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When you have no clue about the question, how do you answer/act when you do not know the answer at all? Telling the truth is pretty obvious. But how could you try to transform this weakness into a strength?

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This question is not unique to software development and is thus off-topic as per the FAQ. –  Anna Lear Jun 3 '11 at 14:35

11 Answers 11

up vote 71 down vote accepted

"I don't know how to do that, but if I ran into that problem in a project, here's how I'd go about figuring out how to make it work..."

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When I'm interviewing, one of the big problems I used to see was programmers who wouldn't say "I don't know". Telling me that didn't hurt your chances (unless it was a lot). And adding how you figure out it increases your chances. Not admitting you don't know ruins your chances. –  Jeff Siver Oct 6 '10 at 18:04
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@Jeff: Exactly. When I interviewed at my current job, the boss explicitly asked me how I'd handle things I don't know. I told him that if I know something then I know it, and if I don't, then I admit it and try to find out, but I don't try to BS people and make them think I know it when I don't. He must have liked the answer, because I ended up getting the job. :P –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '10 at 18:33
    
@Jeff: In addition to this, follow up with a question! If you just say "I don't know" and stop, I'm not as impressed. If you say "I don't know, is that similar to x, y, z?" or "I don't know, can you explain more?" At least I have a clue that you'd try to find out! As an interviewee, a follow up gives you more info so that maybe you CAN give an answer. –  Jay Oct 6 '10 at 18:54
    
+1 for including the phrase "I don't know". I am voting for this one instead of @ChaosPandion's answer because you immediately follow it up with some context and a plan for what's next. If I am interviewing someone and they are incapable of admitting that they have any weak spots anywhere then I am immediately less well-disposed towards them. A little humility goes a long way. That and a plan to overcome it. Just shrugging and saying "I dunno" and then nothing? Significant fail. –  Todd Williamson Oct 6 '10 at 18:55
    
@Jay: Yes, follow-up earns bonus points. But no follow up with the admission is still leaps and bounds better than trying to fake it. –  Jeff Siver Oct 6 '10 at 22:00

I will always say "I don't know." with confidence.

Here is an alternative that may play more into your favor. Like my previous idea say it with complete confidence.

I am not familiar with that yet.

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Highlighting yet. Always looks good if you act like you can learn it –  TheLQ Oct 6 '10 at 17:57
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Act like you can learn it? If you're a programmer who can't learn, you're in the wrong industry. :) –  greyfade Oct 6 '10 at 18:55
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"I am not familiar with that yet" sounds weak to me, and like the person is trying to weasel their way out of something. Just be up front and dont talk like a politician. –  GrandmasterB Oct 6 '10 at 19:23
    
@GrandmasterB - You can believe that but in practice it doesn't work. I've been on both sides of the process and you have to play the game or be played. Wording plays a huge role in how these things go. –  ChaosPandion Oct 6 '10 at 19:29
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You're not the only one here who runs interviews, and if a candidate starts using corporate-weasel-phrases to sugar coat things, its a serious strike against them in my book. That really sounds like a 'prepared' statement - and it is. To me that shows a huge lack of confidence if someone needs to rely on such things, and an inability to give a direct answer. –  GrandmasterB Oct 6 '10 at 19:39

We all have blind spots, so saying "I don't know" once, it's not a problem. Saying it many times probably won't get you a job, but there's nothing you can do.

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Right and quite frankly if there are multiple "I don't know's" then the job may not be properly aligned with you. Perhaps even better off not taking the job. Interviews are good for both the employer and potential employee. –  Chris Oct 6 '10 at 19:16

Can I hop on google for a few seconds? Because when I don't know the answer to something I just go and find the answer....this

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Just my opinion, but I am a hiring manager so that must be worth something. I think this is a terrible answer. In fact I wrote a whole blog post about why it is a terrible answer (improvingsoftware.com/2009/05/15/…) –  JohnFx Oct 6 '10 at 18:22
    
@JohnFx - As your blog post pointed out, though, it is not necessarily a UNIVERSALLY bad answer. Questions in interviews about minutiae like listing from memory all the various enumerations available for a particular method call of a class is one of those "lean on the IDE / Google it" appropriate times. If someone cannot explain what a CLASS is or how to write a JOIN? Agreed - that's a bust. –  Todd Williamson Oct 6 '10 at 18:51
    
@Todd - BTW: I wasn't the downvote. I may not agree, but I don't think it is a bad answer to the question. –  JohnFx Oct 6 '10 at 19:03
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Okay. But if someone asked me that, I might say "yes", give them a keyboard and evaluate how quickly/well they found the answer. So be ready to do that. –  PeterAllenWebb Mar 11 '11 at 15:36

Asking for clarification would be another possible route to take as sometimes questions can be restated to make it easier to answer. That is what I would do if someone were to ask me about something where I don't even understand what is the question.

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"I have never worked with ????. When i a had a problem that ???? solves, i instead used (insert real example that relates to my resume here)"

Having every opportunity to prove that you are not lying about projects you worked on, can be much more powerful than knowing a detail

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if you don't know anything about it, the best thing is to be transparent and admit that. this way you don't waste anyone's time.

but, you better know a little something about everything: and introduction or what's it about or at least the domain to what that question/technology belongs to or what's the reasoning behind the existence of that technology.

show the interviewer you know the world around you.

on the other hand, if you do know a little bit, start from there.

most interviewers will help you, and even provide and explain the answer. this is where it's important to not just play dead. ask questions and try to understand what he/she's saying. make sure you leave that interview with something new.

some people do care about your ability to understand things and about your attitude towards new stuff

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Whatever you say, you should have two things there- honesty and confidence.
That's all I think.

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+1 Honesty and confidence can take you a long way. –  George Marian Oct 7 '10 at 7:57

1) Can you help me out here by giving some hint.
2) I don't know what that is yet, but I think this is what it is.
3) I haven't heard of that yet.
4) Will you please elaborate more?

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When I really don't know the answer: "Honestly I don't know. But I'd be very interested to hear the answer."

It's a great way to bound with the interviewer since he/she is now the one under the spot. It shows that you're honest about your skills and eager to learn. Plus if the interviewer has difficulty answering his/her own question in a concise manner it may demonstrate the question isn't trivial.

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I feel a really important aspect to these questions is elaborating your thought process. I know that a lot of the interview questions I've had were purposefully designed so that it would be unlikely that I know the answer immediately.

I feel that it is very mature to admit that you do not know the answer, but you should follow through with a methodology for going about trying to solve the problem, just to show your analytical skills.

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