When it comes to job interviews, we all want to give answers that make us stand out from the rest of the candidates. That means knowing how to answer each question, including the tricky ones designed to stump you.
But what if you don't know the answer to a question?
That's a problem Google CEO Sundar Pichai faced in 2004, when he first interviewed at the company for the VP of product management position. In a 2017 chat with students at his alma mater, Indian Institute of technology, Pichai shared details about his interview experience at one of the world's largest tech companies.
In the first few rounds, Pichai said the interviewers asked him what he thought of Gmail. There was just one problem: Google had just announced the email service that very same day, on April 1st. "I thought it was an April Fool's Day joke," Pichai said.
He responded by saying he couldn't answer the question because he hadn't been able to use the product. "It was only in the fourth interview when someone asked, 'Have you seen Gmail?' I said no. So he actually showed it to me. And then the fifth interviewer asked, 'What do you think of Gmail?' And I was able to start answering it then," Pichai said at the talk.
Most candidates would have attempted to make something up before trying to move on to the next question. Pichai did the exact opposite and ended up impressing his interviewers (after all, he got the job).
Here's why his response was so brilliant:
More often than not, telling an interviewer you don't know the answer to something will dock off a few points, but it's better than coming up with something that may be completely false.
Science agrees, too. Research has shown that people with "intellectual humility" – or, as they say, the willingness to admit what you don't know – are better learners.
Laszlo Bock, Google's former senior VP of people operations, calls it one of the top qualities he looks for in a candidate. In an interview with The New York Times, he said: "Successful, bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don't learn how to learn from that failure. They instead commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it's because I'm a genius. If something bad happens, it's because someone's an idiot or I didn't get the resources or the market moved."
The next time you're faced with a difficult interview question, stay calm and take a moment to think before you respond. Pichai carefully thought about the question. What could he say about something he hadn't even seen? Gmail, at the time, was a newly launched, invite-only product, and so he concluded that it was acceptable to not know the answer.
Instead of simply saying "I don't know," Pichai told his interviewers why he didn't know: he wasn't able to use the product. By doing so, he expressed curiosity, which is a trait employers always love to see in a candidate.
Pichai recognized his advantage in the scenario: for every "I don't know," there lies an opportunity to learn. And by the fourth round, his interviewer decided to demonstrate the product.
After asserting what he didn't know, Pichai redirected the conversation to assert what he did know.
Getting a glimpse of Gmail gave him a clearer understanding of the product. This allowed him to display the forthrightness and intellect that he would go on to become so famous for at Google.
The takeaway is that giving an honest answer doesn't happen in a vacuum where you score virtue points. The value of being intellectually honest is that it gives you the opportunity to show what you do know.
Pichai demonstrated the best-case scenario – being well-prepared, but also managing a dynamic situation with respect and candor. In a moment of uncertainty, he grabbed the bull by its proverbial horns, adapted to the challenge, and it paid off in a big way.
Out of the millions of applications that Google receives each year, you have at least a 0.2 percent chance of getting hired. If you're lucky enough to make it through the rounds and get invited to an in-person interview, think about how you can stand out. Make it count and claim your place in that 0.2 percent.
Tom Popomaronis is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named one of the "40 Under 40" by the Baltimore Business Journal. Follow him on Twitter at @tpopomaronis.
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