My Experience and Takeaways from Interviewing with Amazon Web Services

Spoiler Alert: My new position, post-CIA employment, is not with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Nevertheless, I had an interesting experience applying and interviewing with AWS, and here is my story and reflection on it.

On Friday, January 17th, I was at home doing some work for my side project, E38 Academy, when I received an email at 3:29 p.m.

The (1) appeared next to my Gmail tab in Firefox, so I clicked over to it and read the subject line of the unread email:

AWS Opportunity – Parker Schaffel – Phone Interview Request

Wha??? Amazon wanted to interview me?! I immediately jumped out of my chair and began doing air karate in our apartment’s sun room, similar to the iconic bedroom scene in Step Brothers. Then, I called my wife to tell her the news. It was the first phone interview offer I had received since I started applying for new positions in late December.

And what a company to interview with…one of the most innovative and iconic companies in the world, and they wanted to talk to me about interviewing for a position which I thought I would be really good at:

Internal Executive Communications Manager

I had performed similar functions working at CIA, when I worked in the Office of Public Affairs and helped the CIA Director and Deputy Director internally communicate major change initiatives, including our response to a special Senate report, our restructuring, and the creation of our Talent Center and performance system. Considering I had a wealth of experience in internal communications, I thought I would be a good fit, and I was very happy AWS was willing to give me a shot.

I responded to the email about 30 minutes later with my availability. I received a response on Monday, confirming my interview for Thursday, January 23rd at 1:00 p.m.

Then, I began my preparations. I researched Amazon’s interview process, its focus on the company’s 14 leadership principles, and I even found a very helpful YouTube video, in which the creator said that he aggregated data and determined the top 37 questions asked in 95% of Amazon interviews. I wrote out all of the questions and began to compose responses to each of them, using the leadership principles as the basis for each. I looked up everything on the official Amazon interview page and started to research AWS and its more than 175 services.

By the time my interview came, this was my setup.

The answers to the 37 questions were on the table, the leadership principles and AWS information were taped on a large computer monitor. Additional supporting information, like my resume, questions I had for Amazon, and information about AWS were on the right, and the lone paper on the left was my answer to “Why Amazon.”

I spoke with my interviewer at 1:00 p.m., and the phone call went very well. After some initial pleasantries and introductions, she asked me one question, which was close enough, though not a perfect match, to one of the answers I had prepared. I was ready for a second question, and any other follow-ups. Except there was none. She asked me if I had any questions for her, so I asked mine, and our call ended after about 40 minutes.

But I was a bit confused. She only asked me one question…I had prepared responses for 36 other questions. Although she said I had a “great answer” to her one inquiry, I was wondering why she didn’t ask me more. Was I good enough? Or was my answer so bad that she didn’t want me? I was clearly overthinking it, as I received a follow-up email from Amazon the next day, Friday the 24th, asking my availability for a second phone interview. I was hoping to move quickly, as I heard Amazon did, and was therefore disappointed when my next phone interview wouldn’t be for another eight days.

The issue at hand was that I had an in-person interview with another organization on Thursday, January 30th, and I was hoping I could get both in-person interviews to line up, so if I received offers from both, I could make the best choice for me and my family.

Nevertheless, I had my second phone interview on Friday, January 31st, and it went well…I don’t think as well as the first one, but good enough that I felt confident I would be offered an in-person interview.

The weekend came and went, as did the following Monday. At around 12:45 p.m. on Tuesday, February 4th, I received another email, which again led me to doing air karate. AWS wanted to interview me in person. This is what I had been waiting for.

Within 30 minutes, I had responded to the email, accepting the opportunity, providing answers to various questions (including if I was actively interviewing with any other companies), and providing my available dates for the interview.

The earliest possible date for the in-person interview was the following Tuesday, February 11th, so indicated I was available starting the 12th, and any day after.

The recruiter responded and thanked me for providing the information and said she was going to get to work scheduling my interview. The next day, Wednesday, February 5th, I received an official offer from the organization I interviewed with the previous week, so I let my AWS recruiter know that I would prefer the soonest possible interview. She acknowledged and said she would do what she could.

To save you some of the extraneous details, I’ll keep this part shorter. AWS contacted me the following Monday and said the interview wouldn’t happen until the week of the 18th, and it was eventually scheduled for Friday, February 21st. At this point, I was hesitant because I had an offer in hand and didn’t want to pull out of it so late after accepting it, but I felt it was a great opportunity, so I decided I would pursue AWS and see what could happen.

I had a preparatory phone call with another AWS recruiter on Friday, February 14th, during which she gave me insight into the interview process, what to say (what not to say), and how to further prepare. Everything she said I had already done, so I felt great about it.

I was taking it so seriously, in fact, that I spent a good part of the next weekend preparing, including researching on LinkedIn each of my six interviewers, and I even rode my bike down to the AWS office in Crystal City (where my interview would take place) on President’s Day to get a lay of the land and see exactly where I would need to go.

