Behavioral Interview: The Guide to Fitting In

5 May 2024

Behavioral interviews are the most uncertain type of interview in the tech industry. I've seen many people underestimate the importance of preparing for these interviews, only to fail to receive an offer precisely because of their poor preparation. Fortunately, nailing behavioral interviews does not require months of preparation. In this guide, I will describe the key steps for success in such interviews.

I’m a software development manager at Amazon. This article is a reflection of my thoughts and has nothing to do with Amazon or its subsidiaries.

Why Do Behavioral Interviews Exist?

Companies use behavioral interviews to assess whether you would be a successful hire based on your previous experiences. Thus, the most popular types of questions are example-based, such as “Tell me about a time…”. Companies test whether:

  1. you are a “culture fit,”

  2. your previous scope and impact are sufficient for the role you applied for.

Not all companies place equal importance on behavioral interviews. You can forget about receiving an offer from Netflix or Amazon if you haven't read about their principles or values. Meanwhile, companies like Google or Microsoft may place less emphasis on this aspect, and you might pass if you avoid showing red flags. Do your research to understand how important the behavioral part is at a particular company.

Step 1. Prepare Examples

It can be incredibly hard to come up with a good story during an interview, so I’d recommend preparing at least two examples for each bucket of behavioral interview questions. What are the buckets? A categorization I like includes:

  1. Technical Problem Solving — challenges involving specific technical skills or knowledge.

  2. Professional Growth — learning new skills, mentoring, taking feedback, managing failures, or achieving growth.

  3. Impact and Results — situations where you delivered results that impacted the business or project outcomes.

  4. Communication and Team Dynamics — managing conflicts, stakeholders, negotiations, or leading people.

  5. Adaptability and Innovation — handling ambiguity, adapting to change, or offering innovative solutions.

Research the typical question buckets for the company you're applying to. You can’t prepare for all questions, but with a good set of stories, adapting them during the interview becomes quite easy. Don't have enough examples to prepare strong stories? Some might suggest making them up. It works, but I don't like that approach for many reasons. It is not ethical, and it takes more effort than building upon real stories. A better strategy would be to slightly augment your existing stories. That way, you can be more confident in your responses, answer follow-up questions more effectively, and spend less time on preparation.

If you don't have a good story to tell during the interview, consider skipping the question. It is much better than giving an inappropriate example. Skipping five questions in a row isn't good, but skipping one or two doesn't hurt, especially if these aren't mainstream questions.

Step 2. Use Examples Appropriate for Your Level

Telling a story about a conflict with an intern over class naming might be acceptable for a junior-level engineer but not for a senior. Your stories should reflect your seniority level. For a principal or staff level, the examples should impact multiple organizations; for a senior level — at least your team; for a middle level — several people; and for an entry-level position, impacting even one person is acceptable. Strive to broaden your impact as much as possible. Name all organizations and teams impacted, and mention senior-level people involved. Failing to do so may result in being downleveled.

Note that having many people involved is not a universal rule. Saving millions by introducing a clever optimization may be within the scope of your team, but this story could be strong enough for a principal-level position.

Keep in mind the level you aim to land at and calibrate your answers.

Step 3. Demonstrate "Culture Fit"

Each company adheres to a specific set of values or principles, which they might call Culture Memos, Leadership Principles, or Core Values. In essence, these are sets of attitudes and behaviors companies want to see in their employees. Google these values before the interview, and try to frame your answers according to these values.

Many companies do not document their values; however, behavioral interviews remain as crucial as any other type of interview. Even some well-known businesses, such as Apple, fail to clearly communicate their corporate culture. In that case, I'd recommend the following:

  1. Find a YouTube interview with the company's founder or a top manager discussing its culture.

  2. Talk with someone from this company, such as a friend of a friend or someone on LinkedIn.

  3. Research questions and answers on platforms like Glassdoor.

Step 4. Structure Your Answers

The standard recommendation for behavioral interviews is to use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result). Unfortunately, even candidates familiar with this method often fail to apply it effectively. The sections that usually present challenges are actions and results.

