How to answer Amazon "Invent and Simplify" interview questions

The third Amazon leadership principle is “Invent and Simplify.” If you’re preparing for an interview there, you should practice answering questions based on this principle.

If you don’t know about the Amazon leadership principles, you should read this article about interviewing at Amazon first.

How Amazon explains the “Invent and Simplify” leadership principle

Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here." As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

What does “invent and simplify” mean exactly?

The “invent” part of this principle is that Amazon frequently does new things, whether “new” means new scale, new products, new platforms, or something else new.

The “simplify” part of this principle is the idea that everyone, no matter what type of job they have, has the opportunity to simplify something, usually a process. Making something simpler is desirable because simpler usually equals greater efficiency, i.e., quicker or cheaper, and what company wouldn’t like that?

Does the invent and simplify leadership principle apply to me?

My clients sometimes worry that, if they’re not inventing new products or new technologies as part of their job, they won’t be able to answer questions about the Invent and Simplify principle. But that’s not true. You definitely don’t have to be “inventing” things to do well on this principle. Anyone in any type of role can have an impact on a process, and improving a process is also a way of simplifying.

What do you need to show in your answer?

So besides wanting to know if you’ve invented or simplified, what is your interviewer looking for when she asks you to speak to this principle?

Amazon wants people who are curious and well informed and can be creative in thinking of solutions. They want people who can easily generate multiple ideas for problem solving. They want people who know how to find answers by looking into how other departments or other industries do things. Above all, they want people who will try to improve things, not just accept the status quo blindly.

Top five Amazon interview questions for “Invent and Simplify”

There are different questions your interviewer can use to ask about your “invent and simplify” skills. Based on my experience with clients, here are the top five questions:

• Tell me about a time when you invented something.

• What improvements have you made at your current company?

• Tell me about a time when you gave a simple solution to a complex problem.

• Tell me about a time you had to think outside the box (think creatively) to close a sale or sell your product.

• What is the most innovative project you’ve worked on?

Sample answers for invent and simplify questions

Good answer for “What improvements have you made at your current company?”

Here’s an answer that I helped a client develop, based on that client’s experience:

We were using an Enterprise Service Bus in our project for SOA, and one of the functions we use it for is to record the time when a web service request arrives at our platform and when the response leaves the platform. Logging this information helps us measure response-time performance analysis for each web service. The response-time data were stored in a database which has grown very big as the platform has expanded over the years.

We needed to keep the growth of the database in check. Per project requirements, it was also necessary to keep data available for three months online and one year in an offline storage.

I developed a tool that met and automated the requirements. Once the user configures the tool, it automatically finds the table partitions in scope, backs up those partitions, zips up the backup, and then moves the backup to tapes. As the final step, it generates SQL script files to clean up the partitions that it had backed up.

As a result of this automation, we saved at least one to two days of effort per month. We are also using this tool to clean up the logs for provisioning history from customer records.

Why is this answer good?

I like this answer because, through his story, the interviewee reveals that he takes an “invent and simplify” approach to his work. An example of automating something is usually a good fit for the invent and simplify questions since developing a tool is a good example of inventing something and the tool usually improves the process, as it clearly does in this case.

Good answer for “Tell me about a time you had to think outside the box.”

If your interviewer asks you this question, you need to provide evidence that you question assumptions, even when the answer seems “obvious” to everyone else.

Here’s a story from a recent client that does a nice job of thinking “outside of the box”:

We had a SAAS product [note: SAAS is “software as a service”] that needed to integrate with our clients’ human resources platforms. We had two target markets – healthcare and academic. Both markets offered large opportunities, but, to me, the TAM [note: TAM is “total addressable market”] of the healthcare customers was much more attractive.

The problem was that healthcare customers tended to use one type of HR platform, and academic customers used all sorts of different types. The technical team struggled with an integration solution that would work in all situations. It became apparent that we would need to build several disparate solutions, not one as we had hoped, to service both markets.

The business owner of our unit was dismissive of these technical hurdles, but I spent time with the teams, and I knew this complexity was going to add months to the project, and even threatened the feasibility of the project. So I ran the numbers and put together a presentation, demonstrating to the business owner and several senior stakeholders that we should focus on the healthcare market and revisit the academic market in the following years. I had to do a lot of convincing because, as I said, the academic opportunity was large. Eventually I convinced the business that we needed to simplify our approach and focus on the larger market and build a solution that would work for those customers.

