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What do recruiters expect you to answer when they ask, "Where do you see yourself in 5 years?" Something like:

I want to improve my technical skills ... blah-blah-blah ... architect?

Is it just to check your ambitions and if you are not going to leave in a month?

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I also hate being asked this because at any given time, I never could have guessed how my life would be five years from then because I take up opportunities when I see one. Fortunately, this never comes up when freelancing, even if you might end up working with the same client for five years. –  wildpeaks Jan 25 '11 at 3:27
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And as an interviewer, I never ask this question, I prefer the more straightforward version "what are your long term goals ?" –  wildpeaks Jan 25 '11 at 3:33
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My answer: "Dude, I dont even know what I'm having for lunch." –  GrandmasterB Feb 4 '11 at 23:00
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According to The Oatmeal blog, you should really be saying this. –  Mayank Feb 17 '11 at 15:02
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This question is bogus because if you answer that you want a promotion, chances are you've just killed your shot at the job (doubly so if the only promotion you could get would be to take the job of the person asking you the question!) –  Wayne M Aug 30 '11 at 13:14
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11 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

When interviewing someone, I started by cutting it down to 3 years, then started asking the general question of "Where do you see yourself beyond your initial role here?" I don't even remember the last time I asked that. There are so many more useful questions to ask.

These days, in this field, 5 years is an eternity, and this is a completely outdated question. But old habits die slowly, and some firms go by the same old tired lists of questions they've been asking for years. Many interviewers are lazy and superficial. They're busy, and want to get the interview over with quickly.

But if you're still going to be asked, just talk about your future goal, no matter how soon in the future, and use that. And be sincere. People can tell if your answer is just a canned response. Most initial answers I receive on an interview are canned responses, so I always dig deeper.

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btw. industry average is about 18 months. –  vartec Aug 30 '11 at 20:02
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I usually start out with the disclaimer that things change so fast that it's impossible to know exactly where I will be in 5 years.

Then I add that I expect to keep current no matter what new directions the technology takes.

Finally, I list one or two specific examples of things I want to learn soon, or am already in the process of learning.

In short, let them know that I like to learn and will work to continually improve my skill set.

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+1, thats an excellent way to handle it. –  GrandmasterB Feb 4 '11 at 19:32
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In my very first interview after graduating, I was asked this question. I lived in a remote part of Australia at the time and I said something like: "To move to Sydney or Melbourne and advance my career in those bigger and more dynamic markets." - two seconds after I said this I realised I had just filtered myself out of the second round short list. ie The role was meant to be quite permanent, and obviously my wanting to move two timezones away meant that I wasn't planning on staying with the company for the long haul.

Anecdotal story aside, I think they basically ask this to see what your ambitions are, and how they fit in with the profile of the role.

It doesn't always pay to sound very ambitious. When hiring junior or intermediate coders, companies often look for people who won't ask for too much money very soon, and who won't rock the boat too much or try to change things and advance out of the role within 6 months. Sometimes, sounding like you'd be happy to be a code monkey for a while can actually help get you in the door. The trick is to research the role and know what's expected, and then answer this question in a way that accommodates those expectations as well as possible (while being honest and true to yourself as much as possible, of course).

There is a balance of course, but the point is in matching yourself to what you think the role is about. This is essentially what that question is for. Seeing if your ambitions for the next "5 year plan" of your career are matched with what the role is about.

BTW, I've also taken to turning this around and asking THEM what projects and what kind of new or expended business the company is looking at doing in five years. This can give you a clearer picture of whether the role is worth pursuing. Not having a strong answer to this can often indicate that the work will mainly be a support and maintenance grind.

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+1 for turning the question back at them. –  ChrisAnnODell Jan 25 '11 at 8:46
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+1 @Bobby Tables - Very good answer: the points on the reality, the psychology of an organisation, the location of work, the research, the turning the question back on them –  therobyouknow Feb 2 '12 at 9:43
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They want to get an understanding of your ambition. They would like to know if you are someone that is going to be striving to improve your skills or not.

They also want to know if you are looking to move around or stay in one place. Depending on the case they could be looking for someone who wants to stay in a position for a while, but they might be fine with someone looking to move up the corporate ladder.

Just answer it honestly as best you can. It better for you and the employer to get the best understanding of who you are before you start.

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When I ask that question, it's to determine two things:

  1. Is the candidate master of his life? If the candidate is not sure or can't answer clearly, it's a pretty good indication that his life is controlling him and not the inverse

  2. Is the candidate current desires match my company ability to help him achieving them? You usually invest a lot of time and money in the candidate, I don't want to contribute to his frustration

I suggest you to prepare an answer you will say each time. Being self confident by answering this question is what most interviewers want.

I answer this:

Time proven it's impossible to predict my future as a computer programmer. In 5 years I want to be happier than today contributing by using all the skills I will gain during the next 5 years.

