[Blog] Interview Questions: Tell me about a project you are proud of and why?

Craig Maloney at 2017-08-23T19:00:42Z

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An interview question I've received a lot during my interviewing is "Tell me about a project you are proud of and why are you proud of it". It's one of those "think about your career and tell me what one project stood out for you, and why it stands out" questions that feels like it is a good measure of interview candidates.

But one of the downsides is it's also a question that gets self-edited to the bits that I can show a potential employer.

At my last job I created a sort of "stylesheet for Excel" using openpyxl. Unfortunately the only thing I can show you is a gist that I posted to the openpyxl mailing list. The maintainer of the project didn't know what to do with it (and frankly I'm not sure the problem translated outside of the project that I was working on) but it worked and helped me style some pretty hoary spreadsheet reports.

But is that the project that I tell people about? Nope. Why? Because there isn't that much code there to show folks. And frankly it isn't an interesting story. "I made a configuration system to style Excel Spreadsheets so people could take these and pass along to our customers" isn't the sort of thing that excites people.

So what story do I tell? I tell them about the time when I created some photobooth software for a friend's wedding. He was getting married and wanted some more features for his Raspberry Pi project. Unfortunately it was taking longer than he anticipated so I wrote a new photobooth for him in Pygame. You can take a look at the code right now (Pygame Photobooth) and see what I did. Why am I proud of it? Because I helped out a friend during his time of need and it was cool to see people playing with it. It's still in use today.

That's a story! It has conflict! Drama! A climax! A happy ending! Exclamation points! And you can see the code!

Is it the project I'm most proud of? Possibly. There's a few other projects that I've done over the years that I can't show people. Projects like the system that completely automated mailing surveys for a customer. Projects that rewrote a Visual Basic system that was never going to work as written (and re-wrote it for the web). Projects like the imagemap that showed rooms that needed service.

But I can't show you the code that I wrote. You'll just have to take my word that they're awesome and made people happy. All of that code sits on disks behind firewalls; save for the little bit that I liberated on a mailing list.

And that's why you get the project that did make people happy; the project that made a friend's wedding all the better. Did it save the company money? Who cares? Did it surprise and delight the customer? I'd like to think so. Did it arrive on-time and under-budget? Well, they used it for their wedding so you tell me.

Questions like this favor people who can tell good stories about their projects. They also have a high bias towards projects where the person involved felt happiest while doing the project. They also tend to favor projects where the person can show you the code.

What about the times when the developer was on a death-march and everything was going wrong for them? What about the projects where the customer said "that's nice" and when the developer left the project died (that was the Visual Basic project that I worked on). What about the times when the developer didn't listen to management and took advantage of a brief window where they re-wrote the whole system and put it up on the web (That Visual Basic project again).

You're not going to get those stories out of an interview question like this. You're only going to get the highlight reel. And much like sports highlight reels you're going to get the stories that have the best visuals. You're going to get the ones that have the best stories to tell, with code that can be shared.

What are some of the stories that you have about developing projects?

Claes Wallin (韋嘉誠) likes this.

Claes Wallin (韋嘉誠), Claes Wallin (韋嘉誠), Claes Wallin (韋嘉誠) shared this.

I like your story about the photobooth software. I think it has aspects that can be discussed and further expanded during an interview that should get at things people are interested in.

[I almost deleted what I wrote below because it reads negative. I don't mean to be negative. Try to read it with a matter-of-fact voice.]

I'm in a similar boat to you. I can't show other people any of the projects I've ever worked on. On top of that, I struggle with "pride". It's not that I don't  "take pride" in my work, in that I try to achieve the highest quality possible. I do that. However, I am not proud of any of the things I've worked on. The resulting objects are not things that I think are valuable, so there's nothing there for me to be proud of. I created them (or helped create them). They exist. But that's it. Apparently other people have found the objects valuable, but I never have. It's difficult to find an exemplar using an emotion I am not experiencing.

Anyway, when faced with a question like that, I have one particular professional experience that I can talk about in specific terms. It's not even a project. It's just an aspect of a project, but at least it is something I can talk about in detail with some enthusiasm that hopefully satisfies the interviewer.

An aspect of this problem is that when I'm not working, I struggle to do things related to engineering and development. I tend to spend my time on family, friends, chores, and, if I have time left, other hobbies unrelated to my profession. If I don't do the "other hobbies", I tend towards feeling burned out. So there's very little spare bandwidth for developing a portfolio away from my professional work. (I know. I know! I'm just not passionate enough.) I use that very little spare bandwidth for staying abreast of the industry or learning things that interest me since I've never worked anyplace that wants to invest in my continuing education. However, that learning doesn't generally result in anything significant that I can show people unless it gets used... at work. And so it continues...

Charles Stanhope at 2017-08-23T21:04:43Z

Claes Wallin (韋嘉誠), Craig Maloney likes this.