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Technical Interviews

  1. Jan 8, 2016 #1

    I am in my second year of a physics degree and am trying to secure an engineering internship for the summer. I have passed the company's aptitude tests, group and written exercises, and an interview with HR. The final hurdle is a technical interview (and presentation) with the hiring manager.

    I was hoping that somebody here could provide some insight on what I should expect from a technical interview. For example, is it likely to be highly specific to the role I am applying for, or a broad investigation into how I approach problems?

    Obviously I have been reading about the specific field I am applying for, but it is not a subject directly covered on a physics course, so my specific knowledge is not going to be exceptionally strong.

    What exactly does the 'technical' part here mean?

    Thank you for any guidance you can give.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 8, 2016 #2
    I'm not sure what they mean by a "technical" interview, either. My best guess is that it is an effort to determine how familiar you might be with a particular operation, and what your practical reasoning skills are in the face of a technical problem.

    So, to prepare, I would first figure out what they do for a living, and how they do it. I would study up on the technical side of that operation in various handbooks. Do note that this is something you should do anyway for a job interview to go well. Do not walk in there without a clue of what the firm does. It makes for a very bad impression.

    Bring a calculator (or phone program) you're comfortable working with. You probably won't use it, but it may make a decent impression if you're given a problem like that.

    If you have a practical pocket references, such as Ugly's Electrical Reference, study it carefully, and then bring it. Treat this whole exercise as an open book exam where you can only bring a few pocket items in to the test room.

    That way, even if you don't have the answers, you at least look prepared.
  4. Jan 8, 2016 #3
    Ok, thank you.

    I have a good idea of what the company does, and investigated some of their past and current projects.

    The date for the interview is not yet set, so that gives me time to get my hands on a relevant pocket reference.
  5. Jan 8, 2016 #4


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    I haven't done technical interviews for student internships, but I can tell you that during the technical interviews that I have been involved with in the past (for full time positions), the focus is often more on (i) communication of technical information, and (ii) the candidate's overall approach to problem-solving. We want to see whether the candiate understands the questions or problems and can articulate an answer that can be understood. We're looking to see if the candidate understands the big picture, how much time the candidate would spend on a problem before asking for help, that the candidate identifies the relevant data, and knows where to go to look things up.

    There are some people that are very good at problem-solving with textbooks and exams, but struggle when presented with practical problems and so the techincal interviews are often designed to asses the practical dimension. That said, for a student, the point of an internship is to develop that practical side, so I wouldn't sweat too much if you don't have any experience outside of schoolwork.
  6. Jan 9, 2016 #5
    Thank you for this.

    When you say "how much time the candidate would spend on a problem before asking for help", does it mean that if i'm given a difficult problem that I don't know how to solve, I can turn it into a positive by knowing when I should seek some guidance from my interviewer?
  7. Jan 9, 2016 #6


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    There's a balance when it comes to this. On one hand, interviewers generally want a candidate who can identify when he or she needs help. That way they know the candidate won't go all cowboy on them and try to tackle problems that he or she doesn't understand and potentially cause operational problems. On the other hand, they don't want someone who is going to bother them every five minutes because he or she isn't sure which direction to crank the pencil sharpener. In a technical interview we would assess something like this when the candidate gets stuck on a problem. At some point the candidate should transition from a specific solution to a more general approach to the problem. As interviewers we would prompt with questions like "So when would you inform someone that you're having trouble?" or "Who would you speak to about this?" or "Where might you look to figure that out?"
  8. Jan 9, 2016 #7


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    Can you say what kinds of projects you might be working on, and what kind of technical problems you might be asked to work on during the internship? Electrical, mechanical, chemical, etc.? :smile:
  9. Jan 9, 2016 #8
    Thank you for elaborating on this point.

    I can see the motivation behind this aspect of the interview.
  10. Jan 9, 2016 #9
    Underwater acoustics R&D.

    So I imagine that conceptual problems regarding algorithms and signal processing might feature in the interview.
  11. Jan 9, 2016 #10


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    Sounds like fun! Do the researchers there publish papers, or develop products, or both?

    If there are papers or a journal involved in the field, maybe read through some of them to see what current research is going on. If they develop products, be sure to read through the datasheets and user manuals for them. Come up with a few good questions to ask your interviewers about those products (or articles) -- that will show you are engaged and interested in the technology. Don't ask the questions right away in the interview, but work them in as your conversations progress. Oh, and don't ask different interviewers the same questions -- we do discuss all of our interviews afterwards in debrief meetings... :smile:
  12. Jan 9, 2016 #11


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    Do what I did for several successful technical interviews I had many years ago - I took along some of my own projects to talk about .

    A quite small folder with a selection of drawings , calcs and pictures .

    When asked what sort of things I had been doing and what my technical interests were I just produced the folder and laid the pages on the table .

    A fifteen minute interview once got me a graduate apprenticeship at Rolls-Royce . We had spent the entire interview bar about two minutes talking about my projects .

    Otherwise it is very likely that something will be put on the table to do with the company's products and you will be expected to enter into a meaningful technical discussion .

