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So I recently had a problem with an employer that I never expected to have... They accused me of lying about my experience.

The first issue was the "How long have you been programming?" question. I answered honestly; I've been programming since I got my first computer at 10, starting with MySpace layouts (yeah, yeah) then moving my way up. I totally understand that it would seem like I'm lying, but I'm not. I have code that I wrote that I could furnish as proof, although I'd really rather not (it reads like a how-to on 90's text talk...) Pretty much everyone who has ever met me knows my passion for programming, but an interviewer isn't trying to get to know me, only assess me. Should I lie about this/just not mention it? Or should I show them my awful kiddie code? It's a HUGE part of who I am, so I feel like I shouldn't have to hide it??

Then came the real kicker: one of my jobs required a security clearance, so I couldn't really discuss my project work in-depth, and it happened to be my most recent--and only--post-undergrad job. I was still able to answer all of the typical interview questions, I just couldn't give specifics or show code snippets (ha!) from the projects I worked on at that company. The interviewer thought I was making it all up, and couldn't believe that I would want a 'normal' job after something like that. How do I handle a job that I can't really discuss? (I'm trying really, really hard not to use the "If I told you, I'd have to kill you" line, I promise.)

I ended up not working for them (who wants a company that distrustful?) but it got me wondering--should I lie about my experience? I'm proud of what I've done, but I don't want to seem like a liar or an overachiever. Is there a better way of handling this situation than lying about my experiences?

(Additional info: I'm a 2014 graduate, I had recent code samples prepared, and I was applying for an entry level developer position, if that helps.)

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10 Answers 10

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This is going to be an unusual situation. Most employers will take "My work at my last job was confidential so I can't discuss many aspects of it" at face value so long as they have confirmed with HR that you did in fact work there. If an interviewer won't accept what you are telling them as truth, state it as clearly and sincerely as possible. If they still won't accept it as truth then you are unlikely to get that job anyway.

As a side note probably don't include the code you wrote as a kid in your programming experience. In a professional environment they are likely looking for your years of professional coding experience. An answer of "I first picked up coding 15 years ago and loved it. I have been doing it professionally now for 2 years." likely covers your desire to show your love for it and still answers their intended question.

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    Yes, the distinction between personal and professional is huge. If you told them you have 10+ years of coding experience but only worked for less than 2 years, that's going to raise a red flag and set a bad tone for the interview. Also, most interviews are employees so they are trying to get to know you, not just assess you. – Brian Dishaw Jun 2 '15 at 0:37
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    @Seiyria Generally speaking the meaning of professional, in many/most contexts, is strictly "you are being paid for it": no pay = not professional. People read more into it and assign some special meaning at times, but that's really what professional means - accepting money to exercise a certain set of skills or abilities. It doesn't mean your experience and skills don't exist or don't count, but they are not - by definition - professional experience. It's like how cooking at home just isn't "restaurant/kitchen experience" - it's assumed a work environment is just different. – BrianH Jun 2 '15 at 15:47
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    @BrianDHall So you would say that Linus Torvalds or Richard Stallman were not professional programmers when they made significant contributions to their milestone projects. I don't think that accepting money is good criterion when it comes to programming. – luk32 Jun 2 '15 at 15:52
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    @luk32 It is the criterion when it comes to professional experience, though. You can always mention non-professional experience (especially if it involves writing a widely-used OS kernel,) but that doesn't make it professional. The code I wrote for my graduate degree is also quite complicated, but I wouldn't count it as professional experience. I would, however, mention it as personal/academic experience. – reirab Jun 2 '15 at 16:07
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    @Myles I would not want to work at a company that does not know how to recruit a professional programmer. You should always ask about projects, key technologies and skills needed and gained. Unfortunately there is no better way of assessing a skilled IT person than judgement of another skilled IT professional. Years of work experience are heavily misleading. Anyways, it's just my opinion, and to be clear I agree with you in the most part of yours too =) – luk32 Jun 2 '15 at 16:11
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An interviewer whose only concern is that you may be outright lying can always verify references, I think there may be something more.

If you come across as saying "I did some stuff with MySpace when I was 10 and have held a job for less than a year - but I can't tell you about it"... It's not necessarily that they think you're lying, but there might still be a different sort of credibility problem.

