The Fundamental Principle for Interviewing

When I was 23 I was caught way off guard in an interview. A guy asked me what I thought about that new Apple device you could plug into the top of your iPod to play music through the FM radio. Remember those? They looked like sideways Chap Stick tubes without the wrappers.

All I remember is trying to stammer out something clever about technology and how it was very impressive, etc. It was very embarrassing. I didn’t get the job.

I certainly learned how to be more thoughtful in business school but it wasn’t until I began regularly interviewing candidates at Amazon that I finally realized the fundamental principle I had been missing all along: the key to interviewing is not in answering the questions at face value. It is in understanding the purpose behind each question that is being asked.

Take for instance the classic interview opening walk me through your resume. Despite what it seems the purpose of this question is not for you to generically tell me about yourself. The purpose of this question is to specifically demonstrate why you are the perfect fit for this role at this time. How has your personal path inevitably led you to be interviewing for this very position today?

It’s a subtle shift in perspective and may only change your answers slightly but focusing on and addressing the purpose of the question will better align your responses with what your interviewer is actually looking for. Find the underlying purpose of the question and address it.


p.s. I finally realized what that guy was after when he asked me about the FM attachment. He didn’t want to hear me opine on technology. He wanted to hear that I was capable of forming an opinion with conviction.

I can’t go back and change things but I can tell you that that device was a real pain in the @ss. Trying to program that thing while driving was a death sentence and since it required finding the dead FM stations to sync (you know the ones with the fuzzy signal) you’d have to keep reprogramming it if you were on any kind of a road trip, or even a long commute. It was a fancy way to not really solve the problem of easily amplifying music from your iPod into your car. That cassette tape thing with the wire drooling out its mouth was a much better solution ;)