Tuesday, February 18th was the day where my interview experience with AWS started to take a bit of a turn. I received an email from one of the recruiters asking me to speak by phone. When I called her, she told me that they filled the position to which I had applied…it was part of Amazon’s “first in, first hire” policy, in which they hire a qualified candidate as quickly as possible, rather than interview a pool of applicants and select the best one.

I felt like my heart sank in my chest. I became sad and even a bit angry. I had tried to move the process forward as quickly as I could, but it was clear someone else moved faster than me. The recruiter said that everyone with whom I spoke thought very highly of me and that they were very interested in me for a number of other positions, and I said that I would be open to hearing more about them.

The recruiter emailed me six positions–all communications-related–but each position had a home base in Seattle, and although I knew Amazon had a flexible environment, I didn’t think it was that flexible. When I informed the recruiter of this, she agreed and sent me another position in Arlington. Because I had already accepted the other offer and this new AWS position seemed quite ambiguous and undefined, I reluctantly agreed to discuss it further.

The recruiter scheduled a phone interview with the team lead for the new position…and they scheduled it for Friday, February 21st, at the exact same time my in-person interview would have been. In this case, I didn’t prepare as much as I did for the first two phone interviews. I felt like I was in a position of more power, as I already had an offer in hand and that the ambiguity of this new position drove my skepticism about it and the entire process. I decided I would answer the interviewer’s questions and not care as much how I responded. If it worked, great. If not, no big deal.

The phone call came and went, and I think it went as well as the first two, but the most interesting part about it came from the interviewer’s description of the position. She said it was a newly created position, and therefore quite undefined. I got the sense that they knew they needed someone to do something but didn’t really know how to define what that something was. The interviewer also said the “hours were dumb” at the job and that expectations were through the roof.

Fine by me, I thought. Let’s get after it, but let’s get after it quickly!

A few hours later, I called the recruiter and let her know that I thought the interview went well, especially because the interviewer said that she wanted to move me to an in-person interview. The recruiter confirmed and said the request had already been put into the system.

“That’s great to hear,” I said. “As you know, I have an offer already and I really would like this in-person interview to happen as soon as possible, preferably next week, or Monday or Tuesday of the following week at the latest.”

The recruiter acknowledged and said that she would work as hard as she could to get something scheduled. I emailed Monday afternoon to see if there were any updates, and received a phone call on Tuesday saying that she was working on it, but that the next day, Wednesday, February 26th, obviously wasn’t going to happen.

Then something did happen on the 26th. I got another email from a different recruiter asking me for my availability to interview sometime between March 9th and March 27th, as well as answers to the same questions I already provided in my first questionnaire.

At this point, I had just become frustrated. I had been very clear that something needed to happen no later than Tuesday, March 3rd because I was planning on starting my new position on Monday, March 16th. It wouldn’t be possible to have an interview after that date anyway. I had already submitted the answers to the questions, and now they asked me to do it again.

Then I talked it over with my wife, and I came to the ultimate decision. I decided to tell AWS, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

A few hours later, I made it official and emailed them the following:

Hi [recruiter],
Thanks for the email. I need to be up front and say that I don’t think this is going to work out.

After my first in-person interview for a different position was cancelled because the role was filled, I’ve been in regular contact with [other recruiter] about this position, and I asked her if we could have something scheduled this week or next Monday or Tuesday at the latest because I already have an offer in hand from another company. I know that she has done her best to try to get something scheduled, but as she mentioned to me, the people who would need to be in on the interview just aren’t readily available, and it seems from your requested time frame that this interview might not happen until the last week in March, which would occur after I have already started my new position with the other company. While I am (and have been) very interested in working for AWS, it just doesn’t seem like we can get something to work out for all of us involved. Perhaps some time in the future, we can find a great fit for me at AWS.

Thank you all for your help in trying to get me in the door. I truly appreciate the time you spent working with me.

And I meant it. I was and still am very grateful for everything they did to try to get me in the door, it just didn’t work out, and that’s okay.

I received an email from one of the recruiters asking to connect the following day. She called me in the afternoon and I returned her call on Friday, February 28th, about an hour after I left CIA as an employee for the last time, and we discussed my decision to remove myself from the process.

She was very apologetic but understanding…and agreed that sometimes things just don’t work out. There was no bad blood anywhere…no bridges burned, and I’ve connected on LinkedIn with several recruiters and some of my phone interviewers, so we can keep each other apprised of potential future opportunities to work together.

I truly hope that an opportunity to work at/with/for AWS is possible in the future, as I think working for the most innovative company in the world would be quite the endeavor. I’m very grateful that AWS would even consider me for a position and am appreciative of all of the recruiters and AWS employees I spoke with along the way. To them, keep doing great things and “raising the bar” with each new hire.

But for now, I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity I have chosen to pursue, and as I mentioned before, I will write more about that very soon.

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