Tech interviews aren’t just about algorithms and system design. You’ll also need to convince the interviewers that you are someone they want to work with daily. If you fail that test, they don’t care what else you can do. Here’s my guide to fully preparing for the behavioral interviews.
This guide is focused on technical program managers, because that is what I”m most familiar with. But much of this could apply to software engineers or other roles as well. Software engineers can expect 1-2 behavioral rounds, but TPMs will likely get 3 rounds. The bar for software engineers is generally a bit lower. The interviewers want to see whether you are competent enough to work with other people and not be a jerk. For TPMs, you will need to really excel and show strong people skills, since you will spend so much time working with other people.
The Goal of the Behavioral Interview
As I mentioned earlier, the big question the behavioral interview is trying to answer is whether you are someone the interviewer would want to work with on a daily basis. Here are some more specific characteristics they are generally looking for:
- Communication: Can you clearly explain a concept to different audiences and understand how to get everyone on the same page?
- Leadership: Can you take initiative and influence peers toward a common goal?
- Conflict resolution: How do you handle disagreements and find a path forward?
- Empathy: Do you have emotional intelligence? Can you understand someone else’s point of view?
To get a sense of your abilities, the interviewer will ask questions about your past experiences and maybe a few hypothetical questions. Most questions will take the form “Tell me about a time when you did x”. Trying to think of these situations on the spot is a recipe for disaster. You’ll likely come up with vague stories, miss the details, and accidentally contradict yourself. You need to prepare all of these answers in advance. Then, when you go into the interview, you just need to recall the right situations. This means 90% of your success happens before the interview. The more homework you do beforehand, the easier the interview will be.
How to Prepare Step by Step
Here are the steps I take to prepare for the interview:
Step #1: Write down your top 5 successful projects
These should be projects that you directly worked on and know intimately. These should be projects with some challenges, but ones where you really knocked it out and succeeded in the end.
Step #2: Write down the background/why and the goals of the project
Example: We integrated with an external service provider so we could increase our sales to companies that use that service provider.
Step #3: Write down specifically what you worked on
Example: I led project management by breaking the problem down into milestones and tasks and tracked progress with my team of 4 engineers
Step #4: Write out 2-3 challenges that you overcame during the project
These can be technical challenges, PM challenges (schedule/cost), people problems (conflicts), etc. Try to get a good variety.
Example: I led a project that was connecting our system to a new external interface. Our low resources and tight schedule would mean our system wouldn’t be finished until a week before the need date, leave us just days to test the integration.
Now, label the challenge “type” with a hashtag so you can reference it easily later on. Example #conflict #ambiguous #technical #schedule #risk
Write down what tactical steps you took to solve the problem.
Example: “I asked the team to build a simple emulator so we could test the interface early and reduce the risk of a failed integration by the time the rest of the system was ready”
Write down the impact or outcome of the situation
Example: “The emulator found a few discrepancies in the interface, but because we tested the interface early, we were able to resolve the issues with the external org in plenty of time. We delivered the integration on schedule.
At this point, you should be able to phrase the challenge in the STAR format – Situation, Task, Action, Result. Make it super obvious you are following this format. Cut out any fluff that doesn’t add to the story, but keep the important details in. Details make your story interesting and convince the interviewer you are not making something up.
Step #5: Write down 5 failed projects
Now, do the same thing 5 more times, but use projects where you failed. These shouldn’t be complete failures. You just want something with a major setback that ends on a positive note, or at least neutral. Talk about what you did that lead to the failure. Then make sure to follow up with what you should have done instead, or what you learned from the process. Learning from failure is an important signal in the interview.
Step #6: Match your situations to behavior questions
You now have a list of 10+ projects with 2-3 challenges per project. Next step, go through a list of common behavioral questions and assign situations to it. I recommend numbering your situations for easy reference. You can lookup your situations based on the hashtags you used earlier. For the first questions below, you might lookup the #schedule tag. You can certainly match a situation to multiple prompts.
Here’s a list of common prompts:
- Tell me about a time you couldn’t make a deadline. How did you handle it?
- How did you handle a change in scope mid way through the project?
- Tell me about a time you handled a conflict between team members?
- How did you handle sub-par performance from someone on your team?
- How did you handle disagreement between 2 teams (cross functional)
- Tell me about a time you handled an ambiguous project. How did you bring clarity?
- Explain a situation when taking your time to make a decision paid off.
- Describe a situation when you had many project due at the same time. How did you prioritize them and make sure they were all completed?
- Tell me about a time you started down a path and had to change directions.
- Describe a time when you had to solve a technical challenge that was outside of your domain. How did you approach the problem?
- Tell me about a time when you had to make a difficult decision?
Step #7: Clean up
Go through your list of behavior questions and see which questions have no situations next to them. Re-think when you may have encountered this and add it to your situation list. Fill up as many questions as possible. Also, cut out any situations that are too simple or vague. If you are unsure, present the situation to a friend and ask them if it is interesting enough to keep.
Step #8: Practice
Read through the behavior prompts and practice recalling the situations that match to it.
Step #9: Delivery
Finally, knowing and practicing your scenarios is key, but don’t become a robot. You don’t want to sound rehearsed. Listen to the questions carefully so you can craft your answer to fit it. Speak slowly and thoughtfully. Tone and body language are important. The interviewer will be able to tell if you are being genuine.
- Don’t ever talk negatively about someone in your past. This only makes you look bad. Stick to the facts, and frame everything in a positive light.
- I like to use real names when talking about people (first names only) in my stories. It helps make them seem real and shows empathy.
- If you get a prompt that just isn’t clicking and you can’t seem to come up with an answer – don’t make something up. Politely say you can’t think of anything right now and ask if you can come back to it. There’s a good chance they won’t return to it. That is much better than stumbling through a fake response.
- Rather than trying to remember all these situations right before an interview, keep a running log of these situations throughout your time at a job. They will quickly stack up and you’ll have a nice repository to pull from.
- I’ve heard a lot of conflicting opinions on using “I” vs “we” in your responses. If you use “I” too much, it sounds like you aren’t a team player, but if you use “we” too much, it sounds like you didn’t do anything. My approach is to either mix it up, or say both “I suggested that the team do x and we were able to pull it off”
With a little bit of preparation, the behavioral interview is not difficult to pass. Do your homework, act like a pleasant person you would want to work with, and you’ll be fine.