In January 2019, I was flown up to Seattle from Honolulu and spent a couple days there for an interview. I ultimately did not pass the interview, but I wanted to share my experience and give any tips to others undergoing the same process.
Note: I did sign a non-disclosure, so I can’t share anything too detailed, including the interview questions. A lot of information is already available on their jobs website and I will be adding upon that.
I have a very non-traditional background for big tech.
About myself: I’ve worked since I was 15, have bounced around job to job. First generation high school graduate and college graduate. Graduated with a bachelor’s in business. Never understood the concept of a career until I was in my late 20s, which is when I joined a master’s program for information systems at Hawaii Pacific University (a so-so program). I am early in my IT career. When I applied to Amazon, I was finishing up my my master’s (if you’re a non-CS grad reading this, they do hire non-CS majors, but you need to have adequate technical skills). My IT knowledge prior to my master’s program was from the internet, StackOverflow, and learning how to program for the web by myself, as a web developer.
The Position Applied For
I applied for a technical role with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing subsidiary of Amazon.
The 3-Step Process
Online knowledge screening. Phone interview. On-site interview.
That summarizes it up pretty much. The online screening had technical questions. The phone interview had more technical questions. The on-site interview had more technical questions, plus behavioral STAR questions, and a required technical presentation.
Yes, that’s a lot of technical knowledge you need. I did okay considering I did not study computer science and my InfoSys program was not very technical. Here’s the suggested technical study list by Amazon.
1. The online screening
The screening is a bunch of questions. The questions were about data structures, storage, programming, internet infrastructure, and networking.
2. The phone screening
The phone interview was scheduled and lasted about 1 hour. I believe it was an AWS Solutions Architect that called me. Very intelligent guy. Most questions were technical, but you needed to really explain the concepts, so that the interviewer knows you understand it, and that you’re not barfing out something you read on stackedoverflow.com. The interviewer was skilled enough to ask the right questions to elicit answers from me to test my knowledge. He did say that I was very prepared, compared to some of the other candidates he’s interviewed (Yeah, of course, applying to a company like Amazon and getting a response lights a fire under me and really had me learning everyday).
3. The on-site interview
Amazon paid for my flight and hotel. Meals, uber trips, and necessary items (like Dramamine… that flight out there was like riding a washing machine at times) were reimbursed later through a form I sent.
I had 4 interviews at 45 minutes each. You could have 2-7, according to Amazon Jobs. Plus, a technical presentation at the end. I was asked behavioral questions. I was asked more technical questions, some of which were the same as the ones in the phone screen. I gave a technical presentation at the end to everyone. I then left and ate Chipotle for the first time in my life (it’s not in Hawaii).
As a first-timer to big tech interviews, I wanted to share some advice I gained during my interview and preparation process.
You should rehearse and formulate answers to behavioral questions before studying technical topics
One regret I had was that I did not rehearse enough of my answers to the behavioral questions. I wrote down a bunch of questions in a notebook, wrote detailed answers in a S.T.A.R. format, but did not practice enough. This came back to bite me. Granted, none of the questions I prepared for came up, but going through the motions is helpful. It is especially important to understand that your questions reveal your values, principles, and judgement, so your answer should hopefully reveal why you are suited for the role at AWS, given the leadership principles that they believe in.
If you are given a behavioral question you did not expect, PLEASE take 15-30 seconds to find an appropriate project or situation to serve as an answer, then just follow S.T.A.R. to format your answer. You have 45 minutes per interview… there is plenty of time.
The study guide Amazon provides has many topics. If you want questions, you can find some sample questions from Glassdoor or Reddit.
Talk about your thought process
One helpful tip I read while preparing was for technical or behavioral questions, walk through your thought process. Your answer might be errant, but if you express your mental mapping to the interviewer, they will at least understand why you thought that, versus if you give a wrong answer with no explanation. Judgement is probably the most important thing employers look for, and being promoted to higher positions of responsibility is difficult if you have poor judgement. Poor judgement people are ones that will always need someone to manage them closely or to be given very clear instructions to follow. Many managers or supervisors would prefer you have good decision making so they can give you autonomy and have less to worry about themselves.
How long should you study? Budget your time, study an acceptable amount
When I searched “how long should I study for my amazon interview”, things got ridiculous. I started seeing people saying they studied 4 hours everyday, some people studying 6 months in advance, and I have even seen 5-hour Amazon interview simulations going for $4,500 on Airbnb! I guess when the product is in high demand, the competition really ups itself, even to ludicrous levels.
I wanted to work at Amazon a lot, but in terms of risk analysis, even though AWS would have been a huge thing for me, I thought it would be best not to spend too much time, because I have other things to think about, and I do not know my likelihood of getting the job.
