Surviving the Structured Interview

The tech industry is slowly changing over to structured interviews, but most people don't know what they are and that they have a formula!


I went to a meetup a few nights ago and met a young woman whom I’ll refer to as Sara. She had just applied to Microsoft, AWS and a few other companies and wanted to know if I had any advice.

I took a deep breath and she thought I was frustrated.

I’m so sorry I don’t mean to be all network-y! This is a social event … I just really want to transition my career into tech…

I explained I was just trying to summarize the last few decades of interviewing at these big companies - I could talk for hours about it!

“OK”, she said, “maybe just tell me the biggest thing I need to know?”

Get To Know the Structured Interview

“The what?” she asked.

If you don’t know, and it seems that many people don’t, structured interviews are becoming more and more popular.

Here is how defines them (emphasis mine):

A structured interview is a conversation in which an interviewer asks an interviewee set questions in a standardized order. The interviewer collects the responses of the candidate and grades them against a scoring system. Asking the same questions in the same order helps interviewers collect similar types of information delivered in a uniform context from interviewees.

There are many benefits to interviewing in this way, but the main ones (to me) are:

Some examples of a structured interview question from the tech industry might be something like:

Tell me about a time when you overcame a rather difficult challenge pertaining to a past project

This question is straight from the AWS behavioral interview, and everyone applying there will get at least one of these.

Note : I work at Microsoft and it might seem weird that I’m showing you an Amazon interview question, but they’re very public with their interviewing process. Also, these questions, as you can see, are pretty generic.

The idea is that you tell a story, but in a very structured way, touching on one or more of their Leadership Principles. These aren’t gimmicky corp-speak things, either, they’re very serious about these principles! Friends that work at Amazon tell me that they hear this principles invoked on almost a daily basis.

The interview is insanely formulaic, as are most structured interviews, but the neat thing is that it doesn’t matter! What matters is your story and how you tell it.

That’s Amazon, but as I mention, you’re likely going to get at least one of these types of questions, even if you’re going for an engineering position. They’re used with Culture Fit questions mostly, but can also be used for a purely technical session too.

Structuring Your Response

Amazon has a thing they call the “STAR” method, which is:

You shouldn’t spend more than 5 minutes going into your story and if your interviewer wants more detail, they’ll ask you. The important thing, however, is that your answer should be framed properly, so the company you’re interviewing with scores you the highest.

A Better, More Generic Structure

Amazon’s STAR method is fine, but I think you can add better detail in there that fits just about any company you’re applying for. I don’t have a catchy acronym though:

It’s hard to tell a good story, especially when you’re in an interview. Thankfully these things are online these days, which means you can…

Write These Stories Out In Advance

Might sound like cheating, but most companies will tell you exactly what they’re going to be asking you about if you’re facing a structured interview (and you likely will).

Either way, it’s a really good idea to get your stories straight before you start the process. Start with the question above (the one about facing a challenge), as it’s so, so common.

Here are a few more to consider:

The more you research these questions, the more you’ll find variations on a theme from company to company. How you handle risk (and take chances), winning, losing, etc.

Write them out and then outline them - but be careful! If you pin them to your wall your interviewer will know when you’re reading and, trust me, I’ve heard some hysterical stories about this.

This Week’s Video: The Job Hunt!

Sara inspired this week’s video: 10 Tips and Tricks For Tech Interviews. If you’ve been interviewing for a while, you’ll likely know a lot of these … but maybe not!

I go into the structured interview, culture-fit questions, mindset, pair coding, take home questions, and more.

Enjoy, and good luck with your next interview.