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I'm trying to get some insight into, how may I put this... deprogramming myself with respect to using "I" instead of "We" when doing a behavioral interview. I believe this was partially to blame for my last interview not ending in an offer. I'm planning on applying to other companies and I can reapply at this company in a year, so I'm trying to make sure I don't screw up again.

I guess to begin with, my background is...

  1. 4 years of college getting my B.S. in Comp Sci. All classes except one were "do your own work or else" classes.

  2. First real job was probably the closest thing to a "We" situation since I had to work with a project manager and, to a lesser degree a design architect and QA tester.

  3. Current job I've been at for roughly 13 years and it is very... "lone wolf" I would say. Especially the last 10 or so years. If you ignore infrastructure stuff (keeping servers running for instance) and the (very) rare occasion that my boss finds time to be involved, the only other people involved are the customers. So... coding, design, database, project management, testing, UI design, helpdesk...really pretty much everything on the IT side is all me. And this isn't a small project. It is something that really should have more resources than it currently has. Hence the reason I'm looking for a new position.

Obviously this sounds pretty selfish. I'm not denying that. I just don't know how to properly "spin" it. The advice I've been given so far is that I still should use the word "We" even if it really is an "I" situation. Where the conundrum for me is that I'm also supposed to be honest. And I feel slightly dishonest by saying "We".

I guess technically there are customers, and there is the infrastructure stuff, and the rare occasion my boss has time to be involved. In that respect, I suppose I'm not being completely misleading by saying "We". But I feel like I'm going to be stuck if the interviewer asks something like "Can you tell me a time that you and the PM had a disagreement?" Really, the PM is me. And pretty much any technical position involved in the process is me.

I guess I'd be ok if the interviewer is asking a vague question about the other people involved. Then maybe I can come up with an answer that involves my customers. But if it's specifically a question about the people on the tech side that I worked with, I'm not sure how to answer that without just saying "it's all me".

Is there a good way to handle this?

Edit:

The context is mostly in regard to being asked of a time I had to admit I was wrong and how I handled it. I was intending to keep with a work example to answer the question. I really wasn't prepared going into the interview because I didn't even think about this question. I had some examples written in STAR format, but they didn't work for this. I guess I thought I really didn't have much to draw from being in the lone wolf situation.

After the interview I thought about possible answers. I kept coming up with trivial stuff like "I assumed they wanted the button text to say X, but they wanted Y". I don't think that's really the nature of the question. I did eventually come up with a non-trivial example which I'll probably write down so I don't forget it.

It's not that I don't make mistakes, because I do. And I admitted as much to the interviewer. My problem is that I pretty much just send an email to the affected people and say I'll fix it, and then I do. It's not something that registers that much with me. I guess because I can't dwell on those things and be successful at my job. I think that made it hard to think of something on the spot.

Maybe that kind of pivots away from "We" vs "I". But I think the lone wolf type situation I'm in makes "admitting mistakes" less common. Unless you're admitting to yourself that you made a mistake. And I'm not sure that's in the nature of the question either.

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    I am surprised by that advice. As a hiring manager, I am mostly interested in what you did. I'm not hiring the people you work with. When I hear "we", my question will be "ok, what did you do?". When I hear "I", my response will be "ok, give me all the details". So use "we" when it was a group action, "I" when you personally did it Feb 11, 2021 at 4:17
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    Yeah, I'm not really convinced you failed the behavioral interview question with this "I" vs. "we" stuff. It could have been something else. It could just have been another better-qualified candidate. How many companies are you applying to each week? How many interviews are you doing this upcoming week? Interviewing is partly a numbers game. You need to fill up your funnel with many companies. That's how you'll beat randomness and random luck. And the more you interview, the better you'll get and the more comfortable you'll feel on average over time. Feb 11, 2021 at 4:58
  • Even if there is no PM there must have been some person to tell you what the customer needs. So maybe in your case your boss is functioning as PM.
    – Helena
    Feb 11, 2021 at 6:35
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    @Helena. The customer for the most part is telling me what I need. I'm also reverse-engineering an existing project to some degree. My boss really doesn't give much input. I might have a short discussion with him over email once a month on average, and not always about this project.
    – Dan
    Feb 11, 2021 at 13:41
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    @StephanBranczyk It was hard to tell what I got wrong. The recruiter wasn't allowed to tell me. I had to guess and he'd hint whether I was right. The I vs We came up when asked about a time I had to admit I was wrong. I had pre-written a few situations in STAR format, but they didn't help. I said I was drawing a blank because of this lone wolf situation. A week after the interview, I did remember a decent example. For me, usually when I make a bad choice, I just let my customers know, fix it, and move on. It's more of a blip on my radar, so it's not something I remember specifically.
    – Dan
    Feb 11, 2021 at 14:00

5 Answers 5

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But I feel like I'm going to be stuck if the interviewer asks something like "Can you tell me a time that you and the PM had a disagreement?" Really, the PM is me.

