The Ultimate Guide to Competency-Based Interviews as a Software Engineer

Vania Desmonda
Dec 26, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo from ETCConsult

No matter how good your coding interview skills are, most companies will ask you competency-based questions during your interview or schedule at least one session dedicated to it.

I have been interviewing with various companies like Google, Amazon, Goldman Sachs and Bloomberg over the past few months and have compiled all of the questions that they asked and lessons that I’ve learned from them.

Disclaimer: I am writing about my own experience as a software engineer in the UK with 2 years of experience, applying for relevant roles based in the UK.

Typical Interviewing Process

  1. Submit an application form or contact through LinkedIn

I have seen different variations of how different companies conduct their competency/behavioural interviews. So I will be discussing where they could take place at different stages of the process.

First call with HR (15–30 minutes)

Usually, this is used as a sanity check to put a voice to a CV/application or if they reached out to you on LinkedIn, to match you with a team that could be a potential fit for you.

They will typically ask basic questions that you might think are repeated from your CV or application form. Again, these are sanity checks to verify your background and to get a better understanding of your current position. They would usually ask basic questions like:

  • Your background

However, don’t be shocked if they randomly throw simple competency-based questions like:

  • Why do you want to work at our company?

Some companies like Google might ask you some technical questions (e.g. what data structure would you use for priority queues?), but they won’t criticise you heavily on this as they are calling from HR and to give you a taste of what the technical interviews could be like.

At the end of the call, they would usually tell you the next steps and when they’d get back to you to proceed with your application.

Phone interview (30–60 minutes)

Depending on the company, they might do a technical (coding) interview for this phone call or for a few, a competency-based interview.

At this stage, it would usually take around 30 to 60 minutes and will be conducted by an engineer who might or might not be working in your future team. Most companies would do this round through a phone call and not a video call. So take this opportunity to have your notes on hand to be able to quickly refer to. I will talk about how to write useful notes later on in this article.

For this round, research about what the company does, its principles and prepare some stories where you showed your relevant skills and demonstrated times when you went above and beyond.

Tips on how to answer company-related questions:

  • Research about the company’s values and principles (e.g. Amazon has their Amazon Leadership Principles). This can be found on their Careers page on their website.

Final interviews (at least a whole day)

So you’ve made it to the final interviews. Well done! Pat yourself in the back and push yourself once more because this isn’t going to be any easier.

From what I’ve experienced, the final interviews can vary from a whole day (consisting of 4–5 interviews with breaks in between) or spread out into multiple days (some companies might split them across 2 days; technical interviews on day one and competency-based interviews on day two).

Some companies (like Amazon) would even ask competency-based questions on each interview round after the technical interview section.

Thankfully, all the practice and preparations that you’ve done thus far won’t go to waste, since the competency-based questions would be in a similar format but in a more in-depth manner.

At this stage, the interviewers are trying to assess:

  • Your motivation for applying to the company.

These interviews will be conducted by members of the team and managers or team leads of the organisation or department.

This is the perfect opportunity for you to ask questions specific to the team, for example:

  • What the role looks like on a day-to-day basis.

A guided template on preparing for your competency-based interviews

Make sure you have some stories prepared to share in your interviews. Most stories are interchangeable and you can frame it in a different perspective. For example, for a project where you made a mistake and fixed it, this could fit into questions like ‘tell me about a time when you made a mistake’ and ‘tell me about a time when you went beyond your way to improving something’.

Most asked questions:

  • Tell me about yourself.

Commonly asked questions:

  • Tell me about a time when you did more than what was expected.

Template for creating your list of stories

The first few times I had my competency-based interviews, I struggled to recollect my experiences and stories at work and formulate my thoughts on the spot, whilst trying not to miss out the important points I wanted to convey.

I’m quite a visual person so drawing up tables for my list of projects help me organise my thoughts in advance and to help me remember my stories better.

I created 2 templates that I found useful whilst practising.

  • First one is an exhaustive list of your projects or scenarios that you’ve been in and then creating the flow of each story; background, task and actions, results and what I learned from that experience.
First template: an exhaustive list of projects you’ve worked on and the process/outcome of each

Use this guide to list down the flow for each project/task.

Remember to demonstrate how these experiences make you a great candidate for the firm, how your values align with theirs and how you are always willing to improve and keep developing your skills over time.

Second template: come up with potential questions that they might ask based on their values and principles

List down the list of characters or qualities that the company values and 2 ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ columns, indicating good or bad traits. Write them down in the corresponding cell. Then, for each scenario, write down a story or experience that is relevant to that. The stories might overlap, but that’s okay!

Again, for all the negative experiences, don’t forget to mention what you’ve learned from them and what you’d done differently from that point.

Once you’ve written up your table of stories and memorised them, keep them near you (if you’re doing a virtual interview, this would be handy to briefly glance over and hopefully will help trigger the stories from each project).

Tips on practising:

  • Write down a comprehensive list of projects that you’ve worked on and choose the ones where you’ve had a major role in it.

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