Today I met someone who is interviewing for SWE roles but struggling to make it past recruiter screens. When I asked what types of questions they are asking he replied with the one that's been tripping him up.
"Tell me about a time where you ran into conflict in your work and how did you deal with it".
He's been answering like many of us would when we first started answering this question: I don't really get into conflict at work. Unfortunately whether this is true or not it signals many things.
- You are conflict adverse and do not assert your opinion and disagree on technical decisions.
- You haven't had enough experience to be in these kinds of situations.
- You are secretly an asshole and are lying so you don't need to share how crappy of a person you can be.
- You are confusing conflict with fights/anger.
Chances are you've had plenty of conflicts even if you are only a year or so into your SWE career.
Examples of conflict
Have you had a co-worker give your code a negative review and ask for changes? There's conflict. Have you and a co-worker disagreed on how complicated or simple something may be to solve? There's conflict.
The signal that a recruiter wants to get is that you are a team player, not an asshole, and can solve technical and interpersonal problems and achieve the desired business outcome for your role.
Getting into conflict at work
If you are a junior engineer, you are probably not designing systems and planning sprints. However, you can and should be asking the senior engineers on your team why things are done a certain way, why a particular design choice was made. In general you should be poking holes at ideas and the status quo with the intention to make things better. Likely you'll get a response say, "Oh I hadn't thought about it that way". But certainly you could get a "I don't agree with that". At this point make sure to communicate clearly and ask clarifying questions. A good practice is to disagree but move on with a solution in mind. Or collaborate and come up with a better one together.
Either way the "conflict" should be healthy, productive, and advance the project or business.