February 18, 2020

AWS: The Interview

Over the last few years, I have written a few times about hiring, specifically in this post I suggested that companies schedule all interviews in one day, to cut down on the time required to hire, and to be responsive to the business and to candidates.

I recently interviewed at AWS, initially for a Customer Solutions Manager (CSM) role, then for Solutions Architect role. Similar to my Google interview 10 years ago, the AWS role also had one of the rounds that had multiple back-to-back interviews. In the case of AWS, I had:

  • a phone screen with HR, for about 30 mins
  • a phone interview with a Sales Director, for about 45 mins
  • a technical phone interview with a Solutions Architect
  • Loop: 5 back-to-back individual (not panel) interviews, scheduled serially over a single day, at their offices.

In the Loop, you meet a different person each time for 1 hour (they don't do panel interviews), then you go onto the next person. They schedule a lunch break, then you continue with the rest of the interview. This is a lot of work, and energy consuming, and requires you to be concentrating for almost 6 hours on end, with small breaks in between. You are answering detailed questions about your history, experiences, how you responded to specific incidents, and lots of behavioural questions.  A few of the initial questions are familiar, which you can easily answer based on your preparation and homework. But as the interviews progresses, and you move from one interviewer to the next, as you start tiring, you cant always use your prepared answers to respond. You need to start thinking, and answering more honestly, and this is where the real you comes out. As the day goes on, the truth serum starts kicking it, and you start giving more real, honest answers.

They are also very "nice" - they don't harass you to push you for answers. They make you feel very comfortable, so you open up and answer more honestly.

And this is why FAANG companies and others run interviews in a Loop - so that they can have better exposure to you, with multiple interviewers over a period time, which allows them to see the real you.

The key thing is that AWS wants you to succeed. They send you a lot of info before each round, helping you to prepare. The HR rep called me the day before, to give me details on each interviewer, and the main topics they will ask me about.

Amazon Leadership Principles

You need to experience it to believe it, as to just how important these principles are to Amazon.

Our Leadership Principles aren’t just a pretty inspirational wall hanging. These Principles work hard, just like we do. Amazonians use them, every day, whether they’re discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer’s problem, or interviewing candidates. It’s just one of the things that makes Amazon peculiar.

The internet is full of videos and articles on how to prepare for the interviews, especially the behavioural questions, based on the Leader Principles. This one is the most important one to read and understand, as well as this one.

Besides the technical parts of the interview, you need to prepare for the behavioural questions based on the LPs. There are lots of coaches and others who have can help, and who have published their material online. Dan is one of the best, and he suggests about 10 to 15 days to prepare.

AWS focus on the culture fit. This ties in with my recent DevOps book review post:

Establishing the right culture - one of my favourite sections. He goes into details about DevOps is first a cultural movement, and talks about Conways Law. Individuals can be the eventual enablers, or the ultimate bottlenecks. Only individuals with the right intentions and more importantly with the willingness to to change can make the necessary changes to cause transformation. Ultimately, even if the teams are well organised to enable trust, collaboration, and communication - if one or more individuals choose not to participate and not to overcome the cultural inertia, then change will not happen. If you look at culture as purely being how people behave and interact, then making sure you have the right people on the team is eventually the most important measure and cause of right culture. Probably the most extreme example of steps companies take ensure they have the right people on their teams come from Amazon - where they pay people who are unhappy to leave. They would rather pay people to quit, then keep them on the team, hurting it the company culture.

My Learnings

As a hiring manager, I have learnt that interviews are a flawed way to find the right employee. But if interviews are the best thing we have, then running it as above, and making it a rigorous process, gives you the best chance to find the best person:

  • having multiple people interview the candidate, so you have different data points
  • using a bar raiser, who's objective is to improve the hiring process and weed out short term hires
  • Using behavioural questions based on the candidates past experience to predict future performance