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I'm a Software Engineer with 10 years of experience, the last 4 years I've held 4 positions in 4 different companies.

The reasons are multiple:

  • I left a great company for family reasons. (I needed to relocate)
  • The next company I joined was insane (the colleagues were great, but management was clueless), I left after 1.5 year.
  • I then joined a company where the job was not challenging me in anyway, colleagues were not team players and the company was financially sinking.
  • A year later, I was offered a CTO position in a different company with an okay pay. Now, a year and half later, I was never given the CTO title (even though, I have de facto the job) and my CEO has some serious mental issues.

I am now actively looking for a job. But I was recently asked in an interview to justify all my "short" job experiences. The CTO, who interviewed me, told me "I feel that you're shopping around". At first, I found the question impolite. Also I find it to be a double standard, since it was a start-up, and most start-up I know have a 1 year employee turnover.

I lied, saying that I was changing the company for family reason. But I'm wondering how one answer that question? Explaining the double standard sounds pedantic to me. Also, if I try to explain the reasons, I'm afraid of sounding like the "I hate bosses" type of people.

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    Why not just say "They promised me that I would be CTO. It's become clear that they are not going to honour that agreement, hence why I'm looking to move". I don't think that answer would reflect badly on you.
    – Kaz
    Feb 2 '20 at 0:10
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    Minor point worth noting: you probably shouldn't be applying to startups if you're already looking at 4 jobs in 4 years. Most startups fail, and as tough as 4-in-4 is to explain, 5-in-5 would be even tougher.
    – Kevin
    Feb 2 '20 at 6:33
  • Did you have a 6 year job before the last 4? If not, how many jobs in these 10 years? How long was your longest stint?
    – Mars
    Feb 3 '20 at 7:15
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At first, I found the question impolite.

It's not. It's a perfectly normal and reasonable question to ask and it's one you need to be prepared for. Lying is a terrible idea.

Also I find it to be a double standard, since it was a start-up, and most start-up I know have a 1 year employee turnover.

While turnover is usually higher at start-ups, this really isn't normal or typical in my experience1, meaning a short stay at a start-up is still something you have to explain.

But I'm wondering how one answer that question?

It's actually not that difficult, you just need to prepare an answer up front. The goal for your answer should be:

  • make it clear that job hopping wasn't your intent
  • be factual about the reasons you left a company
  • don't disparage former employers (as you've correctly identified as risk here)

A short-form answer to the question is ideal: don't go into details for each job initially but summarise it somewhat like:

I've had unfortunately short stays at my last few employers due to a relocation for family reasons, unhealthy expectations and WLB, financial instability, and a dispute around my inclusion in the C-suite.

If they ask further, then you can provide additional detail on specific jobs. Under no circumstances should you ever mention management as being clueless or a CEO being insane. Ideally you can tie issue with management to specific problems in your day-to-day such as working unreasonable hours, not being able to manage your people effectively, etc. Tie it all back to values in an employer that you are now actively looking for. If the third company went under, mention that instead.

What interviewers will be wondering is whether you just got unlucky or whether the problem is with you. If it's the former, they're looking for you to acknowledge the job hopping history and making it clear that you're looking for a long-term commitment. You don't just do that through words but also by being seen to ask a lot of questions on your end to demonstrate that you're putting a lot of thinking into this job search and are looking for a great match. That will not only come across as more confident and professional, it's also something you have to do for yourself. You should strive to be in your next job for at least two years, ideally more, to correct the pattern you currently have on your resume.


1 User Corsika pointed out this did seem typical to them: the point is still that for most people unfamiliar with start-up culture it won't be typical and pointing it out is likely to be seen as hiding the "real" reason you left. Much safer to point to the specific reasons you left the start-up: WLB, no vision, poor management strategy. Those are things you can turn into "why I want this [more stable] job".


Side note after looking at the time frame you give: if that third job you mentioned was really only a few months long, you should take it off your resume. It's not doing anything for you. More on resumes in this question

I'd also recommend reading my answer here.

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  • In my experience, 1 year at a start up is pretty typical, actually...
    – corsiKa
    Feb 2 '20 at 5:39
  • @corsiKa Possible, the biggest problem is that for people not familiar with start-up culture it won't be typical and pointing it out is likely to be seen as hiding the "real" reason you left. Much safer to point to the specific reasons you left the start-up: WLB, no vision, poor management strategy. Those are things you can turn into "why I want this [more stable] job".
    – Lilienthal
    Feb 2 '20 at 11:43
  • 1 year at a startup sounds normal if the startup goes under or doesn't quite get off the ground, and given the number of startups that fail quickly, I think that would highly skew the numbers. Not typical in my experience either
    – Mars
    Feb 3 '20 at 7:12
  • Also, an engineer leaving a startup after a year is often a trigger for the collapse. If you're interviewing with a startup, you generally want to emphasize patience, flexibility and the desire to see something grow
    – Mars
    Feb 3 '20 at 7:23
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    I think your edit to include Those are things you can turn into "why I want this [more stable] job". is incredibly important. As a hiring manager, for me, it boils down to one thing: can the job hopper tie their past experiences to positives about this job? Can they show that they've learned, and are making a "better" choice this time around? Can they articulate why this job will be a good fit for them? Job hoppers often come across as desperate to get any job. The key is: choose a job that's the right job and then be able to explain why.
    – dwizum
    Feb 3 '20 at 13:43
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You can't justify it as not shopping around because you are. You're shopping around for a job that suits your family needs, has decent management, isn't financially sinking etc.. What you aren't doing is shopping around to get the highest pay which I assume is what the CTO thought.

I agree that it was a bit out of place for an interviewer to accuse a candidate of "shopping around".

I think you explained quite well in your bullet points, and don't think you need to lie about it. You can just say something like: I had to change position due to relocating family and unfortunately my last few positions weren't the best cultural fit for me. Now I am looking for a long term position and I feel your company can offer me that.

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  • This post being applied for is a start-up so who knows if it will survive...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 1 '20 at 21:04
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The problem you have is that while a short stint at one company is understandable, three short ones in four years will make most managers suspect one of the following:

  • you use job-hopping to get higher salaries,
  • something about you doesn't fit into the team wherever you go,
  • you don't know what you really want and change jobs trying to find the magic fit (unsuccessfully),
  • you're poor at doing due diligence on companies you're moving to

and that you won't last with them either. Most companies have problems and trying to find one that recreates the great time you had at the first is a dangerous thing to do. If you figured that with this move you had a 1/3 chance of finding an employer as good as #1 and 2/3 of getting one as bad as #2/#3 (based on past form) would you stick it out with #4 for the time being, at least until you'd got a few years under you belt?

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You are interviewing for an executive position (that's what the "C" in CTO means). Executives are expected to think clearly about interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Why? Executives generally succeed when the people in their companies succeed, not by their own skills as individual contributors. It's kind of a Zen thing: "the only way an executive can do enough is by doing nothing." Your biggest challenge is to get other people to do great work.

So, you should be prepared to explain what was going on in these companies, and explain how you will work to prevent that kind of thing from happening on your watch in your new company.

Also be prepared to explain the financial problem at that company, and say what you learned from it.

You have learned a lot from these troubled companies. Your experience is valuable, both for your personal career, and for your future employers. That's the way to pitch yourself. Try to make it a strength (as well as the obvious weakness).

(If you have more of this interpersonal stuff to learn from your present company, dysfunctional as it is, you may want to stay in place for a while.)

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