My Amazon Interview Loop — A Tech Director Remembers His Own Development Manager Interview
Let's flash back to 2007, when I was interviewing for the second job in my career. It was my Amazon interview.
I became a Technology Director and General Manager at Amazon before leaving the big corporate life. However, that journey started as a Level 5 (entry level) Development Manager on December 17th, 2007.
This is the story of my interview process at Amazon in late 2007. Below is everything I remember from my experiences interviewing. For more personal articles about Dave, click here.
The content of my story is broken into the following sections:
The Initial Contact
A Phone Screen
The Interview Day
Interview One — Product
Interview Two — A Tech Twofer!
Interview Three — Food and Ops
Interview Four — The Senior Eng Leader
Interview Five — Tech and What the Heck??
A Few Days Later — The Result
Aftermath — The Secrets I Learned Later
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The Initial Contact
It was mid-2007. I’d been working for around 8 years at one company in the Chicago suburbs. It was the same company I’d joined out of college. I’d moved from college graduate engineer to early career manager in essentially the same chair.
I’d moved into management there, which was a great change of pace. As an engineer, I liked designing and building software, but I was even more passionate about the decisions behind the features. Why was this feature more important than another? How did we decide on this list of projects, in this order? As the development manager for our small team, I finally had a leadership role. Good stuff.
Despite my improved perception of my role, I still had a vague interest in changing jobs. I didn’t have a specific requirement, just different. Perhaps a more well-known company. Perhaps a different physical location. I wasn’t aggressively hunting for positions, but I’d apply to roles here and there. I seldom got any responses. It felt a bit like tossing my resume into a black hole.
I noticed a development manager role at Amazon. I knew that company. They sold books and stuff. I skimmed the job description. Seemed about right, the kind of stuff I did. Seattle? I knew it was on the West coast somewhere. I didn’t even bother opening up a map to look.
“Hey!” I yelled from the office. “Are you ok with moving to Seattle if I get a job there?”
“Ok.” my ex-wife (current wife at the time) yelled back.
I sent in my resume, and didn’t think anything more about it.
A few days pass.
My phone rings.
“Hey, is this Dave Anderson?” said the voice. “This is Savannah from Amazon recruiting. We received your job application.”
Holy smokes! I got a call! That was unexpected. How exciting!
“Yes, that’s me!” I replied intelligently.
“I see you applied to our development manager role.” Savannah said. “And it’s possible you’d be a good fit for this position.”
Good news! How exciting!
“But I can’t tell if you’re suited for the role because your resume is poorly written.” she said candidly. “It’s lacking many details, and we can’t tell what you’ve done in your current position.”
What?? I mean, my resume being bad doesn’t surprise me. It’s not like I’ve ever switched jobs, or had someone help me with a resume. But who calls a candidate to tell them that their resume is no good?
“If you’re interested in our role, I’m going to need you to improve your resume.”
“Ok. Yes, I will do that.” I replied, surely astounding her with my quick wits. “What specifically are you looking for?”
“You need to have more specifics. For example, you said here in your third bullet point that you built a publishing system. What language did you use? What technologies did it use? How many users? Every technical detail you can think of, add them to all these line items.”
I found the actual resume I’d submitted in 2006. Here’s a literal quote:
“Have delivered on over 10 projects, each of which was finished on time and under budget.”
How vague can I be?
“Ok, got it, tech details.” I said.
“And details on the processes you follow. You said you manage the team. What specifically do you do? Do you gather requirements? Talk to customers? Explain the specifics of what you do. And what the results are. You said you launched some websites. Did they work? Did customers visit the sites?”
“Ah I see.” I said, feeling like a complete idiot. “What I do, results, things like that.”
“Yes. I’ve responded to your application. Once you’ve updated your resume, please send it over, and I’ll let you know if we can move forward.”
“Sounds great!” I said, still feeling like a fool, but at least a fool who had gotten some clear actionable feedback.
As an aside, I’ve never heard since of any recruiter doing this for any candidate. I’ve done it myself as a hiring manager a few times, as a pay-it-forward thing.
While I had zero interview and resume experience, I was intelligent enough to put sentences together. I did an ok job at updating my resume to be significantly more specific.
A new quote from my improved resume.
“This is using Hibernate to connect to the databases, Spring and JSP tags for the front-end, and a MySQL cluster for data storage.”
Not bad, younger Dave.
Soon after, I got a call that the hiring manager would like to talk to me. Ooh, exciting!
A Phone Screen
The phone rang, and I excitedly answered.
The hiring manager spoke a surprising amount. I didn’t expect this to be a combination of sell call, with a light interview.
