Some job interviews have accidental trick questions; if you answer accurately, you don't get the job. In the tech world, part of the problem is the word "proficiency." Mishandling this word qualifies the unqualified and disqualifies the qualified.


Proficiency "implies a thorough competence derived from training and practice." At least, it does in most dictionaries and thesauri, but that's not how it's used during many job interviews in tech.

If you go to most tech job listings, they will ask for proficiency in a number of things that aren't particularly related. Resume advice will often include that you list things that you are proficient in. When I've been a hiring manager and I've gotten resumes or cover letters that say "proficient in," I always evaluate the credibility of that statement. Often, it is clear from the resume details that the candidate isn't proficient in that; he has just used it on the job before.

Sadly, when I am asked in phone screens if I am proficient at something and I answer honestly, I'm told that they really need someone who is proficient in that and turn me down. Sometimes, though, I know the candidate who got the job and they are less proficient in that thing than I am, so assuming that they were asked the same questions, they got the job because they lied.


Here's a telling example:

Must be proficient in Javascript and Javascript frameworks.

I'll just state right off the bat that anyone who claims to be proficient at Javascript frameworks is a liar. There are hundreds of them, doing different things in different ways, changing frequently. It is impossible to be an expert in every single one of them. If I am asked this in a phone screen, I may say that I've used Javascript on several projects, I've used other ECMA or ECMA-like scripting languages extensively, I'm familiar with several Javascript frameworks and what they are used for, and as such, I'm comfortable using Javascript and able to learn whatever frameworks are required.


If the person doing this screen is not a technical person, I will most likely be turned down for a second interview with a person who actually understands what I just said. If I say yes, I will likely get a second interview with someone who understands what I just said— but I will have lied to get that interview. If I correct that in the follow-up, that could be held against me.

But it's not always a lie. Lying requires the intent to deceive in addition to falsehood. One way that people can answer this question inaccurately without lying is by not knowing that proficiency means expertise. There are two other reasons that people wrongly fail this question: the Dunning-Kruger Effect and Impostor Syndrome.


The Dunning-Kruger Effect

To sum up, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that the more that you know about something, the less likely you are to believe that you are an expert in it; the less you know about it, the more you overestimate your knowledge. This is a phenomenon that is pretty obvious when you ask a high school physics question to a high school student vs. asking a physics professor. A high school student may give a simple recitation of the first two lines of a book section, while the professor may say that it's very complicated and there's so much that we don't know but the current hypothesis that Dr So-and-so is working on is this incredibly complicated thing and he thinks that is a reasonable explanation, so he's hoping to see results in a few years.


But I'll give you an example of how this can be a problem in the job-seeking realm. I have a friend who put on his resume that he is proficient in Excel. He asked me to review his resume.

Me: What's a pivot table?

Him: I don't know. What's a pivot table?

Me: It's the high-level thing in Excel that marketers and financial people use and I don't even know what they are, which is why I don't say that I'm proficient in Excel.

Him: Oh. So I should take that off then.

The reason that I know that I am not an expert in Excel is that I know that pivot tables exist, that I don't know what they do, and that it's the most powerful feature of Excel. He didn't know enough about Excel to know that entering data and doing basic math isn't enough to be an expert in Excel.


If I were asked if I were proficient in Excel, I would say no; he would have said yes. I know more bout Excel than he does but he would pass the job interview by being inaccurate.

Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is the voice inside your head that says that any minute now, the people around you will realize that you're not as smart or competent as they thought you were, that you've been a fraud all along. It has high prevalence among women and other minorities who may consider their success to be a result of affirmative action combined with luck, instead of their successes having been the result of their value and hard work. I've also noticed a high concentration in my friends who are extremely intelligent, straight white male allies from upper middle-class families, people who consider their privilege to have been the same sort of overwhelming contributing factor that minorities might attribute to affirmative action.


Impostor Syndrome can be thought of as an externalized version of Dunning-Kruger. I watch the people around me, competent, confident people. But I may think that they know more than they do. I may be relying on their confidence as a cue, but that confidence could be the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the other person; their confidence may be inversely related to their knowledge. I may overestimate their knowledge because I know less about it than I know about my own knowledge; I may underestimate my own knowledge because I know more about it.

Thus, as a person in a group prone to impostor syndrome, if I am asked in an interview if I am proficient in Javascript, I may look at other people who know Javascript and overestimate their skills while underestimating my own. If, however, I were a man, I would be more likely to overestimate my skill level.


Proficiency and Self-Selection: A Testosterone Check

Women and minorities also self-select out of applying for jobs. I definitely do this and I've had days where I've sat down to look at job listings with a guy under direction to override my decision making if I think I'm underqualified for a job. In 3 cases that I know of, I refused to apply for a job even though the hiring manager told me to apply, because I lacked 1 of the qualifications. I know the people who got several of those jobs and I would have been a better candidate. In each case, they were men who were less qualified than I was, lacking the same qualification that I lacked, plus additional ones.


I've talked to hiring managers at several companies and they've told me that sometimes they put extra requirements in to scare away programmers who don't know what they're doing. They had no idea that by doing so, they were scaring away me even though they knew that I know what I'm doing. They asked me, specifically, why I had not applied, because if they'd realized that I was available, they would have hired me.

Apparently, the word "requirements" in many job ads doesn't actually mean "required;" it may mean "we require at least half of these." Similarly, the word "proficient" in job ads doesn't always mean "proficient." There are many jobs that I don't apply to because I know what proficient and required mean and they are being used incorrectly in the job ad and men end up also using them incorrectly in an identical way.

Potential Solutions


What we're dealing with here is a set of differences in the sexes that decrease hiring of women, especially in tech. It's unintended gender bias, so how do we fight an unintended gender bias?

First, you have to recognize the bias. If you're a woman, you need to try to act like an equally qualified man would act; this means applying for jobs that you are not qualified for. If you're a potential employer, you need to evaluate candidates in a more effective manner, taking that bias into account.

But Everyone Knows That Everyone Lies in Job Interviews

Ew. This is the solution that many guys give me. I pride myself on my ethics, so I'm not willing to lie in an interview. I get told that I should lie because it would help me get jobs and everyone else is lying anyway.


I think that this is a terrible solution in the case of tech work, because the work involves protecting secrets. I won't steal customer information and I won't tell anyone about that security hole you refuse to fix— even if you fire me and rip me off for previously unpaid paychecks. This is because I'm an ethical person and as an ethical person, it doesn't matter if everyone else is lying; I won't. "Well, maybe you should be just unethical enough to get jobs, then be ethical." Ew. NEXT.

List a Minimum Number of Requirements

Hey, potential employers, if you mean "needs at least 6 of 8" could you just say "needs at least 6 of 8?" The word requirements has meaning; please use it according to the dictionary.


Eliminate the Word Proficiency in Yes or No Questions


Part of the problem with the word proficiency is that it's used in yes or no questions, where anything other than a "yes" is a no. I propose that if people are going to require a "yes," to take any long non-binary answer as a yes if the interviewer isn't technically capable enough to understand the answer. This will allow leeway for people who know what proficiency means, are ethical enough to not lie, who are proficient enough to know that they aren't proficient, and/or who may be suffering from impostor syndrome.

I would personally go so far as to consider a "yes means no" attitude or asking an applicant to describe their proficiency, taking the question out of a yes or no format. If an applicant can't describe their "proficiency" they probably have very little skill in that area.

Or Bite the Bullet

And either make sure that the people doing the initial screen understand the technology required well enough to understand non-binary answers or have them institute an affirmative action system.


Until You Do

You reward inaccurate, dishonest men who overestimate their abilities. Is that really who you want to hire?