Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Not knowing - in interviews and meetings

You can’t be anywhere else, right?

I may be a little odd (yeh, you knew that already…), but I like interviews. I like them whether it’s an interview for a job, engagement or trying to land a new client. I like them, because they are exercises in thinking how I can solve business problems with technology and realizing what I don’t know.

Some people get worried about this ‘lack’. I understand why and know it’s not often spoken about. So, let’s talk about it.

You can’t know everything
So often, junior members of staff get worried that they won’t know something they’re asked about.

Firstly, there will ALWAYS be something you don’t know, of or about. Just today a colleague who is a member of the CIPD advised that some interview questions can follow the STAR^ approach. “The what?” was my reply. Yup, 43yrd old, nearly 20 years experience, no idea what she meant. It will always be the way, relax with it. In fact, revel in it. It’s what makes our profession so exciting to be in.
^(Situation, Task, Action, Result)

The problem we have is twofold;

1) the field we are in is extensive and covers business and technology, so being expert and encyclopedically knowledgeable on everything is impossible and;

2) there is just too much depth in these areas, i.e. too many technologies for you to ever learn. Do you know Java, JavaScript, C#, Ruby, C++ in equal measure? Didn’t think so. How about WebSphere, Rails, Databases, ERMs, Performance or Security testing, in equal measure? What about the business side such as UX design, Business Analysis, Project Management, Service Desk? Qualified and experienced in all fields? Exactly.

You can’t know everything about everything and that’s OK.

You only know what you know
You might be a fresher with zero to a few years of experience or a gnarly consultant like myself who’s next milestone is his second decade in testing. You might be somewhere in between. Here’s the news, you can’t be anywhere else, personally or professionally, than where you are now. You just couldn’t have gained more experience, studied more or been taught more. Again, that’s OK.

I know you want to be more professional, more technical, more knowledgeable, more known and so on; hey, me too. Don’t get overly stressed about where you are now, here is the only place you can be.

It’s OK, so long as…
However, there are a couple of catches with this “It’s OK” business, you need to know how you’re going to respond to this shortfall in your situation compared to where you’d like to be and if here is where you should be.

When you don’t know, when you can’t answer, when the way forward isn’t clear to you – what are you going to do? It’s critical that you know how to respond when you get stuck. Stuck by a client’s need, stuck by and interviewer’s question.

The simplest response is to honestly say you don’t know, even if you think that’s going to hurt their opinion of you or your organization. You have no other choice, you CANNOT lie. However, you and be ambiguous and indirect, that’s different. No one expects you to be ‘promoting’ what you don’t know, there’s no need to be broadcasting it.

Often, we don’t know things at different levels. I covered a model we could use in my other post Why you’re not a Software Testing Expert. The art is in providing context as to why you don’t know something. For example, I’m more than happy loading data into and pulling data from an SQL database. I can even set up basic tables, keys, etc. However, I cannot tune a database, make it resilient or secure. If asked why, the answer would be; the admin side is something I’ve simply not done or as I focus on testing I work with these systems as provided.

That’s fine. I’ve said I don’t know, but I qualified it with what I do know and why what I don’t know is actually not that important. Hopefully. If it is, then I’m not the right person for the role. If this is a new client I’m trying to land then the answer is different. Perhaps; I’m not 100% clear on that, but I know a couple of people back at base that will be, let me raise it with them and get back to you. Here the point is that as an organization, we know everything so me not knowing is not a problem. Assuming there really is someone back at base, else given we can’t lie we might not be the best company to delivery against the client’s needs.

Do you know how you will respond to not knowing? Respond without getting flustered, respond in a way that makes you feel excited you just discovered a new area to study?

Should you be here?
We waste a lot of time and energy not focusing on what’s important, then regretting it later. A question to ask is if that’s what you do. When the client or interviewer catches you out, should you have known the answer, possessed the knowledge? If so and if it’s because you’ve been intellectually lazy or undisciplined then shame on you. You let yourself down and everyone who loves and possibly relies on you, seriously. But hey, at least you know it now.

How you develop yourself in what areas is a topic for another post and really something for you to decide. Just realise that one day you may be in front of a client or potential employer and get asked something you know you could know; if only you would make the effort. Given that is so, go put in the effort! On the main website, check out the Professional Development Plan template under Team Pack:

Closing Thoughts
You can only be where you are now, so don’t beat yourself up but excitedly look forward to who you will be months or years from now. Get on with clarifying who that future you is and working backwards, decide how you’re going to transform yourself.

Where do you want to be? How are you going to get there?

Not knowing is OK, just decide how you’ll respond and what the path to ‘there’ is, then get moving.


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