My thought was, if I were to spend 500 hours preparing and fail, which is possible, it would be incredibly painful. Moreover, there are many elements out of my control. For example, if they didn’t like my university, if they could only hire n% of applicants, if they had internal racial quotas, if they had a preference for CS majors, if my voice reminded them of a radio host they didn’t like — all those things could factor in and all are out of my control. And you need to have all interviewers not veto you to get the job. I tend to not want to invest too heavily in situations where there is too much out of my control.
For me, in the roughly three weeks of January before my interview, I spent:
- 13 hours watching AWS videos and with AWS tutorials (I literally did not know anything before)
- 38 hours studying up on technical concepts, reading about amazon interviews, practicing behavioral questions
- 11 hours on my technical presentation
- 4 hours cleaning up my online portfolio
= 66 hours, around 20 hours a week
Note:All my time is logged using an awesome tool called Toggl. I think actual numbers are helpful, rather than “I studied 10 weeks.”
Overlapping Benefits: What justifies my time spent studying for this interview was this: most of the knowledge I learned while studying can be used in my IT career and also for the other tech interviews I plan to go to. My rationale was that even if I don’t get a job offer, my time was not spent in vain. I would have liked to spend less time on technical questions, more time on my presentation, more time actually practicing answers to behavioral questions, but I needed to actually experience the interview to understand this.
It’s a culture fit, not conformity — know the Amazon principles
Know the leadership principles and make sure you agree, with examples from your work or school experience.
I had read reviews about Amazon interviews. Some complained about the emphasis on the leadership principles. One even called it brainwashing. My dude, if it’s a company’s principles, that’s called application filtering to have applicants that match the company culture, NOT brainwashing. I myself agree with a lot of the principles, as I have had a lot of experience with doing good work, sometimes dealing successfully with ridiculous customers, and focusing on high quality. If you don’t agree with it, don’t apply, plain and simple. I recommend writing out examples from your experiences that display the principle in action.
My example: On a group project paper for an information management class, I decided to act as both editor and submitter. I expected my teammates to write their own portions of the paper and on the day it was due, I would be editing their work for spelling and grammar, and general cohesion of the paper. One teammate of mine’s went MIA, even as I texted her that day, so I wrote her portion and submitted it on time. Afterwards, I had to have a discussion with the MIA teammate about her performance, how it affects everyone else, and how she can better manage her time.
Yes, that really happened. I was pissed off that I had to cover her work, but when you OWN a project, it’s the only solution… getting a bad grade then yelling at her is not a good solution. This form of action is what translates well in the work place as well, which is why the interviewers ask these questions.
Make an online portfolio of your projects
I made a portfolio of all my projects from work and school that showcased the variety of skills and experiences I had, ranging from writing a business impact analysis report for a local chain, to creating a random social web app for class, to actual contracts I’ve worked on for the local university.
The act of creating your online portfolio will also help with knowing which projects you can discuss during the STAR behavioral questions. I like the website blog format for a portfolio, because it allows you to discuss the project and your thinking during it, rather than just showing code or pictures of the finished product. My portfolio has a STAR-similar format: background, problem, solution, result.
With your online portfolio, you can also discuss challenges, your role, and client interactions. With this, they can get inside your head, rather than relying on a resume, behavioral questions, and technical screening questions. I put my online portfolio URL right on my resume as supplementary info.
Think of an answer in your mind, then answer
When they ask behavioral questions, they want to evaluate your decision making process, plain and simple — good judgement is what they’re looking for, in my opinion. It’s hard because even if you studied STAR questions like I did, you will get ones you didn’t expect. I would suggest taking a small time to think of a project that’s relevant to the question, format it in STAR in your mind, then starting to talk.
I personally screwed up here, because in unexpected situations, I have a quick wit, but I’m not necessarily going to give well thought-out and elaborate answers. I might also recommend practicing in the mirror or having a friend in HR spring random behavioral questions on you. You need another person to simulate the stress of the actual interview!
Enjoy the experience!
If you prepared as outlined in the Amazon interview preparation guide and your recruiter’s documents, you should put up a decent showing at the interview. Accept the fact that you prepared and that you will ultimately get a job offer or not. If you made it to the onsite interview, that in itself is a positive sign. If you didn’t get the job offer, you have to come to terms with it. I personally was disappointed, but I already knew during the interview that there were certain spots I could’ve improved on. Also, it was a good experience to know what their expectations were. It was simply a much higher standard than what I’ve seen before. That really encourages me to learn more, get a better grasp of modern tech, and up my standards.
Also, treat yourself to a nourishing and good meal while you’re out there — their stipend, for me in Seattle, was up to around $75 a day for food alone. I shouldn’t have gone to McDonalds before my interview :(.
I look forward to the next potential interview with big tech.