When I was job searching last fall, I spent hours and hours studying for technical interviews. I treated it like a second job and every evening I pored over data structure and algorithm questions. But I forgot something obvious. Half of my interviews would be non-technical. 🤦♀️
So when I had a phone interview and a hiring manager asked me to tell him about a time I had a conflict with my manager, I didn't know what to say. Should I tell him about when I had a manager so toxic that I had to quit for my own mental health? No, then I'll sound like I crumble under pressure. What about when another engineer called me the "token female engineer" and my manager stood by and did nothing? No, then it'll sound like drama follows me around. You have to tread a very fine line in interviews, especially if you're from an underrepresented group. I ended up ekeing out something half-hearted about convincing my manager to choose kanban over scrum.
While it wasn't a bad answer, it didn't feel like a good one, either. It was just forgettable. And the forgettable candidate doesn't get the job. So, I learned the hard way: you need to prepare for your non-technical interviews too.
So I had a dilemma. I'd be more memorable if I answered with hard personal conflicts I'd faced, but how could I do that while still being perceived as professional? After some trial and error, I developed a framework for answering questions in behavioral interviews. Basically, it's like a cheat sheet for interviews. The result is that after that one hiccup, I never had an issue making it past behavioral interviews. I share it below 👇 as well as how to handle any curveballs thrown your way.
The purpose of the behavioral interview is to assess your personality and work experience. Your interviewer is trying to answer the questions, "is this person qualified for this job?" and "can I work with this person every day?" So your answers should demonstrate that you're technically competent and you're easy to work with. Every answer you give, every anecdote you tell - this is your time to put your best foot forward and make yourself seem like the best teammate out there. If you're ever stuck on a question, think about the interviewer's intent - what are they trying to learn about you by asking this question?
Here are a few common questions, broken down:
"Tell me about yourself" -> "Tell me about yourself, and why you're technically competent and easy to work with"
"Tell me about a conflict you've had at work" -> "Tell me about a conflict you've had at work that shows you're easy to work with"
"Tell me about a bug you've fixed recently" -> "Tell me about a bug you've fixed recently, and how that makes you technically competent"
Now, how do you formulate a memorable answer to these questions? The key is in choosing the right anecdotes. You need to come in ready with a few stories about times when you demonstrated technical ability and a few stories about when you demonstrated leadership ability. If you're struggling for examples, the framework below can help you generate a bunch and you can select the most compelling out of them.
One piece of advice here - write your answers down! This helped me out SO MUCH in phone interviews. I tend to get very nervous in interviews and my mind goes blank, so when a hiring manager would ask me to tell them about a time I solved a hard bug, I would suddenly forget every bug I've worked on in my career 😓 Once I started writing my answers down, I could quickly flip to the page in my notebook that had all my answers ready to go and pick whichver one was most relevant.
Let's dive in to my framework for answering questions. Like I said above, the majority of questions in behavioral interviews are going to be gauging how technically competent you are and how easy you are to work with. I've selected the top 5 questions that I was asked in my interviews to focus on.
Write down 3 technical projects you've worked on in the last few years. These can be projects from work, school, or personal projects. At least one project should have had significant collaboration with other people.
For each project, answer each of these questions:
1) What was technically challenging about it?
Think about the times during the project where you struggled. What were the hardest things to implement? What were the worst bugs you had to fix?
2) What mistakes did you make during the project?
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently? This could be technical or non-technical; maybe you made a bad technical decision because you were inexperienced with a framework, or maybe you got stuck on something for too long and you should have asked for help earlier.
3) What did you work on that you're proud of?
Brag about yourself! What's the coolest feature you wrote? What's something fun you learned?
4) What conflicts arose during development?
Were there any personality clashes on the team? What miscommunications arose? Did somebody else make a technical decision you disagreed with? Maybe somebody dropped the ball and the rest of the team had to work harder to compensate?
You will almost certainly get asked about how you handle conflict at some point, so you should spend some time coming up with several examples here. One question I got often was, "Tell me about a time you disagreed with [a person in a specific position]." I got asked about disagreements I'd had with teammates, my manager, and my product manager.
5) How did you display leadership?
Nothing is too big or too small here. Even if you weren't the lead engineer on the project, there are still many things that display leadership. Did you own any features? Did you organize any meetings, discussions, reviews, etc? Your answer to this question will signal how much upward potential you have.
Next let's select the best answer to each question. Put your 3 sets of answers side by side.
Look at your answers to question #1. Imagine you get asked, "Tell me about something technically challenging you've worked on lately." Which of these three stories are you most excited to tell? This is a key point here: enthusiasm makes you memorable.
Go through the other questions and pick the answers that you want to talk about the most.
Now, practice asking yourself each of these questions and giving your response out loud a few times.
"Tell me about something technically challenging you've worked on lately."
"Tell me about a mistake you've made recently."
"Tell me about something you've worked on that you're proud of."
"Tell me about a conflict you've dealt with at work."
"Tell me about a project you've led recently."
I'll be honest, I felt a little weird talking to myself and rehearsing answers - I wondered if I would come off as fake in the interview. But all the rehearsing actually made me come off as more natural. Normally when an interviewer asked a question, I would tense up because I'd be afraid of giving the wrong answer. But after practicing my answers, I always had a story ready that I was excited to tell.
I've only talked about a few common questions so far, which leaves a lot of ground uncovered. Even if I had 100s of questions listed, it would never be enough. You will always be asked questions you're unprepared for.
If your interviewer asks you something unexpected, it's okay to ask for a minute to think about it. Don't feel pressured to say the first thing that comes to mind.
Try to come up with multiple answers to the question. If you're stuck, ask yourself: is this question measuring my personality or my technical skills? This will help narrow down your possible answers.
Now from the multiple answers you came up with, pick the answer that you're most excited to talk about.
Here are a few questions I was asked in interviews for you to practice on:
"Tell me about a product you like."
"What do you do when you get stuck on a bug?"
"Have you ever optimized a process in your day-to-day life, and if so, what?"
Interviews are awkward. You're being judged on your every word and action in an artificial situation. To make it harder, you have to tread a fine line between being forgettable and being too controversial. The key is in choosing stories you want to tell because they portray you in your best light.