I mean, you're the solo dev at a small company, it sounds like, so you should just say that. "I've not worked with a PM before so I am unable to answer that". That may be a turn off to some companies but it's also honest. The fact that you don't have a lot of experience on large teams is going to come out sooner or later so it might as well be sooner!

I'm not sure how to answer that without just saying "it's all me".

From the way you've described your most recent job of thirteen years, it sounds like it is all you, so just own it. Your past is your past and trying to misrepresent it is likely going to do you more harm than good, in the long run, as it'll make you seem inauthentic or dishonest or whatever.

Although collaborative experience may not be one of your strong suits hopefully you have other strong suits that more than makeup for possibly underdeveloped collaboration skills.

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The I vs We came up when asked about a time I had to admit I was wrong.

Now we're getting somewhere. I'd suggest you edit your original question because everyone else seems to be answering the wrong question right now.

I had pre-written a few situations in STAR format, but they didn't help. I said I was drawing a blank because of this lone wolf situation. A week after the interview, I did remember a decent example.

Now, you have one more prepared answer you can add to your repertoire, and the next time you're asked this question, or a similar question, you'll know what to say.

This doesn't mean that you will be completely prepared for the next behavioral interview, but at least, you will be slightly more prepared and your odds will be slightly better, and that's all you can ask for.

What happened is perfectly fine. You did perfectly fine. No one bats a thousand every time they go out there. Just keep on doing what you're doing. Keep on going out there. And keep on preparing answers to the questions that you couldn't answer well on your first try.

The more you do those kinds of interviews, the better you'll be at them.

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The “I” versus “we” comes out of research done by James Pennebaker. There is a book called “The secret life of pronouns” that goes into details of the research.

Basically when you move to a leadership role your language changes when talking to others. “I” and “we” is used as an example but it is never by itself. I doubt the effort to fake it would be worth it.

In an interview you should talk about your accomplishments. If in a leader role then talk about how you directed that team.

You can take an “I” test here: http://secretlifeofpronouns.com/exercise/itest/

But an important comment from Pennebaker

Does changing your I-word use make you more dominant, less depressed, richer, and more Obama-like?

Sadly, no.

The ways people use pronouns reflects their psychological state more than changing it. Once you snap out of your depression, your I-word use will drop.

But changing your I-words probably won't affect your depression.

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Maybe it's time for you to seek out a new position where you are a member of a much-larger, professionally managed, actual(!) team.

Over the (koff, koff ...) years that I have been doing this, I "graduated" from the lone-wolf situation and have since learned to test future prospects to see if "lone wolves" are there. By now, I know that I can't work with "lone wolves," and that I have no interest either in being one (again ...), nor of working with them. Instead, over time I actually became a "project manager." It really is a much better way of working.

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  • Really, this is one of the reasons I am looking for a new position. Maybe not quite for the same reasons you're thinking of. For me, I feel bad even taking time off because I'm the only support they have for the software.
    – Dan
    Feb 12, 2021 at 19:36
  • It sounds like OP is already doing this, so this isn't actually an answer to the question. Furthermore, it sounds like you ought to perhaps consider being more introspective; OP has been working as a "lone wolf" for a long time but actively wants to get out of that situation into a managed team, and it sounds like you personally are actively contributing to OP's problem by actively screening out people like him.
    – Ertai87
    Feb 12, 2021 at 21:36
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If it really is all you, then simply say it's all you. Explain in the interview that for the past 10 years you've been working solo, so for the bulk of your career you've been the PM, the DevOps, the architect, the senior, intermediate, and junior dev, the project maintainer, the ticket writer, the scrum master, etc; it's all been a one-man job for 10 years, so any behavioural questions they have concerning "a time when..." will be difficult for you to answer and you'll have to pass on them. If you do this, however, you may want to emphasize more than usual that that sort of situation has become uncomfortable for you, and you really are a team player, and you want to work with a team and so on; having worked in such an environment for so long may lead someone to believe it's your preferred environment and you should emphasize that's not the case.

As for "I" vs. "we", there may be no "I" in "team" but there's no "we" in "solo developer". So if it is all you, then own that it's all you. There's nothing wrong with saying "I" did X, when in fact it was you who actually did it.

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