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3 Alternatives to Saying, “I Don’t Know” In Interviews

Ryan Latta
I've been in the SW game for 10 years. Somewhere I wound up helping devs navigate their career, and I fell in love with it. By day I consult for SW companies, by night I help devs with their careers.
Originally published at on ・3 min read

You’ll inevitably hear some question that you don’t know the answer to during an interview. How you handle that moment can either leave the interviewer nodding in approval or unsure if you’re ready.

Before I jump into how to handle this, I want to point out why this is a certainty: The tech field is just too big to have all the answers in our heads. Most interviews favor obscure, ridiculous, and trick questions that are all geared to mess you up. There is a specific interviewing technique that I call “The probing question,” which specifically tries to get someone to the boundary of their knowledge.

In other words, you’ll get asked a question, and you will have no idea what the answer is.

So here’s what you can do about it:

Technique 1: Focus on What You Can Do

When you hear that question and your brain immediately turns to jelly because it draws a total blank, you want to shift gears quickly.

Instead of focusing on the answer and how you don’t have it, focus instead on the process you’d follow to arrive at the solution.

In other words, tell them what you can do to get the answer.

A pretty easy way to launch into that is to say, “Oh, that’s interesting, I haven’t come across that before, but here’s what I’d do…”

By doing this, you’re keeping a conversation going and demonstrating your ability to solve problems, keep composure, and how you work.

Technique 2: Tell A Story

Somewhat related to the first technique, you can instead tell a story about a time you solved a puzzle you didn’t have the answer to either.

Now, this one takes a little bit of extra work because you’ll have to relate your story back to the question. Thankfully this isn’t too hard to do. If you are getting asked about some obscure fact, tell a story where you had to learn an obscure fact. If it was a tricky coding problem, tell a story about solving a problem that felt obscure.

By telling a story, you’re using your past to show you’ve been through similar tricky situations in a deeply relatable way. Storytelling is a potent technique that builds relationships and rounds out rough spots in an interview.

Technique 3: Reversal

This last technique is probably the toughest to pull off but can pay off pretty big. The idea is to reverse the question back on the interviewer. It might go something like this:

“Oh, that’s interesting. Have you bumped into something like that here?”

If you can get the interviewer to share their story, they will build a relationship with you. You can ask more questions and talk like two peers.

There is a risk with this technique since many questions people ask are genuinely unrelated to anything, so you can’t reverse it for them to tell a story. What this will do in this case is highlight that they just asked you an unrelated question. At this point, your best bet is likely to leverage technique #2 and tell a story about something you can relate to.

I’ll give an example from my past to show how this might play out.

Them: How would you solve this… (Some problem related to relational databases) Me: Wow, do you all bump into this problem a lot? Them: Yeah, almost every project. It’s a pain to deal with, and we need to know our developers can do it. Me: Well, I’d use a NoSQL solution for this case, I think. Them: Uh, we’ve never used NoSQL before. How would that work? Me: No problem, let me walk you through how I’d do this.

I reversed the question, then did moved back to technique #1 and focused on what I could do. I had no idea how to answer the question they asked, so I created a scenario that I could attempt.

There you have it, three ways to handle the moment when you don’t know the answer in an interview.

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Discussion (2)

mccurcio profile image
Matt C

Very good suggestions!
This is a very difficult topic. In this world you "should" know the answer to Every question. Otherwise you risk seeming uninformed.
However, one thing my professor told me was "it is OK to say i don't know." I will add "strategically." it is good to know WHEN to use it.
For example, I have been asked scientific questions and my answers were something like,
"I do not keep up with that field of science. Could you please explain..."

recursivefaults profile image
Ryan Latta Author

And you're bringing up exactly one of the core elements to this. Terminating the conversation is worse than saying "I don't know."

As for the expectation that you should know the answer, I'd say that is unrealistic. It is commonplace for interviewers to purposefully ask questions until you hit the boundary of your knowledge. They do this to get an idea of your breadth and depth of knowledge. As candidates though, we don't know that is what is happening and how much breadth or depth is appropriate.