Three Tips for Answering “Tell Me About Yourself”

I've said I don't like the “Tell me About Yourself” question long ago and more recently. It's not a useful question. But that's not going to stop interviewers from asking it.

Here are my three tips for answer this question.

  1. Remember that you are not your degrees or certifications.
  2. Remember that you are not your role (project manager, developer, tester, whatever).
  3. Remember that you need to articulate your value.

If you remember those three ideas, how do you answer this question? Here are some examples.

Example #1: Let's assume you are a project manager, with a slew of certificates and an MBA. You don't say, “I have an MBA and a PMP.” No, you say, “I ran a geographically distributed agile program. We succeeded because I helped people learn how to see their interdependencies. I helped the teams learn to collaborate. I never worked so hard in my life, not driving to a date. I didn't learn any of this in school or in my certifications. I learned it on the job, experimenting, using the data to see what did and didn't work. I know what works on an agile program with teams and people all over the world. Some of it isn't pretty. But, with experimentation, we can make it work.”

Example #2: Let's assume you are a tester. (Some people call this QA Engineer.) You don't say, “I'm a QA Engineer” or “I'm a tester.” Nobody cares if you have certifications.  You say, “I provide information about the product under development, regardless of where in development that product is. I can read specs. I can argue architecture. I can create tests anywhere in the product development lifecycle. On my most recent project, we had an intermittent performance problem. I partnered with a business analyst and a developer to create tests that we would run over several builds to find that problem and analyze it. We discovered that the problem had been there from the beginning, and that new code uncovered it. Our partnership was key to uncovering and debugging the problem.”

Example #3: Let's assume you are a developer. You might say something like this: “I work with the team to develop creating solutions to problems. On the last project, we had to improve database performance by at least 20%. That was a hard problem. We needed to be able to rollback, too. We couldn't just make this a one-way solution. We had to experiment with several solutions. I facilitated those problem solving sessions. They were loud sessions, but we solved the problem in a really interesting way. If we hadn't used our tests as a safety net, I don't know what would have happened. I couldn't tell people they had to test as we went. I had to influence them. My development skills are great, but I'm not just a developer. If you hire me, you'll get a great developer who's also a great facilitator within the team.”

Do you see how those answers differ from the standard, “I went to this school, I have this job, I did that thing”? These answers have the start of interesting details about you. You want to continue with your value. See Four Tips for Defining Your Value.

If you like this post, you want to read Manage Your Job Search.

3 Replies to “Three Tips for Answering “Tell Me About Yourself””

  1. As an interviewer, I use this question to get a feel for cultural fit. It’s not so much the content of the response as the topics that the candidate chooses to represent themselves.

    Any of these responses would make me think that the candidate either defines themselves by the work they do, or they want me to think they define themselves by the work they do. Neither is a great sign. I am genuinely interested in the people I work with, and I want people who are self-aware about their personality and their priorities.

    All of these responses would be more appropriate for a question like “tell me about how you operate outside of your core role” or “how do you approach problem solving?” — they’re so dry and transparently self-promotional that they don’t communicate personality.

    Not to say it can’t be work related. In your first example, I would suggest something like “I’m a problem solver, and I love new challenges that make me learn and think and maybe push me outside of my comfort zone. We’re doing a house remodel, and I decided to do the cabinetry myself… and wow has that been a learning experience! Even though I did a ton of research, my first few doors looked like jigsaw puzzles. But it’s coming together now and I’m glad I did it. That’s also why I love this kind of work…[insert work anecdote if it’s relevant and brief].”

    1. HI Brooks, thanks for writing.

      The problem I have with this question in an interview, is that an interview is about the work. People feel that they need to sell themselves. Most of the time, they are correct. In the US, at least, you can’t discriminate for or against people by asking them what they do outside of work.

      Now, if you want to know about cultural fit, there are much better questions. Remember culture is these three issues:
      * What people can discuss
      * What the organization rewards
      * How people treat each other

      If you understand your culture, and you want to know if a person can manage him or herself where people discuss quietly vs. where people scream at each other, ask that. Don’t ask “tell me about yourself.” You won’t learn what you want to know.

      You are right. Culture trumps technical skills, every time. I say that in Hiring Geeks That Fit, in the first chapter. So ask about culture. Don’t expect a wide-open question to do that cultural fit probing for you.

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