Technical interviews for graduate engineering jobs
CVs and qualifications only go a small way to providing employers with information about a candidate. A technical interview gives an employer the opportunity to probe more deeply and draw out experience and knowledge that indicates how well the person will match with the role the employer has in mind. It’s also an opportunity to ask some competence-based questions to make sure the candidate really does have the experience and background they claim on their CV.
What form do technical interviews take?
This depends on the employer. In the interviews I have been involved with, we try to test general technical competence and the basic understanding of engineering principles. We often start by asking a candidate to talk about a familiar subject, for example, their final-year project. As an interviewer, I find this rewarding. I’ve recently had insights into areas of technology I previously knew nothing about. These discussions are also valuable because the interviewer can gauge how well the candidate explains technical concepts with which they are familiar, but the audience is not.
We also ask basic questions relevant to our business environment. For example, being in the energy industry, we might ask candidates to give some examples of problems faced by the UK in terms of energy supply. We might prompt the candidate if they are struggling or ask them more specific questions on a particular aspect. This leads on to more detailed questions where we try to see how a candidate applies their engineering background to something they may not be immediately familiar with.
What other things might a candidate face?
One of my favourite techniques is to bring with me an engineering drawing of one of our products and ask the candidate to try to explain the basic components and operation around the drawing.
This is not as daunting as it sounds and it really shows what level of detailed understanding the candidate has. Candidates often expect a totally verbal interview and some struggle with this, especially candidates with a relatively practical background. These engineers often relate immediately to drawings as the universal ‘engineering language’ and seize an unrolled drawing like a drowning man seizes a life raft. It provides a different focus and it can completely change the course of the interview.
One word of caution here: unroll large engineering drawings with care. I once had a candidate who accidentally hit me on the head with a roll of paper in his enthusiasm to get to grips with the drawing!
Do technical interviewers only look for the right answers?
Showing a basic understanding of technical concepts and being able to apply these in a practical way to problems or situations is more important. If we feel that the graduate can work things out for themselves, then that’s usually worth a lot more than someone who knows a lot technically but has little flexibility or enthusiasm to get involved with new areas. A good candidate might use sketches when explaining concepts and will ask the interviewer questions to guide themselves in the right direction and keep on topic.
How can a candidate make a recovery if they get stumped?
Pause, perhaps ask the interviewers some clarifying questions, and try to work things out from first principles. Don’t waffle. It’s better to say that you don’t know, or that you haven’t come across this type of issue in your studies, and ask some more questions to help gain a greater understanding of the original question.
What are your tips for success?
You need to have researched the employer’s business, types of product, customers, etc. Avoid jargon and acronyms. When you talk about experiences and achievements, concentrate on your personal contribution. The interviewer really wants to know what role you played. Bring an open mind and listen as much as you talk. There is nothing more annoying than a candidate who won’t shut up and doesn’t answer the questions because they haven’t listened!
What the most important thing a candidate should remember?
The interview is as much an opportunity for you to find out about the employer’s business as the other way round. As an engineering graduate, you will be looking for an exciting and challenging career in an area that interests you. You can ask a lot of questions in the interview that will help you to assess whether this will be possible and if the job is right for you.
Jan Sisson is an experienced technical interviewer. He is currently managing director at juwi Renewable Energies and previously worked at Siemens.