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Ask HN: How do you answer “where do you see yourself in 5 years?”
69 points by mud_dauber 84 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments
This literally came to me in the shower.

A couple of recruiters posed the "5 years" question to me over the past week. In earlier days I would have signaled my ambition with "general manager with P&L responsibility" or some similar sentiment.

Well, the years have passed. I've cycled through a series of, well frankly, shitty tech jobs. I'm relatively close to FIRE status but forge ahead whenever there's an opportunity to learn a new skill, or to be around people that I like & trust. Hopefully both.

My question is, why not answer the 5Y this way: "As the technical master of <this domain at this company>. Nothing more, nothing less." Because I've had it with trying to look ambitious. It's just not worth the heartburn.

Counterpoints welcomed.




Choose a job title on the "technical ladder" at the far end of realistic, and say that you are aiming for that. "I want to be a Principal Engineer."

Given your preferences and job history, don't say that you want to be a manager, because interviewers will worry that you don't want to do hands-on work. (Of course, other candidates with a clear management path can talk about that.)

Showing respect to the technical ladder will get you bonus points, because executives really want employees to see it as a serious and equivalent alternative to the managerial ladder.


Choose a job title on the "technical ladder"

This is an excellent answer. It also removes those companies from the employer pool that for some reason still don't have a technical ladder.


I'm pretty bearish on the established technical ladder unless you're very high up it. If your job title contains a number it can only work against you.


Yeah, I had in mind a categorization like "engineer, distinguished engineer, fellow". Basically implications that one can reach vc level impact and compensation on the technical track and that's baked in into the organization. But definetly not a complex level-up game.


My point is that executives want the tech ladder to be taken seriously. So, mention it in the interview. Whether it actually should be taken seriously depends on the company.


Preferably research that in advance. But even if a company has not established an official technical ladder, managers appreciate an engineer with a clear desire to advance technically who does not want to be a manager.


My traditional answer has been one that looks backwards before forwards. I'd entered college assuming I'd be a doctor, then focused my vision on being a researcher enough to see what I knew I didn't want to be (That has a bit of a jingle to it, quite enjoyable). Eventually I found a new wind (Still in college, thankfully), focusing on computer science, which led me to my first role that was a combination of biochemistry and computer science. Always trying to find a vision, but never being able to project a flashlight that far into the future. Or maybe never willing, graduate school most certainly would have set me on a track for 5 years (And likely many more).

In crux, my answer is that I couldn't have answered that question in a meaningful way 5 years ago, so I've learned to express that I don't expect myself to have an answer based on my experience.

I have, however, learned some characteristics of where I hope to be -- the problems must be interesting and the people thoughtful. New ideas excite me, so I'd expect there would be some component of that as well. I'm only 26, so I suppose I'm living in a brackish estuary of naiveness and perspective. I wrote an essay when trying to get into one of those fancy "Top ranked" colleges at 18 -- the prompt asked, in short, "What is between living and dreaming?" -- I said "pursuit", and I would still say so.


I think the best way to "answer" the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-5-years question would be to first reflect on what the intention behind the question actually is.

I've never asked that question of a candidate because I find it insipid and believe it would be a turn off to cool people. It makes the interviewer seem like a corporate stooge, and may put the interviewee into a bullshit corporate appeasement mode. I think this is the only correct assessment of that question. A skilled behavioral interviewer would never use such a stupid question, IMHO.

I've never been asked that question. I suppose I would answer with bullshit if I really still wanted the job. As for the actual true answer? I have no freaking idea. It depends on what happens, what opportunities arise, and what obstacles. I fully expect corporate drones would not appreciate such an answer, so bullshit it is.


I'd kindly disagree. Building a team is about finding the candidates that will work over the long term. If a candidate said they wanted to be a manager in 5 years and I already had a team of those people, I know I'm going to disappoint someone down the line. The inverse is also true, it depends on the current team make up.

You certainly don't want to push someone to be a team leader that just wants to focus on great code.

There's a right answer to the question but it's not a trick question, it's purely about suitability.

The question should always be answered honestly as it's about the long term.


I always answer this kind of dumb question just as you suggest. Nobody asks orthodontists where they want to be in ten years. It's stupid to have growth expectations for senior programmers. Companies should know that they are hiring veteran engineers for what the company will learn, not for what the candidate will learn.


No offense, but some of the worst people I’ve ever worked with were “senior” engineers who were convinced that everyone needed to learn to think like them, and that there was nothing left for them to learn themselves. An orthodontist job doesn’t require the same people skills as an engineer working in a team, so it’s not really comparable.


I think simple practice of craft is a huge missing piece in our field. Everyone is trying to learn something, or invent it, and relatively little practical mastery. When I hire a new grad I expect someone who will learn and grow. When I hire someone with 20 years of experience it's because I want them to do what they know. They're at the top of their game. The only people skills I need out of them is good taste and the ability to say "no" without hurting feelings.


