As the information technology economy starts to recover from its slump over the past few years, a wave of IT professionals are going to be trying to land their next jobs. And a wave of job postings will emerge from the employment underground. Organizations are always looking for new talent, but the pace quickens when the economy gets ready for its lion's roar.
This economic awakening means the number of interviews I do jumps through the roof. While the process of weeding out resumes helps control the number of interviews you do, as an employer you still have to go through a number of interviews to find the right person. In technical roles such as software developers, development leaders, infrastructure managers, etc., a key to solving the right problem is often finding a problem-solver. In this article, I'll help you understand how being a problem-solver means learning how and why something works not just that it works. I'll also give you some insight into what is going on inside the heads of the people you're sitting across the table from when you're doing an interview.
One thing about problem solvers gets them hired: They tend to know more about a broader set of things than their counterparts who've not developed their problem-solving skills. As a group, problem-solvers crave learning. They realize that the more they know about a problem or a situation, the better able they will be to isolate the thing that's not working right. That's why problem-solvers tend to have a wider experience set. They're naturally curious.
Unfortunately, most people instinctively think of a classroom environment, called instructor-lead training, when someone mentions the word learning. This is a conditioned response from years and years of instructor lead training. From kindergarten to a graduate degree, we're used to people standing before us spewing information all over the place. Instructor-lead training is what most of us believe true learning is.
Problem-solvers can learn well in an instructor lead training environment, but they extend their quest for learning to other areas, as well. They will read a book, search the Internet, talk to peers, and do whatever is necessary to better understand the situation that they are faced with to try to isolate their problem. Whether the problem is something as simple as getting their next cellular phone or the conquest of space, finding the right information helps you better solve the problem.
Developing a quest to learn is the first step in trying to become a problem-solver, and being able to answer those tough interview questions about how you would solve a hypothetical problem is natural for a problem-solver. By the way, hypothetical problems for the interviewee to solve are one of my favorite types of interview questions. I don't have to talk much and it requires a great deal of thinking on the part of the candidate.
Seek to understand
Another aspect that many look for in candidates is a desire to understand the problem that they are faced with. A key problem-solving skill is the ability to thoroughly assess the situation so that aspects that are not problems can be eliminated as potential causes. Understanding a problem is about asking the right questions and making the right observations.
If you don't understand how something works, questions related to how it does what it does can help you start the process. Imagine that you're faced with a car that doesn't start. If you know nothing about the internal workings of a car you may be at a complete loss as how to resolve the fact that it won't start. If on the other hand, you've built knowledge that the battery is connected to the starter, which turns the engine over until it has enough energy to maintain its own motion, you've got a framework for starting the problem-solving process. Obviously, if the battery and starter are working and the engine is being turned over, then more knowledge about how the car works will be necessary.
This is an essential part of problem solving. If I don't know how the car works past the starter turning over the engine, I'll have to seek out the understanding of how the rest of the car's operation works. This might mean reading a book, speaking with a mechanic, or trying to observe a working car.
From an interviewing perspective, some of the best interviews I've ever done with individuals have been ones where they have asked intelligent questions about the problems I was describing. Instead of giving me some quick answer, they asked questions about potentially important details that I had left out. In most cases the details were left out unintentionally, but I have been known to leave out a detail to see if the interviewee identified that the information was missing.
Whether you're solving a problem in your day-to-day work or trying to survive the toughest interview of your life, a good question is worth more than a dozen stabs in the dark at solving the problem.
Why it matters to employers
Most people have the misfortune of only sitting on one side of an interview table. Because of this, it's impossible to see what the person on the other side of the table sees. It's impossible to comprehend that just becoming the best person that you can be is the best way to connect with the needs of the employer. Every employer wants to succeed. Some want to succeed personally and others for the organization--or for both.
Success is often measured in the simplest terms of what has been accomplished. This perspective radically favors those who can get things done. These folks are often the people who know how to knock over the hurdles that get in their way. If you can take care of the big challenges that rise up in front of you then the little day-to-day challenges are trivial to get past.
Solving every problem involves the right information. The more problem-solving aspects that you have in your personality, the more likely it is that you have both a broad understanding and a deep understanding of how things work. The more you know the greater the chances that the employer will be able to leverage that existing knowledge. Leveraging existing knowledge is one of the best things possible for an employer since creating that knowledge may cost far more than they can pay and leveraging it can provide far more value than how they compensate you.
Employers are not looking for drones who can simply follow orders and who can do only as much as has been told to them. They need people who can make decisions and solve problems on their own without the need for a supervisor to spell out the solution in detail.