The most misunderstood interview question

Kevin Landucci
Pass Interviews
min read

What do these five questions have in common?

“Why do you want to work for our company?”

“Why [Company]?”

“Why do you want to work here?”

“What made you apply?”

“What brought you here?”

Noam Chomsky theorized that human language exists on two levels: the surface level (these are the words we say) and the deeper level (this contains the underlying meaning). We often say different words than what we mean, and interviewers are no different. Though the above question takes many forms, at the root of all the forms is one unspoken idea. For want of dispelling the myths of a very popular question, it’s time to break it down.

“Why our company?”

Though stated in many different ways, this misunderstood question is most commonly stated as “Why Google?” or “Why Amazon?”, which is understandably frustrating. It’s ambiguous, and more emotion-driven than other questions, but worst of all its actual meaning is quite different from its appearance. It appears to ask something like “Why would you like to work here?” which is casual, and low stakes, and almost fun. But to interpret it that way leads to problems.

Underneath the surface, this question asks: “How are you going to help me?” or “How are you going to add value?” Answering either underlying question (regardless of the words spoken by the interviewer) is better than answering the question as stated. Regardless of how unassuming the questions appear on the surface, address the question underneath to reflect competence and business acumen.

There are three common approaches to the question, and they get increasingly optimal. By the end of this post, you’ll grok this subject well enough to improve your next interview, teach your friends, or improve this theory!

Approach #1: “Me, me, me”

The problem with this approach, which is the second most common, is answering the misinterpreted surface level question of “Why would you like to work here?” instead of “How are you going to help me?” (which is what they’re really asking).

Though unknown to those who use this approach, it sends an undesirable signal to the company: “How am I gonna help you? I thought you were going to help me?” These responses can seem at best ignorant and at worst self-centered. Technically the answers aren’t wrong because on an individual level they’re true, but they don’t add value. On a business level, they don’t demonstrate how you can improve the bottom line, and on a social level they miss the mark.


“This is my dream company.”

“This opportunity would be good for me as the stocks are doing quite well and the office is next to my house.”

“My friend works here and I’ve heard really good things. Oh, and the reviews online are strong as well.”

These examples don’t work. Charisma might make it work rarely, but almost all usage is risky or harmful. In short, this approach is wholly focused on what you get out of the job. Also committed is the cardinal error of showing a lack of interest and preparation. If you have a hard time believing these examples are weak, put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes. Compare them with the two approaches below, and ask yourself which 1 example would you hire.

Approach #2: You, you, you

This is by far the most traveled path to the infamous “Why” question. The implication of this approach is: “I’m not sure how I’m going to help you, but I’ll compliment you.” It is also technically correct since companies reject candidates mainly because they “didn’t know anything about us and didn’t seem to care.” This method solves that, but what it misses is adding value (which shows them how you can help them.)


“Google has been the leader in search since the early 2000s. It’s been my dream to work here since high school. The GCP is a robust cloud platform that deserves more market share from AWS. I think you’ll get there. Looking at the team I’ve met so far in this org, you have the talent. I can make an impact here quickly.”

“Evil Corp is an excellent AV company. The caliber of the technical team, in terms of raw problem-solving, is quite high. The growth of the product in major cities shows huge potential for the future. The technical challenges are complex and mathy, my favorite type! This organization checks all my boxes: talented leadership, a strong technical team, and a market with an upside.”

These answers are suboptimal. Again, a talented rogue could maybe pull them off, yet that same person could also slightly shift gears and get better results. The first example showers the company in praise, which on its own is insufficient. There’s no connecting the dots between what the company does best and where the candidate excels. Telling them you can make an impact is one thing, showing them is another.

The second answer has a unique sequence of words, but it is completely focused on the company (again with adoration). Think of yourself on the other side of the table, and imagine how many candidates fail using this route. Don’t get lumped in with that group, stand out; this candidate could have briefly shined light on a past accomplishment which is relevant to Evil Corp. And state their intention of doing the same with the company. Instead, they shall not pass.

Approach #3: You + Me

This is the optimal (and least common) approach to the “Why our company?” question.

If it helps, think of this approach as “You do X, so do I. Let’s do more X together.The key here is to tell a story that connects you to them and how you can help.

The simplest story is:

  1. Demonstrate what you know about them (product, impact, team, firm, etc.)
  2. Clearly state how you can help them (based on your past work)
  3. Connect the dots between “a” + “b”

Before we get into some examples, notice how to turn a previous “You, you, you” answer (the most common approach) into a “You + Me” answer. Many readers are likely to start here, to improve their skills.

Previous “You, you, you” example:

“Evil Corp is an excellent AV company. The caliber of the technical team, in terms of raw problem-solving, is quite high. The growth of the product in major cities shows huge potential for the future. The technical challenges are complex and mathy, my favorite type! This organization checks all my boxes: talented leadership, a strong technical team, and a market with an upside.”

“You + Me” example:

“Evil Corp is an excellent AV company. The caliber of the technical team, in terms of raw problem-solving, is quite high. The growth of the product in major cities shows huge potential for the future. The technical challenges are complex and mathy, my favorite type! I’m a CS-focused backend engineer whose career focus has been solving hard, mathy programming problems. At Remix, I built and optimized a recommendation algorithm to show customers products they’d like to buy, and at Whipply, I did large-scale data modeling for their core data science product. For Evil Corp to take over the AV world, they need more programmers who can solve hard problems, and with my proven track record my skill set can be well applied here.”