    Quite likely you will not know very much about the specific item . In a proper interview you will be given a short lecture about the main points of interest and then asked a few questions framed so that you can answer them from general technical knowledge .

    One example that a particular company used regularly consisted of two sets of stripped down parts for power drills . One from the company and one from a rival .

    The discussion was about how to take best features of each design and produce a final design that was better than either . No in depth answers were really expected - just sensible answers to show that applicant could understand technical problems quickly .
  13. Jan 9, 2016 #12


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    Excellent suggestion if it applies to your situation. When I interview for positions, I do exactly that -- I take along the schematics and some physical examples of some products I've designed recently, and offer them up when appropriate in the interviews. Sometimes the interviewers are up for discussing them, and sometimes, they have canned questions that they want to use instead.

    When I am going to interview someone, I try to let them know ahead of time to bring examples of their previous work so we can discuss it. If they've worked on a circuit, then I can ask them very advanced questions about the design, and expect them to be able to answer the questions in detail. That's one of the harder parts about interviewing candidates -- it can be hard to find a common ground to ask more advanced questions. But if the candidate brings examples of their work, all questions are fair game IMO. :smile:
  14. Jan 10, 2016 #13
    They produce both products and papers.

    I will be sure to do that! Thankfully they were happy to push my interview back a week as I am in the middle of exams. That means I can devote a decent amount of time to reading up on these things.
  15. Jan 10, 2016 #14
    Thank you for your tips.

    In terms of projects, most of what I have completed are physics simulations in Python, or Arduino/Raspberry Pi stuff.

    In terms of code, is it worth bringing along a printout? Or perhaps just a screenshot of what it produces etc?
  16. Jan 10, 2016 #15
    In my experience technical interviews involve actual technical content, like how stuff works, equations and how you'd go about performing a technical task. I'm sorry if that sounds a bit obvious, but I suppose it's in contrast to an HR interview where the questions are typically like "tell me about a time when you did..." etc. Sometimes they are quite specific to the role, and other times they are fairly general and seem to test more about how well you understand the general principles of your degree.
  17. Jan 10, 2016 #16


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    The "tell me about a time when..." type questions seem to be a way of getting the candidate to express what he is good for, based on what he did in the past or not too distant past. Frustrating type because you need to race through your own head to try to remember so many different things you did. I usually liked the type of interview in which the interviewer asked specific or general technical questions. Either I did know how to answer or I did not know, and there was nothing to do to try to sell oneself. I liked those parts of the interviews because I usually had sensible ways to answer the technical questions, either because of experience, training, or education. Another good thing about interviews which include a good technical component, you as candidate know very quickly how well a fit you may be for the prospective job.
  18. Jan 11, 2016 #17
    Getting through HR, preliminary aptitude tests and exercises is quite an accomplishment. So far so good. In my experience, it was impossible before I was hired to know anything about the field I was eventually working on, except schoolwork. Ivar Giaver, the Nobel prize winner in physics once related to us in his talk that when he was told he was to study thin films, the field that eventually led to his prize, he went to examine a book on photography. I take this with a grain of salt, but it is true that sometimes all the preparation in the world can miss the mark. Your competition will be in the same boat.

    I worked in two different research areas before I was hired into my current position. I had a good friend at the business who I worked with earlier, and I thought the business wanted me to work in the same area as he was working in. (Maybe he would put in a good word) To my surprise, they were more impressed with my earlier effort and I was eventually hired in a area that I worked in 10 years before I even met my friend. This shows how sometimes you cannot know "where the action is".

    Do not be surprised if you are not allowed calculators, handbooks, or possibly not even your cell phone. Some places and labs dealing with industrial processes do not even allow cell-phones.
    Apparently you have to do a presentation, so you will be expected to prepare some media to come in. (Did they give you any guidelines)
    I do think it is very important to get a good night's sleep (several nights) before the interview. Be well rested.
    I was so stressed out I got almost no (1-1.5 hours) sleep, and it showed. I was lucky I did well on the tests earlier and they hired me. Looking back, I'm surprised that they did. I must have looked a wreck.
    I think the other's advise is mostly good, but do not get stressed out during the interview, if events do not go as planned.
  19. Jan 11, 2016 #18
    That makes perfect sense, and is what I would have guessed, but I am glad I asked here as I have received some great advice. The obvious answer can sometimes be overlooked :)

  20. Jan 11, 2016 #19
    This has actually made me think differently about the interview.

    I do not enjoy having to sell myself, and I think I will be more comfortable answering questions that are related to technical subjects. Perhaps this will be the better part of the process, rather than the worst :)
  21. Jan 11, 2016 #20
    Thank you for your insight.

    Regarding the presentation; no I haven't received any guidelines yet, but they haven't confirmed the date of the interview either, so i'm sure that will come in due time. The company is quite generous regarding expenses for the interview, and I toyed with the idea of staying in a Hotel when I went to the first interview, as I had quite far to travel. In the end, I didn't and the adrenaline/nerves kept me alert throughout the day.

    If they don't allow calculators/handbooks i'll be quite happy to adapt to that. I can only do my best in these situations.
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