For actions, it's critical to clarify your personal contribution — use “I” to articulate this. Statements like "We optimized this..." or "We escalated to..." do not clarify your specific role and contribution. Were you the one who optimized this, or was it a team member? Did you personally escalate the issue to a product manager, or was the escalation handled by your manager? Ideally, spend about half of your story's time discussing your actions.

For the results, avoid vague statements like “it became faster” or “the project was delivered.” Instead, articulate the specific impact with numbers, even if approximate. More compelling answers might be: “The loading time decreased from 1s to 500ms” or “The project received 4.5 stars on the Apple Store and generated $5 million in revenue.”

Adding a brief summary at the beginning of your response can enhance the STAR method. Briefly describing your story from start to finish helps the interviewer follow along and quickly determine if they need to hear more, potentially saving you several minutes of interview time.

Step 5. Answer the Specific Question

It's easy to misunderstand the question or drift into irrelevant stories due to nerves or misinterpretation. This often happens when candidates fail to actively listen or assume they know what the interviewer is asking without seeking clarification. Providing an accurate and relevant response is critical for demonstrating that you understand the requirements of the role and have the necessary skills. For complex multi-part questions writing them down is a good idea. That way, you can ensure you're answering all parts of the question, not just what you’ve remembered.

If the interviewer asks about contributions outside of your area of responsibility, do not describe how you refactored a piece of code belonging to your team or resolved a bug introduced by a colleague. These are your core responsibilities. If the interviewer asks about a conflict, don't describe a brief disagreement where you accepted either point of view after five minutes. Conflict implies prolonged periods of disagreement, such as several weeks. Got a multi-part question about a difficult situation with a customer that significantly affected the business. Don't only describe why this situation was difficult and how it was solved. Write down the question and also explain how it affected the business.

Step 6. Ask the Right Questions

At the end of interviews, you have 5-10 minutes for your questions. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking the interview has ended — it has not. During the interview, everything matters, and the questions you ask at the end can influence the interviewer's decision on whether you pass or not. To use this time to your benefit, it's important to understand which questions to ask and which to avoid.

  1. Avoid HR questions about compensation, work from home, etc.

  2. Avoid personal questions about the country of origin, gender, mood, etc.

  3. Avoid mainstream questions such as “What does this company do?” or “What is the culture like here?” These show a lack of preparedness on your part.

So, what should you ask? Choose questions that prove your interest in the company and suggest that you would be a valuable employee. For instance, ask, “What does success look like for this position?” “How do you manage to stay innovative despite being in the market for decades?” “What does a typical day look like for this position?” and “If I have an idea for a product feature or technical improvement, what is the process to implement it?.”

Show that you've done your homework and are knowledgeable about the company and the position. Demonstrate your desire to succeed in this role and to be a team member that everyone would appreciate. Your future manager needs to see your independence (so they don't have to micromanage you) and your desire to achieve shared goals.

Step 7. Practice

Having impactful stories is critical, but effectively communicating them is key to resonating with interviewers. You might forget a story or struggle with detailing it due to anxiety. Interviewing can be stressful, and sometimes, staying at your current job is the optimal solution as many issues there can often be resolved. Fortunately, practicing behavioral interviews, also known as mock interviews, can significantly reduce stress during actual interviews and better prepare you to describe your experiences in a structured and clear manner.

Many online platforms offer mock interviews on a paid basis. There, you can even choose interviewers from a specific company who can provide valuable feedback. This can be a bit expensive, so as an alternative, you can ask your friends to conduct such an interview.

I’d recommend having at least three mock interviews before the real ones.

Step 8. Impress and Connect

Behavioral interviews are subjective by nature. The same story might be evaluated differently by different interviewers or even by the same interviewer under different circumstances. What can you do about this? Connect with your interviewer. Treat the interview as a dialogue, and listen attentively for any hints from the interviewer. Ask if your example fits well if they would like more details about the numbers or impact, etc.

Demonstrate engagement and passion in your answers. I’d like to see that you’re interested in working with me. After all, this step is about making a positive impression on your interviewers.

Final Thoughts

Interviewing is a separate skill. You can be great at your day-to-day work but struggle with interviewing, and vice versa. It is a great investment to develop your interviewing skills, and every interview is a learning opportunity. Reflect on the feedback you receive and continuously refine your approach to become a more compelling candidate in future interviews.