I cater my answer to the nature of the company. Each company has some internal culture of what is valuable and what is not and I try to learn that before going in there. There is an answer they want to hear and that is what they get.

The question is largely useless. The opportunities available always change and circumstances always change.

5 years ago, I was applying to universities hoping to work in oil and gas. I switched after first year as I was never keen on chemical engineering and tech had proven that it was around for the long haul (I learned to program when I was 13, so I had the passion but just wasn't convinced that it wasn't another 2000).

3 years ago I would never have thought about working in government, but when I graduated last year, I read the recession warnings and chose it over the startups. I am happy I made that choice right now as my other incidental offer at the time has since had layoffs.

If you asked me in February of 2017 what I would be doing that summer, I would have said trip to Europe. In March of 2017, I got an extremely cool innovation internship and still have never been to Europe.

Problem is, if I said any of that in an interview, I would seem like a dilettante and/or an opportunist.


i couldnt answer it honestly in an interview because the truth is, in 5 years i hope im as far away from software development as possible


It’s probably fine to answer this way at companies that would be a good fit.


This is how I have been feeling lately as well


ever since I work remotely (since 5 years so), I've never felt bored "at work"


Why?


more to the point, in the past few years ive come to see SWE as the best paid grunt on the team. what i mean is, you have tremendous amounts of power, but that power is not recognized by the political power holders of the organization. i find that annoying, but i know it isn't unique to SWE


I want to be retired and making bad art


OP here and you are my spirit animal.


It seems like you're starting from the assumption that this is a gotcha question, and if you don't look ambitious you'll be immediately disqualified. That's not always the case (and if it is the case, I would question if either the recruiter is just kind of clueless and has no idea what skills are actually important for the job, or the company/team have some unsustainable or unhealthy idea of what to expect from their employees).

As a hiring manager, personally if I ask a question like this I am genuinely just interested in figuring out what your priorities are and getting to know you. What motivates you, how do you approach your work, and what do you view as your strengths? Depending on the existing makeup of the team, I may be looking for different things at different times in terms of who would be the best fit.

But I definitely don't want a team entirely composed of people who are all unhappy in their current role and all looking for a promotion. Yes, maybe they'll all work hard but it can easily backfire too. Maybe it will tend towards a hyper competitive environment with a lot of big egos and interpersonal conflicts. Or maybe people will start checking out or leaving the company if they don't feel challenged in their roles or don't feel that they have the impact they want.

It's true that you also don't want to seem lazy. Don't say something like "I'm just looking to clock in and collect a paycheck". But as long as you seem interested in the company and in doing solid work, you really don't need to have ambitions of becoming a manager or beyond.


Maybe I am fortunate, but the reason I have been asked this is because my boss wants to know how to groom me. When I stepped into my job, I was asked that and I said I want to be pursuing my PhD within 5 years (I just got my MS). So they proceeded to make sure I got research experience so a) I knew what I was getting into (my boss has a PhD in a technical background), b) I was competetitve at getting a scholaship through my job (which i got), and so that I could be competitive at getting accepted (which I did).

When I was younger, my previous answer was "I don't know", and I asked what they have typically seen too. It's also okay not to know what you want to do in five years, and ask for help and/or mentoring. When I just got out of college, the very last thing I wanted to do was go back to school. But I was also fortunate to have people help find what motivates me, and how to grow in my career.

I say that to say, depending on where you are, your boss is asking you because they geniunely want to help you end up being where you want to be in five years. We also have people who are happy being bench level engineers, so we don't groom them to learn management, and we also have some that want to be technical managers, so we put them in roles so they can learn.


Well, first I always answer with the truth. Whatever that is. And your answer (which seems like the truth for you) is totally acceptable.

By answering with the truth, you ensure that both you and the recruiter (or maybe an executive of a candidate company) are on the same page and you can safely proceed with spending both of your next 5y time together.

Now, whether you are confident enough about your answer or you think that you don't know, that's acceptable too. Knowing means that you found your purpose and you are actively going towards it.

For me, that was the case from a very early age (literally, I was 12 when I wrote my first app and decided that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life) up until my 30th birthday. The answer was this exact phrase: "I want to become a great software engineer that can work for a great company and build great things together. Part of that is the money because I know it's a higly-paid job. The other part is that I'm very passionate about it."

After my 30th birthday though, things changed. It's been two years now and while I succeeded in my 5y goal, now I don't really know where I'm heading to. I don't know where I want to be in 5y. I don't stress it though.

It all comes down to purpose I think. And short-term goals that serve that purpose.


"In five years I would like to drop my kids off at school, play 18, then pick them up."


[flagged]


So how did you know I was talking about golf?


Google


Exactly, the same way I know about chariot racing and Pangea.


So you had to Google that a reference to 18 holes = golf.

Good lord. Lol. Thanks for posting.


Predicting the future is really hard, and a lot can happen in 5 years. I would reframe the question to a more reasonable time-domain and talk about my personal and/or professional growth goals. If you don’t have any then this is worth spending some time thinking about. In my experience, if you don’t prioritize your time then someone else will, and they’ll likely have different goals than you.


