Avoiding a “No” Answer When Asked About a Technical Skill You Lack

February 25th, 2011 § 0 comments

I have an interview coming up for a software development position that I’m really excited about. However, there is a preferred qualification I simply have no experience with (optimization mathematics). How can I best handle this if asked about it? I’ve been trying to read up on it in my spare time but I’m not sure I’m actually qualified to answer any questions about it.

A poor answer to a technical question is a failure that can only be blamed on the interviewer himself. The author of today’s question won’t set himself up for failure – simply reading the description and drafting answers for questions about all areas listed within is the most basic preparation one can do.

There’s a very simple answer to this question:

Know what you know; know what you don’t know.

When technical skills are limited, and book study is the only experience you have, avoiding an incorrect factual answer can sometimes fear a candidate into a simple “no” answer instead of taking the deficiency head-on. Understand that you lack the skill and focus your preparation not on memorization, but on relating past experience to the desired function.

When reading up on a very particular field like optimization mathematics, first look at what other technical areas formed the base of the specialty. An example in the programming field might be C++ as the precursor to the more modern C# language. Have you had experience with the broader skill set in the past? If no, try to expand further into a “grandfather” level of progression, i.e. C, C++, C#. Is there relatable experience there? Similarities to system designs you’ve operated or hardware by the same manufacturer?

Rather than simply saying “no,” make an attempt to draw these very reasonable parallels. Few, if any candidates, possess 100% of the required and preferred skills of a job description. When an answer ties honesty, research and thoughtful associations together, your interviewer will remember only your response and not the fact that you lacked the skill in their original question.

Aim to relate two or three projects that all required you to use programming languages or network protocols that are in the same family or general technology as the skill you lack. For example:

Mr. Interviewer, the opportunity to work with optimization mathematics is one of the reasons I was attracted to this job, but it’s not an area I’ve had a lot of exposure to in my current role. I’ve had several other recent projects that used other quantitative skills that I think will greatly shorten the learning curve I’ll require to bring myself to speed.

Notice how in the above example, we don’t lead with a negative, as in, “I don’t have any experience with that skill, but…” A quick tie in to your positive motivations in seeking a new opportunity (as discussed in this article) is an additional way to subtly reinforce your candidacy.

“No” should rarely be a word in a job seeker’s vocabulary. A “no” indicates a lack of understanding about the job or failure of preparation on the part of the candidate. If one answers “no” to something that was on the materials they received to prepare, only they could have prevented the collapse.
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