5 Card’s Philosophy: A simple strategy to ace competency-based interviews

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings once famously noted “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to teamwork is too high”. With the organisation structure across technical team’s growing flatter, team-fits and culture-fits have been a key driver of hiring decisions more so than technical ability alone. This is where competency-based interviews come in, bringing in a bit of science instead of the hiring manager relying on instincts alone.

In our experience working with our clients in 2018, the majority of them employed competency based interviews in some shape or form and more interestingly during the final interview. What does that mean to you? Once you have been deemed technically competent for the role, your final selection will be based upon how well you do in competency-based interviews.

The challenge is that, due to the generic nature of competency-based questions, it is very difficult to prepare oneself. There are more than a thousand ways an interviewer can ask a question for each competency, so candidates mostly underprepare for these interviews hoping that they can think of something on the go. This sometimes backfires and most candidates come away from these interviews saying “I think I could have done better.”
From my experience, the two methods below are the best in terms of preparing for Competency-based interviews.

5 Card’s Philosophy

The 5 Card’s Philosophy is something that we share with most candidates to help prepare them for competency based questions. The end game of each competency based interview is to evaluate if a particular individual has the personal skills and attributes to be successful in particular work situations.

We have reverse engineered the interview process and have identified five situational areas that are typically important for hiring managers in tech and if you have sufficient examples/stories for each of these areas it is so much easier to apply them for a multitude of competency based questions.



5 areas that we have identified are as follows:

  • Team Dynamics: It’s always good to have an example of a previous experience when you worked with a challenging manager and another one with a difficult colleague. Explain how you worked out your differences and overcame these challenges.
  • Biggest & most complex project handled: Having an example that demonstrates two projects that you have played a key role in. One with the largest implementation and the second one being the most complex/challenging.
  • Dealing with Deadlines: Think of how to negotiate unrealistic deadlines, setting realistic deadlines and stories where you have under promised and over delivered.
  • Learning a new technology/tool: Think about an example where you had to pick up new technology quickly and implemented it in a short time-frame.
  • Communicating with & educating Non-Technical Stakeholders: A good strategy is to have stories/examples of working with business users or management to promote/evangelise a particular change or helping them understand a complex technical subject.

With 2 stories for each of the above 5 areas up your sleeve, you can cover a whole range of competency based questions and pick the best story that you feel will suit a particular question. In fact, when answering one of the competency-based questions, it also provides you with an opportunity to showcase other competencies that might be relevant but not discussed, making an interviewer nod more than once.

Storytelling like a “STAR”

Answering a competency question with an example or story is great, but it is so easy to get into unnecessary details and missing out on the most important bits. We highly recommend using the now famous ‘STAR method’ to format your story. As there is a lot of material online around the STAR method, I would like to briefly summarise it below:

  • Situation: Start out by giving the context of the issue or problem, clearly yet concisely.
  • Task: Describe what is needed to be done, given your role in that situation (i.e. high-level objectives).
  • Action: Talk about the list of actions you could have taken (and the pros and cons of each). Give a logical explanation why you chose a particular action and the way you went about implementing it.
  • Result: Conclude with the result of the actions and whether they were able to partially or completely resolve the issue.

STAR method is now widely used as industry standard and major tech companies recommend this to all their candidates interviewing for roles in their company.

“Five Cards”: the tried and trusted method

I was speaking with a CTO of a company who felt that his role is now of an HR Manager as he spends 90% of the time on recruitment related activities. With hiring manager’s talking to a huge number of candidates every day, the best way to leave an impression is by telling great real-life stories.
Also with 5-10 great stories of achievements, you’ll have a sense of inner confidence whilst approaching the interviews.

“Five Cards” is a tried and trusted method, very simple yet powerful. If you have any questions about it, feel free to get in touch with us and we would be very happy to share our experience with you.


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