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What should I tell an interviewer about my weaknesses when applying for a data science / machine learning engineer role?

According to the general recommendations, one should tell real weaknesses, but they are not related to that type of role and do not affect my work. For instance, some recommendations are to say that you are a little bit shy but this could affect how you communicate the results and do not ask the questions you should ask.

Are there any recommendations?

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  • Does this answer your question? How are tough introspective or behavioural type interview questions assessed?
    – gnat
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 20:57
  • What does "a little bit shy" have anything to do with "data science / machine learning engineer role" ? I understand this is just an example. However, your example is too general. But, if your weakness is math, my advice is to go back to college to learn math before you work on data science/ML !
    – Nobody
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 4:57
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    The point of the question is to allow you to demonstrate self-awareness on the things you want to work on about yourself. To show that you are self-motivated to develop yourself. What are things you wish you were better at or want to learn? What are you doing to address those things?
    – Seth R
    Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 14:59

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If asked for a weakness, give one that is either peripheral to the job and as irrelevant as possible, or one that you can demonstrate progress on.

This is true for any position.

I prefer to use something like "I am a little weak on my (peripheral skill), but I have been addressing that weakness by studying/reading/watching videos/taking classes, and I am improving.

Then, say it is healthy to be aware of your own weaknesses, and address them as soon as you are aware, as you are constantly seeking to improve yourself.

Never stay on the negative for long, and learn to pivot the discussion toward your strengths.

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    Yeah, I just say I have a weakness for chocolate.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 14:11
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    @Kilisi I used "Kryptonite" in an interview one time. Got the job too. He liked my sense of humor. Very dangerous to try, but I read the interviewer correctly Commented Sep 13, 2022 at 15:06
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    @Old_Lamplighter after doing some research on this topic, today, it is not recommended to use such an answer. Because it's not funny anymore in 2022 since the recruiter heart it too much often and it is not a surprise anymore. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 11:52
  • @Kilisi need to be long ago you used this answer ... if you really did it ;-) and the recruiter let you go without asking further. maybe, a low-level job or recruiter. maybe some luck. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 11:52
  • @user3352632 Not sure what research you conducted. My answer shows humour and confidence to the interviewer. It's not my headmaster at school, I have no reason to be intimidated.
    – Kilisi
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:01
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According to the general recommendations, one should tell real weaknesses, but they are not related to that type of role and do not affect my work. For instance, some recommendations are to say that you are a little bit shy but this could affect how you communicate the results and do not ask the questions you should ask.

Unfortunately this is one of those "it depends" questions that's hard to answer without knowing the interviewer and the workplace.

Sometimes (quite often?) the interviewer doesn't have much experience or training in interviewing, and has no idea why they're asking this kind of question beyond "we're supposed to ask questions and this is the kind of question other people ask in interviews". If they don't really know why they're asking, some kind of non-answer might be fine.

But a more experienced interviewer will usually have some purpose behind their questions. If I were asking this kind of question, it'd be in order to gauge whether the candidate is able to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, and whether they have enough confidence to be open about them. (It's very hard working with people who are more concerned with saving face than with asking for help when they need it.) Having seen their CV and written application, I might already have ideas about their possible weak spots, but it's important to me to know whether they understand what matters to the job.

If I got a non-answer, I would probably be redirecting the focus: "okay, what do you see as the biggest weakness relevant to this job?" (Or better yet, making that the question in the first place.) If you were to answer "shyness", I might well think that you didn't really understand what the job is about.

FWIW, last time I applied for a job, I got a similar question: "what would your greatest development needs be in order to be successful in this job?" I was aware of two things that were likely to be major strikes against me: I didn't have experience in that particular field (so I'd need to acquire a lot of domain knowledge) and I was applying for a promotion without having had acting experience working at that level before (main reason for missing out on a similar job a few months earlier).

I talked about those, and even with those acknowledged weaknesses I got the job ahead of at least two other qualified candidates, so I guess honesty was a good approach for those interviewers!

Often you won't know whether you're interviewing with the kind of people who appreciate openness or the ones who want you to bluff. But you can at least ask yourself which kind of people you'd rather get a job with!

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  • "we're supposed to ask questions and this is the kind of question other people ask in interviews" No, more like "I don't know what to ask so I'm just reading from this list here."
    – RedSonja
    Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 13:11
  • @RedSonja Not sure I see much distinction there - either way, people asking a stock question for the sake of asking a question, without really knowing the point of the question.
    – G_B
    Commented Sep 20, 2022 at 0:19
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I like old_lamplighter's answer quite a bit, but I'll throw a bit of a counter in here.

I would caution you against trying to cite a weakness that is not related to the role. At best, it seems overly glib and off topic. At worst, it could like you don't understand the role.