I'll do the same thing I've always done. Plan out the next couple years with some long term goals mixed in. I'll do the best I can to achive them and constantly readjust as life requires. Lets be real though most of those goals have little to do with the company I work at anyone who says otherwise is lying. Unless. The company offers profit sharing or stock options with realistic vesting. Does your company offer these things if so then we have some interesting stuff to talk about.

To be fair most interview questions like this I answer with something moderatly controversially engaging without being offensive. I've gotten every job I've applied to except for one and at the end of that interview I was like "what was wrong with me?"


I read Range by David Epstein a few months ago. He makes the case that you shouldn't try to have a "5 year plan." You should just be prepared to adapt to whatever opportunities/challenges come your way, or allow yourself to pursue things you discover you like.


That is a perfectly reasonable and honest answer.

It also is NOT what most of the companies want to hear. Giving that answer will close the door on a lot of job opportunities.

It is up to you to decide if you want to filter out those companies or not.


"In the middle of a six month sabbatical after years of hard work at <your company> paid off in a big way."

works for: - startups (i seek to play a big role in making you guys a smash hit) - enterprises (i made everything so much better to the point that it's safe for me to take an extended vacation) - yourself! (i have accomplished something big and meaningful and hopefully profitable and i feel that i will have earned a break in 5 years)


Think about what the interviewer is trying to learn. They are saying "Please explain to me what career path you're looking for. Tell me if you're looking for a short term thing or you want a career here. Do you want to grow technically or managerial? Are you even thinking about growth or are you thinking about it in terms of honing your current title?"

I would say if you want the best fit you should answer earnestly.


Maybe don't try to look ambitious, just be honest about what your 5 year plans are? Homeowner, family, dog? Or perhaps travel the world? They may not be looking for "ambition" but work life balance fit, for example, and a family might preclude that. Or if you want to travel, they might have remote options in mind. Coming off as one dimensional might not help their decision making process.


I always struggle with the question.

I have no firm direction in which I want to go. In fact I don't even see anything exciting in this industry on the horizon.


In the beginning of my tech career when I was looking for my second job, I had an interview and then was asked to fill a written application with this question.

The question sounded out-of-context/bizarre to me, and in addition I didn't liked the company, so I wrote:

"In 5 years I'll become the CEO of this company and will fire you all" ;)


So... did they make you an offer?


no


I think you are asking the wrong crowd.

I have asked almost all the common questions at some point, but searching through my overly detailed notes, I never asked this one.

My rather dismal view is Recruiters are primarily looking first for positive keyword matches in the resume, then for negative interview signals to justify adding you to the discard pile.

Try asking r/recruiting?


Retired on Hawaii with 3 Lambos in my garage. I seriously used it once during an interview - stupid question, stupid answer.



Right now?

"Not being a COVID-19 statistic!"

Also trying to figure out if getting out of the US is a good idea.


In this company, but in a position that pays 3x more the position I'm applying to right now. Does this position exist?

"Hum, not right now. We are a flat organization and we want to stay like this for the coming years."

Got it. Thank you.


Since they've looked at my CV and see I generally leave companies after 3-4 years I am always surprised when I get this question.

Especially if they combine that with an earlier expression of my moving on from companies a lot.


When they are asking you such uninspired questions I'm totally unsurprised when they can't even make their questions consistent.


"I guess that depends; where do see this company in five years?"


What does FIRE status mean?


Financial independence, retire early.

In other words, having enough savings to walk away from a job and being able to work on or do whatever one desires regardless of if it pays well or at all.


Thanks!


FIRE = Financial Independence, Retire Early


Thanks!


I usually politely decline answering to these bullshit questions.


"I'll be celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me this question of course! Let me ask you, where would I be most useful five years from now?"

Never fails.


Working half as hard for twice as much money?


Taking this company to global domination and making you rich enough not to have to ask this question ever again.


For all the airtime this gets online, I've literally never been asked this question, or any variant of it.


The dishonest way to answer is to figure out what they have a shortage of and pretend you fit into that slot.


"Celebrating the 5th anniversary of you asking me this question."


I always used to say "On that side of the desk" and point to the interviewer.


"Hopefully some place I didn't anticipate."


I say: I don’t have that kind of powers and move on


In the mirror.


>"where do you see yourself in 5 years?"

Don't say "doing your wife", don't say "doing your wife"

"Doing your... son?"

Sorry for the cheap laugh. I really needed it right now. Maybe some other people do as well.


Generous of you to give away such comic gold for free to those in need.


Lol I came here for saying this :)


Creating a rival firm with all the IP I've glossed, how about you? "Sitting on the other side of the desk with our roles reversed" is also an entertaining answer.

What's the point of this question? I think it is: do you have an image of yourself or an archetypal vision you are striving to achieve? It is a question that is mainly asking you about commitment, the only controllable factor in business, so any answer that highlights this (such as the OP) are great.




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