Why is this answer good?

This interviewee questions assumptions, digs into the details, and is willing to stand up for the best solution for the business, even when his seniors thought otherwise. The solution presented wasn’t a small improvement to the existing business model; it was an entirely new idea for the company and one that wasn’t conventional wisdom of trying to make all customers happy so you don’t lose any of them.

This story impressed the interviewer.

What else is your interviewer looking for?

So besides wanting to know if you’ve invented or simplified, what is your interviewer looking for when she asks you to speak to this principle?

Amazon wants people who are curious and well informed and can be creative in thinking of solutions. They want people who can easily generate multiple ideas for problem solving. They want people who know how to find answers by looking into how other departments or other industries do things. Above all, they want people who will try to improve things, not just accept the status quo blindly.

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If you’d like to work with me to prepare for your interview, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a free consultation or an interview prep session. I’m happy to say that after working with me, my clients, who range from entry level to senior VP level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers but I also work with native English speakers.

Use PAR, not STAR, for answering behavioral interview questions

This article is for those of you who know the STAR method but find it confusing because the “S” and the “T” steps seem so similar.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about you can skip this and keep using STAR to answer your behavioral interview questions. 

Use PAR, not STAR.png

So, the “situation” and “task” steps in STAR, they seem kind of similar, right? Yeah, they do. I’ve never been able to figure out the difference between them and I’ve had many clients ask me to explain the difference to them, which I can’t do because it doesn’t make any sense to me.

To save everyone from confusion, I’ve started teaching my clients to use “PAR” instead. PAR is the same as STAR but combines the S and the T steps.

Why “P” instead of “S”? S and P mean the same – situation, problem, issue – it doesn’t really matter what you call it, it’s the same thing.

You may have heard the term “PAR” used when talking about resumes, and it's a common way of formatting resume bullet points, but we can also use it for answering behavioral questions and it is so much clearer than STAR.

Here is the PAR format:

P = problem/situation/issue

A = action (what did you do?)

R = result

Now use the letters as a structure to tell your story (you need to use a story to answer your behavioral interview question). 

Will I have a problem if I don’t use STAR?

Will your interviewer notice that you’re not using STAR? No. I promise you they will have no idea, because the S and the T sections get combined so often anyway. 

Amazon recruiters send out interview instructions telling candidates to use STAR, but like I said, no one will notice if you use PAR instead. They will notice if your answer is unclear or lacking the proper information.

If you're one of the people who finds STAR confusing and annoying like I do, start using PAR instead. 

I’m happy to say that my clients, who range from senior VP level to entry level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon. If you’d like to work together on your interview prep, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a free consultation or an interview prep session.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers but I also work with native speakers.

Answers for the top 5 Amazon "Ownership" principle interview questions

If you're about to interview at Amazon you should learn the 14 Leadership Principles because their interview questions are based on them. 

I've talked about interview questions based on the first principle, Customer Obsession, here

The second Amazon leadership principle is "Ownership."

Top 5 Amazon Ownership Questions.png

Amazon Leadership Principle #2: Ownership

This is how Amazon explains the principle:

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job." 

If you're not clear on what this definition of ownership means exactly, here are some other ways of understanding it. If you show ownership, you will:

  • Ignore boundaries between jobs and departments if necessary to get your project done. If you see a problem and it’s not in your department, you will try to fix it.

  • Along the same lines, you will manage every dependency and won’t make excuses if something goes wrong. You won't say, "That wasn't my job to take care of."

  • Think about the impact of your decisions on other teams, sites and the customer over time.

  • Consider future outcomes (scalable, long-term value, etc.)

  • Coach and mentor your team to understand the big picture, how their role supports the overall objectives of Amazon, and how it ties to others.

There are different ways your interviewer can ask you about your ownership skills. Here are the top 5 questions, based on my experience with clients.

Top 5 Amazon interview questions asking about ownership

1. Provide an example of when you personally demonstrated ownership.

2. Tell me about a time you went above and beyond.

3. Tell me about a time when you took on something significant outside your area of responsibility. Why was it important? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a project or idea (not necessarily your own) that was implemented primarily because of your efforts. What was your role? What was the outcome?

