Unusual IT job interview questions: Ask what went wrong

Anyone can list accomplishments in a job interview. Asking about failures can reveal soft skills that are critical for IT jobs
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Editor's note: In this series, we're sharing unusual interview questions and approaches to help leaders find the best candidates for their open jobs - and help IT professionals prepare for any question that comes their way in an interview. Here, Clive Fenton, chairman and co-founder of Step5, explains why he wants to know what candidates have done wrong in their careers.

Ask: What's something you've done wrong in your career?

I always ask, what have you done wrong (in your professional life)? I go on to ask what the candidate has learned from this and, most importantly, how they’ve put this learning into practice.

It’s very easy for people to reel off what they’ve done in their career and what they’ve achieved. It’s much harder for someone to step back, evaluate, and admit that they don’t always get things right. But that’s the kind of person I want to employ – someone who is self-aware and willing to learn from their mistakes and change their approach if it’s not working. 

[ Which IT jobs will position you well for the future? Read also: 5 flourishing and 5 fading IT careers and 8 IT jobs in flux. ]

What I learn about candidates

We can give someone all the training in the world but if they aren’t open to new ways of doing things, they won’t be a good fit for Step5.

We are problem solvers. Only someone who is honest with themselves will be able to have the honest, non-judgmental conversations we like to have with our clients about where a project might have gone wrong and how it can be resolved.

A candidate once told me that he hadn’t done anything wrong – ever! Hard to believe as we all get things wrong some of the time, which is how we keep learning. This was a sign to me that he wasn’t right for Step5 and I promptly ended the interview. 

Go beyond the elevator pitch

For me, the elevator pitch question (think: "Tell me about yourself") has got to go. It doesn’t tell me what I need to know about a candidate.

It tends to reveal a lot about an individual and their achievements but little about their teamwork skills or whether they can fit into the company culture and contribute. Many of the candidates I see have strong project management and technical skills – what I’m interested in finding out is if they have the softer skills that will add value or bring something new to the table. 

For interviewers: In place of this generic elevator pitch question, I like to start by asking candidates "Tell me about your family" or "What do you like to do outside of work?". This enables me to build a picture of the person behind the CV. The fact that they've got to the interview stage suggests that they have the right skills – I want to know what makes them tick.

For job seekers: When asked an elevator pitch question, candidates should succinctly outline who they are, what they do and, most importantly, what they've learned in their career. This is a great way to convey the depth of your knowledge and experience as well as your self awareness.

My advice is also to be yourself and don't be afraid to share personal information where appropriate. I see too many corporate personas in interviews when I really want to see someone's true character.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Clive, Chairman and Co-founder of Step5, is recognized in the industry for his unique ability to identify, assess and resolve complex issues from both a business and technical perspective. Alongside project management, he is involved in the engagement and delivery of large-scale business change programmes.