Cracking the Culture Interview

The most successful companies are built upon great working cultures that are thoughtful about the cultural contribution each hire will make to their company. If you're a candidate looking to land your dream job, you'll need to be well prepared for these cultural or behavioral interviews.

As a hiring manager, I've interviewed over 200 engineering candidates and a significant portion of that has been evaluating the soft skills each candidate embodies. I've rejected extremely strong technical performers and and fought to hire some more junior candidates based on the signal I've identified from the culture interview. Because every company has their own culture, their own values, and their own questions, the culture interview can be extremely hard to prepare for. However, there's still plenty you can do to set yourself up for success instead of jumping in blind.

While my interviewing experience as both a hiring manager and a candidate have been primarily within engineering, I believe the tools in this kit will be mostly applicable across product, design, and other disciplines within product development organizations.

Stories to Prepare

Why should you prepare stories instead of answers to specific questions? The simple reason is that you can't prepare and memorize an answer to every question an interviewer might ask. Often times these conversations are organic and the real signal comes from how you respond to follow-up questions. The best answers are rooted in real examples from your personal experience and by "loading" these stories into your brain ahead of time, you'll be better equipped to handle questions on the spot.

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Story #1: Your career narrative

Almost everyone you talk to will give an intro of themselves and then ask you to share a brief intro as well. Depending on who you're talking to, that intro can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 3 minutes. In some cases, a hiring manager or recruiter might ask you to go deeper into your background and spend up to 30 minutes digging into your experiences.

What to prepare

  1. A narrative that connects your career together. While many careers are not linear, it can help to show that you were deliberate about the jobs you took and what you wanted to learn at each one. You may find that as you look back on your career, there's a story you can weave together that ties together where you started, where you're at now, and the trajectory you're on. A story that shows strong growth, surmounting challenges, and a high forward trajectory can help get companies excited about you. Finish your story such that the company you're talking to easily makes sense as the next step on your career journey.
    • A weak narrative merely lists what's on your resume, e.g., "in 2013 I joined X and did these projects, in 2014 I joined Y and did these projects, and recently I've done Z and B. I want to join this company because it's doing really well."
    • A stronger narrative gives context on your decisions and motivations, e.g., "In college, I was excited about electronics and human-computer interfaces, so I looked for companies that specialized in consumer hardware. X company was one of the companies that stood out, and when I joined I got to work on the interface for Product P. This taught me [so and so] but after 2 years there, I really wanted to get better at [this other thing], so I reached out to Company Y. From there, I grew into [some role], helped the company do [these things], and now I'm [doing something impressive]. Going forward, I'm looking for an opportunity where I can put my front end architecture skills to good use while learning how to build complex systems at scale. I admire [company name] for being able to build high quality user interfaces while being super fast and reliable. I think this might be a great fit for my expertise and give me opportunities to grow my backend skills."
  2. What specific things you're looking for in your next role. These should apply to more than one company to show that you're not just pandering to the company, but try to be opinionated at the same time.
    • A weak answer is too vague, uncertain, or demonstrates that you haven't put much thought to it.
      • e.g., "I'm looking for a place where I can advance my career." or "I wanted to get into AI and Machine Learning because it's a really hot industry right now."
    • A stronger answer shows that you've clearly thought about what you want, have had enough experience to know what you don't want, and implicitly show why the company you're talking to is a good fit.
      • e.g., "Over my career, I've found that it's really important for me to have a strong sense of ownership over my work. I enjoy taking an ambiguous customer problem, breaking it down with a PM or designer, and then being able to see the whole project through from start to finish. I like to solve problems and not just execute on tasks, even if that means working through some dealing with a lot of uncertainty at times and wearing many hats."

What the interviewer is looking for

  • For quick intros, interviewers are generally not evaluating your storytelling ability. Instead, they want to know why you might be a good fit for the role and what your motivations are.
  • For hiring managers and recruiters, your career narrative can be a useful lens to interpret the interview feedback and make a decision on whether or not to move forward.
    • For example, if your background is primarily backend engineering and the interviews demonstrate weakness in UI implementation, then your narrative can help interviewers focus more on your strengths over your weaker areas.
  • If you under-represent yourself at this stage, you may miss an opportunity to move forward in the interview process or get an offer.
    • On the flip side, you should avoid changing your narrative too much simply to suit the role or company you're talking to. It's often better to be rejected for a role that really doesn't fit you than to get a role doing something that doesn't actually align with what you want.

