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.