April 25th, 2024

A few notes about the behavioral interview


I was very lucky, years ago, to have worked at Puppet when it made a big investment in behavioral interview training, which was an interview style  I'd managed to evade throughout my career up to then, partially because I had done a "freelance converted to full-time" thing a few times, and partially because I had the mixed blessing of narcissistic interviewers when I was coming in through the front door somewhere.

When I interviewed at Puppet, one of my interviewers was a very aggressive behavioral interviewer even before we eventually got to training in that style. 

It was a tough 30 minutes. He kept asking me behavioral questions ("tell me about a time you ...") and I kept giving conceptual answers (as if he'd asked "tell me me what you think or know about ..."). I could sense it wasn't going well, and I felt like I was blowing the interview. Mercifully, he was also a very assertive, confident interviewer and he finally broke down and said (more or less): 

"Look, what I am trying to get to with all these questions is 'did you do something,' not 'do you know facts about something.' I can tell you're smart and know about a lot of things, but I am having a hard time telling what you did and how you did it, or if you were just standing around next to someone else who was doing it."

Wow, I felt kind of attacked: Was he saying he didn't believe me when I said I knew stuff!? But I reset and things smoothed out, and I got the job. 

I asked that interviewer a few weeks after my first day "why me," because even though I had pulled it out in the back half of our interview, the first half was a disaster from a behavioral interviewing point of view.

"Because once you engaged, you convinced me. I always reply to each answer I get with 'and then what did you do,' and expect most people to bottom out around three or four steps. You told a story of running into complication and objection and roadblock, and pushing past it six or seven times. Nobody's ever convinced me they had that much persistence." 

Not long after, HR brought in a trainer for interviewing and I learned more about the behavioral interviewing style. As an interviewer, I'm a fan: I'd rather know what you've done than what you think, and I have adjusted my style a little to help candidates:

  • I try to explain my process up front. "I'm going to ask you about times you did things because I really want to get down to how you work and what your experience is." 
  • I try to cue them further by saying "I'm going to describe our organization and this role a little, and mention a few challenges on my mind, so you can better tailor examples."
  • I try to preface each question with "tell me about a time ..." or "can you tell me how you have ..." or "walk me through the steps you took to ..." as a way to remind the candidate that I'm looking for examples. 
  • I try to communicate a lot of patience. If I see the candidate having a hard time digging out a good example, I offer some time to think, and will sometimes say "that could be too narrow, other examples in this area might be ..." as a way to free them to think of another example

(I keep saying "I try," because candidates can come rolling in with an agenda or particular energy, and sometimes things just take a direction.)

One last observation for interviewers: Depending on your cultural background, etc. the demand of behavioral interviewing to be willing to redirect, reframe, and reiterate your desire for a concrete, behavioral answer can feel unnaturally assertive.

It's still the right thing to do.

Look, one of the odd things the internet and social media and the explosion of "knowledge work" have given us is phenomenal levels of false self-awareness. People are increasingly conditioned by the media environment to know facts. Anyone with a few years of knowledge work under their belt knows a lot of facts. We're swimming in facts. And when we don't already have a fact through experience, there are more and more ways to go get facts. It has never been easier in the history of humanity to figure out what the right answer is than it is right now.

For purposes of selecting one person from hundreds and committing to working with them, championing them, and growing them, them having a few facts and a right answer are stupid things to hinge a decision on.

Learning how someone actually did the thing you need them to do—or something adjacent, or similar, or related, or analogous—is a great thing to hinge a decision on.

Just to answer the obvious objection, or at least qualify all that: If you want to build a diverse, vibrant team, or if you're not one of those disasters of a manager who doesn't understand that you need people at several levels of experience on a well-rounded team, then you need to think of a behavioral style not as a way to narrowly insist on stories that describe the exact thing you need done. Instead, you need to think in terms of the competencies the thing requires, and think of examples to ask for that reflect those competencies, not an exact task.  That is way out of scope for this post, but it needed to be acknowledged.

Thinking behaviorally as opposed to conceptually is also a great style of being interviewed, even when your interviewers are being very conceptual about things.

During my last interview cycle over the fall and spring of '22 and '23, I went after several kinds of roles: chief of staff, engineering leader, IT leader. Everything that involved a recruiter screen went to a late round and I believe that's because answering even conceptual questions can help the interviewer get a picture of you they cannot if you're busy giving the right conceptual answer. When you answer conceptually, you're not in that picture. You are not the subject matching the verbs you're describing. In fact, the vernacular most people use to answer conceptual questions involves second person: "you" would do this, "you" would want to consider.

In one case—a government job—the recruiter said she was shocked someone from startup/tech land got as far as I had, and that I'd gotten past people along the way she'd have expected to be death on someone like me, and that my interviews had generated excitement. 

They were all asking intensely conceptual questions ... more like reading them, actually ... and I didn't see that as in my particular interest. I could tell they couldn't see me in the role based on their preconceptions. I needed to write a script where they could see me doing the job. In the end, I lost out to someone with as much experience in the public sector as I had in the private sector. It was close. They couldn't swing budget to accelerate an idea they'd had about evolving the function and hire us both. I think if I'd played along with conceptual answers, I'd have gone on the discard pile at screen or first stage.

You do have to suss out whether the conceptual bent is intentional or not. Sometimes they really do "want your thoughts" on something, and it's not your job to tell them "you asked for a cheeseburger, so here's some healthy yogurt." But you can offer a layered answer:

"In this kind of situation, there are several approaches ... a, b, c" then pivot into something behavioral tailored to the local situation: "In a situation like the kind you mentioned here in your overview, I once ..."

Providing those layers says "I'm experienced enough to have a toolkit, and I'm not so green that I'd say 'it's just this way,'" and "I listened to you describe this environment, and here's the direction I'd lean when picking a tool from my kit."

And you do have to be crisp with the "a,b,c" up front, because—especially in tech—you have a lot of people in relatively high positions who are not very experienced themselves, and maybe only know about the thing they themselves have built.

For instance, I blew one interview with a baby CTO because he asked a strategic, conceptual question, and rather than unrolling my toolkit and saying "here are  options a,b, and c; but for your case" I tried to enumerate the options and a mini-case-study for each before getting to what he needed to hear for his environment. The second I mentioned an approach he'd tried, he decided he had nothing to learn from me and stopped the interview, even though I was on tool number two of five in the inventory. It sucked watching him check out like that, but it was on me.