Questions that interviewers may ask

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are you looking for in your next role?
  • Why are you interested in [company]?

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Story #2: Two Impressive Projects

You should be prepared to talk in depth about at least two meaningful projects you've worked on where you played a significant role. Why two? If you use the same example for every question, the interviewer may think you're lacking experience or have a weak track record. Having at least two substantial projects in your pocket will help you balance breadth and depth to respond to a variety of questions.

Keep your initial explanation short (between 3-5 minutes) and offer to go deeper afterwards. This will help keep the conversation focused and avoid wasting time on unimportant details.

A good format to use whenever you're giving an example of something that happened is to use the SBI framework or STAR framework. For these examples I'll use the SBI model.

What to prepare

  • Situation: Share context on the project before jumping into what you did.
    • Where did the project come from?
    • Why was it important? How did you or your team prioritize it?
    • What were the goals of the project?
  • Behavior: Describe your specific role on that project. If you played a technical role, describe how the system was designed.
    • Project management
      • What was your role in defining the scope or solution?
      • How did you ensure the project was on track?
      • What obstacles came up during the project? How did you overcome them?
    • System design of the project
      • How was the system architected?
      • What were the biggest points of failure?
      • How did you approach this design?
      • Who else was involved in the design?
  • Impact: What was the result of this project?
    • What went well on that project?
      • Did the project succeed?
      • How did you measure success?
      • Can you share some of your success metrics and how they performed?
    • What did you learn on that project?
      • What skills did you build?
      • What didn't go well on that project?
      • If you were to do the project again, what might you do differently? Try to come up with at least one or two examples.
    • If the project didn't succeed, why not?
      • Demonstrate that you can take ownership of your mistakes and avoid blaming others. Most interviewers are looking for a growth mindset.

What interviewers are looking for

  • Does the work align with the level and scope of the role?
    • Are they applying for a role that's realistic with what they've done historically?
    • What kind of domain expertise do they have?
    • Have they had enough technical leadership experience for the role? (More relevant for senior/tech lead roles and above.)
  • Can the candidate clearly articulate the benefit and impact of their work?
    • It's surprising how often some people don't know or think about the result of their work beyond completing the tasks that were assigned to them. Strong candidates think about the entire workflow, from idea conception to evaluating success.
  • Do they have a growth mindset?
    • Are they able to reflect on both the successes and misses of that project?
    • Do they take credit for all the things that went well and blame others for all the things that didn't go well? (This would be a red flag.)
    • Can they clearly explain both the technical and non-technical portions of their work?

Questions that interviewers may ask

  • What's the most significant project you worked on in the last year?
  • Tell me about a project that didn't go as well as you had hoped. What happened?
  • Give me an example of how you learned an area/product that you knew nothing about. What was the outcome?

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Story #3: Resolving a conflict

Delivering successful projects often require working with a lot of stakeholders and collaborators. Demonstrate that you can work well with others, share critical feedback, and resolve situations on your own.

I've been surprised at how often candidates talk about a situation where they ultimately failed to resolve a conflict. It can be hard to think of a good example on the spot, so definitely prepare this ahead of time and consider what you want the interviewer to take away.

What to prepare

  • Situation: A time you disagreed with someone else. This could be over a technical implementation, a decision on what to build, or something similar.
    • What was the disagreement?
    • What led to it?
    • What were the potential consequence of not resolving that disagreement?
  • Behavior: What did you do? Make sure the example you come up with is resolved through something you did.
    • How did you approach resolving it?
    • What was the other person's perspective? Did you understand both sides?
    • Did you lean on others to help resolve it? It's okay for others to inform your actions, but don't pick an example where someone else fixed the problem for you.
  • Impact: What happened?
    • How did you resolve the conflict?
    • How did the other party react?
    • What were the consequences of having resolved the conflict?

What the interviewer is looking for

  • Can the candidate work through difficult situations on their own?
  • Will the candidate avoid conflict and let problems simmer? (Red flag)
  • Will the candidate be too brash and create a toxic environment for others? (Red flag)
  • Does the candidate have leadership potential?

