Shopify’s Life Story Interview: Discovering Potential in Early Talent

Whether someone was a valedictorian or a high school drop-out, there is a broad spectrum of life experiences that candidates have grown through that can show our interviewers whether someone is the right match for Shopify.

Kathleen O’Keefe is a Talent Sourcer & Researcher for Shopify’s Intern Program. She is focused on discovering early talent with strong potential: students, recent graduates, self-taught learners & career-changers. 

Before I knew all about Shopify, I had first heard about the Life Story interview. It seemed like a breath of fresh air; an incredibly human approach to recruiting. I loved what it represented — it signaled to me that Shopify wasn’t just trying to fill reqs, they truly wanted to find the right people. A year later I applied to a job posting titled “choose your own recruiting adventure” and it ended up being an accurate, almost prophetic, description of my journey at Shopify so far.

In my early days on Shopify’s Intern Program team, I was having Life Story conversations with candidates. While I had many insightful conversations with interesting and passionate people, I was never a master of the craft; I know what mastery looks like because I work closely with Intern Recruiters who are! After my brief stint as an Intern Recruiter, I created my niche within the team by focusing on building out processes and transforming the way our team operates. These days I’m deeply focused on our internship talent sourcing strategy. My teammates have joked before that at times it seems like I’m the brains behind a lot of what we do, but the truth is that I have contributed to many pieces of the machine that is the modern-day Shopify Intern Program. I’m excited to share some key insights into the Life Story interview that I’ve gathered over years of working closely with my Intern Recruiter teammates!

We know that experience comes in many forms, so we want to get to know our candidates in a holistic way.”

What Is A Life Story Interview?

The Life Story Interview is a style of interviewing that is focused on seeking to understand a candidate’s past experience, skills, decisions, attitudes, failures and successes over time, to best predict their future success at Shopify. It’s important because we wouldn’t be the people we are today without the journey that led us to where we are. It’s an important first step in our interview process which happens before technical interviews or discussions about the role itself take place. Everyone who interviews at Shopify, from intern to executive, will have a Life Story conversation.

Why Is It Important?

The Life Story is crucial to Shopify’s success and longevity as a company. It ensures that the right people are joining Shopify; these are people from all walks of life who are deeply aligned with our values and our mission, which is to help to make commerce better for everyone.

Our Intern Recruiters make it look so easy even though they’re having these conversations at scale (120+ across the team every hiring cycle) and they go into every conversation with the same unwavering enthusiasm, focus and curiosity. Yes our internship candidates are having enjoyable conversations, but make no mistake — these are professionals who are skilled, laser-focused detectives making incredibly important decisions. Who is the right match for a Shopify internship? And who is ready for one?

So now that you have a high-level understanding of what the Life Story interview is, it’s equally important to understand what the Life Story interview isn’t: allow me to be your guide and take you on a journey of what the Life Story is not. 

It isn’t: a “culture fit” interview

It is an opportunity to uncover information that aligns with Shopify’s values.

Has the candidate made a positive impact in their previous internships, school projects or any other community/project they were involved in? 

Do they have self-awareness and understand how they’ve impacted those around them? Have they demonstrated a high degree of care in the work they do? 

These values show up in a variety of ways and from a vast array of life experiences: there isn’t a “proper” Life Story that they’re looking for. The reality is that every candidate has a unique path, and not all candidates have had access to the same opportunities: some have faced systemic barriers or come from families that are not as well-connected as their peers. Some candidates needed to work a part-time job through school to pay tuition, while some of their peers are fortunate to have a safety net that enables them to participate in student clubs and other extracurricular activities. Whether someone was a valedictorian or a high school drop-out, there is a broad spectrum of life experiences that candidates have grown through that can show our interviewers whether someone is the right match for Shopify. 

Something the interviewer will also uncover is whether the candidate is being authentic, since authenticity and showing up to work as your whole self is highly valued at Shopify. The truth though, is that the Life Story can feel vulnerable and we all have a boundary where vulnerability becomes too uncomfortable and is simply invasive. The interviewer will allow the candidate to lead the way here. Some are comfortable sharing what they learned during incredibly difficult chapters of their personal lives, and some will prefer to keep the conversation focused entirely on their professional journey. Both are authentic approaches to the conversation!

Authenticity shines through when a candidate is genuinely present in the conversation, and isn’t in “interview mode” trying to shoehorn in accomplishments or other soundbites that sound “good”.

Interviewers should remember that not everyone has the same level of comfort in discussing their personal lives and should ensure the candidate feels comfortable during the conversation. Candidates are not obligated to share parts of their lives they would rather keep private. 

It isn’t: a conversation where you will feel like an expert

It is an opportunity where an interviewer’s natural curiosity can really come alive. When you’re hiring for technical internships, the candidates will be very early in their career but the right candidates are still going to be knowledgeable about topics that are beyond your high-level understanding. You might find yourself having a conversation with an internship candidate that has a PhD in Astrophysics, for example — there’s going to be a lot you don’t know, and you’ll need to be okay with that.

We already know there is an inherent power dynamic between an interviewer and a candidate, because ultimately the interviewer will be making the final call on whether a candidate proceeds to the technical interview. To truly master the Life Story, you will need to leave your ego behind when you jump into the Google Meet link. Whether a candidate is telling you about the work they did in a previous internship, or their thesis, or a multiplayer free world game engine they built for fun, you will need to seek to understand the work they’ve done. You’re going to ask “basic” questions, and your lack of deeper knowledge on these topics will be evident to the candidate — and that’s okay! The right candidates will happily answer your questions and will be able to explain these complex topics simply, and you will come away from the conversation humbled.  

Your knowledge about the internship discipline you’re hiring for is meant to be wide not deep. 

If you’re hiring interns from the same internship discipline for an extended period of time though, your knowledge base will inevitably grow with every conversation you have.

The Life Story Matters

Getting to know your candidates in a holistic way is something every organization will benefit from. Life can be a messy and non-linear journey for many — looking beyond traditional, industry-standard interview questions will open the door to interesting people that have so much to offer. 

Do you want to have your own Life Story conversations? Sign up to be notified about new Shopify Talent opportunities here!

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