What IT contractors get asked at interview

If there were only just three questions in the way of landing a freelance technology contract then the interview process for IT contractors would be much easier to compute, not to mention less daunting.

The Four Sets of IT Contractor Interview Questions

Indeed, the common IT contractor interview typically features so many questions that they need to be grouped into two main categories – those that gently inquire ‘conversationally,’ and those that specifically probe ‘competencies.’

Before this article explores these two question-sets with insights from leading IT recruiters, contractors should be aware of two additional categories. Each sits at opposite ends of the difficulty spectrum.

They are the ‘standard’ interview questions – akin to those asked in most job interviews, including those for ‘permie’ IT positions. And then there are the ‘curveball’ interview questions, those which contractors may not want to be asked at all. Let’s ‘bite the head of the frog’ and tackle these trickiest questions first:

Curveball IT Contractor Interview Questions

  1. How many pound coins could you fit in this room?
  2. Would you come back to work on Monday if you won the lottery this weekend?
  3. Can you describe a time where you had to bend or break the rules to achieve an objective?
  4. Can you give me an example of a business decision you made that you ultimately regretted?
  5. What will be your approach to the contract after this one? First come, first served? The most interesting company/project? The best rate? The best IT?
  6. What would you do if you were the CEO?

Notes on the Curveball Interview Questions

Question 1, asked of an IT contractor working via ReThink Recruitment, was fired in relation to an IT development role with a media firm. Also cited by the recruiter is Question 2 – ironic, because it was asked by an IT company involved with the National Lottery.

Question 3 was put to an IT candidate contracting through Jenrick IT and, similar to all the questions in this ‘curveball’ category, forces the interviewee to ‘think on their feet.’ The fourth question, posed to an IT freelancer contracting with Outsource UK, gives the interviewee a chance to reflect on their limited company, or working at the client company.

Meanwhile, IT staffing firm Volt didn’t identify Question 5, which it provided, as a curveball but it does have the potential to 'catch out' some unprepared candidates.

Question 6 faced a temporary IT candidate not pursuing any role near the CEO but, according to Computer People, it is designed to let the interviewee demonstrate a breadth of skills beyond those required to fulfil the contract.

The IT recruitment agency added: “[The answer will] show whether or not the candidate has thoroughly researched the businesses, but also what they know about the current state of the market and issues the business is facing.”

Standard Interview Questions – What IT Job Candidates Are Typically Asked

  • What do you know about our company?
  • Why should we hire you?
  • What are you key strengths?
  • What do you consider to be your weaknesses?

Questions cited by Outsource UK.

  • What do you know about the client company and this role?
  • Why did you apply for this role?
  • Why should our client consider you over and above other candidates?
  • What are the attributes you may be lacking for this role and how do you plan to overcome this?
  • What do you expect from the client/company you work for?

Questions cited by Volt.

  • Why did you leave your last role/why did your last assignment come to an end?
  • Have you been on the market for long/how long have you been looking for?
  • Do you have other opportunities in the pipeline?
  • How do you find the current job market?

Questions cited by ReThink Recruitment.

Conversational IT Contractor Interview Questions

The following questions are most associated with skills-based interviews, often held by the line manager. They tend to be centred on examples of recent experience and are conversational, in that they allow a ‘to and fro’ between interviewer and interviewee.  

These conversational questions are designed to delve deeper into a contractor’s profile than the ‘standard’ questions but aren’t meant to be as difficult to cope with as the ‘curveball’ questions. They might require the candidate to recall a recent experience, but don’t require story-telling – that’s more associated with ‘competency’ questions. 

Philip Fanthom, managing director of Jenrick, revealed his top three conversational questions:

  •  In your recent project, can you give me an example of how you hit your objectives?
  • You mention in your CV that you used [insert IT skill] at this client. How; in what capacity and what were the benefits?
  • Can you talk me through your approach to technique when using [insert IT skill]?

Charlie Crook, business manager at Computer People, offered his top two:

  • Describe a time when you’ve had to work under a high degree of pressure.
  • Tell me about a mistake you made at work, what happened and how did you deal with it?

Anna Kramer, senior manager of key accounts at Outsource UK, provided her top two:

  • Tell me about your development/project management/testing/business analysis experience?
  • How would you previous manager describe you?

