Questions to Ask IT Candidates as an Interview Coach

In this blog, you will learn:

    • Questions to ask an IT job candidate to elevate their resume and interview strategy.

    • How to shorten IT resume within 15 minutes.

    • Using resume design best practices to spotlight candidates’ strengths.

    • Basics of interview coaching.

    • Coaching star candidates.

(If you don’t coach IT candidates and would prefer to read about coaching candidates in other industries, please visit this link instead.)

Candidates who struggle with interviews do so because they may be unprepared and lack confidence. 

Or, they might be making mistakes without being aware — they might be shooting themselves in the foot by cutting off the interviewer out of enthusiasm, speaking poorly of their former boss, or giving some signs that they aren’t sure about the career choice that they’re making.

While interviews are a challenge for most candidates, in my experience as a resume writer and as a hiring manager for my own team, IT candidates seem to struggle the most with behavioral interviews. 

In my experience, IT candidates who struggle do so uniquely with tying in their technical responsibilities with the bigger picture, and as such, fall under two extremes:

    • They don’t seem to be able to come up with enough information to sell their candidacy.

    • They ramble.

Additionally, IT candidates are often quite team-oriented. “I can’t take credit for that; we did that as a team” is something I often hear when working with IT professionals.

Similarly, if directors and executives in this space are unable to step outside of just speaking about their technical skills, they may undermine their own leadership, strategy, and decision-making capabilities.

All of these issues unnecessarily elongate the interview and shortlisting cycle. 

Therefore, as a recruiter, helping candidates shed light on their biggest strengths can help you shorten the cycle significantly.

Doing so will make the interview a strategic discussion of the skills they have rather than a defensive one on the skills they may not possess.

This article describes the type of questions to ask IT applicants to get them to talk more succinctly and freely about their wins as they relate to your clients’ hiring requirements and corporate objectives. 


Before we begin, if you’d like a quick, two-page resume cheat sheet, which breaks down exactly how a marketing manager was able to double the initial offer they received, you can get your own copy by submitting your information right here:

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Negative-Inheritance Questions to Ask IT Candidates

Use “negative-inheritance” questions if the applicant is brilliant at what they do, but are having a hard time communicating their achievements. 

A question like “What did you achieve here?” can cause bumbling.

Whereas, a question such as “What was wrong with the IT function when you first joined?” helps candidates quickly point out the key challenges that they tackled.

This is because these questions ask about issues that the candidate resolved on a day-to-day level. “What negative thing did you inherit?”

“What could have gone wrong if you hadn’t performed this action?” is the key question to ask yourself when thinking of a negative-inheritance question. 

For instance, let’s take a look at the keyword “database management.” “What could go wrong if database management was not being done properly?” To solicit an answer to this, you can ask “Did the company have any outdated servers or databases that you improved?”

Another way to help candidates who may be struggling to come out of their shell is to ask “What could happen if this went wrong?”

For example, if the skill you’re looking at is “running an IT department,” you could ask “what was the health of the IT department when you took over as CIO? What key issues did you identify here?”

These questions uncover really strong accomplishments because they allow the candidate to explain exactly what problem they solved. This is great for candidates who have a hard time taking credit for their involvement in team projects.

Therefore, these questions are great for senior IT professionals who are having a hard time showcasing their leadership skills.

Below are examples of negative-inheritance questions that you can ask candidates aiming for a CIO role:

    1. What steps did you take to ensure IT-business alignment?

    1. Did you lead a transition of IT services from legacy/on-prem architecture to cloud services or open product architecture?

    1. How do you ensure and reward cost-effective and high-performance vendor services?

    1. What impacts did your IT process improvement initiatives have?

    1. Did you improve visibility of and adherence to specific KPIs?

    1. How did you ensure cost-effectiveness of IT services?

    1. Did you build any new teams here? What problems were they tasked with solving?

    1. What steps did you take to reduce security threats?

    1. How do you balance between conflicting stakeholder priorities?

    1. What failing programs or projects did you take over? How are they doing today?




Background Questions to Ask IT Candidates

Background questions are those that you ask to ensure that the candidate has requisite experience. They are essential to ask if the candidate’s resume fails to provide a proper background.

You likely already do this, but here’s a quick refresher just in case. Skip this section if this is already part of your process.

“What key expertise do I require from you?” is the question you need to ask yourself when thinking of a background question. 

Let’s suppose that the keyword “unit testing” is required for the target role. You would ask, “Did you perform unit testing at your previous role?” 

Candidates usually respond well to these sorts of questions and can speak about them at length; the key issue with background questions is that candidates can start rambling.

If they do, ask them to limit their response to five sentences; this usually runs about a minute and is an ideal length for a response in a conversation. Here’s an article you can share with ramblers to help them get to the point faster.

