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I have been in interview situations where the interviewer had asked pressing questions regarding my achievements: "did you do it or was it the team?". Should I downplay and say it was a team effort at the risk of losing my credibility because I had initially said it was an achievement of mine or continue to stand firm at the risk of sounding like a bad team player.

Edit 1: I had actually owned a major chunk of the project and had known the flow end to end with a deep understanding of how things work as I was part of the project from scratch. So the question is not about lying, rather it's about how to convince the interviewer that I am a good team player and also a good individual contributor. Also, detailed explanations might not be possible in the interview setting when all that the interviewer gets is 45 mins per round which includes problem solving/coding.

The responsibilities of the project were usually bestowed upon the individual under high-pressure scenarios with looming deadlines. But there is a good chance that the interviewer might feel that I am twisting facts because not everyone comes from the same working background.

PS: Thank you for the valuable insight and answers.

  • Why couldn't you answer it in the same way you described here? I was in a team of X, and during that I discovered Y, presented it to the the team and we agreed to use Y to develop Z? – Dan Aug 28 '18 at 14:35
  • The question comes after I tell the interviewer what I've written in edit 1. When the interviewer doesn't tend to believe it, should we down play or should we still stick to what we have initially told. Keeping in mind the time constraints. – pavan kumar chaitanya Aug 28 '18 at 17:11
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Some years ago, an airline explained why they cannot hire female pilots.

It is a lot harder for a woman to become a pilot, because of all kinds of intentional or unintentional gender-based discrimination. Therefore, a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to become a pilot. People working harder are less good team players. Therefore, women becoming pilots are less good team players. But only good team players can be hired, therefore women cannot be hired as pilots. (That was about the same time when some airline announced that they were hiring both females and males as steward(esse)s. Dress code: Skirt and blouse, no exceptions.

If the interviewer doesn't like you, they either reject you because you have no individual achievements and were only a team player, or they will reject you because you had individual achievements, and therefore were not a good team player. You can't win if the interviewer doesn't want you. And they may not want you because you were too well-dressed for the interview, or not well-dressed enough. You can't win if the interviewer doesn't want you. They may not want you because you are not the bosses nephew. In that case, you can't win. Actually, you can win by finding a job elsewhere.

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What the interviewer wants to know

The interviewer wants to know two things: that you have experience with teams/you are a team player and that you can do things on your own.

How to answer - Teamwork

Don't lie : if you did it together with a team, say something like this :

I was within a team, I was in charge of X, Y and Z in this project/achievement. The tasks I made was mandatory/helpful because [...]

That way, you are a team player, you can do stuff on your own and, bonus, you know why you do it.

How to answer - Not teamwork

Just say you did it by yourself, but you did something else by teamwork (if true, and explain what you did).

That way, you can also do stuff on your own and you are a teamplayer.

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I feel like perhaps this question is the opposite of what some of the other answers think it was. When I've heard interviewers talk about this sort of question, it's usually in the following context:

Interviewer: Tell me about a project you worked on.
Interviewee: Well, I worked on X project with a team of Y size to accomplish Z task.
Interviewer: What did you contribute to this project?
Interviewee: Well, the project accomplished Z task in Q way using T technology.
Interviewer: Did you do that, or was it the team?

To the interviewer, this sounds like you're dodging the question and trying to obfuscate something. Usually, this means that you didn't actually produce much on this project, and that is what the interviewer wants to know: Are you the type who just coasts along and doesn't do anything, or do you produce? They want you to specifically say what you specifically did in very specific terms on this project to show that you didn't just coast along while everyone else did the work. In this case, it is ok, and even preferred, to say "I did that part specifically", because that's what the interviewer is looking for, that you actually contributed.

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This is a great example of an interview question that appears to be a request for a very short answer (yes/no, me/team), but where any short answer has the possibility to be wrong. No matter what you say, if it's just a word or two, someone could read it as meaning you're arrogant, not a team player, claiming results that weren't yours, or other bad things.

Solution: avoid one word answers. If you are asked "Did you do that, or was it the team?" about the entire project, explain:

I was on a team of X people who did the whole A, B, and C as a Y month project. I concentrated primarily on the D part, and relied on the team for help with E and F. We all did G and H. I am particularly good at I and J and led those efforts. Overall, it was very much a team effort and I was an important part of that team.

If the question is more specific, for example you've just finished explaining the encryption part of of the project, and you get that question, tell the truth.

I did the encryption part, yes.

or

One of my team-mates was the lead on the encryption part. I understand what was done, I helped with the testing, and I could do it myself on another project.

No matter what you are asked, try to answer in a whole sentence, or two if needed. Don't just say "it was me" or "yeah it was a team thing."

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I wanted to add some of my own insight for this.

Should I downplay and say it was a team effort at the risk of losing my credibility because I had initially said it was an achievement of mine or continue to stand firm at the risk of sounding like a bad team player.

I am most certain there is a way to convey your contribution, be it large or small, without downplaying the team effort. However, don't feel like you necessarily need to dive into the team effort aspect of it. Rather you can simply say "The team did a lot of great work but to focus on my contribution specifically ..." to preface you want to talk about your contributions and not necessarily dismiss the team's work.

Edit 1: I had actually owned a major chunk of the project and had known the flow end to end with a deep understanding of how things work as I was part of the project from scratch. So the question is not about lying, rather it's about how to convince the interviewer that I am a good team player and also a good individual contributor. Also, detailed explanations might not be possible in the interview setting when all that the interviewer gets is 45 mins per round which includes problem solving/coding.

It sounds like you were pretty senior in the project. Don't forget a part of contribution is helping the team and getting them up to speed and that's something that might be worth mentioning. Truthfully, your interviewer isn't out to get you and they will clarify things. You are right though that there isn't a lot of time to speak to everything so I would really focus on your core contributions. In fact what you said is pretty good as is where you mention you've been with the project very long and you owned a large chunk of the project.

Most interviewers would simply transition in diving deeper about what the project was and what your contributions were.

The responsibilities of the project were usually bestowed upon the individual under high-pressure scenarios with looming deadlines. But there is a good chance that the interviewer might feel that I am twisting facts because not everyone comes from the same working background.

Try not to assume that -- at least as an interviewer, I would rarely assume when I can just ask. You can also convey that a little better. Rather than saying "bestowed upon the individual under high-pressure scenarios with looming deadlines" you can easily say "entrusted to individuals who could be counted on to get things done on time." Given you've been with the project the longest, that naturally ended up being you in many cases. Bonus points if you can show how you helped others on the team get up to speed and help them succeed (that's how you show you're a team player).

  • Thank you for the insight Kevin, when we say "entrusted to individuals who could be counted on to get things done on time." I felt it would be implying others on the team weren't able to get work done on time. Takes me to @gnasher729's answer. :) – pavan kumar chaitanya Aug 30 '18 at 4:23
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"No man is an island" -John Donne

"You didn't build that" -Barack Obama

While Obama's speech was clumsily worded, there is a valid point there: great accomplishments aren't done in isolation. You can talk about your accomplishment, and what problem it solved. You can also talk about how the problem arose in the first place (your contribution wouldn't have had any value if there wasn't something for it to be applied to), what resources you got from the team, and how your team implemented your solution. That this part of the team effort was your accomplishment, and that it fits into a larger picture, are not mutually exclusive. You should show the interviewer both that you are capable of making valuable contributions, and that you understand the larger whole that they fit into.

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