How do you interview for a job you shouldn't have?
August 23, 2007 10:37 AM   Subscribe

I am about to interview for a job which I am vastly under qualified for. What the can I talk about?

Oh man, I am so screwed.

Through a personal contact, I have managed to secure an interview for a job as a sysadmin at a small insurance company, even though I have absolutely no professional experience at all. For a junior or entry level position, I think, this would probably be okay, but the problem is that because the company is not very big, I would be taking on a very substantial amount of responsibility. Worse, even though they are not that big, for some reason they handle a lot of projects for other people that are very big. This scares me.

Part of me thinks I could do the job, though. I am a computer engineering student (but not right now), and IT is my hobby. I learn very quickly, and I already have some of the fundamentals, if not practical experience. I might be okay, but I would definitely have to take time to learn how to do everything first. They might already know this, though, because I didn't really lie on my resume, however I think they are only giving me this interview because my friend talked me up a bit.

So what can I do now? I'm not a very good liar, or embellisher. Additionally, I am also not even that great at job interviews in general. So that's not good. How best can I represent myself during this interview? What sort of things should I say? I'm really in trouble here. I feel like I'm being tossed into the deep end of the pool, and I don't know how to swim yet.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not an IT person, but based on my experience just working, I think it would depend on the rest of the office, which is something you'll want to ask about in the interview. If it's like most offices - places with employees with a range of computer skills, from total experts right on down to people who have trouble with basic Excel and Word documents - you might have other people and resources to draw on. But it may be that in the eyes of other employees, you're "the computer person", with a deep knowledge of how to instantly fix their problems, and that may not be you. If you're OK with that, and if the person hiring you clearly understands your competencies (or lack thereof, as the case may be), then give it a go. If not, they're free to hire someone else, and you're free to look elsewhere.

And are you sure you want this job?
posted by mdonley at 10:48 AM on August 23, 2007

You are not going to be able to trick them into thinking you're experienced, because you're not. What I would reccommend you do is make sure that you really nail the interview. Make sure every answer to every question sells YOU, not you pretending to be who you think they want. You have passion, you have interest, you have the ability to pick up new things quickly- these are all things you can sell in the interview. It might not make a difference; they may have no interest in giving you the job, but it'll be good practice for learning how to sell yourself in an interview.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:54 AM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

As you said, you were clear in your resumé, so this company knows that you have no professional experience as a sysadmin. You are not misrepresenting yourself, you are not an impostor, so take a deep breath and reassure yourself of that a few dozen times right away. Yes, they may be bringing you in for an interview while expecting that you may not be fully qualified, but they probably expect the kind of answers you can honestly give: you have the fundamentals but no practical experience, and you're a quick learner.

People who actually know more about this field will have to fill in with concrete advice about how to present your subject knowledge in the best possible light. But I just want to emphasize that you've been honest in your resumé. Don't even think about lying or embellishing, even as you say you don't want to do it.

There is this possibility: you may not be the best fit for this particular job, but if you make a good impression based on your personality, willingness to learn, and current skill set, they may have another position suitable for you soon, or they may talk you up to colleagues who have something else you're suited for. Take this job interview as a great opportunity to practice interviews or even get another job, even if it may not be this particular job at this particular time.
posted by maudlin at 10:57 AM on August 23, 2007

Wait a second -- you said you "didn't really lie" on your resumé? Err, was this the usual gloss job-hunters often practice, or is there a chance you said something that can't be backed up?
posted by maudlin at 10:59 AM on August 23, 2007

Reconsider your goal for the interview: rather than "get the job by any means necessary", realize that this may be for you, or it may not. Try a different goal:

"Find out whether I can do the job well"

Ask the employer what you need to in order to be sure you can or cannot do a good job. Tell the employer what they need to know to be sure you can or cannot do the job.

Show that you are thinking clearly and honestly about this. If you do, they will probably be impressed.
posted by amtho at 11:22 AM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

One old standby of mine: if an interviewer asks how I'd do XYZ and I don't have a clue, I'll respond with the Google search string I'd use to find the answer. Works better if the interviewer's a techie himself, obviously.

More generally, emphasizing that you know where to find the knowledge you'd need — what books, what websites, how to read a man page, how to search a mailing list — might get you a little mileage.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:23 AM on August 23, 2007

Don't sit around and say you're a fast learner, show them. Turn the interview around and ask them about their current sysadmin situation, what they're running, how things are set up, and then start to talk about the first steps you would take as soon as you are hired. Basically, assume you have the position and be proactive about letting them know what you would do in the role, and communicate with them all along. Clear communication goes a long way, and so does initiative, even if you're saying something like "I'm not too familiar with Windows administration, so I'll need to read up on managing user permissions right away."

The fact is, you probably won't get the job if someone fully qualified comes in, but up against people with only marginally better credentials, you can make a pretty compelling case for yourself if you come across a "doer".
posted by lubujackson at 11:25 AM on August 23, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have been in the same position rather recently, and what ThePinkSuperhero said is probibly your best bet. I would add though to make sure you have a fair amount of personal resources you can draw on (friends etc) and be fairly good at finding answers on the internet. I work at a network opperations center and most of the people, if not all, are constantly researching problems online they cannot fix themselves. Good luck on the interview.
posted by hexxed at 11:28 AM on August 23, 2007

If this is a small insurance company, and you were referred explains why you are being offered the interview (esp. since you fear that you do not possess the credentials for the position/nterview). An insurance company, if small, may usually have 1/2 "IT guys" doing all sorts of "IT work". Find out what they mean by SysAdmin and what you are expected to do. You have to be absolutely certain that you can do this job. Being a SysAdmin(in the true sense) is no mean feat, more so without training and in this case without direction/guidance. Stay true to your resume, your skills and your interest. Ask them as many questions as they ask you if not more. This should be about you interviewing the position as much as the company, you.

