Where do you see yourself in five years?

This must be the most annoying question for many people during an interview process. An interview is a stressful situation, even for the most experienced performer, and yet you’re asked to predict the future, your future, just like that, without any other factors in. To be honest, I do not know what HR people want or think when they ask this, and I’m not sure they also do; I bet most are asking it because it is in their checklist.

Parenthesis on prediction: Five years is a long time. Often I am asked by friends and acquaintances on the (business) value of certain Engineering studies. I have learned to not answer this question, because it carries a lot of my biases, but also because I tell them this: If someone told you in 2007 that they began studying Civil Engineering in Greece, you’d assume -and tell them- that if they like the field, they won’t be out of work. Now Civil Engineering is 5 years of study (add one more for an MSc, a normal tradition in Greece) and you’re now in 2013, right in the middle of the Greek economic crisis, competing with thousands of other Civil Engineers, both old and new for virtually no work offered and for pennies.

That is why I hate these questions. But I’ve learned why certain people ask them. And this may provide a guideline how to think about these without hating the question or the interviewer. I am copying the relevant parts from an interview Brian Krzanich gave a few years ago:

I give the same advice to women and men about that. I tell them that there are three mistakes that people make in their careers, and that those three mistakes limit their potential growth.

The first mistake is not having a five-year plan. I meet so many people who say: I just want to contribute. But that doesn’t necessarily drive you to where you want to go in your career. You have to know: Where do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? Who do you want to be in five years?

The second mistake is not telling somebody. If you don’t go talk to your boss, if you don’t go talk to your mentors, if you don’t go talk to people who can influence where you want to be, then they don’t know. And they’re not mind readers.

The third thing is you have to have a mentor. You have to have someone who’s watching out, helping you navigate the decision-making processes, how things get done, how you’re perceived from a third-party view.

After that you can now have a discussion. When you want a raise you’re not only going in saying: I want more money. You’re going in and saying: Here’s what I want out of my career. Here’s what I accomplished. Here’s what I said I was going to do. Here’s what I’ve done. Not only do I deserve more money but I want to get to here on my career.

Because what you really want is to build a career, not just get the raise. And if you do those things, whether you’re a man or a woman, you’ll be a lot better off.

If you’d asked me in 2013 where would I see myself in 5 years, there is no way I would have predicted that I would have worked for three startups, a brief stint at Intel and the software house of the biggest lottery on the planet. I was working in the Public Sector and doing relatively OK. But I know I needed two things: A pay raise and to sharpen my skills. And mind you, I was not telling anybody nor had a mentor. I did not even know how to interview. You do not have to wait to have coffee with someone to get your push like I did.

Plan ahead.

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