Dispelling the myths and misconceptions about Bar Raisers at Amazon and what it means for you as an interviewee.
So, you have an upcoming interview with Amazon. Since you're a smart and resourceful person, you have already asked your recruiter what the interviews look like, and since they are a nice person, they already told you to prepare for a bunch of things, including specifically, Leadership principles. You google around a little bit and keep running across this thing called a "Bar Raiser", and there are horror stories of how Bar Raiser rounds are "difficult", "hard-to-clear", "a big barrier", and even borderline evil.
Just reading the feedback on the internet, you would think these rounds are purely designed to keep people out of Amazon. The truth, as usual, is a whole lot different from that.
The bar is an imaginary line that represents the 50th percentile of all Amazon employees currently working at that role. A Bar Raiser's role is to make sure that every hiring committee focuses on maintaining and improving this bar.
The whole purpose of this article is to help you understand what Bar Baisers (BRs) do at Amazon, clear up some myths and misconceptions, and show you how to apply this new-found knowledge to better prepare for the Amazon interview. So here goes…
One of the biggest myths around is that the Bar Raiser acts as a gatekeeper and decides whether a hire decision goes through or not.
The goal of the Bar Raiser is to act as a "Risk Manager". During the debrief, we typically summarize the risks we see with a Candidate and make an evaluation of whether that level of risk is acceptable or not. Once we evaluate this, we make a recommendation to the Hiring Manager, who then gets to decide whether or not the candidate gets hired.
The Bar Raiser typically evaluates your risk profile holistically, taking into account your performance on the Interview, the feedback from interviewers for both functional competencies and leadership principles, your prior feedback from phone screens, online assessments, and any red/yellow flags on your resume.
How to make use of this: Try to make sure that you do not say/do anything that will cause the Bar Raiser to think that hiring you is a huge risk. For example, blaming an old teammate or a manager for a project that went sideways is usually a red flag for "Earn Trust", and is something that is almost instantly flagged by any interviewer (not just the BR) and discussed during the debrief.
Folks on GlassDoor and other review websites often try to guess which round is the Bar Raiser round, and a commonly pushed idea appears to be that the toughest round is the Bar Raiser round and that for technical roles, they grill the Candidates on their technical competencies.
Often, this is not just inaccurate, but straight out wrong.
Why? Because the BR doesn't have to be from the same role that you are getting hired for. They also don't have to be from the same organization and are most likely the only people on the loop who will not grill you on your technical strengths. For instance, I have seen Economist BR's handle SDE loops and vice-versa.
BRs typically tend to focus more on the leadership side of things (especially if they are from outside the org/role), and while it might be harder to come up with examples for these for people who are relatively new to the industry, any experienced hire should have no difficulty in coming up with nice bar-raising examples.
How to make use of this: It doesn't matter which round the Bar raiser round is. Guessing it does not help you in any way. If a round is particularly tough, just move on from it and focus on what's ahead of you. If you want to do well on the Bar Raiser round, just make sure you write down examples for different Leadership Principles and if the BR is also asking a technical question, answer it the same way you would have if the question had been from a non-BR round.
FALSE. FALSE. FALSE.
This is the one myth that I absolutely detest. Not only is this just plain wrong, but it also propagates the other myths and an unhealthy obsession with finding who the BR is, rather than focusing on excelling holistically across the interviews.
Every interviewer on the loop checks for Bar raising attributes from the Candidate, not just the Bar Raiser.
I repeat: Every interviewer on the loop checks for Bar raising attributes from the Candidate, and if you lower the bar in any of them, it is a concern. If you raise the bar in any of them, it is a strength. The Bar Raiser will collect all the data from everyone on the loop and perform the risk assessment to figure out if the concerns are outweighed by the strengths or vice-versa.
How to make use of this: This goes without saying, but don't mess up any interview by saying or doing things that you wouldn't do in real life. This includes lying about things that happened in your prior work experiences and trying to fluff-answer a question by just mumbling buzzwords. Just avoid it. As long as you don't do terribly on any single interview, and you did really well on at least one interview, you will still be considered a good hire after the Bar Raiser makes the risk-reward assessment.
A follow up to this myth is the next one:
Unlike the last one, at least this one tries to push you to do better on every interview, so I guess it's not all that bad. However, just to set things straight:
To get hired at Amazon, you don't need to raise the bar at every competency, you just need to raise the bar in some competency, and not lower the bar anywhere else.
