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A recent interview I went to appeared to be going very well. The CTO was prepared to offer me the job there, and we negotiated a salary that I was happy with, but then he had to go out and consult with the rest of the panel.

He came back and said that one of the panel had dissented, and so he called in an additional two people, a guy from HR and a solution architect.

Up till this point the interview had been quite amicable.

But these two guys asked quite, I feel, confrontational, questions, including 'What's your worst workplace mistake?'.

I ended up telling them a story about how I accidently wrote over production data when I first started my current role (I should never have had write access to that table), and what I'd do better would be more vocal about it when it happened.

What are interviewers seeking to get out of this question (and why would they be asking it in the first place), and what's the best way to answer it?

I feel that the question was a bit confrontational - while I think it's an interesting question, that you could perhaps, chat about over a beer with your friends, in this context it was unfriendly - so I'm thinking that it was perhaps a reflection of the workplace culture. (On the otherhand, perhaps I'm being a precious princess).

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    The question you cite is a very common interview question. If you Google "top 50 interview questions" you'll get a lot of lists, and this one is almost always on it. – jcmeloni Apr 17 '14 at 0:14
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    Very closely related, although I feel the asker and answers focussed a bit too much on the word "life" (which was in that question). – Dukeling Apr 17 '14 at 0:35
  • You got asked those questions becasue one of the panel membershad doubts about how well you could handle the job. I suspect they may have been seeking to know how you would respond in a stressful situation. The CTO never should have discussed salary until he had the agreement of the entire panel. – HLGEM Apr 17 '14 at 16:13
  • wow, the insanity in the interview process in the world of tech does not end does it. I thought I had it bad with getting shotgunned every single process under the Sun and still waiting on a decision after passing all the processes. As legitimate as the question they asked you may have been, the offer is already made, are we in America or some other land? Or is this a case of yet another tech company not really knowing how to handle an interview process? In a situation like that, they should have just went with the consensus and not worried about that dissenter. That is how our courts work. – Daniel Dec 26 '18 at 21:33
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I use this question (or a similar) question a lot. I'm looking for the following

  1. Do you have good self assessment and self awareness? Everyone makes mistakes, what matters is how you deal with them
  2. Are you comfortable with talking about difficult issues?
  3. How did you communicate your mistake to your management?
  4. What did you do to fix the problem ?
  5. What did you learn, how did you made sure this doesn't happen again?

Bad answer: "I really don't make a lot of mistakes, if I do I'll try to fix it before anyone notices, the fewer people know about it, the better"

Good answer: "I did a last minute change to some code and as a result we have a significant bug in the field. I immediately communicated to management what happened, what's the likely impact would be, a list of options and the associated trade offs on what we could and a recommendation. We chose option XYZ and the results was ABC. In order to avoid this from ever happening again, we instantiated a code review process and change approval process where the bar for changes get higher and higher as the ship date approaches"

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A hiring team can learn a lot about a candidate in how they answer this question.

The most important thing is your ability to reflect on a situation and learn from it. Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone is smart enough to be able to identify what mistake they made and what they could have done different or how they could have handled the situation better to either avoid the mistake in the first place or mitigate the effects of the mistake.

This also shows how you communicate about an uncomfortable situation. While we might know that everyone makes mistakes, it still isn't comfortable to discuss it. For example, how do you react when asked this question? When discussing the mistake, do you place the blame for the mistake on someone else? Do you minimize the impact of the mistake? How do you explain how you learned about the mistake? How do you explain how the mistake got resolved?

The answer that you outline here is a pretty good one. You specify the mistake that you made, and what you would do differently in that situation. You could improve on your answer by identifying ways that you could have avoided the situation in the first place, or identifying something that you did after the mistake to ensure that you (and others like you) didn't have write access to production data.

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This may be a legitimate question to see how you handled being in a tough spot. The recruiter may be trying to see if you appropriately corrected what you have done wrong or reduced its impact. While I reckon that it's not an easy question to answer if you did not know to prepare for it in advance, I'm not sure from this question alone that its intended goal was to be confrontational.

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