When You Have More Tech Knowledge Than Your 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.

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