Sebastien Cobut, operations director of European staffing services at Volt, gave his top three:

  • How do you keep up to date with your technical knowledge?
  • What will you do before starting this assignment to plug any identified gaps in your skill-set?
  • In which order do you rate the importance of the following?
  1. Client company’s brand and reputation
  2. Client company’s project duration
  3. Rate
  4. Client company’s technology
  5. Assignment content

Competency IT Contractor Interview Questions

The competency-style of interviewing is similar, in that it uses questions designed to unearth how the contractor has performed in the past, with a view to predicting their future behaviour. These questions are often posed by senior management and/or HR. The questions invite some sort of brief story to be told, with the contractor’s competencies hopefully at its heart.

  1. Can you tell me about the last contractor assignment/project you worked on that required you to generate new revenue/organisational change for your client?

Computer People’s Mr Crook says this question is designed to understand what changes you, the contractor, delivered in your last role and the success you had. As the potential client wants to see the interviewee demonstrate “innovation and initiative,” highlighting your “motivation and drive” in your answer is key.

He also advised: “It is crucial that you mention that the project was delivered on time and on budget, so a potential hirer understands you are a worthwhile investment for the organisation.”

Jenrick’s Mr Fanthom has come across the same competency question, albeit worded slightly differently:

  1. Give me an example of where you have been responsible for evoking a change. In your example, state the reason and outcome.

IT contractors placed by the Surrey-based staffing firm often face two other competency questions:

  1. Give me an example of when you disagreed with a colleague; how did you deal with it?
  2. What has been your biggest ‘mess up’ in the last 24 months; how did you rectify it?

At Outsouce UK, Ms Kramer says there are four competency questions that its IT contractors often report being asked at interview:

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to communicate complex technical information to a non IT-audience/client stakeholder?
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to challenge senior stakeholders. How did you go about it?
  3. Tell me about a time when you presented options and recommendations to stakeholders. How did you set about gaining buy-in for your recommendations?
  4. How did you handle a situation where your client changed the brief, or ‘moved the goalposts’?

IT Contractor Interview Questions in 2014

Other than technology-specific questions, the vast majority of the probes that IT contractors face at interview are timeless. However, there is one question that two of the recruiters agree is experiencing a major comeback this year -- partly due to clients agonising over their bottom lines. The question is:

* Can you give an example of where you added value to a particular project?

“We are finding that our clients have a greater expectation from their contractor population than ever before,” reflected Outsource’s Ms Kramer, chiming with another recruiter's belief that clients currently “want the world” from IT contractors.

She added: “They want to ensure they are getting value for money and that the contractors they engage are true consultants, rather than temps with IT experience.”

As a result, “many contractors are now expected to undertake coaching and mentoring of permanent members of staff, passing on their experience and sharing knowledge.”

Computer People agrees that the ‘value-add’ question is 2014’s biggest one, as far as IT contractor interviews are concerned.

“Now more than ever contractors are being asked in interviews to prove they are bringing something unique to the role; be it industry insight or a niche technical skill set,” Mr Crook reflected.

“Temporary IT candidates are increasingly being asked what added value they could bring to the business, including transferable skills, flexible ongoing support, [or even] if can they travel”.

The question is being fired, he explained, because although the economy is in recovery, hiring managers are being told to justify the short-term investment of a contractor, and prove that nobody internally can do the role being offered.

But there are another two questions that are also increasingly being put to IT contractors trying to get hired. Both questions point to a single concern, which was raised earlier this month by IT recruiter Arrows Group. The questions are:

* What is your availability?

* Are you actively interviewing at the moment, other than for this role with us?

Volt, which cited the first of these two questions, explained why it’s being asked: “Today the contract market is fast and furious - clients are generally not prepared to wait for their contractors.

“They will tend to go with the best solution available within the time constraints they have. Budgets for contractors are being made available for short periods of time, so companies have to fill the roles or risk losing the budget.”

Jenrick, whose IT contractors have faced the second question, said: “Increased competition for certain skills means clients are now facing a candidate-driven market.

“[This question] reflects a clear increase in the jobs market and opportunities available. [The answer] also helps potential employers size up the competition and benchmark rates.”

Mr Cobut at Volt agreed: "We are asked a great deal about rates and benchmarking. In [the current] market, we have contractors trying to get the best rate for their time, and we have the client working within budget constraints. Finding a balance between the two is our challenge."

Editor’s Note: Further Reading –

IT contractor interview tips – 5 things not be fazed by

IT contractor interviews – The Inside Track, part 1

IT contractor guide to phone interviews

Wednesday 23rd July 2014