That one common interview question most interviewees hate

That one common interview question most interviewees hate

Turning a question that makes you want to leave immediately into a massive win

Oliver Jumpertz's photo
Oliver Jumpertz

Published on Jul 20, 2021

8 min read

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"Where do you see yourself in five years?"

This is still a common job interview question. But do you hate it as much as I do and would love to stand up and simply leave immediately?

Don't.

Here is how you can turn this question into a huge win.


Foreword

I've interviewed countless times in the last years and had the honor to interview some amazing engineers myself.

I never used this question myself but had to witness HR ask exactly this one.

It took me a good amount of time to understand that, while being a question most interviewees hate, it's an HR trick to gather valuable information.


Why this question is important

First of all, like any question in an interview, it's an opportunity for you, the interviewee, to shine and impress your interviewers.

I know that you might hate this question because it's so cliché, and it isn't easy to answer. For HR, however, it provides valuable insights. Their job is to ensure that you are at least a good fit (not every company expects the perfect fit) for the job. Your hire is an investment for them. They will provide guidance, often education, and pay you a salary. They will also pay you this salary while you still set yourself up and do not deliver your full value yet. And over the years, they will invest even more in you. You'll get further education throughout the years, and they will most likely also support you.

If you leave after a few months or even a year, it's not good for the company. You will, for sure, have provided a lot of value and will have made the company money, but they then have to find a new employee and invest in them again. This can become pretty costly for a company, and thus they try to make sure - as best as possible - that they hire people who plan with them for a longer time.


What this question tells your interviewers

This question gives your interviewers the following information:

  1. How your expectations align with what the company can actually provide to you
  2. How long you plan to stay with the company
  3. Whether you have a certain ambition
  4. How interested in this role you actually are

We'll go over each of these points individually now.

How your expectations align with what the company can actually provide to you

Although you might have had bad experiences in the past, many companies do indeed care a lot for their employees. This can be because actually caring helps them keep their employees for longer or because they really want to. No matter what their real motivation is, keeping you longer helps to secure their investment for longer.

If you apply for a software engineer position but actually want to progress into engineering management, that's something a company can support. It aligns with their interest to keep you and support you in your career. It shows that you plan to grow in this position, and it's a reasonable goal.

But if you actually want to progress into a totally different position, the company might probably not be able to support this. It could also be that you want to rise way higher than what this company can currently offer to you. A startup with a flat hierarchy might not be able to provide you a high-level management position in the future.

Depending on what you answer, interviewers see whether your new role will really satisfy you and keep your motivation up or lead to you losing motivation and slowly degrading in performance. There are several ways to motivate employees, like benefits, perks, and much more. But the best perks can't make up for a position you hate and feel stuck in.

How long you plan to stay with the company

As we already covered, a company makes an investment in you by training you and supporting you on your way. Turnover is really costly, and this is why companies try to avoid a high rate of it. It doesn't always need to be "5" years. It could also be only "3" or another number. It depends on the industry and can't be generalized, as it sometimes already differs between individual companies. It's okay if you have other plans, but if another candidate plans to stay with the company for longer, this might give them the edge over you.

Whether you have a certain ambition

It is interesting to know what you try to accomplish. A great goal can come with equally great ambition and the motivation to reach this goal. The drive to progress in a career is wonderful and often shows that you will probably even go a long way to show you are ready for your next promotion, e.g. If you show no ambition, it could be taken as a bad sign.

How interested in this role you actually are

If you aim to become an expert in the job you apply for, you might be a great hire. Interviewers then already know that you will thankfully take courses and certifications. And more often than not, the company will happily provide the resources necessary to take those courses and get those certificates. It makes you even more valuable for the company. Seeing your passions and interests does also help to envision how good of a fit you will be for the team you will work with.

If you aren't really interested, why should they be interested in you?


How to deal with this question

You should prepare yourself for this question in advance. You can do this based on your personal vision of your future, and if you had previous interview stages, based on the outcome of those. It is, however, crucial that you prepare this thoroughly.

You also make a commitment by working for a company. You will need to show up every day (on-site or remote) and do your work. If you already know that your expectations don't align, you are not doing yourself a favor by still going for it because it is your only choice at this time. Only if you really need the money to sustain yourself should you make an exception.

And how do you really prepare yourself?

  1. Think about what your perfect job would look like
  2. Try to envision what this job could add to your CV
  3. Imagine how your interests might evolve with this role
  4. Craft your personal vision

Let's also get over these points individually.

Think about what your perfect job would look like

Take an extensive look at the job posting. Is this what you want to do? What would you like to add over time? Would you really feel well when all this came true in 5 years?

If not, try to add what you think is missing right now. Craft the best experience you can imagine for yourself in this role. Do you feel okay when you imagine advancing in those skills in the next 5 years? Could you do this work all day?

Try to envision what this job could add to your CV

Think what this job SHOULD give you to add to your resume, so you profit from it. You might not always work for this particular company. How well should you be set up when you leave?

Some questions you can answer for yourself:

  • Do you want to have a particular job title in 5 years?
  • Are there certain skills you want to have learned by then?
  • Do you want to get certified in certain things?
  • Any achievements you want to earn?
  • How should your responsibility look?

Answer these questions for you, and include all this into your overall vision about yourself in 5 years.

Imagine how your interests might evolve with this role

Try to reflect on how your interests shifted in the past when you learned something new or were exposed to other fields. Could this happen at your new job?

Perhaps, you interview at a company developing cloud-based products as a product software engineer. Might you get interested in DevOps or SRE? Or could you imagine that you develop a high interest in leadership? If so, add all this to your overall vision.

Craft your personal vision

When you think you have your overall vision, write it down. Refine it where necessary and perform one vital action:

Be honest and think about whether this job could potentially enable you to do this.

If the answer is no, you might be interviewing at the wrong company or for the wrong position. If the answer is maybe, or yes, learn your vision.

When you encounter this question in the interview, tell your interviewers about your vision, and be honest. You've then made an important step at getting the right job and making a lasting impression with your interviewers. A well-crafted vision can be a deciding factor when a company has to decide between candidates. If your vision aligns better with what the company really looks for, you might be the candidate getting the offer or at least making it to the next interview stage.


Before You Leave

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