A couple years ago, I participated in a career training “fellowship”. One goal of the program was to place freshly-minted academics into industry jobs. Or, in my case, provide a platform for someone already in industry to jump to another job.
One of my most vivid memories from this program came during its second week. Apart from refreshing Fellows’ technical skills, the program also sought to freshen up our interview skills.
That included soft skills.
As I sat down face-to-face with the program director, he asked me to “tell me about yourself.” Then staring at me in the eyes, he asked me what I was looking for. Why I felt I was qualified. The usual questions.
Finally, he asked me to tell him what I considered my greatest weaknesses. Another “standard” interview question.
Until that point, I had rehearsed answers. I was this. I was that. Since I already had had experience being interviewed — and interviewing others, I felt pretty comfortable.
But for some odd reason, as I realized what the Director was asking, I paused.
What are my weaknesses?
It’s not like I hadn’t reflected on this before. In fact, I ponder this question all the time. But it’s different when someone asks you what you’re weak at, in your face.
After a few seconds, I began with a story.
I was one of the first data scientists at my last company. When I joined, there was no data science infrastructure. There wasn’t really even stable engineering infrastructure. But it was clear to me that there had to be some kind of data pipeline specifically for collecting, transforming, and modeling data. Analysts, and even engineers and managers, were cleaning, transforming and modeling data by hand for hours on end.
So I designed and coded up a pipeline. It was a success, and while it wasn’t without its bugs, it literally automated away hundreds of person-hours of labor in the first few months I tossed it into production.
I stayed at that company for over 4 years.
Unbelievably, on the day I left, the system I had built during my first few months there was still online and churning away. It had begun life as a 2-week-long side project. I didn’t think it would last more than year. I thought it’d be replaced with something more scalable, something more maintainable.
What actually happened was, as my system saw more usage, more features were requested of it. “Temporary” patches were applied. It got integrated into other systems. After I had handed it off, my baby had grown into a disfigured blob of undocumented complexity.
What did all of this have to do with personal weaknesses?
Well, I have to admit that sometimes I lack awareness. I know in my mind that the smallest actions — and tiniest decisions — over time, add up to the big results (my running life is proof of that). But in the moment, sometimes it’s hard for me to pause and think. For example, I initially designed this system to be very rigid: in the beginning you could only specify one data source, which had to be transformed once, then aggregated once. Results could only be sent to exactly one increasingly gigantic table in one database. This was easy to code up, but it tied my hands a year later as use cases grew and as other key systems came to depend on my system.
Even worse, when it came time for the company’s overall technology to be reviewed and overhauled, I was aghast to find that such rigid ideas from this design years ago had been ingrained in some of my colleagues’ minds. I hadn’t anticipated how my actions and my decisions would influence other peoples’ actions and decisions, across contexts and over time.
Even now, sometimes I have to stop and wonder: Am I conscious of what this line of code will cost, four years from now? Am I conscious how my words and behavior might affect my colleagues, friends, or even strangers I pass by at the supermarket? Am I in control? Or, as my middle school piano teacher would scold me: am I playing on autopilot?
As I’ve matured, my strengths and weaknesses four years ago aren’t the same strengths and weaknesses now. In the past four years, I’ve grown to be more self-aware.
But that awareness has shown me an even greater weakness: the fact that I’m on autopilot too often. I don’t think enough.
After I delivered my story, the Director was quiet. He looked away. “That’s happened to me before too,” he murmured. Then he told me get the next Fellow to mock-interview.
As for whether I actually did asked this question in a real interview, I’m pretty sure I was. I don’t remember exactly which company actually asked this question (it’s such a cliche question now anyway), but I don’t recall answering with this particular answer. After all, this might be my “strongest weakness,” but I have many, many weaknesses to choose from. Those are stories for another time.