While I was working at Amazon, I wrote an article about Amazon's leadership principles. Tens of thousands of people read that article annually. Over the years, I had many Amazonians tell me that they were able to join Amazon in part due to that article. My newsletter has grown in popularity over the years on a variety of topics, but many readers still visit to learn more about interviewing at Amazon. I decided to circle back and fill in a gap in my articles.
When you're being interviewed, the questions are generally a mix of functional and behavioral questions. This article will cover how to pass the behavioral interview questions, which are centered at Amazon around the Amazon Leadership Principles. I've written a number of articles about interviewing at Amazon, if you would like to read more.
How to prepare
Take the list of leadership principles. For every leadership principle, you will want to think of two or three stories from your work experience which could answer questions related to that leadership principle.
If you're at the beginning of your career, everyone will understand if you need to reuse a story or two, or if you only have a single example available.
You want to have multiple stories per leadership principle for three basic reasons. First, you might use one of your stories for a different question. Second, it's possible two different interviewers will ask questions regarding that single leadership principle. Third, depending on how a question is asked, one story or another may be more appropriate.
You absolutely don't need to hide the fact that you've prepared for the interview. It only shows that you are taking the interview seriously if you have a list of stories in front of you, ready and waiting for questions.
You will be using the STAR format to answer the questions.
Situation — “I was the head of Marketing at Yellow Banana Corporation.”
Task — “I had to figure out how to sell Green Bananas.”
Action — “I created a new campaign emphasizing the fiber content of green bananas.”
Result — “We increased sales of green bananas by 27% that year.”
In the interview, you'll need to go into more depth, but that's the basic framework.
When preparing, don't write down your exact answers. If you look at basic instructions for making a presentation, the first thing people will say is to never read from your slides. This is like a presentation. You should have brief notes, which you will use to guide yourself to the right answers. Your notes ensure you don't get completely lost or miss a key detail, but you will give a natural answer.
Once the question has been asked
Start with rephrasing the question. It's always useful to state what the interviewer is looking for, even if it feels obvious to you. If nothing else, it shows that you're listening. In some cases, it could save you from a painful misinterpretation.
Consider writing down the key elements of the question. It's amazing how many people don't answer the full question. Particularly when it is a multiple part question.
"How did you recognize the problem, solve it, and measure if it worked?"
Ensure you're answering all the parts of the question. What often happens is that someone listens to the question, picks the story they decide will suit the question well, but then get carried away telling their story. They end up never answering the specific question asked. Don't just tell a story, answer the question.
Don't jump into answering quickly. Ask for a few moments to choose the best story, and plan how you're going to answer the question.
"Ok, you want to know about a time I had to move quickly without much planning. Let me see which example might suit your question the best."
You can absolutely spend 30 seconds to ensure you spend the next 5-15 minutes wisely.
As I mentioned before, you should do your best to tell new stories in every interview, as every interviewer reads the notes from your other interviews. If you do need to re-use a story for some reason, discuss that first with your interviewer. Particularly if it's a complex long-term project, you may wish to re-use different scenarios from the same project.
Begin with a summary
When you are telling a dramatic story, you want to surprise the audience with the ending. “…the door opened with a creaking noise. Someone lit a match. The room was empty. It turns out there was no dragon!”
The interview is not dramatic story telling time. You want your story to be clear from the beginning to the end.
I always suggest starting an interview answer with a one or two sentence summary of what you're going to be explaining.
"Tell me about a time you disagreed with a co-worker about something important."
"I'll tell you about when I was running marketing at Acme Shipping, when I recommended a major change, and my manager initially disagreed. We ended up following my recommendations. I'll explain what happened."
There are two reasons to do this.
Reason One — Stories are easier to follow if you know where they're going. You're explaining a group of unknown strangers working at an unknown company on an unknown project. It's hard to follow stories. Make it easier by giving them the basic outline of what you're going to describe.
Reason Two — They have a chance to stop you. It's not uncommon for someone to spend 5 minutes telling a story, and then the interviewer says that this was not a great example of what they were looking for. In fact, if you're not sure if your example works well, you can even ask to confirm if this story will work.
"Tell me about a time you solved a complex problem with a simple solution."
"I'll tell you about how I setup a Wifi network for my neighborhood. How does that sound?"