To showcase specific questions that you can ask IT job candidates, I’ll be using the example of a systems engineer role. Below are some background questions to ask applicants aiming for a systems engineer position:

    1. Were you following any software development best practices like agile or scrum?

    1. Did you attend any training or workshops to stay up-to-date with industry trends?

    1. Did you have to comply with software development regulations or standards?

    1. Do you have any experience with liquid handling automation systems?

    1. What tools and technologies did you use at your previous role?

    1. Can you mention some of the analyses you performed to identify and mitigate issues?

    1. How did you make sure that the systems you developed met your clients’ needs?

    1. How many teams did you collaborate with?

    1. Did you directly interact with clients during this role?

    1. Did you coordinate with any hardware or software vendors?




Accomplishment Questions to Ask IT Candidates

Like background questions, candidates are usually very forthcoming with what I like to call “accomplishment questions” because they want to discuss their achievements. However, the pressure of responding to these questions may also cause them to falter — or again — ramble.

You should ask this type of question if the candidate’s resume lacks accomplishments. This will help the applicant convey strengths that they were not able to articulate in writing.

When thinking of accomplishment questions, ask yourself, “What have you achieved in relation to this keyword?” 

For example, let’s take the keyword “SDLC.” If you’d like to know about the candidate’s achievements with regard to this keyword, you would ask, “Did you lead or improve the SDLC during this role?”

Prepping candidates using these sorts of questions is critical because it gets them to think about their role from a big-picture perspective rather than focusing on their day-to-day tasks; and your client is likely more concerned about what your candidate can achieve for them rather than what duties they can perform.

Following are examples of direct-accomplishment questions to ask candidates aiming for a senior SAP director:

    1. What business process automations did you roll out or oversee?

    1. How do you ensure global SLA adherence?

    1. What key business challenges did you resolve by leading migrations?

    1. How do you ensure effective collaboration across multiple time zones?

    1. Did you take any measures to reduce costs for your teams?

    1. How do you ensure that ERP solutions and business applications are aligned with enterprise architecture standards?

    1. How do you ensure smooth integration of development, testing, deployment, and support of software?

    1. How did you ensure adherence to budgets? What cost-saving measures did you roll out?

    1. What projects did you identify to penetrate new markets or expand the business?

    1. What steps did you take to ensure compliance to global regulations and security guidelines?



I often work with candidates who struggle with articulating their accomplishments during interviews. I’ve been told by my recruiter friends that they also run into this issue.

If you’d like me to give a workshop to you and your colleagues on any of the following topics, please get in touch.


1. Questions to ask an IT job candidate to elevate their resume and interview strategy

This workshop is for recruiters who have star candidates who don’t know how to communicate their strengths. By asking strategic questions similar to the ones mentioned in this article, recruiters will learn how to understand and relate candidate strengths to the target job.

The second component of this workshop is focused on presenting these strengths optimally in a resume. It will involve balancing the candidate’s technical skills with their business acumen.

I will show you how to shorten your coaching process so you’re not spending hours with each candidate.

I’ll also break down the roles you’re currently hiring for into interview questions, specifically designed to get candidates speaking about their accomplishments. These will come with scorecards that you can mark up and share with your candidates. All of these resources will be created for your firm specifically so that your branding and style are woven throughout.


2. How to shorten an IT resume within 15 minutes

This workshop teaches recruiters how to shorten IT resumes within a few minutes and without compromising the resume’s content.

I will talk to you about how HR Managers, technical staff, decision-makers, and interviewers all read resumes. What are they looking for? How can you quickly answer their questions in your candidates’ resumes without alienating your reader?

I cover all this and more during this workshop.


3. Using resume design best practices to spotlight candidates’ strengths

In this workshop, I will show you how to make quick edits to resumes to help your candidate make an impression more effectively.

Based on how people read resumes and resume heat maps, I will share design principles to make different resume sections immediately engaging.

Where do readers pay the most attention? How can you slow them down and get them to read the resume and not skim it? How do you use design best practices to shine the light on your candidates’ biggest strengths and away from their perceived flaws?


4. The basics of interview coaching

In this workshop, I’ll show you how to teach candidates how to carry themselves in an interview, how to dress, and all the fundamental do’s and don’t’s of in-person and Skype or Zoom interviews.

Additionally, I’ll talk deeply about how to answer general background questions like “Tell us about yourself” based on the candidate’s unique career history. We’ll touch on the three frameworks I use to get candidates to speak about themselves succinctly and in-line with the role they’re interviewing for.

Finally, we’ll talk about the optimum answer length and structure and explain why answers that “show, don’t tell” get the best feedback from interviewers. Here are a few tips to prepare your candidates for an interview in only 15 minutes.


5. Coaching star candidates

This workshop is specifically designed to help you coach your star performers. In this, I’ll show you the most important closing questions to ask, how candidates can maximize their impact with thank-you notes and follow-ups, and in which order they should talk about their history. Here are a few templates for following up and fixing interview mistakes.

We’ll cover top-down and bottom-up approaches to stories shared during interviews and how to use both to improve recall so that they don’t falter or end the interview on a low note.

Would you prefer that we train you one-on-one to do mock interviews yourself? Email me at so I can develop a custom quote for you.

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