5. Give an example of when you saw a peer struggling and decided to step in and help. What was the situation and what actions did you take? What was the outcome?

Answer the interview questions by telling a story

All five questions need to be answered with a story about a time in your past work experience.

How do you tell your story so that it's clear and the right length? Use the STAR technique. 

The STAR technique is a common structure used to answer interview questions. 

These are the 4 steps of STAR:

S – Situation - background info

T – Task - what you had to do 

A – Activity - what you did - this should be the longest part of the answer

R – Result - positive; quantifiable; what you learned; what you would do differently next time

If you get asked a behavioral question, answer by going through the letters in order.

This is the basic STAR method. You can read this post for more about STAR, including sample answers to some possible questions, if you feel like you need more information before you start using it. 

Sample answers for the top 5 ownership questions

1. Provide an example of when you personally demonstrated ownership

Senior Product Manager's answer:

"When we were trying to penetrate the academic markets, it required a new way of interacting with the customer. No one was clear on what this method was. It wasn't my job to create the marketing plan but I could see that no one was having success with it so I did research and figured it out myself. At our next meeting I presented my method and we implemented it. As a result of this initiative, we've made millions of dollars in this  market."

This answer is good but it would be better if he said what product they were trying to introduce into the academic market, why it required a new way of interacting with the customer, and his approach to entering the market. Specific details make the story more interesting.

2. Tell me about a time you went above and beyond

Going "above and beyond" is an idiom that means you do more than you’re required to do.

Here is one software developer's answer:

"While working on my most recent project, our customer asked to add a new feature to the product. While it was a reasonable request, it went beyond the scope of the project we had worked out and there was no time built in to the schedule for it. My manager decided that we couldn't refuse and insisted that we rework the schedule. This change increased my workload about 25% in the same timeframe. I did my best to complete the extra work in the time given by working later at night and also working some of the weekends. Although it wasn't an ideal situation, we managed to pull it off and the customer was satisfied with our work."

This is a good answer but adding details about the type of product and feature and the exact work the developer was doing would make the answer stronger. Like I said before, details help make the story more interesting. Of course you don't want to get too far into details if the interviewer doesn't understand the technical stuff, but you should try to paint a picture for your interviewer.

3. Tell me about a time when you took on something significant outside your area of responsibility. Why was it important? What was the outcome?

This is an Operations Manager's answer:

"We were moving our site from the old domain to the new domain. The old site generated trials worth $4.50 each and we were getting 1000 per day. The key was to migrate the content pages and have Google reindex the site quickly enough so that organic search results didn't fall. I didn't see anyone treating this project with the sense of urgency or risk mitigation that I thought it deserved, so I took over coordinating it, although it should have been the marketing team leading this effort. We completed the migration in the first quarter, and as a result we made our B2C budget numbers."

4. Describe a project or idea (not necessarily your own) that was implemented primarily because of your efforts. What was your role? What was the outcome?

Digital Marketing Manager's answer:

"Last year we weren't getting high enough conversion rates on some of our pages for our newest product. They were well below our goal. I was managing the team whose goal was to fix this. I coordinated our landing page optimization efforts and we updated the UI on10+ landing pages in less than three months. We saw conversion lifts between 25% and 45%."

This is a good answer but it's too short. This person could add details about how she did this task. In preparing for your interview, be sure to review the job description, note the key duties it lists, and try to speak to these duties in your stories. For example, let’s say the job description emphasizes team management. In that case, you’d want to tell this same story while also including details related to managing the team. Let’s say instead that the job description emphasizes technical skills. In that case, you’d want to break "updating the UI" into smaller tasks and list them. Or spell out what kind of "conversion lifts" you got.

5. Give an example of when you saw a peer struggling and decided to step in and help. What was the situation and what actions did you take? What was the outcome?

Senior Business Development Manager's answer:

"At my current job, there was an opportunity to enter into a new marketplace. I had a colleague who was preparing the plan to do this. I saw that he was missing some of the key players in the space and so probably wouldn't be successful. I knew the right people to talk to from my work at a past job. Even though this wasn't my project, I wanted to help him because ultimately his deal would help us all, so I made some introductions to the right people. It worked out and he was able to close the deal."