Don't:

  • say you want to replace him. While I found that answer funny, I know some colleague disliked a lot.
  • say you don't know.
  • say you want to become X or become Y without explaining why.
  • be dishonest. The interview is like a first date. It's better to find out your employer is not a good match during the interview than few month later...
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+1 for It's better to find out your employer is not a good match during the interview than few month later... –  Prasham Jan 25 '11 at 8:55
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Nobody is controlling their own life, that is an illusion. Only The One above us can do it and shows us our weakness on every occasion. (which is however not a reason to lie on a bed and not do anything at all) –  user8685 Feb 4 '11 at 18:51
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One more "don't": I want to be dating with you (if the interviewer is a female). :) –  user8685 Feb 4 '11 at 18:53
    
@Developer Art: let me rephrase the thing a bit: knowing where someone want to go –  user2567 Feb 4 '11 at 18:58
    
That one I can agree upon. :) –  user8685 Feb 4 '11 at 19:03
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wherever I go, there I am. I am quit happy where I am: good job, great wife, what more do I need?

oh, maybe the occasional beer?

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It's actually a great question to ask a younger candidate to get a sense of whether they want to stay on the technical path ("be a senior individual contributor") or move into management ("supervising a department of 5-8 developers"). It's nothing to be uncomfortable about; just tell the person what your ambitions are. There's no wrong answer.

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This is how it should be; maybe I've just had terrible luck but my experience has indicated the wrong answer is to indicate you want to move into management, especially if you are interviewing with the manager (because you just said you want his/her job if you stay at that company). –  Wayne M Aug 30 '11 at 13:22
    
I have always assumed that this question is really "do you want to do management, or stay technical?" –  Sean McMillan Aug 30 '11 at 14:09
    
@WayneM - the positive spin for this is that the manager will be able to get promoted and move up because there will be someone to backfill his old role. –  Scott Wilson Aug 30 '11 at 14:23
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I don't have a clue what they really want to know. My suspicion is that this is one of those questions asked by interviewers who don't know how to interview which goes into the same category as "why are manhole covers round" or "what is your greatest weakness." My father's generation was about the last where someone could get a job out of high school and work at the same company until retirement. I've been working for the past 3 decades, and only 3 jobs have lasted 5 years or more.

In the past, I've always answered "I like programming, so I hope to be programming in 5 years" which is true. When asked why I'm going back to college, I answer something along the lines of "age discrimination is rampant in software development, a close friend of mine is 5 years older than me and is having a devil of a time getting hired; I've got about 15-20 years before retirement, so the degree is for 'plan b' - which would be if I can't program anymore" which is also true.

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I answer truthfully, which in my case usually amounts to something like: Ideally I'd like to be either a Systems/Business Analyst and focus entirely on high-level problem solving instead of low-level coding implementations, or in some kind of Team Lead/Manager/Supervisor role where I can focus on architecture and problem solving. While my development skills are fairly good, I get more enjoyment out of planning out abstractions and solutions to problems than doing the actual coding.

To go on a bit of a rant though, I find this to be a loaded question. Chances are if you answer truthfully, as I have, you won't get the job because the company doesn't really care about your goals, they want to know that you will work towards their goals. Saying you want to be a manager in five years is the nail in the coffin if the person you are interviewing with is the manager; saying you want to move towards being a team lead is shooting yourself in the foot if the company doesn't have a team lead or if the team lead has been there for 10+ years.

It's been my experience the expected answer is some polite variation of "Slaving away for the company at the same position for a minuscule raise, if I'm lucky". The question is often designed to make sure you don't have any ambition, not the other way around.

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+1 Saying you want to move towards being a team lead and then you took an arrow to the knee. –  Karthik Sreenivasan Feb 2 '12 at 3:41
    
The way I think of it now is something like: I used to have ambition in my career, then I was shot in the knee by my manager so his position wasn't in danger anymore. –  Wayne M May 20 '13 at 15:46
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I honestly think its a very good question, if you want someone who will be with you for 5 years knowing where he sees himself in 5 years is important. Does he want to go into management? Become a Sr programmer, go back to school and become a biochemist?

I mean if you were getting married wouldn't you want to talk to your spouse to bee and figure out if you really wanted the same things out of life.

And while I don't know where I will be in 5 years I have some ideas about where I WANT to be and plans for how to get there.

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To sync with company’s goals

In one of my interviews, after I completed all the rounds, they told me their long term goals of the project. I was confused because it was more of maintenance than development. During this confusion the interviewer clarified a few things.

  1. We might have to invest a lot in getting you’re trained in our domain.
  2. The application model is complex and it takes close to 6 - 8 months or even 1 year to stabilize.

So please think wisely before you can give us a positive answer because it would be a huge wastage of resources for us if otherwise.

Bottom Line

So basically your goals are basically being synchronized to the goals the company has and they check whether you fit in.

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