Nobody cares how young you started, and nobody can assess things you can't talk about. Nobody is going to look at your "kiddie code". What matters is how you can demonstrate that you, today, can do the job they are hiring for, to the standard they need. That means experience doing similar things (and ideally being paid to do it), insight when presented with real problems, and a professional demeanour. Let your enthusiasm show but don't let it dominate.

Find examples of past coding (undergrad, hobbies, whatever) which show a) you have tackled reasonably complicated problems and b) there were real-world demands driving these things (especially working for others). Ask yourself what you have achieved rather than revelling in the fact that you enjoy what you do. Consider what non-secret elements of the job you can talk about. If they ask you about past problems you've solved, explain that it'll be hard, but turn the question on them, ask them about the real problems they've got and talk them through options - that will show interest in what you're doing.

This might be a one-off bad interviewer who genuinely thught you were lying and didn't think it through, so keep trying. But it could also be that you gave a poor impression in the interview. Think about what your weaknesses might be - be realistic and perhaps ask a friend - and how to address them.

  • +1 For mentioning saying what can be said about the non-Secret elements of the job. I've held jobs that required Secret clearance and did exactly that in interviews for later jobs. On the flip side, I've also interviewed several people with Secret/Top Secret work experience. It hasn't really ever been a problem. The relevant details needed for the interviewer to figure out that you do, in fact, know what you're talking about are rarely actually classified. The interviewer isn't concerned with classified design information, only with the type of work you were doing. – reirab Jun 2 '15 at 16:14
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I would think that you summed it up near the end:

I ended up not working for them (who wants a company that distrustful?)

If that's the way the company is, then it's good that they raised the red flags for you. Don't get upset over one company and just try your hand at the next.

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    +1. This really is the best answer. Being gainfully employed is good, as a matter of general principle, but being stuck in a work environment that makes you miserable is generally not worth the pay. – Mason Wheeler Jun 1 '15 at 20:55
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    -1, while this is technically a true answer, it offers no actual help to the asker's question. While this company should believe what this person is saying in an interview until proven false, they're clearly asking for more help than that. – Zibbobz Jun 2 '15 at 13:48
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I do something similar to this if I'm asked how long or how I got interested in programming "I started playing around with Qbasic when I was about 10 after watching my older brother. After taking a few basic html and visual basic courses in high-school I continued to study computer science in college at the University...Graduated...Jobs...".

I also have a past job that had some defense contracts and secrets related to the details of the work. However, in interviews I can summarize the work by saying something like, "I mostly made desktop applications and a few internal web apps primarily in C#/ASP.NET and maintained a few legacy classic ASP apps. Many of the applications did some calculus based data analysis on test results, or controlled external devices through USB, RS-232, and GPIB to collect the test results. I can't get into the details because secrets..."

Describing some of the technology used without getting into the details of the secrets should be enough for any interviewer. Also, if I was interviewing someone and they started opening up about past employer secrets I probably wouldn't hire them.

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Almost every programmer starts hobby programming at around 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 years.

I'd say 90% of programmers. Every single person who has ever worked for me, for example, fits this.

It's not even worth mentioning - it's like saying someone who is now a doctor or nurse "really cared about people even when they were kids!" or that a working musician "started playing instruments at 10" (what musician didn't?) It's something that "goes without saying" for programmers.

You might mention in passing on your cv "Like every other keen programmer, I started at age 9!". But so what? It's universal. When they ask how long you've been programming, they mean professionally. This is completely unsurprising.

(Note for example that "how long have you been building bridges" means "since after graduating" - if you kind of included your years in bridge-building-college, in that calculation, .. it's sort of weird. it's just self-evident that when you ask that question, you mean how long have you been doing it professionally.)

Also one point (not trying to be mean...perhaps today you're a hot-shot low-level assembler programmer), you mention your programming as a kid, was, "myspace layouts".

You should be aware that if down the bar you ask very keen, basically very successful, "hot-shot" programmers who are now adults, what sort of programming they did as a 10 year old (bearing in mind again that basically everyone who programs starts when they are nine to fourteen), the answer is often something astounding like "I wrote a natural language compiler" or "actually, I invented the Scrabble algorithm back in the 80s as a teenager", or at the very least "I was a seasoned expert in driver code by 14" or "oh, by the time I was 15 I already contributed X Y Z to these well-known open source programs.." .. something like that.