This answer is strong. Note how the interviewee demonstrates ownership by speaking up and helping the person on his team. He didn’t have to do that. Also, note his reason for helping his teammate was about helping the business as a whole.

How to answer Amazon customer obsession questions

I’m happy to say that my clients, who range from senior VP level to entry level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon. If you’d like to work together on your interview prep, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a free consultation or an interview prep session.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers.

Answers for the top 5 "Customer Obsession" Amazon interview questions

If you're about to interview at Amazon you should learn the 14 Leadership Principles because they ask interview questions based on them. 

Amazon Customer Obsession Questions

Amazon Leadership Principle #1: Customer Obsession

Everyone, no matter what role they're interviewing for, should prepare answers for the customer obsession questions because it’s the company’s favorite principle. 

This is how Amazon explains the principle:

Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

In other words, customers are #1. 

There are a lot of ways they can ask you about your interest in customers. Here are the top 5.

Top 5 Amazon interview questions asking about your customer obsession

  1. How do you show your customer obsession?

  2. Tell me about a time you handled a difficult customer.

  3. How do you wow your customers?

  4. How do you develop client relationships?

  5. How do you understand your customer’s needs?

Answer the interview questions by telling a story

All 5 questions need to be answered with a story about a time in your past work experience.

Even if you get asked "How do you wow your customers?" — which seems like it wants a general answer like "I work really hard” — they are actually asking for a story about something specific. You should answer general questions like this with something like, "I try to go above and beyond to serve my customers [first you give a general statement about your work habits]. For example, once last year I had to…[then you tell a specific story that supports the statement]" 

Use the STAR technique to structure your stories

How do you tell your story so that it's clear and not too short or too long? Use the STAR technique. 

The STAR technique is a common system used to answer interview questions. It provides a structure for you to remember so that you include the correct data in your answers. 

These are the 4 steps of STAR:

S – Situation - background info

T – Task - what you had to do 

A – Activity - what you did - this should be the longest part of the answer

R – Result - positive; quantifiable; what you learned; what you would do differently next time

If you get asked a behavioral question, answer by going through the letters in order.

First give the S part (explain the basic situation). Then give the T (what was your job/task in this situation) .Then A (show what you did). Last, give the R (outcome).

This is the basic STAR method. You can read this post for more about STAR, including sample answers to some possible questions, if you feel like you need more information before you start using it. 

Sample answers for customer obsession questions

How do you show customer obsession?

A senior digital marketer's answer:

“An example of how I regard customers is from when I had just become the Regional Manager at X bank in India in 2015. We were having problems retaining customers because our online services, in particular the online banking app, weren't as sophisticated as our in person services were even though more of our customers were wanting to bank online. I realized this couldn't continue and began a push to revamp the app along with the IT department. It took us a year of product development but in the end we rolled out the new online banking app and service plan and it was well received. This and effort from other departments helped the organization notch customer engagement of 75% from 55% earlier over the next 2 years. We improved the region’s profitability by 15%."

This is a good answer because he gives a specific problem and shows specifically how he handled it and then gives the results. 

Tell me about a time you handled a difficult customer.

This is the answer given by a salesperson:

"When I was a Sales Manager at X we had a group of unhappy customers. We'd sold them a weed killer that hadn't worked well. As farmers, this was important to them and they were threatening to take their business to our competitor. I had to try to keep them as customers. I knew this would be hard because our product had been defective and had cost them money. I had a meeting with all of them where I listened to them complain about what had happened. I tried to listen to each of them and respond calmly. I explained to them what had happened, which was definitely our fault, and apologized. In the end, they agreed to give us one more chance even though I couldn't offer them a refund (I didn't have the ability to do that.)"

This answer is good. Why?

• It talks about skills that will be relevant in the job she is applying for — dealing with unhappy clients, client communication, conflict management

• It follows the STAR structure so it's easy to follow

• It keeps to the details that are needed but doesn't add more — not too short or too long

• It references the Amazon principle "customer obsession" although you'll notice she doesn't use those words

This is her answer broken down with STAR:

S: When I was a Sales Manager at X we had a group of unhappy customers. We'd sold them a weed killer that hadn't worked well. As farmers, this was important to them and they were threatening to take their business to our competitor.