Tailoring approach #3 to how the company assesses culture fit

Remember, the optimal approach is to tell a story that connects them and how you can help.  

That story can be more compelling if it’s tailored to their culture. This case study by Ammon Bartram asked 300 hiring managers at tech companies how they determine culture fit, and 3 categories emerged: gut feel/friend test (>10% of companies), specific personality traits (20% of companies), and communication and soft skills (70% of companies).

Communication and soft skills

Microsoft is a communication and soft skills company. Their interviewers deem culture fit if candidates show clear communication, positivity and friendliness, and take ownership. To quote the case study, these companies “don’t impose strong cultural filters when evaluating candidates. They hire reasonably friendly people who can do the work.” I think of this as the “non-filter filter” because it’s broad, less noticeable, and easier to pass. Also, it’s vague in a forgiving way (unlike the gut feel friend test). The solution for this type of company is business as usual; clearly tell a story that connects them and how you can help!

Example for a “comm. and soft skills company” using approach #3:

“I have been using MSFT products since I first touched Visual Basic. Since then Microsoft has never stopped improving, and now with the acquisitions of OpenAI and Github, they are debatably the most powerful company in big tech. Yet they aren’t taking shortcuts at the risk of user privacy. I’m a software engineer from a nontraditional background, who moved up from an  associate developer role to becoming team lead at an enterprise company in only a few years. I work with AI every day, I know it can be tempting to sacrifice ethics for data. My skill set, history of quick promotions, and commitment to ethics can be well utilized by Microsoft as they build this new ethically focused world of artificial intelligence.”

Specific personality traits

Amazon is the quintessential specific personality trait company. Their interviewers evaluate candidates on their ability to demonstrate a famous (or infamous) list of traits, known as the 16 Leadership Principles (LPs). Every specific trait company has 1 or 2 traits that are more important than the rest. The solution is to tell a story that broadcasts a signal of their most important trait. Since Amazon’s most important LP is Customer Obsession, your story can demonstrate that trait to score points.

Example for a “specific traits company” using approach #3:

“I read a story about Jeff Bezos delivering packages to customers in the early days of Amazon. A CEO doubles as a delivery driver, all to delight the customer. That’s not about the paycheck, that’s about paying it forward, customers remember and come back for those experiences. One time I was working overtime on a client site in their data center. It wasn’t even my job to be there anymore, but the expertise we had in-house was limited so I stayed. It was the longest work day of my career, and when I saw the smile on the client’s face when the problem was resolved I knew it was worth it. Your culture here and my track record have a singular focus, bringing delight to the consumer which is what I can bring to the Amazon team.”

Gut feel/friend test

Though they probably wouldn’t admit it, Apple is implicitly a gut feel/friend test company. Their interviewers make a gut call as to which candidates would fit in with the company. The solution is to tell a story that evokes a highly emotional response in the interviewer.

Example for “gut feel/friend test company” using approach #3:

“My wife and I were university students in a long-distance relationship, she was in France and I was in the States. FaceTime released this new feature called SharePlay which allowed us to watch movies together, which was a game changer because it felt almost like we were on the same couch. Our cross-the-globe relationship relied on that feature; it made us feel like a regular couple on a date night. Those 4 years wouldn’t have been the same without it. I build great products that can have a deep impact on people’s lives as well. I was the founding engineer for a mental health app and a systems engineer on a service that shipped medicines to customers. Apple wants engineers who build great products customers love, and my expertise is building product features with real-world significance.”

How to identify what kind of culture screen a company does?

You can usually tell by looking for outliers in their company values. Look for a sequence of words you have never seen before. For example, one of Stripe’s values is “Be exothermic.” Not your everyday word choice. Amazon’s “Have backbone, disagree and commit” has got to be similarly rare. If a company has highly specific traits, they’re probably a specific trait company.

What if a company’s three values are “Respect, Integrity, and Accountability”? Those are not highly specific, therefore they aren’t a specific trait company (and those values are from Microsoft, btw). Communication and soft skill companies are branded by their commonplace values.

As far as identifying a gut feel/friend test company, since none would outwardly advertise themselves as such, that is trickier. You have to find out on your own, unfortunately. Through personal research, Apple and Netflix fit this type as there is zero standardization for what interviewers look for in behavioral rounds, but they probably wouldn’t admit it if asked directly. I even heard an Apple interviewer say “You really have to elicit an emotional response in me, for it to be a good answer.” Unless you find out on your own, assume they’re not this type.


Interviews, for engineers, have become a minefield. Even simple two-word interview questions like “Why Apple?” can bring numerous challenges. Expect to mess up sometimes. Learn from it. And line up another shot. Besides, sometimes the best lessons are learned the hard way. If you’re tired of failing interviews or want to up your chances a whole lot, then sign up for ApplyPass. Fill out one form, and watch bulk interviews roll in.

Dan Klos
Co-Founder & CEO @applypass
Dan has spent the last 8 years helping software engineers level up their career. He created Outco to help over 2,000+ engineers secure top-paying job offers. Currently, his entire focus is on building ApplyPass to aid engineers in getting 40% more interviews and saving more than 5 hours per week on job applications. When he's not at work, he's deeply involved in activism, challenging hikes, and canoeing.
Table of contents