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What I’m looking for with behavioral questions in a software engineer interview

Disclaimer: All opinions are my own

I’ve been doing tech interviews in one form or another for about 7 years. Just between you and me I love them. That’s not sarcasm, it’s sincerity. Interviews are an hour chat with an engineer you’ve never met, getting to find out about what they’ve done, projects they’ve worked on, and an added bonus is you get to throw in a coding challenge or two!

That’s not totally true — I don’t always like them. I like giving interviews that go well. So in the interests of having more interviews go well I want to spend a few minutes writing about what I’m looking for in the non-tech part of an engineering interview.

We could talk about specific examples or guidelines, but I want to go a little more general. Let’s describe a scenario:

You jump onto the interview call and after quick introductions we dive into the real content of the interview. I kick off the behavioral part with a question like

  1. Tell me about a time you had a difficult interaction with a customer
  2. Tell me about a time you knew a project was falling behind
  3. Tell me about a time you found out you had the wrong answer, and how you found the right answer

There’s plenty of variations on a theme, but the fun thing is it usually pushes you to recall a specific case when you had a situation that matches that criteria. The really cool thing is in ~7 years I’ve never had two answers to those questions that were even remotely similar. I’ve rarely had two in the same tech stack. I get to learn about a situation I’ve never experienced or considered and that means I learn something about you and how you approach problems!

(I’m not being pandering, I genuinely get excited about this process).

The challenging part for you, as the interviewee, is to talk me through the situation with enough context to convince me it was complex and that you actually helped solve it. That’s a really hard thing to do in just a few minutes.

But the good news is that I — the interviewer — am on your side! I’m listening intently to your story, I’m exploring it in my own mind, turning over the example, and pondering it while you’re explaining it. I might even be taking notes about what you’re telling me.

And inevitably after a few minutes of explaining the situation you’ll arrive at some version of, “That’s what happened, did that make sense?”

As a side note this is often an awkward moment for candidates and that’s ok. We’re doing a kinda weird thing socially. Most of the time when you’re getting together with friends they don’t ask you a question about your career and listen patiently for 4.5 minutes while you explain it, then interrogate you with questions. Don’t worry if it’s tough to finish your explanation, and asking if I understood all of it is a great opening for me to jump in.

But this is where we hit a cross roads on whether the behavioral interview will go well or not. See while you were talking I was wondering things. Things like

  1. Wait, why did you care about updating the fizz bang service to push foos instead of bars?
  2. Who was the foobar service customer? Why did they need it?
  3. Did your team own the fizz service? Or did another team own it, and you were creating the bang service?
  4. How did you realize that fizz service was broken?
  5. Wouldn’t you start by adding more foos to the service? Why did you take away bars?

And when you turn it back over to me I’m going to say something encouraging like, “Wow, that’s a super interesting example! I get that your team was running the fizz bang service, but why did it need to push foos?” And then, “Did you consider having it push bars? What was the down side?”

Which question will I ask? The one I’m most curious about. You’re working hard to paint a picture for me, but there will always be gaps. But my knowledge of the story comes from your description and it’s a story you picked to tell in an interview. So when you’re done giving me an overview I should be able to direct the conversation towards my curiosity.

If you’re really familiar with the example and you’ve thought carefully about the tradeoffs you’ll be able to follow my curiosity, hopefully have wondered the same thing, and be able to walk me through what you found out when you explored the same question.

So what am I really looking for in a behavioral interview? Someone who’s curiosity matches my own, and has taken them down the same lines of thought as I go when they’re telling their story.

That’s not to say you won’t get hired if you haven’t carefully considered literally everything I have, but since you’re the expert and I’m a new comer to the story you’re telling you should be able to explain to my why you didn’t need to consider my question, or why you did and what you realized.

So when you’re prepping for a behavioral interview take your examples and turn them over as if you’re an coming to the problem for the first time. Ask yourself what you’d do if you were presented the problem for the first time today.

Good luck interviewing!

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Brian Olson

Brian Olson

Engineer, formerly at Amazon, currently at Google. All opinions are my own. Consider supporting here: https://devblabs.medium.com/membership