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Should I say “I Don’t Know” to an Interviewer?

Should I say “I Don’t Know” to an Interviewer?

By May 4, 2018 Ask Tim 4 Comments

Acting Confident vs. Being Truthful

I could give you the easy answer (tell the truth) and it would be true up to a certain point but there is much more to this situation. Let’s start with a hypothetical question: “How would you fix the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon?” Obviously a nonsensical question but it gives us somewhere to start from. The truth is that I have no idea how to accomplish this task. Now that we have question we don’t know the answer to, let’s look at what we can do.

Step 1 – State the Truth

Be very clear in the start of your response what your level of knowledge is in this area. For instance, I would say “Well, I have never had to fix a hyperdrive before…” Right off the bat I am setting expectations. I am not trying to hide what I do not know. If an interviewer thinks you are being deceptive, they will start seeing deception even where there is none. Be honest and you will immediately set yourself apart from a lot of other interviewees.

Step 2 – Identify the Resources

Don’t end with what you don’t know. Talk through how you would go about finding out how to fix a hyperdrive. I might say something like “Well, I never had to fix a hyperdrive before so the first thing I would do would be to research hyperdrive repair. I know that Correllian Weekly has a really good training section on  freighters. I would start there. Next, I believe I saw a blog post about hyperdrive repair by this Wookie guy I follow. If I get stuck, I’ll reach out to this guy I know who writes about hyperdrive repair quite a bit.” See how that changes the conversation? Sure, you don’t know but you know where to look. Hopefully you have been doing enough research on the topic that you can mention specific places to look. For instance, I know very little about Entity Framework (because I don’t like it) but if I had to use it and got stuck, I know to look through the resources Julie Lerman provides because she is the queen of EF.

Step 3 – Map Out the Plan

Don’t leave them hanging. Sure, you could say that you would study available resources but that alone won’t solve the problem. The hyperdrive is still broken. Give them the steps you will take after you read up on the topic. For instance, after the above answer, I would continue like so: “Once I understand the topic of hyperdrive repair, I would test it out the repair on a simulator (a copy of the code, a demo project, etc.) to make sure I understood how it worked. After I become confident in the fix, I will take the already working solution and implement it on the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive. That way  I know the solution works before I further break production.”

What an answer like this shows an interviewer is how you approach problems. First of all, you will tell the truth even when it hurts. Next, you know where to get help when you need it. Finally, you know how to safely ramp up your development skills without endangering production systems. It also shows the interviewer that you can self-manage. You don’t need to be told what to do next. You take the initiative and do it.

At least, that is the perfect world. Every interviewer is different. Maybe they want to you to try to fake your way through the question. Don’t do it. It is a trap. Remember that the interview process is a two-way learning process. They are learning about you but you are learning about them. If your potential boss wants you to lie or know everything in an interview, what do you think it will be like working there? Do you think it will be an environment designed to grow you in a healthy manner? Nope.

Bottom line is this: be truthful but have a plan.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • kuldeep says:

    Hi Tim,

    I am amazed by your effort and experience and will to help us developers. I am working on C# for around 2 years now, but I want to build on to some nice home projects for myself, just to improve my experience on building things from scratch. I want to know from you that how can one come up with certain ideas to build up an app from scratch. Such as you came up with Tournament builder for your tutorial. Any ideas ?? I will appreciate it a lot.

    Thanks again for all your efforts !!
    Kuldeep

    • kuldeep says:

      sorry if it was not that clear, what i meant was that the ideas in terms of topics. For ex: identifying some real world problem and converting into a fun software application. Like tournament tracker.

    • Tim Corey says:

      The first way to come up with ideas is to not care if it is especially helpful. People get stuck on the idea that every app has to be amazing. It doesn’t The purpose of most apps you develop should be to learn how to develop. I create silly apps or I copy ideas from previous apps and recreate them. The second way I come up with ideas is I look at what I could make a little better. The key is to think small. For example, my boys have a chore chart where they check off that they did each chore every day. I could create a small web app that does the same thing as the paper chart but was online.

  • Hedego Negash says:

    Another way to have an idea to sharpen a skill is through less demanding community volunteer work. Find a community or an NGO or a charity, identify if there are processes they do manually that can be automated. Then, propose them that you are busy but would like to help in a less demanding manner. Through this way, you will get a chance to apply the SDLC steps and at the same time sharpen your skill.

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