Help me interview canditates for a technical lab position
January 16, 2009 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm hiring a technician in a lab at a university, and I'm looking for some advice on how to interview them.

I am hiring a technician to assist me with the operations of a core laboratory at a university. The lab in question has a bunch of instrumentation that's available for use by anyone at the university and the technician's job is to perform routine maintenance on the equipment and train end users in basic operation of the equipment.

I'd like to get a handle on both the technical skills of the applicants (are they comfortable working with complicated equipment; can they troubleshoot common problems both in hardware and in software) and on their people and teaching skills (can they explain how to operate the equipment to the end user).

My problem is that the applicants are mostly straight out of college and I don't expect them to have any direct experience with the equipment, so I can't ask them directly about how they would troubleshoot a problem with one of our machines or how they would teach someone how to use it - I need to ask questions that get at this more indirectly.

I haven't interviewed a lot of people before but I have done some interviewing and I feel like I'm not that good at interviewing folks for these entry level jobs - it's easier for more advanced positions where you can ask detailed technical questions and get them to explain what they've done before.

All advice and suggestions appreciated!
posted by pombe to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: They're college kids, probably used lots of computers/other technologies. You could ask them a series of questions like: what's the most complex piece of software/technology they've ever used? Can you give me a 2-minute explanation of its purpose and intended use? Can you describe how you would instruct other people in using this equipment/technology (e.g., in person by showing, by writing a guide, etc.)? This gives you an idea of their facility with technology, their ability to communicate about technical matters, and their educational style.
posted by holyrood at 4:59 PM on January 16, 2009

I would ask them about the last skill they learned, get them to explain to you how to do it.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 5:15 PM on January 16, 2009

Here's what I would do: take a survey from students and gather esoteric problems they've encountered with the equipment, along with their respective solutions. Present these to the interviewee, and ask them to explain how they'd go about solving the problems. The goal here is not to have them come up with the correct solution (since this requires actual interaction with the equipment and takes time), but to get a feel for their problem-solving skills. You should ensure that they: 1) follow a methodical procedure, making only one change at a time, testing each change; 2) mention use of the reference manual or any documentation; 3) know when to ask someone else for help; and 4) have decent people and organizational skills.

Experience is important, but it's good to verify that they do in fact have the knowledge they claim. I've noticed that it isn't too beneficial to either party to venture too far outside of the interviewee's area of expertise.
posted by spiderskull at 5:20 PM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: Ask them how they'd troubleshoot something they're somewhat familiar with. "You sit down at your computer and your monitor is blank, but your computer is on. What do you do?" Or, "you're getting no sound from your tv..."See what their first steps are, and if they follow a logical order. Hopefully they'll say things like "check the power cable", and not "call my friend".

Use similar examples to see how they would train someone on equipment. Hand them a cell phone or a remote control and ask them to show you how to use it. Then as the "student", ask questions. Some basic, like "how do i mute it?" and some more complicated like, "what underlying technology allows this remote to communicate with the tv?"
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:04 PM on January 16, 2009

In addition to my own research, I work in a lab for pay. You will get a pretty good idea of whether the person is smart and appropriate for the position during the interview, regardless of what questions you ask them.

However, my recommendation is to ask for references and actually call these people and talk to them--chances are, it will only take 10 minutes of their day and they won't mind. The reasons I say this is that I, at my current job, excel at exactly the same areas that I was great at in my previous job (e.g. innovation, saving tons of funds by researching and doing things that one usually calls professionals to take care of), and I am still miserably failing where I didn't do so great a few years ago (e.g. showing up during regular work hours—I function best when I set my own schedule—and taking forever to complete tasks I personally deem irrelevant, etc.).

A former boss will be very upfront when it comes to sharing these things with you (and it might make you that much more eager to hire the candidate—at least that's how it worked in my case), but these are typically issues that someone wouldn't talk about during an interview.

I would also suggest warning the candidate that the interview might take a bit longer than they expect, and giving them an actual problem to solve, as well as all the resources they'd normally have available at work. I wish more employers asked you to demonstrate the job they'd be hiring you to do rather than asking where you see yourself in five years from now.
posted by halogen at 11:38 PM on January 16, 2009

Best answer: Ask the question: "Tell me about an urgent problem you solved and how you went about solving the problem". If they start answering in generals (for example saying: "when there is a problem, I always list the possible solutions and come up with the best one"), say: "How about you give me a SPECIFIC example when you did/ said that".

Ask: "tell me about a time when you were solving a problem and you realized your course of action was not getting you anywhere. What did you do next?"

Make sure their answers are specific. Tell them to use examples from work or school, but don't let them off the hook with general answers.
posted by beachhead2 at 5:35 AM on January 17, 2009

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