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Behavioral interviews for Software Engineers: How to prepare

What are behavioral interviews‚Äč

Succeeding in an engineering career involves more than just technical skills. People skills become more important as an engineer becomes more senior. Senior engineers should have the ability to lead and influence, resolve conflicts, anticipate risks, plan the roadmap, and more.

Hiring a talented engineer that cannot work with others can ultimately be a net deficit for companies. Companies don't want to hire brilliant jerks. The company is better off not hiring a very talented engineer who refuses to work with others or causes an entire team to be unproductive. Companies want to hire the right person that will work well with the existing employees and help the team and company achieve greater heights, and behavioral interviews are one way of determining if someone will be good to work with from a non-technical standpoint.

Typically, behavioral interview questions can be split into several types:

  1. Getting to know your career preferences, ambitions and plans
  2. Discuss details of experiences or projects written in your resume
  3. "Tell me about a time where you" type of questions where you describe how you demonstrated certain traits or responded to a situation

The importance of behavioral interviews‚Äč

Companies value behavioral skills and do evaluate candidates on them. At the time of writing, Facebook has one round (out of four) dedicated to behavioral interviews. Airbnb has TWO rounds (out of six) dedicated to behavioral interviews/company fit. Lyft has one round (out of five) dedicated to past experience and situational questions by a hiring manager.

How are behavioral interviews evaluated‚Äč

Unlike technical interviews, behavioral interviews have a lot more variance in terms of evaluation criteria. However, most top tech companies use their company values to evaluate candidates. Interviewers typically have to fill in a section evaluating how a candidate has displayed behaviors in line with company values. It is for this reason that you should search up a company's culture and values and ensure that you embody them within your answers. You'd also find it useful to speak with one of your connections currently working at the company you are applying for to find out more about which values are typically valued in the team.

Some examples of common values evaluated are:

  • Empathy - Puts themselves in the shoes of others and tries to understand others' reasoning
  • Proactivity and willingness to wear multiple hats - Steps up when the situation requires it
  • Project management - Able to orchestrate multiple work streams to meet timelines and unblock tasks
  • Conflict management - Able to manage conflict between themselves and or between other parties, by explaining and ensuring no hard feelings remain

How to prepare for behavioral interviews‚Äč

  1. Learn the STAR answer format
  2. Prepare your answers to commonly asked questions
  3. Prepare experiences to showcase fit to the company's culture / core values
  4. Try out mock behavioral interviews
  5. Use structured courses

1. Learn the STAR answer format‚Äč

The STAR format is a framework to help you organize answers to behavioral questions - especially ones requiring you to discuss previous experiences

  • Situation - The interviewer wants you to present a recent challenge and situation which you found yourself in
  • Task - What were you required to achieve? The interviewer will be looking to see what you were trying to achieve from the situation. Some performance development methods use "Target" rather than "Task". Job interview candidates who describe a "Target" they set themselves instead of an externally imposed "Task" emphasize their own intrinsic motivation to perform and to develop their performance
  • Action - What did you do? The interviewer will be looking for information on what you did, why you did it, and what the alternatives were
  • Results - What was the outcome of your actions? What did you achieve through your actions and did you

Example of how to apply STAR to a behavioral interview question‚Äč

Here's an example of how the STAR format can be used to answer the question: "Tell me about a time in which you had a conflict and needed to influence somebody else".

Situation‚Äč‚Äč

"I was the team lead of a school project about building a social network mobile web app. Our designer's midterms were approaching and didn't have time to produce the mockups. Our front-end person was rushing him for the mockups so that he could proceed with his work, and that was stressing the designer out. The atmosphere in the team was tense."

Task‚Äč‚Äč

"As the team lead, I had to resolve the tension between the front-end developer and the designer so that the team could work together peacefully and complete the project on time."

Action‚Äč‚Äč

"I spoke to the front-end developer to ask him why he was rushing the designer for the designs. He said that he wanted the designs early because it would be a waste of time rebuilding if the designer designed something different eventually. I explained to him that the midterm dates were out of the designer's control and we had to be more understanding about each other's schedules. I spoke to the designer to get a rough idea of what he had in mind and asked him when he could commit to producing the high-fidelity designs. He replied that he could start on them as soon as his midterms were over. I explained to him why the front-end developer was pushing him for the mockups, and that the front-end developer had no ill intentions and simply wanted the project to succeed. As someone with some experience in UI/UX design, I came up with wireframe mocks, ran them by the designer for approval, then passed them to the front-end developer to start building. I encouraged the front-end developer to use placeholders and not be too concerned about the details for now. We could build the non-UI parts first (authentication, hook up with APIs) and tweak pixels and add polish later on. The front-end developer agreed and went ahead with the approach. I explained to the front-end developer that the designer will pass us the mockups after his midterm, by <DATE>."

Result‚Äč‚Äč

"When our designer ended midterms, he came back with beautiful mockups that fit well into the wireframes. Our front-end developer implemented them with great care to detail. We ended up scoring top marks for the project and became a great team."

2. Prepare your answers to commonly asked questions‚Äč

The next natural step is to start preparing your answers for commonly asked behavioral interview questions. You may refer to my list of 30 questions which were collated across top tech companies for this.

While most people might be inclined towards memorization, it's much better to pen down bullet points to each question and practice verbalizing them near to the interviews, so that your answers will come out more naturally.

3. Prepare experiences to showcase fit to the company's culture / core values‚Äč

As aforementioned, most top tech companies use their company values to evaluate candidates in behavioral interviews. As such, you should do your research to find out what those values are and ensure you have prepared experiences that showcase fit.

4. Try out mock behavioral interviews‚Äč

If you would like to practice behavioral interviews with professional interviewers from top tech companies, schedule one with interviewing.io. Interviewing.io boasts a large pool of interviewers from Facebook, Amazon, Apply, Google and Microsoft. I have used interviewing.io both as an interviewer and interviewee and can guarantee a good experience with this platform.

5. Use structured courses‚Äč

I don't really think one needs to attend a course on behavioral interviews, but your mileage may vary. I've seen candidates get rejected for failing the behavioral round even though they did super well on the coding and system design interviews. If you want to take a course on behavioral interviews, I'd recommend the following courses:

  • "Behavioral Interviews" by Exponent - While Exponent also has courses on technical content, what really makes them stand out from the other interview preparation platform is their availability of content for non-software engineering roles such as Product Management and Product Marketing. Their behavioral interview course is a mix of videos (by the Exponent CEO himself!) and text, going through the most common questions and imparting you with techniques to help you ace the interview. To top it off, they also have an interview question bank for behavioral questions with responses from the platform's helpful community. While the subscription might be a little pricey for just the behavioral interviews content, they also offer quality technical content for System Design, Data Structures and Algorithms. The convenience of a one-stop platform which covers all aspects of technical interview preparation is very enticing.
  • "Grokking the Behavioral Interview" on Educative - As per other courses on Educative, this course is text-based and they believe that text-based courses are the more efficient than video courses. One thing that stands out about this course is that they teach you patterns for behavioral interviews, not just about memorizing questions and preparing answers.