T: I had to try to keep them as customers. I knew this would be hard because our product had been defective and had cost them money.

A: I had a meeting with all of them where I listened to them complain about what had happened. I tried to listen to each of them and respond calmly. I explained to them what had happened, which was definitely our fault, and apologized.

R: In the end, they agreed to give us one more chance even though I couldn't offer them a refund (I didn't have the ability to do that).

Length: Each section has only two to four sentences in it. The Action step can have more than this, but the other sections should stick to this number. If you're using more sentences, your answer is too long.

How do you wow your customers?

A Customer Service Manager's answer:

"I wow the customer by helping them with their problems as far as its in my power because I feel like that is a win-win for both us and the customer. Last week I made a customer happy because he wrote to say that he couldn’t use our service because he couldn’t afford it because he was in between school and a job, so I gave him four months of access for free. The reason I did that is that because I felt like once he did get a job I felt like he was more likely to pay for our product. He said he had a tear in his eye when he read my email, and so I'm sure that he will definitely be a loyal customer."

How do you develop client relationships?

A Product Manager's answer:

"The key to client relationships is listening to their needs and showing that you take them seriously. For example, one of our biggest enterprise customers wanted to migrate to our newest product but they were anxious because they had a lot of time invested into the old product and they were worried it wouldn’t be as good. I brought in senior people, not just the customer manager, to talk to them and speak to their concerns."

The problem with this answer is that it doesn't have the result but otherwise it's good. You could add more details about what you said to them to allay their concerns as well as how they reacted and what happened later.

How do you understand the customer’s needs?

This is the answer given by a Senior Digital Product Manager:

"I use quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitative is looking at data to derive insights. Data can be what customers are doing when they use your product and if you're using a digital product you could use an approach like web analytics. Qualitative approaches you can simply ask them about their needs about how they use your product, but a better way is to immerse yourself into their problem space and ask where does the product fit into their daily life today? For example, in looking at my top customers, in terms of the customers most engaged on my platform, I can see that content about IT certification is very popular. As a result we started doing online trainings and certifications. So instead of just a course or video, we do live trainings now. Those turned out to be really popular. So it seems that anything we give them in terms of IT certifcation is really popular. So I've started to talk to customers about the role of certification in their workplace. It turns out that it's important because it's tied to promotions." 

This isn't a bad answer, but it isn't great. How could you make it better? Let's break it down into S-T-A-R first. 

The first part is not actually the Situation, but rather what I call "general stuff" and "extra stuff we don't need" — it's typical to see this at the start of answers — but do you see how it isn't actually "S" stuff?

"I use quantitative and qualitative approaches. Quantitative is looking at data to derive insights. Data can be what are customers doing when they use your product and if you're using a digital product you could use an approach like web analytics. Qualitative approaches you can simply ask them about their needs about how they use your product, but a better way is to immerse yourself into their problem space and ask where does the product fit into their daily life today?"

How could you use the same info but fix the structure? Move it around this way.

S — I use both quantitative and qualitative methods to find out what my customers need. [I kept one sentence of the general stuff as a lead in.] For example, last month I wanted to find out what type of content was most popular on our site so we could do more of it. 

T — I looked at data on my top customers, in terms of the customers most engaged on my platform, and I could see that content about IT certification is very popular.  So I started to talk to customers about the role of certification in their workplace. It turns out that it's important because it's tied to promotions." 

A — As a result we started doing online trainings for the certifications. So instead of just a course or video, we do live trainings now as part of the educational product line up.

R — Those turned out to be really popular. So it seems that anything we give them in terms of IT certification is really popular.

This is a much clearer answer. It uses a specific example to explain how he finds out what his customers want. 

If you’d like more info about answering customer obsession questions and a list of more possible questions you might get asked about it, read the longer version of the article. The article you just read is the quick rundown of a few of the potential questions. 

How to answer Amazon ownership principle questions

How to answer Amazon behavioral interview questions

I’m happy to say that my clients, who range from senior VP level to entry level, have done well in their interviews and gotten the job they wanted at Amazon. If you’d like to work together on your interview prep, email me at jennifer@interviewgenie.com to schedule a free consultation or an interview prep session.

Interview Genie is an interview prep company. I specialize in coaching non-native English speakers but I also work with native speakers.