Answering Interview Questions Using the STAR Method
The STAR method can help any interviewer give a clear and detailed explanation for an interview question.
Due to traveling a lot recently, my newsletter has been sporadically going out on Friday and Saturday instead of my intended Thursday. And here we are again, a Saturday morning in a hotel room, wrapping up an article.
The last few days, my wife and I have been in Colorado. She's running a marathon on Sunday, and I'm the crew. We're doing some light hiking (absolutely a bad way to prepare for a marathon, by the way) to acclimate to the elevation, and see some pretty things.
As a reminder to anyone new, I'm Dave (former Amazon Tech Director and GM, among other things). I send out this newsletter weekly, approximately on Thursday, but sometimes on other days. I write on leadership, promotions, getting things done, management, and interviewing. At a high level, everything I think is valuable for someone wishing to be successful in their career. Outside my newsletter, I additionally offer personal coaching and classes.
I have performed well over a thousand interviews in my career. International events where we interviewed 8 candidates a day. College students. People interviewing for positions inside Amazon's vast data centers. Candidates for teaching positions. Candidates of all different levels, job families, and amounts of experience.
In all cases, there is a common element to their interviews, and how they should be answering questions.
To jump ahead a little, this article will walk through why the STAR method of answering questions is important, and provide some suggestions for how to perform your best.
It has been awhile since I've written an interview advice article. Follow that link if you're interested in more on the same topic.
A candidate will be asked for an example of how they demonstrated a skill or behavior that is needed by the hiring company.
"Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a co-worker (or classmate)."
This question will help the interviewer understand how you deal with conflict. Do you speak down about your co-workers? Do you seek to win arguments, or find common ground? At Amazon, this would be “Earns Trust” and perhaps touches on “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”.
"Tell me about a time you had to act quickly."
This question will help the interviewer understand how you deal with time pressure. Can you make an educated judgement call without a full understanding about a problem? Do you have ways of mitigating risk when making quick decisions? At Amazon, this would be “Bias for Action”.
"Tell me about a time you realized that your initial plan of action was wrong."
This question will help the interviewer understand how you deal with changing your mind, learning, and being flexible. Can you admit to being wrong sometimes? Do you blame it on others, or do you accept it as a learning experience? Do you learn things from your mistakes? At Amazon, this would be “Are Right, A Lot” and “Learn and Be Curious”.
I gave a few examples of the leadership principles Amazon interviewers might be looking for, but of course any story can end up demonstrating significant breadth of leadership and ability.
But that depends on what story you choose, and how you tell it.
So the interviewer raised a question. The candidate pauses, and thinks that they do indeed remember a time when they had that situation. Time to answer, right?
Let's say that you're a software engineer, and you were asked about a time you had to move quickly. The interviewer wants to know how you process quick decisions, and mitigate risk.
The first example that pops into your head is a time you had to quickly delete some files because you were running late on your work, and you mistakenly deleted a bunch of important production files.
Yes, the story does fit the requirements. But is it the story you really want to tell? I think you just explained that you sometimes run late on your work, and then you do crap quality work to catch up. Not inclined to hire.
Work backwards from what the interviewer wants to hear.
You heard the question. What does the interviewer want to know?
They want to know you are comfortable moving quickly and making judgement calls in high pressure situations. You need to think of a situation where you can demonstrate this ability.
That's the story you'll want to tell.
Telling a story is hard
It can be surprisingly difficult to tell a story. Your story might include a project which was historically delayed, a co-worker you have a history of conflict with (for a complex reason), a manager who was on vacation, complex technical details in a system the interviewer won't know, and so on.
Even if the story seems relatively simple, getting the context set for the interviewer is hard.
I can't count how many times I heard something like, “and then the operations leader got involved, which upset my boss.”
Wait. Who is the operations leader? Why do we care about them? Why did your boss care? How did they get involved?
Breaking a story down (in your head) into a few clear components can ensure that you tell a complete story, which your interviewer can follow more easily.
These components form a convenient acronym of STAR to help you remember each part.
Situation - Where do you work, what is your position, who are you working with?
Task - What is your goal or thing you need to accomplish, and why is it important?
Action - What actions did you take to accomplish your task?
Result - What were all the results, and the things you learned from this situation?
This organization around answering questions may seem obvious, but it is common for candidates to answer questions while skipping one of these elements. What happens then?