Better - as old_lamplighter says - is a weakness that does relate to the role, but which is minor and/or can be mitigated by skill development. Some good examples can be:

  • "I see that the role involves doing XYZ tasks, I've never done X task before, but I learned it in school. I'd plan to approach this by asking for help and peer reviews of my first few assignments to make sure I've got a good grasp of it." - great answer because it shows self-awareness but also has a very reasonable plan of action for buffering the risk the weakness prevents until a new skill is built.
  • "I'm typically not great at giving presentations. When possible, I try to let my work shine by writing great papers, and selling my ideas in informal settings. I can do it in a pinch, and get my point across, but it's not my strength nor is it my passion". - great answer if the job is not heavy on presentations. In many jobs, a workaround is a fine answer, not everyone has to be great at everything, especially if this is a very small part of the work.
  • "I typically underestimate how long it takes to do things. I'm aware of this problem and have started to note how long the work actually takes and adjust my plans accordingly, but I'd be lying if I said I thought I was perfect." - most people are pretty bad at estimating their work, so it's actually a win to find someone who knows and is trying to improve. Again, this is a skill that can be built if one is conscious of it.

Stuff I'd avoid:

  • likes/dislikes - it's a job, there's going to be stuff you don't like. That's OK, but it's also not much anyone can do about it.
  • stuff that is absolutely inhibiting of being able to do the job - for example, if you are a tree trimmer, you better not be afraid of heights, or suffering from an inability to climb trees.
  • stuff that's not genuine - very few folks are really great at lying.
  • stuff that's a poor fit with the job level - for example, if there's a really basic skill you don't have, but you're applying for a very senior position, that's a real risk. Similarly, a more senior role may expect mentoring/coaching skills, while a more entry level one will not - so lack of experience/comfort with these skills isn't much of a weakness if you are applying for that entry level.

IMO - a great answer to this is something that did seriously account for the requirements of the job as you understand them, but also is learnable/correctable or not total deal breaker.

(I'll also say - I think this is a dumb question, and when I interview, I don't ask it. I think it's cheesy to expect a candidate to pick at their worst aspects. I'd much rather ask "what would be new to you in this role?" or "what are your super powers?" and then hone on development opportunities from there. A weak point is so subjective, and I'm likely to have a different perspective on it than they do anyway.... so what is the point of asking?)

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For instance, some recommendations are to say that you are a little bit shy...

Is that the vibe you're giving off? Is that why your friends suggested that?

If you say you're not good at giving presentations for instance, that's fine, but be prepared to talk about how you're working on improving that.

For instance, if you can find a Toastmasters public speaking club near you, you could sign up for one. Personally, I love Toastmasters. However, I don't recommend that you sign up with the first one you find. Tour a few before you make up your mind. They're all a little bit different. Some are even online these days.

Do you have any other weaknesses to choose from?

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Use something that is a strength in another context but is a weakness in the context of the role, and be sure to describe mitigations.

I don't usually ask this question but when I do I want to know 2 things:

  1. Can the candidate give an honest and self-aware assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses?
  2. Since the candidate is (presumably) human and humans have weaknesses that require accommodation/remediation does the candidate have reasonable coping strategies?

To give my own answer when someone asks me, well:

I've been a very senior engineer in most of the orgs I've been in. Since I have a fair amount of skill and experience and work quickly (and since like most engineers I'm fairly introverted) it is tempting to bang out a solution to a problem on my own, but as a leader I understand the importance of using those problems as an opportunity to mentor the junior engineers on the team. So even though I struggle with delegation sometimes I try to make it a priority by soliciting regular feedback about how well I'm delegating/mentoring/pairing vs going dark to crush JIRA tickets.

I like this answer for the following reasons:

  1. It's honest. I really do struggle with this, and I really do try to make working on it a priority and get regular adjustment feedback.
  2. It's something that is a strength in one context (expertise and work ethic in performing tasks) and a liability in another (being a force-multiplier). This demonstrates awareness that there's nuance to what constitutes a weakness.
  3. I'm not bringing up anything that's purely negative.
  4. It demonstrates a willingness to not just accept but actively seek out feedback and criticism about it.
  5. The people interviewing me can probably relate since they are likely to be managers and leaders themselves.
  6. It's relevant to the work I'll be doing. It's unlikely at my level that somebody is going to pony up for me to sit in a box and code by myself all day. Once you're at or above senior engineer they (reasonably) expect you to be able to do more than just complete assigned tasks.
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  • I'll note that some interviewers don't like the "weakness that is actually a strength" type of answer to this question.
    – nick012000
    Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 8:52
  • @nick012000 I hear you, but WTF is a candidate supposed to say? "My weakness is that I'm a total anime weeb. If you need me I'll be in the corner by myself next to my wall scroll crying into my neckbeard." If I say that they'll say it isn't job-related. One of the reasons I don't like this question is that it's usually a game of guess what answer I already have in mind. Even if the interviewer doesn't mean it that way, the candidate is probably going to take it that way. Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 12:21

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