Behind the Scenes on an Amazon Recruiting Trip
The exhausting and strange process of interviewing dozens of people in bulk.
I have a personal vision of writing a novel someday. I think about it occasionally. I'm not desperate to start, but I also wonder if I'll still be dreaming about it in 15 years. I've tried writing my novel quite a few times. After a few days of writing, I hit a wall, and the drafts gather dust. I've moved my old drafts over the years from Evernote to Google Docs to Obsidian. New tools, same problems.
After I've failed a few times, it feels emotionally draining to try again. I anticipate writing daily through next Wednesday or Thursday before I decide to skip a day. And next thing I know, it's 2023 – and I haven't written my novel. But I've failed at writing a novel once more.
With all my emotional baggage on the table, I was pondering things yesterday as I cleaned our chicken brooder / bathtub (yes, those things are the same thing at the moment). An excuse I was trying out was that I was too busy writing articles to write a book. I dismissed this excuse, because other than one article a week, and some coaching sessions, I have an abundance of free time.
Thoughts still swirled around my head over the last day, until a new concept popped into my head. I enjoy writing business articles, but I also wanted to be a bit more creative. I wanted to write in narrative format, perhaps include a small amount of storyline. I wanted to skip teaching a lesson. It can be fun to explore different types of writing. And it's my newsletter, so I'm going to do that.
Therefore, today's article will be a little different. I've fielded hundreds of questions about the Amazon interview process, and I often share bits and pieces of what it was like behind the scenes. In this article, I intend to share what it was like to do a full Amazon recruiting trip, as the bar raiser, from beginning to end. It is not going to be a specific recruiting trip, because frankly they all blend together in my head. But the events portrayed are all experiences I encountered over the years, and represent the reality of doing one of these trips.
I know that a lot of recruiting is now done online, but that wasn't the case until recently, and may or may not stay that way in the long run.
Is there a specific learning behind this article? No, I don't think so. Is it potentially useful? Sure. Understanding other's experiences can be enlightening. And hopefully interesting. And I do apologize for the length. I got carried away.
I stopped in my recruiter's office with the pretense of wanting to see what plans they had for the weekend. It's always a good idea to build personal relationships with your recruiting team when you're a hiring manager.
However, I actually had two different purposes in mind.
First, this recruiter often had donuts at their desk on Friday mornings. I know I shouldn't eat donuts, but I find it hard to resist stopping by anyway. If I got lucky, I would have a donut and coffee morning.
Second, I had heard through the grapevine that a different team had run out of open positions, and had over hired on a recent recruiting event. As Amazon always has open roles, we would still give an offer to the candidate. It just meant that the recruiting team might have a free hire or two available to hand out if I got to them quickly enough.
I peeked my head into Katrina's office and waved.
"Hey Katrina! Happy Friday! Going fishing this weekend?"
She shook her head, and motioned towards the large donut box on the end of her desk that I'd been eyeing. I didn't hesitate, moving forward to grab a tasty treat.
"No, it's going to be raining this weekend. By the way, did you hear about our trip to Costa Rica earlier in the week? We had an amazing trip. Very successful. Ivan was able to fill his headcount completely, and we have two extra SDE-2's. Are you interested?"
<SDE-2's are Software Development Engineers, Second Tier/Experience level. Technically they're Level 5 wtihin Amazon, but with entry level engineers being Level 4, the naming structure gets confusing. Essentially it's a mid-range experience engineer position. The most common engineering position at Amazon. Bread and butter for open positions on teams.>
I smiled, patting myself on the back.
"Oh, that's great to hear! I'd love a couple more engineers. I have more than enough openings. This'll help a lot!"
"Well, as long as I can help you out," Katrina replied, "Perhaps you can help me out too! We're in desperate need of a bar raiser to go to Atlanta for a recruiting trip next week. We have all the interviewers ready and booked, but we haven't been able to find any bar raisers. Can you help us out? It would be a lifesaver. I'm sure we can get you those extra engineers from Costa Rica. Maybe if Atlanta is very successful, we could find you another hire or two?"
<Generally bar raisers aren't eligible for any hires on loops they participate in, but as there is incentivization for recruiters to keep bar raiser's happy (because we're often the bottlenecks on interviews), it's not unheard of for bar raisers to get a hire from a trip.>
This wasn't the first time I'd trapped myself into this type of situation. Being a friendly bar raiser was great for getting on exciting trips to Brazil or other foreign destinations, and sometimes extra hires for my group. But it also meant that I couldn't leave my recruiting team in the lurch unless I had a serious reason to not go. With an innocent stop for donuts, I'd ambushed myself into flying out in 48 hours.
"No problem Katrina. I'm available. Happy to help out. Send me the details?"
I took an extra donut. Comfort food.
Clearing my schedule
I received the details from Katrina 5-minutes later. I'm suspicious she knew this was coming. Bah.
My first surprise. My last few domestic trips had been two or three day affairs. This trip was a full Monday through Friday trip. Whoops. Sigh. I don't know if it would have changed my answer, but I make a mental note to ask for details in the future before agreeing to things. There goes my week.
Before reading further about the event, I spent the next two hours informing my manager, my wife, rescheduling meetings, and cleaning up my calendar for the following week. I asked a few of the people on my team to be my proxy in various meetings, pushed a few meetings out to the following week, and cancelled all my one-on-ones. When I usually have around 40 hours of meetings a week, it can take serious effort to clear the whole thing.