Unfortunately that is the state of play with mentioning "I started at 10" on your cv.

Regarding the weird (should be a totally separate question?) issue about a security clearance job ... all you can do is tell them the truth, and such jobs always have a facility for you being able to have a piece of paper, or the like, that shows you really did "something" in a field, even though you can't tell about it. It's not complicated - show them pay slips, for example. If they profoundly don't believe you, and it matters, phone the previous secret employer and seek advice, perhaps.

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    "Almost every"? Have you ever been to a university before? – Seiyria Jun 2 '15 at 14:36
  • I think you're confusing "many" with "almost all". Otherwise, very good point to be careful about mentioning things you've dabbled in, when you're likely to run into people who were doing incredible things instead of dabbling. Sort of like if someone asks you if you play an instrument. – Dan Getz Jun 2 '15 at 17:51
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    Re "Almost every programmer starts hobby programming at around 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 years": Only if they were born in a first-world country, sometime after 1970 or so, and had middle to upper class parents who could and would support their hobby programming. Maybe after 1990 or so, computers were common & cheap enough that most kids would have access. – jamesqf Jun 3 '15 at 0:13
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The MySpace stuff is not relevant to the position to which you're applying. If you want to express that you are passionate about coding, it's ok to mention that you started when you were 10 on MySpace pages as a hobby, or any other quirky, anecdotal stuff that helps the interviewer assess your personality. But you should clearly delineate and state when you started coding professionally (which can still be hobby stuff, as long as someone paid you), or began university-level coursework.

  • If you are asked "How long have you been programming" then you'd tell them how long you've been programming and not filter out what might not be relevant for the current job. This wasn't on his CV, it was an answer to an interview question. – gnasher729 Jun 2 '15 at 9:47
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    Absolutely DO NOT bring your badge or swipe card to show your new employer! I cannot emphasize that enough. Do have a reference from the company that you worked for, which would provide all the information that the new company could ask. – kleineg Jun 2 '15 at 14:23
  • @kleineg The question is about an interview... the OP has not yet been hired. I would agree not to bring old badges to a new job... but this is not what is being asked, nor is it the advice I gave. Your comment is not relevant to the question. – ExactaBox Jun 2 '15 at 15:34
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    I am talking about exactly the situation you are talking about. What I am saying is that you should never show your badge to a person without security clearance without a specific reason that compels you to. Depending on the nature of your contract and clearance doing so may expose you to very serious legal trouble. I agree that you should disclose as much as you are allowed to about your clearance. But let your company vouch for you. For example, you can put that you worked for a company, and that you hold TS/SCI, but do not bring any unauthorized material to "prove" it. – kleineg Jun 2 '15 at 15:53
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    @ExactaBox I've had a clearance just like the OP's. kleineg is right. You shouldn't bring your credentials. Also, badges often don't even state your clearance level. HR will verify that you do, in fact, work there (assuming that the fact you even work there isn't classified, which is a whole different ball game.) If someone really needs to know your clearance level, they can call OPM. But you definitely should not be waving around credentials that could potentially be used to access a secure facility and/or computer system. – reirab Jun 2 '15 at 16:38
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Hobbyist programming really doesn't count unless you're self-employed. It's sad, but true. Especially for anything you did before college. I would not include my high-school level programming class on any non-college-intern resume, and you shouldn't either, much less MySpace scripts you wrote when you were ten. The only possible way you could 'accurately' include that is to put it under hobbies and interests - using it as 'coding experience' or 'years of programming' is questionable at best, and deceptive at worst.

As for your 'secret' job, I'd contact them directly and ask for a reference before ever using them again on your resume - state clearly (and politely) that you'd like to use them as a reference, that you do not intend to disclose any code you worked on, and ask their permission. Ideally you should be doing this every time you write and send out our resume for every reference you use, not only to confirm that they will in fact back up your claims, but so that you can tell them what you're trying to do, and so that they can give your interviewer the best review of your technical skills that they can.

