How to answer Amazon "Learn and be curious" interview questions

The fifth Amazon leadership principle is “Learn and be Curious.” 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 “Learn and be curious” leadership principle

Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.

What does “Learn and be curious” mean exactly?

I think this is an easy principle to understand, right? It’s asking you if you are the kind of person who is always learning and improving. How do you keep up with the trends and new developments in your field? Do you try to do things a new way even if there’s no “need” for it? Are you open to learning new things?

Some typical interview questions for the “Learn and Be Curious” principle

  • How do you stay inspired, acquire new knowledge, or innovate in your work?

  • What can you teach me in 5 minutes that I don’t already know?

  • Tell me about a time when you influenced change by only asking questions.

  • Tell me about a time when you solved a problem through just superior knowledge or observation.

  • Tell me about a time you hired someone smarter than you.

  • Tell me something interesting you've learned recently.

Good answers for two “Learn and be curious” interview questions

Question: “How do you stay inspired, acquire new knowledge, or innovate in your work?”

Answer: “For my job, I need to understand business trends, and I’m also personally interested in what’s going on in the world. I read many newspapers every day, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. I also read magazines, including the Economist and the New Yorker. In addition, I spend quite a bit of time reading news on Twitter and other places online. As a VP of Product for an EdTech company, I oversee a team that produces videos and courses on tech subjects, so I absorb a lot of the newest information there too.”

Why is this answer good? This answer is good because it demonstrates that the interviewee prioritizes learning in his daily habits, and he ties the learning directly back to his job. Ultimately, the interview is about knowing whether you can do the job, so your answers should relate to the job duties.

Answer this question by being honest about how you keep up with new technology and new trends in your field. What do you do? You probably read blogs, newspapers, and/or books, or maybe you listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos. There are probably other things you do too – do you take classes at a local school or online, somewhere like Coursera or EdX? Are you enrolled in some kind of certification program? Did you just finish a degree? I’ve also had clients successfully answer questions about this principle by describing a lecture series that they attended at lunch in their offices or a conference where they met industry leaders.

Show your interest or passion when you talk about whatever it is you do.

Don’t tell the interviewer you don’t have the time to do any of these things because you have a family and a job — I hear this answer a lot from clients, and I warn them that it’s a mistake. The interviewer will think you’re a bad candidate if you don’t have a list of ways you’re keeping up with new developments.

When clients can’t think of anything at all that they do to keep learning — and you’d be surprised at how often I hear it — I know they’re never going to get a job at Amazon.

Question: “What can you teach me in 5 minutes that I don’t already know?”

Answer: “I’m going to teach you how to make tea the right way. The most important part is the water. What kind should you use? Purified and spring are the best, because they’re free from pollutants and other harmful substances. Start with cold water and then boil gently. Don’t boil for very long, because this can remove flavor from the water….”

(No, I’m not going to write the whole answer. Hopefully, you get the point.)

What does this question have to do with learning? Actually, it’s a test of your communication skills — can you explain something simple in a clear way using good English? It’s also a test of your speed of processing — you probably weren’t prepared for this, so can you think quickly enough to find a good topic? It’s a personality test — do you get nervous and act uncomfortable or do you handle the situation calmly? It’s also an intelligence test — do you choose something simple like how to open a bag of cookies or something more complicated and relevant to your job like how to write a good SQL query? Not that my tea example was bad. If you explain how to make tea and you do it well, the answer will be good enough.

But this isn’t a trick question. Don’t obsess about picking the perfect example. Just pick something interesting and start talking.

General advice for these answers

If you’re a driven Type A person you aren’t going to struggle with these answers. However, you may not be able to come up with an example of influencing change or solving a problem in a particular way if you haven’t prepped for it.

Don’t worry if you’ve never hired someone, because you probably won’t get that question if so, and if you do you can be honest and say you’ve never hired anyone.

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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.

 

 

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. 

Why I don’t like the STAR method

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.

What I recommend instead of STAR

To save everyone (including myself) 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. A good S section will always explain the T as well, meaning it will explain what the issue is you’re working on and what you yourself specifically are doing, so no one will even know you’ve combined S and T.

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. 

How to structure your answers to basic 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.