Like you say, if you get this job, you are being tossed into the deep end of the pool -- and as you are well aware it wont be a fun place to be in if you do not know how to swim.

Back your instincts and be confident in your self, but remember that you do not win by getting a job offer, you win by getting a job offer that you fit well into. I interview for SysAdmin positions, so if you have questions, do not hesitate to ask.

Good Luck !
posted by cusecase at 11:36 AM on August 23, 2007

For the record, about a year ago I interviewed for an IT position that I wasn't fully qualified for, especially not on paper. I got the job, received a mid-year promotion (and amazing raise) and feel fully qualified to be in my position currently.

Sometimes you're capable of things you don't know you're capable of.
posted by MrHappyGoLucky at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2007

I have a friend who got a job similar to the one you're applying for (it might have been a sysadmin--he's since been promoted) with no experience and no post-high-school education. He basically walked in and asked for it.

In his interview, his selling point was this: "I'm not a geek." That's what he said, in those words. He sold them on the idea that he talks to users like a person, instead of talking down to them or over-jargoning. He could diagnose a problem without being condescending or making people feel stupid. That got him the job, over several applicants with advanced degrees and professional experience. If you're at all personable, you might try this approach.
posted by almostmanda at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2007

I wouldnt be surprised if this job is 99% helpdesk/desktop support and 1% systems support. This could be the kind of shop that has outsourced their server-side things to a consulting firm, but need a guy there to run around, fix things, and work with the consultants.

If that's true, then you probably dont need much experience, just a good head on your shoulders and a good work ethic. Thats all they may be looking for right now.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:44 AM on August 23, 2007

If you do not have much experience in interviews then you need to practise, a lot. Look at the questions at and have a friend ask you the questions so you have experience answering them. Practice, practice, practice.
posted by saucysault at 11:53 AM on August 23, 2007

It sounds to me like you're already in a fair position to land the job, and the problem is more with your confidence, which is understandable. Most people hate interviews.

I don't. I love them, and I love them because I know I am good at them. I've probably had 25-30 of them in my life, and I've only ever not been offered the position twice (one of which was on a BS technicality). I am abnormal in my zest for and success in interviews, but I am not exceptionally smart, witty, etc., or different from your average joe in many other ways (most people hate speaking in public, I hate speaking in public, etc.).

I have a number of tricks / tips I've picked up along the way that I employ, but if I could only share one, it would be this:

The interview is only half about you. The other half is about you interviewing them.

You shouldn't approach any job as though its the perfect job for you and you just hope hope HOPE you can possibly get it. No job is the perfect job for you. Some are better than others, sure, but you should be approaching every job with the attitude (legitimate, not conjured) that you need to find out whether or not you actually want this job. This does 2 very important things:

1. Shows them that you are interested in the company. If you are ready to rock when they ask you if you have any questions for them, it will show them that you are interested in what they do and how they do it. You need to ask about the work environment, typical challenges someone in your position would face, your reporting structure, the key skills necessary to succeed, upward mobility of the position, etc.. Companies look for people who are excited about the opportunity, not people who are afraid they might not succeed at it. Which leads to...

2. Displays confidence. Which is really the opposite of where you are right now. You didn't lie on your resume, you're a student of the trade, you know the fundamentals, and you know how to learn what more you might need to know in the future. You're not as qualified as an experienced sysadmin, sure, but then an experienced sysadmin would have higher salary requirements, et. al.. You are more flexible, but can still do pretty much the same job. This is important to a smaller company like the one you are interviewing for. The thing with confidence, however, just like interest in the company, is that it can't be feigned, they will see right through you.

I believe it is possible to garner real interest in any company and a confidence that you would be a good fit for the position, I've done so with every interview I've ever had (even the ones I wanted really bad and was therefore a little nervous about at first). Go into the interview humble, not cocky, but honest, interested, and confident. Walk out of it believing that it will be their loss if they do not offer you the position. Everything else is minor details.

Basically, what TPS said.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:54 AM on August 23, 2007 [103 favorites]

talk to them about the job and answer the questions to the best of your ability. if they don't feel confident in your abilities, they won't hire you. no shame (or harm) in trying. if they do hire you, well, it's a great opportunity to learn a lot.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:18 PM on August 23, 2007

Following up on what almostmanda said...

Stress the skills you've got that other applicants won't be: You are a people focused project manager who can both get things done and make sure nothing (and no one) falls through the cracks. Most positions like this involve a decent ammount of helpdesk/direct support and make sure that's one area which they are totally impressed by you. Talk about proactive support, e.g. going around once a month to make sure no one has issues; helping to make backups painless and effort free; etc. And push the idea that tehcnology has the power to make employee's lives simpler and easier, but the human component is what makes the technology actually work. That with the right person (you!) things can run smoothly and that with a little heads-up planning the inevitable problems will get handled with minimal effect on the users.

Basically, sell the idea that your job is to make everyone elses job easier.

I did this at an interview (which I found through the metafilter job board) and got the job. It's the best place I've ever worked. So good luck!
posted by notpeter at 6:40 PM on August 23, 2007

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