"That does sound interesting, but I'd prefer the story to be about your work."
Always share context and terminology
What does your company do? What was your position?
Who did you work with? Did they report to you, or to your manager? What was their title?
What does that acronym stand for? Why are those metrics important to you?
There are two critical reasons you need to be careful explaining context and terminology.
One — I can't follow your story if I don't understand it. If Jim is upset that you raised the SQT numbers for the Ploblato gears, I have no idea if raising those numbers was good or bad. Don't lose your audience by skipping details.
Two — If you lose me during the interview, I'm going to assume you will lose your co-workers at work. When you ask for a project status, or you explain a requirement to a co-worker, or you give a status update, I expect that you'll make the same mistakes. Particularly at a large company like Amazon, you will always be talking to people without much context. You need to be good at identifying what information may be present and what may be missing.
If you're unsure if they need more context, ask.
“I had to improve the latency of the website. Do you want me to walk through what latency is, and how we measured it?”
"We ran our projects using JIRA. Are you familiar with JIRA?"
When you've been working in the same industry or company for years, it can be challenging to recognize things your interviewer might not know. Think carefully through your terminology. Watch the interviewer for clues that you've just lost them. Occasionally ask if they're following your explanation.
Reasonable length answer with room to grow
I'd generally recommend you be able to fully answer a question within 2-4 minutes. Less than two minutes and it feels simple. More than 4 minutes, and you're eating up too much of the interview time.
What should happen is that you will explain the entire story (answering the question fully), and then the interviewer should ask follow-up questions. They may also interrupt you during the story to get to related, relevant details. Try not to get flustered while getting interrupted.
"So then we launched the email campaign. The campaign was -"
"Wait, I'm curious. How many emails did you send?"
"We went through our full list of subscribers, and examined their open rates. We picked the users who had open rates of over 25%, as that was approximately 30k members. That was the size of the campaign we wanted to send. So then-"
"Why 30k members?"
"We had purchased bulk discounts on the product, but only had 15k discounts available. This meant assuming an aggressive take rate of 50%, we could only support 30k potential customers. If we had more than 15k customers ask for the product without having a discount available, we would begin losing money on the campaign."
"Ah! I get it. Continue please."
In this contrived example, you can see the interviewer is curious about some random aspects of the answer. The interviewee demonstrates that they were deeply involved in the details of this project, had excellent reasons behind their decisions, and was able to competently answer follow-up questions.
Listen to the question — Emphasize key aspects
Listen carefully for what the interviewer is looking for. If you're paying attention, you'll know what they're looking for.
"Tell me about a time you observed low-quality output from a co-worker, and what you did about it."
I assume if you're familiar with the Amazon leadership principles at all, you'd figure out that this is Insist on the Highest Standards. Yet the leadership principle isn't the entire question.
“you observed” — The interviewer doesn't just want you to tell a story about you insisting on high standards, they want to know how you recognize work quality. Your story needs to include how you would identify low-quality work.
“a co-worker” — The interviewer made a point to mention your co-worker. This means they're also looking for how you interacted with the co-worker. How did you talk about the quality? How did they react? This has elements of earns trust in it.
“and what you did about it” — It is asking what you did. Did you personally resolve the low-quality work? Did you work through your co-worker?
Considering this breakdown, your perfect answer would emphasize that you recognized the concerning work through your deep dedication to quality. You worked carefully with your co-worker, interacting with empathy and understanding. You helped them recognize the importance of quality. They ended up fixing the problem, and becoming an advocate for quality themselves, due to your fantastic leadership.
What happens too often is that someone hears the words “low-quality”, and they wander off on a story about a time they fixed a customer-facing issue. They neglect the co-worker aspect, and they don't talk about how they identified the issue. The risk is that the interviewer may just shrug, and write down that you didn't have a great answer for their question.
In a perfect world, you would be identified as someone with an amazing set of skills. Companies would contact you, and ask that you join simply based on your reputation.
In the real world, we get to spend 45 minutes to an hour convincing a person that we would be a great co-worker. Interviewing is a skill like any other. Don't let yourself go in without practice.
Plan your stories. Practice your answers. Think carefully through how you explain your work experiences to demonstrate your fantastic abilities.
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