The Bar Raiser will evaluate your application holistically and will ask every interviewer whether your responses were in line with raising/lowering/meeting the bar: an imaginary line that represents the 50th percentile of all Amazon employees currently working at that role. As long as you get at least one bar-raising data point, ideally in a competency deemed critical for that role, you will be considered for the role.
So what constitutes a "Critical competency" for a given role? Well, it depends on the role, but generally, this is the competency that the Candidate is expected to excel at for that role. Examples include Coding or System design for SDE's, FEE's, etc. or Business Acumen for Sales Managers, or "Developing the best" for people manager roles.
How to make use of this: Prepare well for your critical competencies. If you are applying for an engineering role, don't mess up the functional competencies section. If you are applying for a leadership role, show good leadership skills, and get examples that align strongly with Amazon's Leadership principles. Remember, you only need to raise the bar in some aspects, not every aspect.
Bar Raisers almost never have any input into what your compensation is/was/will be. The only time this happens is if the BR feels that a Candidate is an absolute must-hire in which case the BR can make a slight recommendation to the recruiting team that we should treat this person as a "Strong hire". That's it.
How to make use of this: The only time you need to think of negotiation is when you talk to your recruiter. Don't worry about your current compensation or talk about it to any other interviewer or the Bar Raiser. There simply is no benefit to doing it, and it's downright illegal for BRs/Interviewers to know that in several states of the USA. Instead, focus more on negotiating with the recruiters, and do yourself a favor and read this amazing article written by Patrick McKenzie on negotiation.
Writing down the things you have worked on is pretty much a “must do”, not just for the Bar Raiser interview, but for all Amazon interviews. Try to answer the following questions by yourself about your projects:
- What went right with those projects?
- What went wrong with those projects?
- What were the biggest risks? and what did you do to mitigate them?
- What were the biggest decisions? what data did you have to consult to make those decisions?
- Who did you have to talk to?
- What were the major points of disagreement? How did you handle it?
- Who did you have to convince to make changes to something?
- What existing processes did you improve while working on this project?
- What could you have done differently?
- Knowing what you know now, what would you change?
If you cannot think of the answers to these questions at all, it might be a good idea to start using these questions to guide you during your next project so that you see how these help in improving the quality of your projects.
Once you have most of these down, we have a great starting point for raising the bar and getting hired at Amazon. A general piece of advice is to be prepared enough that you are comfortable discussing these, but not memorize them so that the answers appear mechanical. Bar Raisers are notorious for flipping into different paths while probing a question, so you want to be open to having a genuine conversation. A few things that help:
- Don’t fluff your answers: If you did not do something or have not been in a situation, let the Interviewer know. Getting caught on a lie and not being able to answer further severely diminishes your chance of getting hired.
- Quantify where possible. Don’t editorialize. Try to get numbers to back you up. e.g. Instead of “I was the tech lead and we delivered the project very quickly and got praised by management”, try “I led a team of X people to successfully complete the ABC project in Y months where we had initially planned for Z months with a budget of $XXX — a reduction of Tk% from the planned budget of $ZZZ.”
- Don’t feel like the Interviewer is questioning your credibility: Sometimes Bar Raisers have to go down and peel the onion multiple layers before they get useful data. During this, there might be questions about why you did things a certain way, or why you didn't. Don’t get offended or become defensive when this happens. Talk about the data you used to make those decisions and let the data justify your position.
- Be vocally self-critical: If you did something wrong on a previous project, or said something incorrect during the interview, just own up to it. You lose nothing by owning it, and might actually gain some “Earn Trust” and “Ownership” data points while you are at it ;)
- Don’t be afraid to question the Bar Raiser’s questions: Feel free to tell them you don’t understand the question or ask them what they are looking for in a certain question. Reframe the question to them and ask if that is what they were looking for, sometimes this makes the question a whole lot easier to answer for you as well.
That’s what this entire series of articles is going to be about. In each subsequent article after this, I will dive deep into what each Leadership Principle at Amazon means, and what it means to raise the bar for a given Leadership Principle. I wanted to start with the Leadership Principles since these apply to every job family at Amazon.
I also fully intend to write about Bar raising for technical roles, including, but not limited to, SDEs, FEEs, WDEs, Data Engineers, Data Scientists, Applied Scientists, Database Engineers, Performance Engineers, and BI Engineers. So stay tuned!