do the same.

It's also important to note that many brilliant people can't communicate at all. Being able to communicate your ideas is often more important than your actual ideas.

And there are bad recruiters just as there are people doing any other job poorly, too.

I said “you basically just asked me what I know about the internet” and she just repeated the question.

I caught on to this and said “for the network problem I would check to see if there were any issues, maybe a tree fell on the wires”

As an aside to your question here, this comes across as pretty... know-it-allish and condescending if you respond this way. Not that it likely matters here since you don't care about the job.

What you should do in the future is make sure you know what specific job you are discussing prior to meeting with a recruiter. Or have a clear objective in meeting with them - ask what the purpose of calls are. It sounds like you had no idea why you were being asked these questions, which suggests you likely didn't know what the ultimate purpose of your conversation was.

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    Thanks that's really good advice. Often times the recruiter wants to quickly set up a phone conversation but I'm unclear as to what the point is. How would you suggest asking if the recruiter is technical or not? I think it is rude to plainly ask "are you technical or should I give you nontechnical answers?" – Sammy Feb 16 '17 at 1:43
  • Start with a functional answer, and ask if they want more detail. Adjust as necessary. – keshlam Feb 16 '17 at 2:45
  • Or you can ask "how in-depth would you like my answer to be?" before answering... but Joe and Enderland's approach is probably better – HorusKol Feb 16 '17 at 22:49
  • +1. I would add interviewer wanted OP to answer (1) I'm a X with expierence in X and X (and more) (2) I would check the configuration and run some tests (3) LAN is a local network, WAN is global, and TCP/IP is a protocol stack used in both. While that's an interviewer's fault to ask slightly incorrect questions, I would safely assume that, unless explicitly noted, no one is asking for technical details (and even if she wanted details, she could always ask for them!). – Sanya_Zol Feb 19 '17 at 14:41
  • "Asking works well." people tend to consider them self more technical than they are or could be defensive (i.e. I interview IT people so of course I'm technical!) – Sammy Apr 13 '17 at 18:41
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In companies large enough to hire full-time recruiters, it's common to do a pre-interview phone screen (aka "pulse check") where the recruiters asks a set of questions with predetermined set of answers. They can then see how many of these you get "right", and pass candidates who do well enough to the actual interview.

It's easy to fall into the ego trap of "why are they insulting my intelligence like this!", but interviews are expensive to companies and there are a lot of candidates with shiny resumes and next to no actual skills to back them up. So if done well, with pre-screen questions that have a limited set of correct answers, this is a decent bozo filter.

In your particular case, of course, the questions were not. The first question sounds like a warm-up question where the answer is essentially meaningless, the second sounds completely inappropriate for this, and the third sounds like she was expecting you just to spell out the acronyms: "LAN stands for Local Area Network, WAN is Wide Area Network, TCP/IP is Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol".

In any case, all you need to do is give the simplest possible answer and elaborate only if asked to do so. Otherwise, you may end up like this guy. It's also worth noting that any decent company will pass the results to the hiring manager (who hopefully is technical), who may be able to identify answers that are correct but nonstandard.

  • I found it strange that she didn't even have a particular job opening in mind but was asking questions as if it were a real interview. – Sammy Feb 16 '17 at 7:54
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    What happens is they will add you to a list of people they have to offer and send those out to potential clients etc. They gauge your level etc from your CV and your "interview" – Andrew Berry Feb 16 '17 at 8:12
  • Alright, sounds reasonable. But, if you're going to have someone do some basic technical pre-screening, you should make sure they have at least some basic technical knowledge about the stuff they're asking. Otherwise, how can they recognize a good answer when they hear one? This situation happened to me as well a few years ago and overall if it was a very unpleasant / uncomfortable interviewing experience. – Radu Murzea Feb 16 '17 at 8:45
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I’m surprised she started the conversation with “tell me about yourself” which I find a difficult question to answer even when I’m ready for it. Out of curiosity why do interviewers ask this question when they’ve already seen your work experience and resume? It suggests to me they didn’t read it.

This is an absolutely standard interview question and often the first one asked, so you should have an instant pre-prepared answer for it. It's not really about your resume, I use it primarily as an easy open question to get people comfortable and talking, but it's also useful to tell me how much interview preparation you have done and what you see as your most important skills and experience. It's not uncommon for the answer to "tell me about yourself" to be quite different from the picture painted by the resume.

Think of it as similar to "tell me what you know about this company" - as an interviewer I would obviously know the answer as I work there, but interview questions often aren't about the answer (just like "tell me about yourself" isn't a substitute for me reading your resume), the question is about how you answer and what your answer says about your preparation and approach.

Regarding the original question, if you are a technical employee then being able to explain technical concepts to non-technical staff is a key skill, especially at more senior levels. I'm technical, but often ask candidates to do this - it's usually a very good test of how well they understand a technology too. So if you're getting technical questions from a non-technical recruiter or interviewer (or hiring manager!), then don't take umbrage, look at it as an opportunity to probe for the level of detail they need and demonstrate this skill

  • So the first time you speak to a public recruiter it's considered an interview? – Sammy Feb 16 '17 at 7:51
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    Not a formal interview in any sense, but they're asking standard interview filter questions for very similar reasons. In the case of "tell me about yourself" that's such a standard one in so many recruitment contexts that you really need a prepared answer for it, and I thought i'd explain why I ask it in interviews. – strmqm Feb 16 '17 at 7:56
  • I certainly didn't consider this an interview as I never saw any job description thus making preparation for any questions impossible. – Sammy Feb 16 '17 at 8:34
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    @Sammy - you should consider any communication with a recruiter or a potential employer as an interview, with or without a job description. The difference is, they won't be asking specific job related questions and should be accepting that you may need a little more time to think out answers... but they will still be evaluating you. – HorusKol Feb 16 '17 at 22:54

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