Examining the trip schedule
As usual, we were interviewing in the hotel in the hotel conference rooms. That was convenient, as it eliminated the need to travel each morning to the interviews.
For context, normal interview loops have a hiring manager and a bar raiser. Those two work together to ensure the loop is setup properly, and competencies are assigned. On events, the hiring plans tend to be for an entire organization, so the ownership of hiring manager is a bit nebulous. Sometimes there is an explicit hiring manager, sometimes everyone is viewed as a collective hiring manager for their organization. In my experience, the bar raiser needs to assume that they're running the show.
According to the messages from recruiting, we had a schedule of six 1-hour interviews a day, three in the morning, three in the afternoon. Since there would be four interviewers per candidate, that meant we all had 1 hour breaks in the morning and afternoon. That was 6 candidates a day, for 5 days, or 30 candidates total. It is tiring to interview that many candidates, but the planned breaks would help.
The general schedule was we would start at 8am, and interview until noon (with each person getting one break). Then we'd have a 1-hour lunch, and then repeat the same process from 1-5pm. Our planned debrief was 5-6pm, with a 7-9pm dinner.
Part of being a bar raiser was going on a lot of trips. I had some experience with schedules and how they could go wrong. I contacted the recruiting team.
I asked what the lunch plans were. They said they hadn't chosen, but maybe we'd find places nearby to eat. I explained that 1-hour wasn't enough time to get to a restaurant, order, eat, and get back to the hotel. Since our schedule was set with the candidates already and we couldn't expand our lunch hour, the recruiters said they'd figure out catering.
I also let the recruiting team know that if we had 6 candidates to debrief, it would be unlikely we could finish that in an hour debrief. We'd want to do some debriefing during lunch, and probably assume an hour and a half for our debrief in the evening. No impacts to our planned schedule, but I like to keep the recruiting team on the same page. They agreed.
Examining the candidates
The recruiters set expectations with the interviewers before I joined the loop. They said that all the candidates were SDE-2 candidates, and had been pre-screened by interviewers remotely.
I began going through the resumes, and sighed. With enough experience, you can look around corners and recognize patterns.
I knew to look at the candidates early, because of course they were not all SDE-2 candidates.
A standard SDE-2 has something like 2-3 years of experience, up to perhaps 5 years. Once they hit around 5 years of experience, you would want to give them a chance to interview as SDE-3. You don't want to blindly interview someone at a lower level, and not realize that you vastly underleveled them. That makes for a bad new-hire experience, or perhaps a candidate who would just reject our offer.
A few candidates had a single year of experience. They were almost certainly SDE-1's. We'd almost certainly decline them all, if we interviewed them as SDE-2's.
A number of candidates had 6+ years of experience. They should be interviewed as SDE-3's (with a potential to downlevel to SDE-2). This would give them the greatest chance of being leveled correctly.
I looked at the people on our interview loop. In general, Amazon expects that you need to be at the target level to participate in an interview loop. For example, if you were hiring for a level 6 candidate, you must be level 6 yourself.
Three out of the four interviewers was level 6 or higher (SDE-3). One interviewer was level 5 (SDE-2). As it was too late to change the list of people going on the trip, I decided that three interviewers could make the leveling call on the more experienced candidates.
That's one of my favorite things about being a bar raiser at Amazon. When it comes to the rules, they're guidelines to set expectations, but not black and white rules. I knew the other two higher level interviewers were experienced enough that we could make a reasonable leveling judgement call. This was likely better than blowing up the entire interview process to change the interviewers or candidates in some way.
I went through every candidate and noted what level candidate they were, so that the interviewers all had their questions and expectations set before going into the interview.
Introducing myself to the interviewers
It was about time to say hello to the interviewers. I introduced myself to the other three, and explained that I was a late addition.
I explained the leveling situation with the candidates, and suggested competencies for everyone in the loop.
For these types of events, you need to reduce your need for preparation between candidates. Since you're walking from interview room to interview room, the easiest thing to do is to have the same questions for every candidate.
This helps with your ability to focus after the 25th candidate in a row, recognize good answers vs great answers, and ensures your mental energy can be saved for preserving a good candidate experience.
I asked everyone to share what questions they might ask for their competencies, and worked independently with every interviewer to make some small changes or suggestions. In particular, I worked on discussing the different types of answers they might get from the various levels of candidates.
When you have a great question, you can ask the same thing from a junior employee or senior employee, and you can get a good picture of their experience level for everyone depending on how they approach and solve the problem.
Landed - and things change slightly
Everyone was arriving on flights Sunday morning, and I met up with a couple interviewers and the two recruiters on Sunday afternoon for drinks.
The recruiters excitedly proclaimed that they'd found a few late candidates, and added them to our schedule, since we had openings in our schedule. Openings? Those were our breaks. Sigh.
We now had 40 candidates rather than the planned 30 candidates. We had eight hours of interviewing a day, instead of six. Those debriefs would take even longer. Those added candidates were also not screened, which meant more chances for very poor interview results.
Since the candidates were already scheduled, there was nothing to do but move forward. I did privately talk to the recruiters, and explained that five 8-hour interview days was more than most people could handle, without losing some amount of motivation and attention span. I also gently hinted that people would be less willing to join future trips if the trips ended up exhausting.
Regardless of my hesitation, I went through all the added candidates, read their resumes, and updated their profile to suggest their possible levels.