Tales from the interview: Anticipating your own incompetence is not a good interview strategy


Some years ago, there was a candidate who was interviewing for a programming position in my group. The first interviewer asked the candidate about career plans with that old standby, "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

— In five years, I see myself in program management.

This is a fair answer. Many people see programming as a stepping stone to management. It doesn't have to be, but it's certainly a career path more than one person has taken.

My colleague decided to probe further. "What is it about program management that appeals to you?"

— Well, after five years, all the kids graduating from college will be so much smarter than me, and they'll know all about the latest technologies, so I won't be able to cut it as a programmer any more. I'd have to go into management.

It's bad enough that your career plan includes never developing any new skills and "failing upward" into management. It's another thing to anticipate it in your interview.

Comments (32)
  1. Rachael says:

    I wonder if he’d decided he didn’t want the job, and was trying to insult the manager who was interviewing him?

  2. Josh says:

    @Rachael: Unlikely.  Microsoft is large enough that there is usually a position that would interest anyone.  And the groups share interview feedback through HR.  So intentionally insulting a group isn’t a great move.  When I was interviewing for a job there, I interviewed with two groups, one of which was of no interest, but the other was fascinating.  I managed to express a lack of interest in the one group without being insulting, and I’m socially inept.  And if this guy is more socially inept than I am (trust me, it would be hard), I have a hard time seeing him as an effective manager.

  3. David Walker says:

    Saying "kids will be so much smarter than me"…  First, I would say "smarter than I", or "smarter than I will be" to sound less pompous.  

    Second, I wouldn’t say that at all.

    Smart is not something that can be taught.  I know the interviewee meant something specific by this, and even said "they’ll know about all the latest technologies", but still.  If you’re not "smart", that can’t be taught.

  4. Tim says:

    Sure it’s not an awkward joke because he couldn’t think of a good reason?

  5. Spike says:

    @David Walker

    Are you sure Raymond intended you to interpret his telling of the tale as a verbatim word for word rendition?  Have you been reading his blog lately?

    Also, do you really think that "smarter than I" or "smarter than I will be" sound less pompous than "smarter than me"?

  6. David Walker says:

    "Smarter than me" is wrong; "smarter than I" just sounds more high-falutin’ and less conversational than "smarter than I am".

    I know we’re not picking on words verbatim, but still…

  7. Sys64738 says:

    So, if my understanding is correct, it is possible in Microsoft to have a completely technical career path as SDE (software developer), without need to "step up" in management.

    I think that is great; unfortunately other software businesses "force" the best software developers to become managers (e.g. offering increasing stipends, and putting a low limit on the stipend of developers), and that is bad, because in this way only the less skilled or inexperienced ones remain in positions to actually develop software.

  8. nathan_works says:

    Sys,

    Have you heard of the peter principle ? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle I’m not sure the software business is any better/worse than other industries out there.

  9. SRS says:

    In the UK, kids are indeed getting smarter year on year – the exam results prove it. By the year 2009, 101% of all kids will get A* grades or above in exams, and the country will become an unstoppable zone of infinite smartness. We’ll all have to move into management.

  10. Mark says:

    David Walker: So that makes it relevant? Historically, comparisons used oblique cases, and English is no exception.  So you can says "he’s smarter than me" (treating yourself as a unit of smartness) or "he’s smarter than I" (an ellipsis for "than I am").  It’s more obvious when you consider "he’s got more friends than me/I".

    You’re just encouraging people who say "ask my manager or I" because the word "me" is considered common, and in a forum that has nothing to do with grammar.

  11. John says:

    I guess this begs the question: will grammar Nazis complain about my misuse of "begs the question"?

  12. Eric Lippert says:

    "I wonder if he’d decided he didn’t want the job, and was trying to insult the manager who was interviewing him?"

    I wonder why you have concluded that the candidate was a "he". But that’s neither here nor there I suppose.

    This sounds to me more self-deprecating (and self-defeating) than insulting. The implication is that some programmers have what it takes to keep up with that (entirely fictitious) huge crop of brilliant kids fresh out of college who are on top of all the latest technology, and that some do not, and that the candidate has put themselves into the latter bucket.  

    If the interviewer was a developer with more than five years experience, the logical implication is that the candidate believes the interviewer to be in the former bucket.

    In reality, we do not expect fresh-out-of-college hires to be up on the latest technologies. Why would they be? They’ve been studying computer science, not building performant multi-tiered business process servers.

    We expect industry hires to be current on technology; we expect college hires to be able to learn any new skill they need quickly and effectively.

  13. Stephen Jones says:

    —""Smarter than me" is wrong"——

    It’s perfectly correct. Americans tend very much to prefer the long form with the auxiliary verb but stand-alone ‘than me’ is around twice as common as stand-alone ‘than I’ according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

  14. "In the UK, kids are indeed getting smarter year on year – the exam results prove it. By the year 2009, 101% of all kids will get A* grades or above in exams, and the country will become an unstoppable zone of infinite smartness. We’ll all have to move into management."

