Learning from Mistakes

One of my favorite interview questions is “In your recent jobs, what is the biggest mistake you’ve made?”  There’s a natural follow-up question: “What did you learn that would help you avoid making that mistake again?”

There are several things I like about this line of questioning.  It often catches the candidate by surprise.  I never like to ask interview questions for which the candidate probably has a prepared and rehearsed answer.  Examples include: “What is your greatest strength / weakness?” or “Where do you see yourself in X years?”  Those common questions (because they’re so common) don’t reveal much.  [I realize that, by writing this, I’ll ruin the surprise nature of this question for any candidate who is resourceful enough to have read my blog before the interview.  That’s OK – a candidate like that deserves to have an advantage!]

What kind of answers have I gotten?  They’re all over the map.  The worst answer is “I can’t really think of any mistakes I’ve made” or some variant of that.  I hope it’s obvious why that’s dreadful.  First of all, it’s either dishonest or demonstrates a complete absence of introspection.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Most of us, if we’re honest about it, make quite a few.  Ideally, we don’t make the same ones repeatedly.  When we do make them, we hope to recognize them quickly and take corrective action to limit the damage and learn from the overall experience.

Typical answers from candidates early in their careers include poor choices of algorithms or bad estimates that caused deadlines to be missed.  Those responses aren’t bad, but they’re not terribly enlightening.  Other common answers (especially from ambitious, career-focused candidates) involve career choices: “I shouldn’t have transferred to that role” or “I shouldn’t have joined that company” or “I shouldn’t have relied on or trusted so-and-so.”  These responses are a little trickier because they can provide early warning signs of potential problems.  These candidates might be (but aren’t necessarily) impatient job-hoppers or (worse) blame shifters who try to avoid responsibility for their choices.

One of the best answers I’ve ever gotten came from a recent candidate (let’s call him Adam) for a position in our Professional Services organization.  Adam was a project manager, with extensive technical experience.  He described an assignment he was given to develop a moderately complex application with a small team (three or four people) in a short time frame (three or four months).  Adam explained that, because of the time pressure, he chose to use a language and underlying tools (C++, with some existing libraries the company had built) that everyone was familiar with.  Adam recognized that this wasn’t an ideal choice – the requirements of the project made Java (or some similar platform-independent technology) a much better fit.  Unfortunately, he felt constrained by the compressed schedule.  It was soon clear that they had made the wrong choice and the project wasn’t going to succeed, but they continued forward (because of the deadline).  Eventually, Adam went back to the project sponsors, explained the situation and proposed corrective action: start over, switch to Java, assign a new resource who is experienced in Java to help with knowledge transfer, and extend the deadline.

What makes this answer so good?  It contains enough detail to convey that it’s genuine and honest.  In addition, it explains the recognition of the bad choice and the correction that was made (while acknowledging that it wasn’t corrected soon enough).  [That part is important – if it was recognized and corrected quickly, it wouldn’t really have been a “mistake”]  Finally, Adam anticipated the logical follow-up question (“What did you learn…”) and addressed it without having to be asked.

My feedback on Adam was an enthusiastic “Hire him!”

In my next post, I’ll provide a few examples of how I would answer the question if it were posed to me.

For now…I’ll leave you with this thought:

Everyone can learn from mistakes, but not everyone takes advantage of those opportunities.

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