How to prepare for the behavioral interview.

Almost every company hiring software engineers conducts a dedicated assessment of candidate soft skills known as a behavioral interview. Unlike coding and design interviews, the behavioral interviews have other names: “leadership skills”, “culture fit”, “just talking to the hiring manager – no need to prepare”. Except… you always need to prepare. Talking to Netflix too early in my 2023 interview cycle got me rejected even before the technical phone screen! 

How does one prepare? One needs to:

(A) Internalize the STAR method.
(B) Find a representative set of behavioral questions + leadership principles,
(C) Write down stories from professional life.
(D) Illustrate the questions with the stories.

(A) Interviewing the candidates or even asking hiring managers questions as a candidate I can immediately see the stark difference between the people who internalized the STAR method vs the ones who didn’t. The STAR method turns every example into a mini-story by setting the stage, describing what you did, and how it influenced the team / project / company. If the outcome is negative, then the learnings must be included as well.

(B) Where do you get those behavioral + leadership questions? The behavioral questions are quite generic and can be sourced even from non-technical prep guides. Over the years, I used “Knock’em Dead” series by Martin Yate. In turn, the most extensive set of leadership principles I’ve seen was written by Amazon A sample Google search also turns up quite a bit of behavioral questions. My personal set contains ~100 in total.

(C) Remembering the stories and writing them with the STAR method is the most labor-intensive part. But the more stories, the better. With stories spanning a substantial breadth of situations, you are more likely to find answers to curve-balls questions like “Tell me about the time, when you made a product impact through others without being directly assigned to”. I personally identified 20 stories from Twitter + 14 stories from Bandwidth w/ 10 more from other employers and personal projects. Not all stories are good for the interview, as they might not project the target image (maybe you were burnt out and couldn’t finish the project), but I found the stories with the negative outcome and substantial learnings to be the most powerful. After all, the path to success is paved with failures.

(D) After the stories are written and the questions are sourced, it’s time to tie the two with a brief explanation of how the story illustrated the question. In his books Martin Yates also describes the image one needs to project. Make sure to select the stories supporting that image.

Maintaining the many-to-many relationship between the stories and the questions makes it easy to reconnect between them as needed + illustrate multiple questions with the same story. (Relational schema in real life!)

Good luck with your interviews!

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