My previous interview, which didn’t go terribly well for many reasons:
“Hello! Ready, question one! What is the frequency of default Java memory collection when…”
My Amazon interview:
“Let me tell you a bit about my history at Amazon, and a bit about our philosophy around development management.”
Then he asked me questions around my project management style. It was relaxed, and felt more like a conversation, and less like a grilling.
“How do you keep track of your project dates?”
“Oh, and did you have anything come up which was surprisingly hard?”
“When that happened, who cared about the date moving?”
“And how did you ensure that they weren’t stressed or surprised about the new date?”
We touched on project management (keeping things on track, and getting them back on track), people management (how I gave feedback), product management (how priorities were assigned, and what I cared about), and technology (how our systems were built, and how we decided which technology to use).
Before I knew it, the call time was almost over. I was a bit worried because I felt that I’d barely been asked any questions, or revealed any profound information. But he seemed friendly, so I tried to be positive. Then he was closing out the call.
“Dave, I had a great call with you. I’m going to ask our recruiters to schedule you a trip out to Seattle to interview with the team.” he said.
Holy smokes! A trip to Seattle! Neat!
I remember very little about my call with the recruiting coordinator (a different employee from the primary recruiter) to schedule things, except for one important part, which I remember clearly.
I asked, “What should I wear to the interview? I’m from the Chicago area, and we wear suits and ties for everything important. But I know Seattle is a West coast city. What is the right clothing for an Amazon interview?”
“Oh! A that suit would be just fine!” the recruiting coordinator said, either purposefully or accidentally lying to me. Grrr.
The Interview Day
I had no idea how to prepare for an interview. I didn’t know of any interview resources online. Not that I looked for it. I simply didn’t think about the fact that preparing for an interview was a thing.
The recruiter had mentioned that I should read some document they sent about the Amazon Leadership Principles, so I did that. And then I flew to Seattle.
They got me a hotel room a few blocks away. I traveled to New York regularly for work, so the travel and hotel experience was nothing new. I walked around a small portion of downtown the evening before, and nervously looked at the Amazon buildings. My previous company was part of one floor of a building. This was multiple large buildings in the International District. And foreign food everywhere! So strange!
I’ll mention here that I’d almost never had Asian food before working at Amazon. So I didn’t have a clue what type of food was at a Thai or Vietnamese restaurant. Took me probably a year before I learned that Phở was magic food.
I woke up early on my interview day because I’m always on time. I put on my sports coat and tie. I looked myself in the mirror, told myself I’d do just fine, and walked to my interview location.
The reception area and waiting area were nothing special. I just sat around for the ten minutes or so before my interview would begin. Once a recruiter picked me up, they explained that I would have five interviews today, and one would be a lunch. Works for me.
Interview One — Product
I walked into the interview room, and I saw the interviewer was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I felt overdressed. I pulled my sports coat off, and dropped it over the back of my chair. I mentally growled at the recruiting coordinator.
The interviewer introduced themselves as a product manager. They said they did product management things related to Amazon’s payments platform. Because I was interviewing for a job in the payments organization. I must admit that the fact it was a payments organization had completely skipped my attention up to this point. I mean, I’m sure they mentioned it, but I was so focused on it being Amazon that I’d failed to pay attention.
They asked me to describe one of our products. Now, I also didn’t realize until this point that I was in a payments organization, and my company happened to be a Financial Industry publishing company. I’m ignorant sometimes, and it seriously didn’t occur to me that people in the payments organization might actually know the websites I operated.
I wasn't knowledgeable at all about the Financial industry, but mentioning a few publications made the interviewer’s face light up. “Oh! Yeah, I know all of those!”
Score. Name recognition. That’s a good thing. The interviewer was quite excited to talk about the product. And I thankfully admitted that I didn’t read the articles, and only paid a cursory attention to the content. Because if I’d pretended to know things, it would have probably turned out badly for me.
Thankfully, one of my favorite parts of my management job was interacting with our editors (a publishing industry’s version of product managers) to come up with requirements for our systems and websites. Which meant that I was competent now.
For example, the middle of one conversation.
“Why did you prioritize the latency improvement project in your publishing tool? Did the editors complain about the speed of the tool?” they asked.
“Actually, they didn’t complain at all. I spent a few days with their editors, and watched their content creation process. I saw that they were extremely familiar with our tool, and they moved quickly through their workflow.” I said. “They had to open an article, paste in some content, edit a quick thing, publish their changes, and so on. I realized as they repeatedly opened and closed articles that the majority of their time spent was waiting for the page to load. I realized that if there was anything we could do to speed up the publishing tool, it’d make a huge difference to their productivity. And man, they were thrilled when we halved the speed of those page loads a few weeks later.”
The conversation went well. I realized that my experience lined up with their expectations, and the fact that I respected and listened closely to the equivalent of product managers at my company were great signs to them.