In my five years as a recruiter at Tesla Motors, I interviewed over a thousand job candidates, many of them for competitive technical roles. But no matter what the position, there was always one simple question that would trip them up more than any other:
Tell me about your most significant technical accomplishment, the project that you’re most proud of.
It sounds easy, until you’re the one in the hot seat trying to decide which project to pick. Even if you’ve prepared talking points about your most impressive accomplishment ahead of time, you might’ve chosen the wrong one. In my experience, most people’s first instinct is to pick the project or achievement that sounds the most substantial on paper–but that’s not always the one that illustrates their actual technical ability.
Using The Small Stuff To Show What You Know
For example, I’d frequently see candidates answer this question with, “I worked on the launch of product X,” and give a great high-level summary of the product.
But when our engineers, whom we’d bring in for part of the interview process, started asking candidates about the specifics (why certain design decisions were made, what other material or manufacturing options were considered, etc.) many would have to answer with some variation of “Well, that part was actually someone else’s responsibility.” It would turn out that the candidate has chosen an impressive project, but one for which they were only responsible for a small part.
That would typically lead to one of two unfortunate outcomes:
- It made them look like they were exaggerating their own capabilities, even in some cases trying to take credit for others’ work.
- It killed any possibility of having a productive technical discussion.
The real reason interviewers ask this question is to provide a topic they can use for follow-up questions to unpack candidates’ technical know-how. Once you hit an answer like, “That was someone else’s job,” those questions are pretty much moot.
In fact, after a while I’d seen so many great engineers shoot themselves in the foot with this question that I’d talk through their projects with them before the interview. “Don’t think about the questions from the interviewers’ perspective,” I’d advise. “Instead, just discuss the project you really know inside and out. This is your one chance to say, ‘I am an expert at this particular thing–ask me anything about it.'”
Two examples come to mind–one stellar, the other not so much. First, we had a design engineer who won us over with a pen cap. Obviously a pen cap isn’t the sexiest product on the market, but the candidate was able to talk through the nuances of different design and manufacturing decisions that spoke volumes about his technical ability. He presented the pen cap as an example of his personal expertise, which was plastics design. Our engineers left the interview impressed by the knowledge the candidate was able to display in his field.
Another time, an electrical engineer came to his Tesla interview armed with an anecdote about a motorcycle he’d converted to be 100% electric, which of course on the surface sounded like a perfect fit. But what he hadn’t considered was that he was presenting something he’d done as a side project to a room full of engineers who considered this their life’s work. While they appreciated his passion, it quickly became clear that he’d approached the project as a hobbyist and subsequently lacked the expertise to develop cutting-edge automotive technology at scale. So while the project he’d chosen to discuss was much more complex and in-depth than a pen cap, the resulting conversation wasn’t.
Four Mini Questions Within The Big One
Just about every recruiter and hiring manager needs to know that candidates can explain core concepts effectively, which is hugely important if you’re applying for jobs on collaborative teams, especially technical ones like those in engineering. If they can’t, there might be reason to doubt how well a candidate can pull their own weight.
So when confronting a question like, “Talk to me about one specific accomplishment that you’re most proud of,” it helps to break your answer down into these four parts:
- What was the problem?
- What was the solution?
- What did you do specifically?
- What was the result?
That can help you not just piece together a coherent narrative about your involvement, but also test whether the role you played showcases your deepest–and most impressive–expertise.
More broadly, there are three other characteristics in addition to technical know-how that I’d listen for as candidates dug into their answers:
1. Grit: The combination of perseverance and emotional stability used to achieve long-term goals, even when circumstances are rough in the short-term. As a recruiter, I’d need to be able to say to myself, “This person is resilient in high-pressure environments. They’re level-headed and focused, even when a million things are happening at once.”
2. Rigor: How far down the rabbit hole can the candidate go to understand every part of a problem? Someone who’s rigorous in their approach to problem-solving can answer all the follow-up questions with ease. That, of course, speaks to their technical capability, because if they can explain their choices, it’s a great sign that they have a strong, fundamental understanding of their craft.
3. Ownership: Again, it all goes back to how personally instrumental someone might’ve been in a project’s outcome. This is arguably the most important characteristic. Does the candidate own their decisions? Do they take responsibility for their work, keep themselves on track, and ask for help when they need it? Do they stand shoulder to shoulder with their teammates, or point fingers when something goes wrong? In small-team environments, nothing is more important than a strong sense of ownership.
These examples are especially true for engineering jobs, but they apply to interviews in all fields. You might think you’re boring interviewers with your story about something relatively small that you worked on, but if that’s the thing that lets you really dig into your knowledge base, go with it. Interviewers want to geek out with you–and hopefully learn something new themselves.
Max Brown is the founder of Silicon Beach Talent, a boutique recruiting and consulting firm in Los Angeles that recruits designers, engineers, and leadership for emerging tech companies.