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How to talk about 'what went wrong' in an engineering interview (Candidate Blog)

Engineering as a trade carries more risk than many traditional jobs and for that reason, things can go wrong.

Managing key risks and associated uncertainty with any project is crucial to delivering value and success safely and to budget.

When things go wrong, our natural tendency is to cover them up or to downplay the impact. However, giving the appropriate time to investigating accidents and correcting mistakes will often save bigger misfortune later in the project.

When it comes to your next move, and of course your next interview, you may well be faced with the classic question: “can you give me an example of a time you made a mistake and what you did about it?”.

This question is not a trick. It’s a chance for the recruiter or the employer to find out about your integrity and your ability to deal with unforeseen challenges. So, with that in mind, here are our top three suggestions for answering this tricky question:

Actions speak louder than words:
Spotting problems early and dealing with them head on often saves time and money in the long run. Stating you understand this as context will show maturity but it’s always more compelling to back up this principal with a solid example. Try to think of a time you were part of or even caused a mistake: what happened and why, what did you learn and what have you changed as a result? 

Even if you don't have an example of an issue you resolved, try to think of a risk you spotted or a time you managed to avoid an incident from escalating.

Get close to risk:
No matter what level you are at, understanding risk and how to manage it is crucial because everything you do comes down to delivering safe results. 

Explaining what you know about risk and why you thought it was important to learn the fundamentals will put you in good stead and will form the foundation of management roles in the future.

Make it your job to learn about the risk management plan in terms of project roles, responsibilities, tools, processes and registers.

Perhaps you could talk about a specific example in relation to local laws and regulations and contractual terms, or in relation to health and safety, the environment or finance.

Structure your answer:
When difficult questions arise in an interview situation, we tend to panic; thinking more about what the interviewer wants to hear rather than the real answer. To structure an answer to a difficult question, try this formula:

  • Context: outline where you were, what the project was and what was going on at the time.
  • Action: outline exactly what happened in the build up and what happened during the event. Then talk about what actions you took to help. Remember to use ‘I’ not ‘we’ to show your role in matter.
  • Result: Explain what happened as a result of your actions and what changed longer term.

All in all, our advice is be honest, open and humble. Pick an example you can control and be sure to outline what has changed as a result of your learning.

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