If asked a series of technical questions in a programming interview, does it look bad to admit when you don't know the answer to a question?

In other words, does admission make you look incompetent or ill prepared? Or, is it assumed that no one will know the answer to every question? Does admitting it instead of taking a shot in the dark make you look honest or like you're a know-it-all?

  • 3
    General interview questions (i.e. not specific to programmers) are off-topic here. You can find a lot of information about the dos and don'ts of the interview process out there, and hopefully in the future the Professional Matters proposal becomes a site and makes these questions on-topic there.
    – Adam Lear
    Nov 30 '11 at 15:13
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    Why off topic? The implication was that these are technical questions in a programming interview. I can edit the question to make it more explicit, but the point is that I want to hear the perspective of people hiring programmers.
    – dsimcha
    Nov 30 '11 at 15:13
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    As written, it's definitely off-topic. If you want this to be specific to technical questions, you should at least spell that out instead of leaving it as implied.
    – Adam Lear
    Nov 30 '11 at 15:20
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    I do think this is off-topic as well, but we do have a duplicate question (also closed as off-topic), What to say when you don’t know the answer to an interview question?. The end result would be the same, but the close reason could be changed to exact duplicate.
    – user8
    Nov 30 '11 at 15:21
  • No one knows everything, so I prefer from a programmer that he knows that he doesn't know [and says so] than makes up a BS answer because, as a manager, I need people I can count on given I don't micro-manage everything. So, if you don't know, say so (you may want to propose how you would look for the answer however, that shows initiative). So if an interviewer looked down on you for telling them the truth, that's most likely not a place you want to work at because accurate knowledge of a situation is the best friend of a manager.
    – wildpeaks
    Nov 30 '11 at 17:25

I would rather someone admits that they don't know then try to make up an answer. One of the greatest skills that a person can have is to know what they know and know what they don't know. It's also a great start to a discussion if you indicate what you would do to find the answer if you needed to know something to do your job.

  • I'm not sure that "knowing what you don't know" is as much a skill as an attribute of the "INTJ" personality types common amongst developers. Knowing when to submit is important. Sometimes a more creative (dreamer) attitude is required to balance things out. Nov 30 '11 at 15:19
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    @P.Brian.Mackey I don't exactly follow. Being able to realize that you are lacking certain skills or knowledge to achieve an objective and then being able to identify how to obtain the skills or knowledge (either for yourself, or by finding someone who already has them and can complete the objective) is a skill that anyone can develop, regardless of personality type. It's also a skill that I would look for in a candidiate. Creativity has nothing to do with knowing the limits of your own knowledge, skills, and abilities.
    – Thomas Owens
    Nov 30 '11 at 15:24
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    I will admit I do not know, and then explain how I would find the answer. Nov 30 '11 at 15:26
  • @Thomas Perhaps its just a simple difference in perspective. My experience with creatives is that they often do not know what they are dreaming about. Whether it is possible to achieve, cost, other relevant details to project success I consider to be in the realm of "knowing in advance" or "knowing what you don't know" about a project's potential for success. Dreamers don't care about these things. They are just pushing out ideas. Its up to other personalities to hash those details. typelogic.com/intj.html Nov 30 '11 at 15:31
  • +1 for the explaining how you would get the answer. Whenever I look for people I know that they won't know the answer to everything (in an interview or in the job.) What really interests me is what they do when faced with something they don't know.
    – ridecar2
    Mar 29 '12 at 16:16

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