Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

Have you ever been asked “What is your biggest weakness?”

| 18 Comments

It’s become a bit of a joke by now, being asked in a job interview “What is your biggest weakness?” Numerous books and blog posts talk about how to answer the question, turning a negative into a positive, without sounding glib. I discuss it in the “Tough Questions” chapter of my book. It’s been parodied in this movie:

It’s a pretty bad question to ask. Presumably it’s asked to find out how self-aware the candidate is of where they have room for improvement, but there are better ways to find that out. For example, I’ve asked it directly in interviews, “Where do you see room for improvement in your skillset, and what are you doing to make that happen?”

Watching the “biggest weakness” movie above, I realized that I don’t think I’ve ever actually been asked the question in a real job interview. I know that if an interviewer did ask me, my opinion of him would drop considerably. I would wonder if he just got it out of a stock list of questions to ask.

I know what my answer would be, if I was ever asked this live: “I don’t know JavaScript as well as I should. I know enough to do basic form validation and graphic mouseovers, but as far as applications being written with tools like jQuery, I just haven’t gotten into that, and I should because that’s clearly where much of the web is headed.”

What about you? Have you, personally, ever been asked the question in a job interview? How long ago was it? What year? How did you answer, and how did the interviewer take your answer? How was the rest of the interview?

Or is “What is your biggest weakness” almost a sort of urban legend of interview questions, the one that you hear about other people getting asked, but never yourself?

18 Comments

  1. Multiple times, actually. Often enough that I have a snarky answer (“answering silly interview questions”) all ready to go for the next time!

    • @jacobian: How did you answer before? And how was your snark answer taken?

      • I’ve tried to answer honestly — that I’m easily distracted, prone to wheel-reinventing. It’s always a weird moment: I think the interviewer actually isn’t expecting an honest answer (which of course begs the question of why they’d ask in the first place, but…)

        I haven’t gotten a chance to use my snarky answer yet; it’s been a while since I’ve been on the receiving end of an interview, actually. If I’m honest with myself, I might not have the nerve to be The Guy if I had the chance. But if I do hear the question again I think I’ll basically write the interview off. I don’t think I want to work for a company that a hiring process so broken that it thinks that’s a good question.

  2. Sure, I have been asked that question numerous times. Ten or eleven years ago, I knew little enough about my abilities that it was a rather ominous question. By now I’ve seen myself code for money long enough that I know where my holes are, including my “biggest weakness” as a potential job candidate.

    In the interest of full disclosure, it’s that being self-taught (where “self-taught” means learning my profession via books, Internet, personal projects, and work) I have gaps in the foundation knowledge that is provided by a formal computer science education. There are algorithms I don’t know. There are algorithms I know, but don’t know the name for. On the other hand, this is something I’ve been working on in what passes for free time.

  3. I have been asked about my biggest weakness. However, just like you discuss in the book about resumes, there is not one good stock answer you can give – it needs to be in the context of the position.

    In 2007, I was interviewing at a tech company in Chicago, and had an interview with the Sr. Director of Engineering. By this point, I had passed through a traditional and a technical interview; he was evaluating my fit with the department. We went through what a day’s work would be, how the teams fit together, how my skills would be used, and so on. Towards the end, he hit me with that question.

    Looking back on it 5 years later, I realize what he was doing – he was checking to see if I paid attention during the interview. What he really wanted to know was this: if I took the job, what would be the biggest challenge I would face? If I gave him a stock answer, it would be clear that I was not thinking with agility. If we had spent a half hour talking about team fit and dynamics only for me to say something about how my Java wasn’t up to speed, he’d know I wasn’t really interested in what he said.

    Further, some interview questions are bad questions when written, but good questions to elicit a response or see a thinking process in action. For example, when you mention that your opinion of an interviewer would drop, you would probably have a reaction that would be seen by an observant interviewer, no matter how much you think you could hide it. Someone who can read people would pick up on that and take it into consideration.

  4. @Pete: Agreed, it would depend on the context, and I can see where it would be worthwhile, as in your example. What I was thinking of when I said “my opinion would drop” was the interviewer who seemed to be asking just to be asking because it’s one of those questions you’re supposed to ask.