As for explaining this to your interviewer, it helps to cite the exact non-disclosure agreement that you signed so that they aren't suspicious of you trying to hide something. Bring a copy of it if you can get one - if not, just tell them that the contact info you've provided will back this up.

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I have been coding for about 18 years, not counting the early 10,20,30 basic stuff i did in juniour high and high school, or the years, i spend in the computer pods on campus at the uni for 5 years and summers, bottom line, if you having to funish code snippets at interviews your might want to search better employers who can YOU can trust. I have never been asked for snippets, ever, i have shown a doc or two over the years but it was my suggestion and it was helpful to show my design process in the docs.

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    I've never been asked for snippets either... That kind of puzzled me – colmde Jun 2 '15 at 7:53
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Should I lie about this/just not mention it? Or should I show them my awful kiddie code?

First, like others have said hobbyist coding does not really count, especially when young. Dabbling with code after school during free time does not compare to working 40 hour weeks in a professional environment (I began dabbling with code around 12, and when I was 20 I got a programming job where I more than doubled my knowledge in the first 3 months, and that doesn't even begin to take into account the development of professionalism in the office environment). You can still mention what you did on your own time, but for the most part it is not considered part of your professional years of experience.

TL DR: I would say something along the lines of "I have coded for X number of years on my own recreationally, and Y years professionally.

How do I handle a job that I can't really discuss?

Talk to your prior boss and see what you can talk about. Who knows, you it may just be data you dealt with that was classified. Regardless, you can discuss your work vaguely. For example, lets say you did some interesting work with drone targeting software. Instead of talking about the drones and the weapon systems, talk about what tools and techniques you used. You could say something along the lines of "I designed software for image processing and item recognition using the X IDE and software suite to control mechanical responses." You can convey what tools you have experience with, what general work you have done, and not told them any specifics. For all they know you may have programmed a door to unlock based on facial recognition (Yes you can't highlight the specifics of your achievements, but it at least gives them a general idea of your skills).

TL DR: Be vague, talk about languages you have experience with (Java), the general coding done (managed a database), and the skills/paradigms you used (Object Oriented Programming/Agile Development).

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There are two aspects to this, and I am familiar with both from personal experience.

Adolescent experience

By all means talk about how you have been programming since you were first able to sit up on your own, but this does not belong on your CV. Only cite work that was professional in nature, paid or not. Internships, co-ops, salaried, contract, open-source, and freelance work all apply here. Working on MySpace or GeoCities pages in high school does not cut the mustard.

Still, showing enthusiasm is great. I have told interviewers that I started programming in my early teens, reading RFCs, learning about computers in general. I still remember typing in BASIC programs found in magazines and learning to make changes to customize them. But I would never put that on a CV.

Sensitive work

Under no circumstances should you ever divulge classified information or even the level of federal clearance you had. To this day I have specific jobs where I say I performed development work for military branch XYZ. I used technology X to build an application that performs (insert high level function, e.g. "inventory management" or "data warehousing"). The type of data stored, the specific military unit (even if by proxy through a contractor), etc. must not be mentioned. Yes, I had a security clearance. No, I will not tell you which level: simply knowing the type of clearance may open you up to social engineering attacks (e.g. if you were cleared into a specific SCI compartment).

The only exception is if you are applying for a job that requires a security clearance, then you can give slightly more information such as your current clearance level, military units, etc. on an as-needed basis if permitted by your prior debriefing. When in doubt, keep the information to yourself.

If you performed sensitive work outside of a government setting, you absolutely must abide by any NDAs and confidentiality agreements you signed. Many people also consider it a professional courtesy if you avoid giving specific details such as "I developed a system to do X for customer Y" which may reveal trade secret or other sensitive information that may harm customer Y's position relative to its competitors, even if you did not sign anything saying you would not reveal such information. It is just a nice, professional thing to do.

Talk about the technologies you used, types of systems you built, etc. without connecting the dots of which organizations used which systems to perform which job functions.

  • As an addendum to this well designed answer, contact the HR department of your previous employer. Any company which is entrusted with classified information will have some support for answering questions of ex-employees who wish to refer to work they had done. – Cort Ammon Jun 3 '15 at 2:46

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