Is 2024 the Year we Ditch the STAR Method?

On the spectrum of "Civil Service STAR method" to "let's have a chat over coffee" - where does your interviewing style sit?

On the spectrum of "Civil Service STAR method" to "let's have a chat over coffee" - where does your interviewing style sit? Strict, standardised interview techniques can reduce implicit bias, but they can also overlook absolute gold. What's the right approach? We explore interview techniques across the public and private sector to help you make great hires.  

  

Spotlight On: The Civil Service Interview  

Ever heard this about the public sector? "Once you're in, you're in." Undoubtedly, public sector jobs are attractive for their pensions and approach to flexible working, but also the idea that once you're in... you're tricky to get rid of. In the Civil Service, this is often attributed to the interview.  

  

The Civil Service interview process comprises two main components: behaviours and strengths.  

  

The "Civil Service Strengths" requirement outlines nine strengths against which candidates are evaluated during interviews. These strengths encompass "Seeing the Big Picture," "Changing and Improving," "Making Effective Decisions," "Leadership," "Communicating and Influencing," "Collaborating and Partnering," "Managing a Quality Service," "Delivering at Pace," and "Demonstrating Resilience." Each strength is defined with associated behaviours, offering clear guidelines on what successful demonstration of each strength entails. 

  

The "Civil Service Behaviours" requirement delineates ten behaviours against which candidates are assessed. These behaviours include "Seeing the Big Picture," "Changing and Improving," "Making Effective Decisions," "Leadership," "Communicating and Influencing," "Collaborating and Partnering," "Building Capability for All," "Delivering at Pace," "Managing a Quality Service," and "Delivering Value for Money." Like strengths, each behaviour is defined with associated indicators, providing a comprehensive framework for evaluating candidates' competencies. 

  

During the interview, the most popular way to answer is using the STAR method: a technique whereby the interviewee structures responses to interview questions by outlining the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of a particular experience or scenario. 

  

Prescriptive, but clear. But what do real people think of this approach?  

  

In a recent Reddit Discussion (r/TheCivilService), opinions on the civil service behavioural and strengths interviews were split.  

  

Some Civil Service interviewees praised the STAR method for its structured approach, arguing it aids in assessing candidates fairly and consistently, thereby reducing bias. One Reddit user remarked, "STAR method ensures we're evaluating candidates objectively, focusing on specific competencies essential for the role."  

  

Naysayers suggested that such strict, standardised techniques risk missing out on unique qualities and potential talent. One Reddit user emphasised, "While STAR is useful, it shouldn't overshadow the importance of understanding the candidate's personality and potential cultural fit."  

  

And possibly most relevant to tech, one user said, "Technical capabilities often get overlooked in these types of interviews, which can be detrimental to assessing a candidate's suitability for certain roles." 

  

Clearly there's no perfect approach to testing and interviewing candidates. What happens when techical capabilities are the focus of the interview technique?  

  

Spotlight On: LeetCode  

  

LeetCode is a platform for coding and algorithm practice, popular among software engineers preparing for technical interviews, particularly with FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google) companies. On LeetCode, you'll find lots of different coding challenges to solve. People use it to improve their coding skills and problem-solving abilities. FAANG companies often ask similar kinds of questions in their interviews, so practising on LeetCode helps candidates prepare for these tough coding tests. 

  

Examples of LeetCode questions for Amazon, Facebook, and Google are shared on the leetcode forum by a software engineer who recently "flunked" a Leetcode interview with Facebook, citing anxiety and not enough time to complete the problems.  

  

Amazon: 

  • Convert.a read/write system call that takes 512 byte aligned offset/size and reads from a block device that can read/write 4k aligned 

  • https://leetcode.com/problems/online-stock-span/ 

  • https://leetcode.com/discuss/interview-question/345744/Google-or-Onsite-or-Merge-K-Sorted-Iterators/314694 

  • Design dropbox 

  

Google: 

  • Design a URL phishing verifier 

  • Variation of https://leetcode.com/problems/validate-stack-sequences/ 

  • Some DP problem about finding optimal VM allocation of a physical machine. 

  

Facebook: 

  • Design web crawler 

  • https://leetcode.com/problems/integer-to-english-words/ 

  • https://leetcode.com/problems/flatten-binary-tree-to-linked-list/ 

  • https://leetcode.com/problems/remove-nth-node-from-end-of-list/ (Phone screen) 

  

There is clearly a culture, particularly in the US, whereby software engineers are primarily hired based on their leetcode proficiency.  

  

And it's not recieved well by all...  

  

Will LeetCode be replaced? 

Only a few months ago, a post on a computer science forum (r/cscareerquestions) sparked a heated discussion on this topic.  

  

"Is there hope for non-leetcoders?" asks the original poster, followed by, "Experienced, 29M, 5-8 YOE, LCOL, TC: ~$125k. I recently jumped back into the interviewing market. Still currently employed at the company I’ve been with for 4 years. I’ve only applied to about ~150 positions and I’m getting a LOT of interviews for about 15 different positions so far. I think my resume, experience, and portfolio are really good."  

  

He goes on to talk about his experiences in the job market, ending with, "Has anyone survived without LC’ing? What’s your experience in the job market looking like right now?"  

  

Responses were mixed. "This is the worst tech economy in years, dig in and hold on tight," replied one user.  

  

Another user offered practical advice, suggesting two options: "You grind leetcode" or explore alternative hiring processes listed on GitHub. 

  

User "TheKabillionare" advises embracing LeetCode as an essential part of the job-seeking game. In true Reddit fashion, they reply, "Just suck up your pride and grind the LC. I’d see if you can push out your interviews for a couple weeks if possible." 

  

But there's a comment that stands out. One user shares a more positive experience, securing a role without facing traditional LeetCode-style questions. They mention, "Not a single LC style question, just very straightforward, 'here’s the feature, how would you go about implementing?'." 

  

Taking a step back, it's not groundbreaking news - some people like to be able to "revise" for interviews and regurgitate what they've learned. Others like to problem-solve on the spot. For software engineering, being able to quickly pick up internal logic and conventions is a key requirement - LeetCode filters out people who can't do this. But clearly, successful hires are being made without it.  

  

Can there ever be a true middle ground?  

In your organisation, the likelihood is you already have an interview approach that balances technical assessment and a more holistic "get to know the person" approach. Maybe you sit closer to “chat with coffee” than “LeetCode Gandalf says you shall not pass.” 

 

There's no running from the inevitable - you still need to make sure you are conducting competency-based interviews. In technical roles, there's no benefit to completely overhauling the idea of technical testing and assessment. Skills need to be proven. 

  

As a Reddit user mentioned previously, incorporating real-world projects and practical exercises is a great alternative approach. This interview technique allows candidates to showcase their skills, problem-solving ability, thinking, and ability to explain complex ideas in a limited time frame.  

  

As always, it comes down to balance. Holistic methods offer insights into overall fit, but technical assessments aren't going away any time soon.  

  

How do you plan to interview top talent in the coming year?  

  

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