Top AWS interview questions to help size up your next hire
Looking to add some AWS talent to your business?
With so many products, services, and job titles sitting under the AWS umbrella, the best questions to ask your budding AWS professional will vary wildly depending on your circumstances.
The position you’re hiring for, your AWS stack, your cloud strategy and the things you want your new AWS team member to achieve: it’s these things that will inform the bulk of your interview questions.
Alongside verifying the candidate’s AWS certifications and how the knowledge measured by those accolades matches up to your job spec, having the right interview questions to hand goes a long way toward making sure you get the right person for the job.
That said, there are some key questions that can help you size up a candidate’s skills and experience with AWS, whatever the role. We asked some key figures in the tech community who’ve hired their own AWS talent about their top interview question tips.
Ernesto Marquez, an independent AWS Cloud Computing specialist and owner of Concurrency Labs, has interviewed and hired his fair share of AWS professionals.
When hiring AWS Engineers for his team, Ernesto focuses on verifying three pillars of competency:
- Knowledge of AWS foundational services, including EC2, S3, IAM, and RDS
- Knowledge of AWS architecture design principles, like performance, availability, cost, security, and operations
- Non-AWS technical knowledge, such as general programming language skills and problem-solving skills
Once he’s assessed their foundational knowledge, Ernesto’s next move is to get an overview of the candidate’s practical architectural skills. To gauge this kind of proficiency, Ernesto advises asking three key questions.
I need you to design the AWS architecture for my new application. Can you walk me through the steps you’d take?
This scenario-based interview question not only helps you assess the candidate’s knowledge of AWS architecture, but it also lets you see their thought process and how they’d approach a project.
This kind of open-ended, hypothetical question can be a goldmine for learning about what your candidate knows and, crucially, how they’d apply that knowledge in a practical way to solve your business problem.
Posing the question in an open-ended, situational way gives the candidate space to show their working and ask more about the spec. It also lets you see if what they feel is important in architecting a solution matches up with your expectations.
“The question is ambiguous intentionally,” says Ernesto. “I’d be expecting many questions from the candidate in terms of business and technical requirements, as well as strong solutions in areas such as performance, availability, cost, security, and operations.”
What’s your experience with AWS services, outside the most commonly used ones?
There are near-countless products in the AWS family, creating a complex web of often interdependent services. Though almost every cloud professional will have a particular area of expertise, they should be able to show a wide-ranging grasp of product knowledge that covers the usual suspects such as S3, EC2, RDS, and IAM.
“I’d be expecting to hear strong knowledge and practical experience regarding at least ten services, including relatively new ones,” says Ernesto.
He also recommends drilling down further into the candidate’s product knowledge to make sure it’s not just surface-level. “I’d ask increasingly detailed questions on the services the candidate mentions.”
Tell me about at least three recent AWS announcements that caught your attention—why do you consider these to be significant?
With a technology that advances as fast as AWS, any good cloud professional needs to keep an ear to the ground and an eye on new developments to make sure they’re bringing everything they can to the table to help their business get the most out of the platform.
A candidate’s technical skills are, of course, essential, but an ever-changing tech stack can mean the skills you need on your team can shift quickly. When you can’t be sure what’s around the corner, having employees who are keen to upskill and have a lifelong attitude to learning is incredibly valuable.
Ideally, you want a candidate who’s not only suitable for what the role is today, but is willing and able to expand their knowledge, adapt to change, and get their hands dirty with any new product developments.
If they can demonstrate which announcements they felt were most notable, you can get a feel for their understanding of the wider AWS ecosystem and the impact these changes might have for users.
This will help you evaluate a candidate’s knowledge of occurrences in the wider cloud space that could affect your business, like security, data governance and privacy breaches, or how a new framework or tool compares to existing options.
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Though not as technical as many other AWS interview questions you might ask, Ernesto notes that it’s just as imperative that your candidate demonstrates: “Curiosity and the ability to learn new technologies, since AWS is constantly evolving.
“This question helps me identify how closely the candidate follows new AWS technologies, and how interested they are in innovating and applying new features to existing problems.”
Likewise, for Helen Anderson, Business Intelligence Consultant at Xero, assessing a candidate’s eagerness to keep pace with a changing ecosystem and how they align with the business is just as central to the interview process as their technical skills.
“When I’m interviewing for a new team member, I’m not looking for perfectly scripted answers or someone who knows all the services inside out,” Helen explains. “I’m looking for cultural fit, the ability to think of solutions on the fly, and someone who loves to learn.
So how do you go about gauging a candidate’s commitment to staying one step ahead of all things AWS? Helen suggests asking your potential employee how they keep their fingers on the pulse: get them to talk about what they’re reading right now, what their favorite tech Twitter accounts are, and any tutorials or projects they’ve been working on.
Another way you can get a feel for how willing a candidate is to work on their professional development is to get them to talk about the feedback they’ve had from customers or managers in the past.
This is another chance for a candidate to do some humble bragging about their performance, as well as showcase their openness to taking feedback. Ask them to tell you how they work to continually improve themselves, whether that’s through their own personal innovation or by taking on board feedback from their team.
Here are a few more of Helen’s go-to interview questions for evaluating your AWS candidates.
What unique skills do you think you can add to our team?
As a hiring manager, Helen wants to know what makes a candidate better than their peers, and what they alone feel they can bring to the role that makes them the perfect fit.
To give the candidate a chance to make a case for themselves, she recommends asking them what unique skills they can add to the team.
And unique is the key phrase here: “A candidate may hear ‘skills’ and think that they need to start reciting how they know how to spin up an EMR cluster,” says Helen, “or how they can create an S3 bucket like a pro.
“This is an okay answer, but it doesn’t tell me why they’re unique.”
What you should be looking for from your candidates here is for them to describe why they’re the right choice over other candidates. Ideally, they should be able to refer back to the job description and explain what pain points they’ll be solving in the role, and how their specific skills and experience will equip them to achieve this.
For example, if the candidate is going to be part of a client-focused team, can they demonstrate strong stakeholder management skills? Have they worked in your industry or a similar vertical in the past?
Describe a time when you played an active role in solving a business problem with an innovative approach.
AWS tools can do incredible things, but they don’t work unless you have someone at the helm who knows how to get the best out of them. Tech isn’t always as black and white as people think. There’s often more than one way to crack an egg, and you want a candidate who can think outside of the box and apply the powers bestowed upon your business by AWS in inventive and effective ways.
With questions like these, you want to hear the candidate toot their own horn, says Helen. “A good answer is one that describes the project and the challenges their team faced—a better answer is more focused on their specific contributions, rather than those of the team.
“I want to hear that a candidate has been diplomatic and attentive with stakeholders and team members, and that they’ve written useful documentation to back up their approach.”
Provide an example of a time when you had a customer extend the scope of work after the scope had been signed off.
Few words send a chill down a cloud professional’s spine like “scope creep”. Every tech team member’s nightmare, scope creep can completely derail a project, blow out budgets, and bloat timescales.
This question will give you an idea of how your candidate has dealt with this very real and prevalent issue, and should also reveal how they cope under pressure.
“Scope creep is a reality of working in tech,” says Helen. “Things change all the time and it’s vital that a candidate can show they can manage this.
“Ask them to be specific and realistic about how they’ve dealt with customers. What I’m looking for is that a candidate can show both empathy and assertiveness, that they can anticipate change and push back on timelines, and that they understand the tradeoff between quality and timeliness.”
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