    So, by next year, UK children will be great at finding optimal routes?

  15. Poochner says:

    @John: No, because that’s not a question of grammar.  It’s a question of whether you are referring to a formal logical fallacy, or using common informal English.

  16. R. Earl Grant says:

    He’s talking about an elephant in the room.

    1) Less important: We’re supposed to be hiring people smarter than us.

    2) In any other engineering field, take civil for example, 20 years experience is seen as a plus. 20 years experience in Computer Engineering — that was the dark ages, get thee to a monastery.

    Age discrimination wins out over experience in Computer engineering.

    With proper management regarding communication skills, this kid could be a great outside the box dev/manager/MS employee.

  17. Jim says:

    The aging problem in China is even worse. If you are over 35 (age is mandatory in Chinese job application), you will never find a job in programming cause everyone assumes that your skill is no longer relevant. So the management position is the only one you can apply!!!!!!

  18. j says:

    Sometimes me wish comments on this blog were disabled.

  19. KenW says:

    SRS: "By the year 2009, 101% of all kids will get A* grades or above in exams, and the country will become an unstoppable zone of infinite smartness."

    Great! They can solve the array rotation problem for us.

  20. David W says:

    SRS: the results only show that more people are passing the exams, which is an entirely different thing. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/6589301.stm

    Raymond: I just got hired after telling the group manager exactly what the kid told your interviewer. I realistically expect to be technically incompetent in the coming 10 years, and I don’t think that is a pessimistic view at all.

    Growing up in computing-related jobs, all I’ve known of technical people over 30 are stalwarts whose skills were long outdated, and obstinately insisted on outdated modes of development, problem solving, and so on. I don’t want to be one of those people.

  21. David, didn’t they tell you it’s always bad to generalize? ;)

    Seriously, though, I know several programmers over 30 whose skills are not outdated and who don’t have most of the attitude problems you mentioned. So my guess is that you’ve just had bad luck when it comes to your co-workers.

  22. zachd says:

    @David: If only there were some way of refreshing one’s skills over time or learning new things.  :)

  23. CDarklock says:

    There are people who are programmers, and there are people who program.

    If the candidate knows he* is one of the latter, his career path should take into account that he cannot reliably expect to compete with the former in the long run. Anyone can be an entry level programmer with a little hard work. Being a long-term professional programmer is somewhat more dependent on your inherent nature.

    It is simply not possible for the average man on the street to become a developer on the same plane with Charles Petzold or Jeff Prosise, and while the possibility exists (and the probability rises) as you descend toward entry-level, there is a point where the capacity of any specific individual is simply exceeded.

    The candidate clearly expects to reach that capacity within five years. Perhaps it’s not because his cup is small, but because he expects to fill it rapidly. I know I, for one, would expect to learn much more and much faster at Microsoft than at the average soul-sucking corporate sweathouse… just as I would expect Microsoft to /demand/ more.

    I don’t find this such a horrible thing. I find it to be a display of naivete about the industry, which I expect from a new college grad. I would have followed it up with a question about why the candidate expects to reach his technical limits within five years.

    * – Centuries of usage have neutered the male pronoun. Its usage is clear and concise. Nothing else is.

  24. XSRS says:

    @David W:

    // TODO: Add this to life code. SenseOfHumour.GetInstance().Acquire(Timeout.Infinite);

  25. dB. says:

    That’s a hire. He clearly passes the sense of humour test. Plus if the guy passes the drool test (ie. doesn’t drool) and the handshake test (ie. has a handshake), you’re all set.

  26. Kyralessa says:

    I had lunch with a former manager of mine the other day.  He mentioned how he always focused on management jobs, not programming jobs, these days.  Why?  Because it takes too much to keep up with the latest programming stuff.  He has two kids, and just doesn’t have the time.

    This is perhaps what the guy in the interview was trying to express.

  27. Cheong says:

    Jim: I can confirm this. After 35, finding programming job in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. can be really difficult. Unless you move up to management or start your own company, there’s pretty high prob. that you will stay out of job or moving to other discipline.

    That’s why the younger generation don’t want to find programming job even if they graduated from I.T. related discipline. And now we have a shortage of programmer here. The WTF is, even when here’s programmer shortage, most of the 35+ aged programmers still cannot get their job. :O

  28. Rachael says:

    Eric:

    "This sounds to me more self-deprecating (and self-defeating) than insulting. The implication is that some programmers have what it takes to keep up with that (entirely fictitious) huge crop of brilliant kids fresh out of college who are on top of all the latest technology, and that some do not, and that the candidate has put themselves into the latter bucket."

    Yes, that’s obvious, but my point was that the person interviewing the candidate was presumably also a manager, and therefore also in that bucket. It is an insult, whether intentional or not.

  29. David Walke says:

    Mark:  No, I would never dream of encouraging people to say "ask my manager or I", or something else I see sometimes: "ask Bill or myself" (ugh).  I encourage people to learn grammar.  "Me" is sometimes correct, and sometimes not.

  30. Well, <em>I</em> would ask Bill or myself… but that’s me.

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