By Martha C. White
March 1, 2016

Q: I have a third-round interview coming up, and I’m facing a conundrum. Since it’s a fairly technical position, the hiring manager has asked me to do an assignment—which would be no problem, but they want me to use an outdated, inefficient software program. I have a lot of experience with a newer and more interactive program I’d rather use, since the assignment will come out better. Would this be a bad idea? I don’t want them to think I can’t follow directions, but I also want to use the best tools for the job and turn in my best work.

A: “There’s no harm in asking for clarification, if there’s an opportunity,” said Brandi Britton, district president at staffing firm OfficeTeam. “Ask if using the more updated version or a different application would be OK since you’ve found it provides a better experience, or if they would really prefer that you stick with the specific program mentioned,” she said. This demonstrates proactivity as well as your technical prowess.

But whether or not you ask to deviate from the assignment, you are right to sense that there’s a risk to not following directions, even if your way is a better approach. “Oftentimes when a company has outdated software, it’s not because they don’t understand,” said Andy Challenger, vice president at executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. They probably know their tools aren’t the greatest, but budgetary constraints or system integration issues might have tied their hands.

In that case, it’s best to use their tools of choice, even if they won’t produce what you consider your best work, because that’s probably what you’ll have to use on a day-to-day basis.

“You know what they’re asking you is what they want to see out of you going forward, so do as they ask,” Challenger advised. The interview is no place to criticize—even implicitly—a prospective employer’s business practices. If you land the job, you’ll be able to implement changes and make improvements in the future, but getting ahead of yourself could be off-putting to the hiring manager, he said.

“I do think people come in with these ideas that they’re going to be the innovative ones… but that’s not what interviewers want to see,” Challenger cautioned. “They want to see that you’re going to do the job.”

That said, if you don’t mind going for overkill, you could always do the assignment both ways, Britton suggested. “Create two versions for the assignment, one that follows the method they’ve named and the other that goes in an alternate direction,” she said. “This covers the bases of following directions but also shows you’ve taken it a step further.”

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