The Importance of "I Don't Know"

Identifying humility in interviews.

When interviewing people, one of the biggest things I’m looking for is someone to say the words “I don’t know.” It doesn’t have to be that exact phrase, but it should be something similar, “I’d have to do some more research,” or, “I’m not sure but I’ll look further into it.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be the person being interviewed, it could even be who is actually conducting the interview.

When the interview starts, I will ask the candidate what are they 3-5 things they would call their biggest strengths from a technical perspective. From those, I typically will choose topics that I have a mastery in. I want to be able to dig as deep as possible in these areas. I’ll ask them to discuss a time that they ran into a problem with that technology. Then I’ll let the conversation go back and forth as much as possible until one of us says I don’t know or something similar.

Ideally, I’m looking for the candidate to say I don’t know. If they are able to do so, it shows me that they are comfortable recognizing and acknowledging to others that they don’t know something – particularly in an area that they see as one of their biggest strengths. That there knowledge does have limitations and that they don’t know it all. In the job, and in general, this will allow them to identify limits and gaps in their knowledge and be comfortable with having them. They can then go and bridge the gap or expand the limit using research of practice. In contrast, people may get defensive by making things up or maybe suggesting alternative methods and approaches. Making things up is obviously bad and can cause long term pain should a project move forward with incorrect assumptions. Suggesting alternatives can be fine; however, if they’ve identified their limits or a gap, don’t be afraid to say so and look further into it to make sure their suggestions are considering all the information and are rock solid. Don’t allow your ego to make your life more difficult, or spout factually incorrect information. As a technical consultant, that should be considered a cardinal sin.

Depending on the level of position I’m hiring for, when they say that they don’t know could be good or bad. If I’m looking for someone to fill a senior position and they’re saying “I’m not sure” early on in the conversation, and they consider that one of their strengths, then they may not be the person I’m looking for. However, if I’m looking for a more junior position, they could be the perfect fit. I’ll typically use a few of the strengths that candidate using this technique and measure where those skills lie in proficiency.

To close, I’ll often take a topic that wasn’t listed as a strength, but they may know something about, or that they know nothing about but has parallels to things that they are familiar with. This is to see how exactly they approach talking about and analyzing things that they don’t have mastery over. In technology, a lot of things relate or share concepts of fundamental ideas. I want to watch how they process this new information, and how they approach understanding things on a whim when they don’t have a pre-existing expertise. I also want to see how they act and perform when their confidence may be lower.

Of course, the person could always know more than I do and push me to the limits of knowledge and expertise. In that case, it showcases a level of mastery that would obviously be of use to me and functional in the team. It also has the added benefit of learning something new.

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