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What to Say If You Don’t Know How to Answer an Interview Question

01/08/2024
6 minutes

Cramming for technical interviews is a rite of passage for every new developer. Everyone wants to be prepared for whatever the hiring manager can throw at you. But in this post, we’re preparing for the worst: what do you do when you’re stumped by a question?

To help you prepare for being unprepared, we spoke to Chris Pine, Engineering Manager at Buf and author of Learn to Program. Chris has managed engineering teams for nine years and conducted upwards of 50 technical interviews. In other words, Chris has seen it all.    

From a hiring manager’s perspective, it’s not a major red flag if you don’t know the answer to a specific question, Chris says. Technical interviews are rarely about checking if you know all there is to know about React or Kubernetes, especially if you’re interviewing for a junior position. As a junior engineer, “you’re at a point in your career where you’re rapidly learning,” Chris says. “I just expect that [learning is] going to be part of the onboarding process after we’ve decided this is a good fit.”

That “good fit” is key: Interviewers will be assessing your answers to learn how you respond to challenges and whether you’ll work well in the environment and with the other team members — not just whether you know how to implement a tree in Python.

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You can showcase your inquisitiveness and curiosity about the role by asking tactical questions during the interview, Chris says. “I would love it if early-career engineers approached interviews more like they’re interviewing me and the team and the company to see if this is a good fit for them,” Chris says. “This isn’t about if you’re good enough — the goal is to find a good match.” (Got an interview coming up? Check out this list of thoughtful questions you can ask the interviewer.)

According to Chris, you will look more senior and mature as an engineer if you approach the interview as an opportunity to gauge if the company is right for you versus focusing on impressing the interviewer. It can be hard to remember this if you’re a new developer or find yourself on the job market unexpectedly, because every interview feels high stakes. Treat the interview more like a conversation — it’ll take some of the pressure off and to help you learn more about the company and the role.

Here are some ways you can respond and keep the interview conversation moving if you’re caught off guard by a technical question.

“Let me take a moment to think about it”

Don’t be afraid to pause to reflect on your answer. You might have more to say than you realized. “I have no problem with the person on the other side taking their time to reply,” says Chris. “I can spend 30 seconds just sitting there quietly while they’re thinking. Some people think out loud — that’s fine too.” (In fact, being able to explain your approach to a problem is an important skill.)

It’s far better to gather your thoughts into a coherent answer than try to speak off the cuff if you don’t have an answer ready to go.

“I don’t know…”

If you still don’t have a response that feels right for the question, don’t try to fool your interviewer. “It’s a huge red flag if someone doesn’t know the answer but acts like they do, or tries to make something up on the spot,” says Chris. “I’m not looking to hire people who are good at interviewing because that’s not the job. I’m looking for people who are good at the job.”

It can be scary to admit you don’t know something, but being vulnerable (as long as it’s authentic) can help you build rapport with the interviewer. “I don’t expect you to know everything,” says Chris. “I trust someone much more who is quick to say, ‘Look, I don’t know but I will figure it out’ or ‘Here’s what I would do to figure it out.’” Senior developers tend to be much more comfortable admitting when they aren’t familiar with something, and that shows confidence. It’s more important that you can speak to how you approach problem solving.

“… but here’s how I’d find out”

A lot of being a developer is just figuring things out as you go. The running jokes about Stack Overflow and GPT exist because it’s true — when faced with an unknown, all developers use other people’s input and code. Treat the technical question as if you already have the job and have been given an unfamiliar task.

Where would you start? Who would you go to for help? Is there documentation you can consult, or do you have a mentor you can approach? Sharing how you’d approach this problem if you were on the team shows that you have a growth mindset and problem-solving attitude. 

“I don’t have an example of X but I do have one of Y”

If you’re drawing a blank when asked to give an example of something you’ve never done, don’t panic. This is actually a great opportunity to show how you think about the bigger picture.

“If I say, ‘Give me an example of a user interface that you’ve designed’ and you haven’t done one, you could say, ‘I haven’t actually done that, but are you looking for a situation where I spent a lot of time thinking about the customer experience? Because I can talk about that,’” Chris says.

You’re asking the interviewer to explain what they’re really looking for behind the question. Chances are that you have another transferrable example from your experience that will serve just as well, and it doesn’t even have to be a technical one. Some of the developers that Chris has seen grow the fastest didn’t come from an engineering background: “I once hired someone who had a PhD in biology before going into programming and she was one of the finest engineers I have ever worked with,” Chris says. “She always considered the big picture from day one and she just skyrocketed.”

If you can show that you’re able to zoom out and consider the reason behind the question, that’s a great sign you’ll be able to do so when you receive requests from other teams and stakeholders.

Final tips to get ready for your interview

Lastly, it’s natural to want to share anecdotes where everything went right and you come out looking good. But success stories don’t always tell the interviewer that much about how you respond to challenges and adversity. Some of your biggest mistakes make the best interview material because they demonstrate your character. Do you take accountability for your mistakes? Do you learn from them? It’s much harder to show these qualities when you’re recounting a big win, so don’t be afraid to own your mistakes.

Visit our Career Center for more resources to help you prepare, like interview questions and code challenges. The better prepared you are, the more relaxed you’ll feel.   

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