  5. It’s a question I tend to ignore because it’s not worth my time thinking about. I’ve walked out of interviews when asked this question, along with “tell us about yourself,” which is vague and supposed to serve as some kind of psychological evaluation, the common wisdom being you can judge a person based on what they say (my standard response: “what do you want to know? Everything is already in my resume that’s relevant to the job”), though to me it smacks more of interviewer laziness in coming up with good questions not from a standard HR script.

  6. I’ve been asked what my weaknesses are but I don’t recall ever being asked my biggest weakness.

  7. Yes, I was asked a couple of times back in 2009/2010. It’s funny because it’s now some sort of a trend in interviews, at least here where I live. People’s reaction have been no less than a canned answer like: “perfectionist! My biggest weakness is to make other people’s lives a nightmare to deliver things as perfectly as possible”. Interviewers know this is cliché at its best form. And, of course, whois cares?

  8. Sure – I’ve been asked that quite a few times. My most recent answer was this:

    “I try to continually evaluate my abilities and shortcomings. I don’t know that I can directly answer your question because I actively work to improve the parts of my life that I’m not satisfied with. My remaining weaknesses – and I’m sure there are many – are the ones I haven’t identified and worked through yet. But if you have to put something down: I’m not as proficient in speaking Mandarin Chinese as I’d planned to be by now.”

    I got points for self-reflection and humor.

  9. Have been asked this question multiple times. I’ve always tried to come up with an answer which wasn’t a weakness but a strength – because, really, it’s a stupid question.

  10. Even great hiring managers from great companies very often ask terrible interview questions. But really, they only want to know a couple things: Can you do the job? And are you a pleasant person to work around. Snarky or dismissive answers will only get you disqualified from a possible great job…nobody wants to work with a dick.

  11. I don’t know how typical that question is in different fields, but it sure doesn’t feel like an urban legend to me! I was asked today, actually, and in the two job interviews before that. My answer was along the lines of “Sometimes I overanalyze and end up not making a timely decision…” (Come to think of it, I instinctively answered in a way that was relevant to the job I was applying for.) In a previous interview I tried to throw in a bit of humor by telling the interviewer “I could give you the cliché ‘I’m a perfectionist’ line, but I won’t…”

    And how about these other gems:

    Describe yourself in three words.
    If you were a geometric figure, which one would you be and why?
    Name a wild animal you identify with and why?

  12. I’ve been asked this question many times, and recently also participated in 15-20 interviews of technical people where this question was always asked. It was complemented with several other standard ones (and a few not so standard). Seeing the variety of responses, I tend to think it’s not all that bad.

    I do agree that it should be complemented with other, more direct questions about personality and self evaluation. Some people respond better to direct questions, and others to indirect ones. Many also find it easier to handle questions that they are prepared to answer, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Interviews are high pressure situations, and not every kind of position requires advanced skills in handling personal issues with any amount of grace in an interview room. I find having the focus of trying to bring out the best in the other person to be useful.

    Of course, it’s definitely less about the answer itself than how that answer is presented. Snark in a response shouldn’t matter much, unless it seems constant or really over the top, and nervousness can usually be ignored as well. On the other hand, someone who feels threatened and responds with anger at these kinds of questions may warrant a few extra questions to determine what’s going on.

  13. I haven’t asked this question. I don’t think I ever will, but if I would, it would be one of those questions where I’m not really interested in the answer, but more in how the candidate formulates his answer. Does (s)he draw a blank, rambles, goes on and on, or does (s)he manage to formulate a short, coherent statement about him/herself.

    I’ve been asked this question, but mostly during “intake” interviews of recruitment agencies. I usually came up with something that wouldn’t scare off a potential employer. (“I don’t do well with kids”).

  14. The first time I was asked this, I answered, “I don’t think in terms of weakness. I try to play to my strengths.” The guy who asked it said, “Good answer.” So I’ve continued using it when the question has come up. Of course, that guy didn’t hire me, so maybe it really wasn’t that good an answer.

  15. I’ve been asked this multiple times (software engineering here) in the past year, during interviews. My answer was “Google, because it makes me lazy!” or something. Usually works fine (obviously don’t say that exact sentence) and the interviews have gone well.

    None of the companies asking me this have been “I’d love to work there!!!” shops though. Usually have bonuses like long hours or weird development practices. Just my experiences.

  16. I said, “Kryptonite”.

    No call back.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.