I've recently switched careers from academia to software. At the present, I am wrapping up development on a my first commercial/non-academic project, a time sheet and invoicing system. The experience was very useful in terms of learning, but not positive. I doubt any reference I might get from the project manager would be useful for further work.

I know the experience will come up in job interviews and I don't want to be negative, despite being irate about some of the things that occurred. I am capable of acknowledging my own faults in the situation (the ones I know about, of course), and can also discuss, in a general way, what should have been done differently. I'd like to hope I can prevent, and will certainly try my hardest to prevent, myself from repeating the same errors. I know many developers have negative development experiences, and that I'm taking this a bit too personally. I know I had a hand in many of the problems, and that I have a lot to learn about developing away from academia. I know that there are many things I should have done differently. I know the experience is mostly in the past and cannot be changed, only learned from.

Despite this, I become visibly upset when the project comes up, even when I opt to say nothing. I'm aware this reaction will be perceived poorly during interviews and do not wish to give the impression that I have made a habit of reactions like this or that I cannot use this as a learning experience. Neither are true.

How should I discuss this experience during interviews?

I should be very clear about this: my emotional state is my problem. If I have given any other impression, I apologize. I included my emotional state to contextualize the situation. I also included it because the answers I get may be of use to someone else in a similar situation.

I should also be clear that the situational particulars don't matter--whether or not anyone else would feel the same way given the circumstances, I still need to go to interviews and discuss this in a professional, constructive fashion.

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    "Despite this, I become visibly upset when the project comes up, even when I opt to say nothing" Eh. Yeah. You need to fix that. And I doubt that's something we can help with. You need to move past this and manage your emotions better and how you do that is different from person to person.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 12:54
  • Sure. I aware that part of it is my problem. My question is how to discuss the experience. The context was that I'm still pretty peeved.
    – wormwood
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 12:57
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3 Answers 3

  1. List out all of the positive and negative aspects of your previous experience.
  2. Try to find any patterns in what has been positive, and what has been negative.
  3. Focus on the positive aspects during interviews, but utilize the negative as a tool to help you ask better questions and assess whether the job is right for you.

Do practice interviews in front of a mirror, in front of your friends, etc. where you answer questions about that project. Keep doing them until you feel comfortable and can train yourself to control any resentment that currently surfaces when you talk about it.

I totally understand that all of the above can be filed under "easier said than done", but practice really does make a huge difference.

  • Very practical, thank you. A follow up question, if I may: I'd prefer not to discuss the negative at all, but if it comes up, is it safe to be mostly general? For instance, to say "there were issues with each participants' expectations of the project" or something of that kind, versus a more detailed breakdown (unless explicitly asked for it).
    – wormwood
    Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 13:13
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    Great question. Being general may lead to follow up questions, and that could be dangerous. Instead discuss a negative aspect that you attempted to address and describe the steps taken. That shows to the interviewer(s) that you like to be a problem solver. I wouldn't mention people's specific roles, or names. Commented Sep 9, 2016 at 13:22

This will sound trite and I think you already know this, but the first thing you need to do is get over it. You can't be having visible negative reactions to a past project when you're interviewing for new positions. Everyone has bad employment experiences, and they aren't going to want to hire someone that is still bent out of shape over a single project long after they've left it.

The biggest takeaway here is that you have new experience, positive or negative, that will help you to be a better developer. Do all you can to stay away from discussing the mistakes that were made either by yourself or others on your old team. There's nothing to be gained from telling them your faults or laying the blame on the other people you worked with.

Think of the positive things you learned from your old job, and if there aren't any positive things, take the negative things and make them positive sounding things:

  • "My teammates really let me down" >>> "Gained valuable experience working with a diverse team"
  • "The project was completely mis-managed" >>> "Learned new management styles that will help me to be an effective manager when I am put in a leadership position"
  • "Developing in academia was a lot better than for a company" >>> "Diverse background in development spanning academic and commercial development"

If you really can't bring yourself to be able to talk about it in a good way or you still get frustrated while talking about it consider not using it as a reference (this may not be possible if it was a big project and you don't have other relevant experience).

Remember that everyone has bad experiences in their careers, but there's a good chance the people hiring you don't know anything about the project, so just spin it into a positive learning experience even if it wasn't.

  • Well if a previous boss was bad in a specific way, why shouldn't I tell the interviewers that so that they may help me avoid such bosses in the future?
    – saner
    Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 12:04

Discussing work history during an interview can sometimes seem like a rather complicated dance – or a walk through a field of landmines. You want to be careful to avoid saying anything negative about your previous employers.

Below are some tips to help you get through the discussion with flying colors:

  1. Be honest. It can be awfully tempting to gloss over a bad work experience in an attempt to impress interviewers, but this tactic can blow up in your face – and cause more damage than a tactful answer in the first place. Chances are your recruiter will speak with someone at your previous job and understand that it wasn’t the best situation. Be ahead of the game by sharing honest feedback on your previous experience.

  2. But not too honest. An overview of past experiences – good or bad – can help give interviewers a well-rounded look into your background and how you’ve handled challenging situations. But while honesty is important, be sure to avoid giving too much information during a job interview. A high-level explanation of the challenges in a previous workplace, and how you overcame them, is more than enough to paint an accurate picture for recruiters. Going into more detail can open up additional questions that are uncomfortable and lead to unnecessary details.

  3. Avoid negativity. While honesty is important, tact and class are especially critical. Never (ever!) speak negatively about an individual in your previous workplace (or about an employer in general). While you can mention that you didn’t “have the strongest relationship” with a specific colleague, refrain from getting into blame or personal attacks during a job interview. Sometimes coworkers or bosses and employees don’t get along. It happens to many people, and if you speak about it with honesty while staying professional, you will make a much stronger impression.

  4. Find something positive. While you may not have had the best experience at a previous employer, chances are there was something positive you gained from the experience. Maybe they provided you with opportunities to grow your skill set. Or perhaps their flexible work arrangements helped create a better environment. Tying in something positive about the employer – despite your overall negative experience – demonstrates your willingness to learn and stay objective in difficult situations.

  5. Talk about your other jobs. Once you’ve given a high-level, honest overview of your experience and the positives you gleaned from it, move on. Put the emphasis more on your positive experiences and how they’ve prepared you for the specific career opportunity discussed in your interview. If you focus too much attention on the negative experience, it could end up being the most memorable part of your interview (for the wrong reasons). Instead, get to the details and move on to help tell your story and show why you’re the best fit for the job.


  • I don't understand why you should avoid negativity. For example, a previous boss yelled at his employees who made mistakes (including me, yes I made a mistake), why should I dance around this? I certainly don't want to ever work for such a manager again, I better let the interviewers know that. I also know bosses and they don't shy away from talking about "disaster hires", trust me.
    – saner
    Commented Jul 12, 2020 at 11:56

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