Questions that interviewers may ask

  • Describe a situation where others you were working with on a project or program disagreed with your approach or ideas. What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time you disagreed with the decision of someone who had more authority than you. How did you approach it?
  • What's been one of the most valuable pieces of critical feedback that you've received in your career?

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Story #4: Proactively helping/growing others

Companies are often looking to bring in people who aren’t just strong on their own, but can help their whole team or company be more successful. You’ll want to show that you don’t just do your own job well, but that you can make others better too. This becomes increasingly important at higher levels where examples of leadership and leverage are critical.

What to prepare

  • Situation: Look for an example where you saw an opportunity to do something for others and proactively worked on it.
  • Behavior: What did you do to act on the problem?
  • Impact: Why was it worth spending your time on this? How did this help other people on your team or at the company?

Examples

  • Helping a peer when they were stuck or not making progress.
    • Situation: You’re working on a project and saw that a teammate could use help.
    • Behavior: Did you help your peer one time or did you turn it into a mentorship opportunity?
    • Impact: Once your peer got unstuck, were they able to apply what they learned to other projects? How did you help them grow long term?
  • Seeing that the team or organization is repeatedly making the same mistakes or facing the same problems.
    • Situation: A legacy system keeps crashing and very few people in the company are familiar enough with the technology to fix it.
    • Behavior: When you saw the legacy system was a pain, did you help other engineers develop expertise in the technology so more people could help? Maybe you helped advocate for a more significant refactor, knowing that it would end up saving hundreds of hours in the long run?
    • Impact: When the legacy system was improved, how did that improve the effectiveness of the rest of the engineering team?
  • Acting on an opportunity to improve company culture.
    • Situation: The company is struggling to attract good talent.
    • Behavior: When you saw that the company was struggling to find good talent, did you help write blog posts, speak at events, or help build a stronger pipeline?
    • Impact: When you spent the time to help build the company’s brand, were there any highlights or wins that you can attribute to your effort?

What the interviewer is looking for

  • Can the candidate self-identify and improve the culture at the company?
  • Are they proactive at taking ownership or do they generally just stick to what they’re explicitly told to do?
  • Do they know how to balance day-to-day work with potentially higher leverage initiatives?
  • Can they advocate for change when it’s important or do they prefer to stay with the status quo?
  • Are they a good teammate or tend to work alone?

Questions that interviewers may ask

  • Tell me about a time you had to step outside of your explicit role to get something done.
  • We're looking for someone who can help mentor the more junior people on the team. Do you have experience mentoring and coaching others?
  • How have you contributed to building a great culture?

Closing Tips

Interviewing is inherently stressful. Sometimes you simply don't click with the interviewer and other times it feels like the most natural conversation ever. The important thing is to represent yourself to the best of your ability and not worry too much about trying to tell the interviewer what you think they want to hear.

This means you should be honest with yourself and with your interviewer. Avoid making up stories just to tell the company what you think they want to hear. If you get hired because the company thinks you are more experienced than you actually are, you might not be set up for success on the job. If you join a company that you aren’t that excited about, you could be miserable and still have to find another job later. Your goal should be to represent yourself to the best of your ability and use these interviews as a means of finding something that’s a good fit for both sides.

Here's a few general tips that might help across any of these stories:

  • Give specific examples as much as possible. You can start the answer with a broad overview of how you think about the topic, but most interviewers will prefer to work with concrete examples that they can dig further into. Use the SBI or STAR framework to talk about your examples.
  • Stick to a couple of the same stories that you feel are really solid and practice them with a friend or partner. The more times you talk about the same projects and situations, the better you’ll get at communicating them. By the time you’re in an interview, you shouldn’t need to think too much about the example and can focus on answering follow up questions.
  • Do research on the company to understand what they value. The more you understand what their company values are, the more you can frame your explanations to show that you embody them. Stay true to your personal values, but make sure not to undersell yourself when you get an opportunity to demonstrate a value they really care about.

Lastly, take a few deep breaths and keep in mind that these interviews should be a back and forth dialogue, not a one-way dictation of notes you've written up ahead of time. It's okay to refer to notes to organize yourself (it's easier than ever now with most interviews being over video), but resist the temptation to just read from them the whole time.

Have any other suggestions? Share them in the comments!

Comments (1)

Skay's photo

This is a great article! Thanks for sharing :-)