What to Prepare for in an Interview/What to Ask Candidates - In looking for a job, interviews are inevitable.  However, they are viewed with dread by most supervisors and people seeking jobs.  And rightly so.  The stakes are high, and there are few opportunities for learning and practicing.  After all, how many hiring interviews do the average manager or supervisor of analysts engage in?   How about the prospective analysts?  By and large, not many.

I got a question from a supervisor on what questions to ask of prospective hires for an entry level position.  My response, edited, follows.  I hope that my answer helps those engaged in interviews for analyst jobs to relax a bit and focus on what is important for the jobs related to budget and program analysis.

The Question: "I am … asking for your assistance in preparing questions for an upcoming Budget Analyst position interview. The position is entry level …. What kinds of interview questions can you recommend that will help me in selecting the best candidate for this position?

My answer: Not knowing the specifics of the position, I can only give some guidelines based on my experiences.  I assume that you have a set of general questions that would establish the candidate's general reliability, willingness to work, ability to get along with others, ability to speak and write clearly, etc.  After ascertaining the candidate's basic qualifications as a desirable employee, the first thing to consider is whether the analyst will work independently or as part of a team that includes other budget analysts with experience.

If independent, you should focus on the candidates' personal abilities, since they will have to learn by themselves as they work, and may have to do research to find out what is needed and to develop new procedures. These abilities should include flexibility, reliability, and a basic education that supports flexibility. I would look for a liberal arts background, with some math and economics, and evidence of having done some research. You can ask whether or not the person has this background and how well they could apply this knowledge.  Questions could be: "How comfortable are you in doing a numerical analysis?" "Do you maintain your checkbook? How often do you balance it?" "Did you write a thesis or other extensive research paper? How do you rate yourself as a researcher and writer of research papers?" "How do you feel about dealing with accounting reports?"

If the work would be as a junior with other analysts, some of the same considerations as for an independent worker need to be considered, but it may be more valuable to focus on experience in interactions with others and specific basic skills brought to the job, such as ability to use computers ("Do you use a PC in your work/education? Do you know how to use a spreadsheet, such as Excel?"), some basic accounting knowledge ("do you know what is cost accounting? Accrual accounting?"), and team work ("could you tell me about some of the activities you have engaged in that involved you in leading other people? In following the lead of others? How do you think you did in [one of the situations identified]?").  The reason for this is that if there are other analysts available to assist they will teach the new person many things related to how to find out things and how to work in the organization. In this case there should less need to bring skills related to independent work to the entry level position, but they would need to be immediately ready to work as part of a group and use these skills to learn some of the others.

Another area of inquiry should be related to the type of budget work involved. If the work focuses on budget execution, then the skills and abilities would be more related to dealing with funds control and implementing budget decisions. In this case working with numbers and accounting information may be more important that other abilities. If the work involves budget formulation (i.e., presenting budget requests and justifying them), then the work would require writing and the ability to make a case in writing and in presentations. For the execution focus, you can use some of the questions related to numerical knowledge. For formulation, the research related questions, plus something along the lines of "how do you rate yourself as a salesperson? Could you do a sales pitch to sell a used car to a stranger?"

And you may ask my perennial question, which usually gets candidates to think: "What do you plan to do when you grow up?" I believe that we all develop all the time, so this is more sophisticated than it may look, and it can give you good insights into how people react to surprises - a very valuable insight when you have to fill a budget position.  Budget work is full of surprises, and you want a candidate who does not get scared and paralyzed when a surprise pops up out of nowhere.