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Demystifying the behavioral interview: Part 1 - Groundwork

Software engineering Jan 11, 2023

Coding is an integral part of a typical software engineering interview process but what is less thought of by candidates is that companies dedicate a big chunk to assessing “cultural fit”. It can be a dedicated 30-60 minute “behavioral interview” or integrated into other parts of the process (Amazon is an excellent example). In this series, we will first examine the importance of the behavioral interview, explore strategies for impressing your interviewers, uncover how it's “integrated” into the technical interview, and finally propose ways for extracting useful information from the interviewers.

The importance of cultural fit

In my experience, candidates focus on preparing for the technological aspect (i.e. coding), delegating the behavioral part as an afterthought, or treating it as a formality. For potential full-time employees at a company, the behavioral interview might carry more weight than the other parts. Being an interviewer myself, I can attest that candidates who did well in the coding interview(s) but failed to impress in the behavioral interview fared worse than candidates who lacked technical prowess.

Why is that? Because we felt we could upscale their technological skills, but we could not easily change their behavior and attitude.

The behavioral interview assesses fundamental aspects of the interviewee’s conduct on (and potentially off) the job. For example:

  • Experience in various scenarios such as performing under pressure, leading teams, mentoring, resolving conflicts
  • Continuous learning
  • Holding a conversation, communicating with clients and non-tech people (assess communication skills)

This assessment will help a team/company understand if the candidate will work well with them, be happy and productive in the company space and culture, be there for the long term, and so on. The “perfect” candidate will be hired to help with the current and future needs, to grow the business, train and mentor others, and more. Full-time employees are, therefore, a substantial investment, so getting the right person onboard is critical.

You might be wondering why this is important for you; if it’s so critical for a company, then they should make sure they get the right person, correct? Correct! And that’s exactly the point. Finding “the right person” is why the behavioral interview exists, why it’s rigorous, and why you should be prepared.

Groundwork

Unlike the coding interview(s), the behavioral one is very open-ended. Furthermore, it’s harder to “put your finger on it”. With code, you know if something compiles or not, you can verify the acceptance criteria, you can see if the tests run, you can measure execution time, and the like. The behavioral interview can go anywhere; from experience to plans, conflicts, successes, managing teams and projects, and even talking about hobbies (for a fuller list of potential interview questions, see part 2).

So how do you prepare for such a seemingly random pool of questions?

Know yourself

The obvious first choice is to search online. Do that, it’s important to be prepared and expect the questions. But please, don’t use someone else’s answers. It can be obvious that you do and it might only take 1-2 more deep-dive questions to “unmask” any interviewee who is not being honest. The best way to be prepared is to constantly/persistently check in with yourself about your work and your feelings, and to request feedback from people who can be honest with you. If you already have work experience, your colleagues can help you answer these questions and give you perspective(s) you had not considered. You can also look to mentors/teachers from school, sports coaches, family members, and anyone whom you trust to help you improve without hurting you. We are humans, we all have our blind spots. If you trust such people in your life and there is any sort of system for feedback in place, I implore you to use it. If not, you might have to go out of your way (and probably your comfort zone) to get this discussion started.

It’s hard in the beginning to expose yourself to criticism, I know. I don’t want to simply put the pressure on you, so I’ll give you a hint which worked for me: If you’re the one proactively asking for feedback as a means of improvement, it’s more likely to be positive and clear rather than negative and blaming. Moreover, if the feedback is not tied to any promotion/salary increase, it will be more open to giving you the points they think you could work on.

If there was a conflict, ask for feedback on how your actions were perceived and how you could have done better. What do others think your biggest strengths are (how you’re helping them the most), and your weaknesses (where you could improve)? If you’ve operated on a level above your grade, ask how you did. This, to me, is the goose with golden eggs for my current work and future endeavors. If you have mentors and coaches they can do that for you, but sometimes it’s up to us to proactively improve ourselves and ask the advice of others.

Practice makes perfect

Another practice for getting better at behavioral interviews is, well, to have more interviews. The first time you go through the process it will be difficult; you might be stressed, get a question you didn’t expect, and forget the main point you wanted to say. It’s normal. If you can get some mock/fake interviews (e.g. have someone acting as the hiring manager), try that out too. In addition, being an interviewer is a fantastic way to improve as an interviewee; if you have the chance to interview others you should take it.

Genuine interest

Finally, I urge you to be interested in the company you are applying to. Check out the products and use them. Ask for vouchers or test accounts to use the apps if you are not given any. Read their blog posts, watch their videos, check what they present at conferences, etc. Some of the questions might be precisely about these things 🙂

With that said, I leave you to go prepare for your interviews. Remember to check part 2 for specific interview questions as well as part 3 for the “hidden” behavioral aspect of the coding interview.

Recap

  • Ask for feedback from your mentors and the people you interact with closely in your work/school environment.
  • Give feedback to yourself.
  • Get familiar with your potential new employer.
  • Remember to enjoy the process. It’s an immense learning opportunity for you, concentrate on that one and not the stressing-out aspects.

See you over at part 2 where we plunge into some of the main questions you can expect in the behavioral interview.

For more details, you can watch my talk at DevFest Greece & Cyprus 2022.

Other posts in the series:

Your guide for success in the behavioral interview
An in-depth analysis of popular questions software engineers are asked during the behavioral interview with sample answers from expert sources.
The behavioral interview in software engineering
Coding is an integral part of a typical software engineering interview process but what is less thought of by candidates is that companies dedicate a big chunk to assessing “cultural fit”.

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