There are many so-called "rules" out there about discussing salary during a job search/interview process. Stuff like "don't talk about compensation on the first conversation". It's a bunch of bunk. You think there are 2 sides to negotiating salary? Well, there are actually 3. Looking at the interview/negotiation process in general (I'm taking off my Microsoft hat here and talking as a representative of the staffing industry), let me explain the players in the process and what you can do to make sure that the negotiating process is as painless as possible:

The Players...

1) You, the applicant. Your goal is to get the best offer possible. You want to get the right job at the right pay level.

2) The company/hiring group/hiring manager. If they are making you an offer, you are obviously valuable to them. The things they also have to consider are internal equity and at what point in the negotiation they are willing to walk away from the table and invest time in finding another applicant.

3) The recruiter. This person wants to do right by all involved. They have a vested interest in filling the position, a desire to accommodate the candidate and guidelines they have to work within. This person is not your adversary in the negotiation process. If they are offering you, they want to get you on board and make sure that you are happy; otherwise, they may have to re-fill your position. At the same time, the hiring manager is also their client, so they have to make them happy as well.

The best negotiation situations that I have participated in have been when I have acted in the role of agent/intermediary. In my mind, open and honest communication between recruiter and candidate and between recruiter and hiring manager regarding compensation is vital.

So I have some food for thought for the job seeker when it comes to talking about compensation:

1) Hesitant to talk numbers in the initial conversation? Talk ranges. Generally, a recruiter will ask you about compensation for a couple reasons.

   -having spoken to other candidates working for the same company, a recruiter can determine your position in the organization and that could say a lot about the skills you bring to the table. It's not scientific and some companies value certain skills more than other companies, but helping the recruiter understand a little bit about where you are could really work to your benefit.

   -they want to make sure they aren't wasting your time or the interviewers time (or money) by bringing you in to interview for a position that you wouldn't accept due to compensation. This is so important and I've seen recruiters and candidates get majorly burned because this conversation didn't take place.

   -this is not a negotiation conversation. Recruiters don't know enough about you at this point to give you a "real" idea of what you could be making. So if the recruiter talks numbers with you at this point, take it with a grain of salt. If you get an offer, those numbers could change (+ or -) after the interview.

Even if you are uncomfortable telling the recruiter too much here, be as open with the recruiter as possible. Thinking "I'll tell the recruiter the compensation is OK just so I get the interview. Then after they meet me, I am sure they will pay me more" could set unrealistic expectations with the recruiter and company. But if you have some flexibility or are more motivated by other things, tell the recruiter. That will help them consider you for a broader range of opportunities.

2) Don't talk about compensation with the hiring manager/interviewers. At most companies, Microsoft included, the recruiter is the person that delivers a compensation offer. The waters get muddied when other stakeholders, like the hiring manager, are brought into that conversation. And talking about compensation with other interviewers is plain old inappropriate.

3) After the interview, but prior to the offer stage (if you get there), you should be thinking about what an ideal/acceptable compensation package would look like for you FOR THAT PARTICULAR POSITION and that company, and where you could or couldn't be flexible.

4) When it comes time to negotiate, look at the offer and take some time to think about it. Sometimes the excitement of the offer, or the impact of hearing the actual details of the offer (and how they may differ from your ideal, + or -), can take you off guard. When you get an offer, ask any clarifying questions that come to mind initially (stuff about benefits, how stock options are vested, etc.). Then step away from the phone and let it sink in a little bit.

5) If you do decide to negotiate, make sure the recruiter knows what is important to you. For example, someone whose main financial objective is to plan for their retirement may have different needs than someone who needs to pay for a child's college education. I'm not recommending that you tell the recruiters why you have specific needs, but that you should communicate your needs relative to types of compensation. For example, if you are planning for retirement, stock options and the like may have more importance to you. Tell the recruiter that you are specifically interested in this type of compensation relative to other types. This helps the recruiter to try to offer you the kinds of things that have the most value to you.

6) Don't talk about your compensation relative to other people that have been hired by the company or from the company you are currently at. Each person is different, even if they have worked in similar roles. Your compensation offer is about you and nobody else. And comparing compensation info for the purposes of negotiating is seen as inappropriate.

So, although I can't explain to you how to "get the best offer from Microsoft" (or from any other company, for that matter), I think that understanding a little bit about the process and the stakeholders is beneficial to everyone involved. I know that it's very personal when you are on the receiving end of an offer. And it's hard to think about what you should or should not do to make sure that everyone is satisfied with the outcome. I can't tell you what to ask for or why you would be getting a specific type of offer, but knowing a little bit about how to structure your communications with the recruiter is, I hope, helpful.