The Inside Scoop on Interviewing at Microsoft

The Inside Scoop on Interviewing at Microsoft

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(or at least, my personal take on it!)

Over the last couple of months, I've been interviewing candidates for a couple of different roles at Microsoft at a rate of almost one a week. Interviewing is definitely something of a skill, both for the interviewee and for the interviewer. A good interviewer doesn't ask random questions, even if it seems that way - they're trying to get a candidate to reveal enough about their character, skills, temperament and awareness that they can determine whether they'd be a good hire for the team.

I enjoy the mental stimulus of being on either side of the desk for an interview: as an interviewer, the challenge of trying to get through the mask that people sometimes put up to find out where someone's real talents and weaknesses; as an interviewee, the process of finding out more about yourself and the areas where you personally need to develop. Either way, it's a process of continual learning.

One thing that surprises me is how many potential new hires fall into the same "traps". I don't try to catch people out or set trick questions, but I see people who don't do themselves justice in the way they present themselves. Here are a few ways I see people shooting themselves in the foot, based not on any individual candidate but a broad aggregation of the perhaps 15-20 interviews that I've conducted in the last year:

  • Stock Microsoft interview questions often start with the phrase "Tell me about a time when..." The goal of questions like these is usually to find out more about your actual performance in a real-world scenario, rather than your best-case performance in a hypothetical situation. It's interesting though how often I get answers that focus entirely on the project or organization someone has worked on, rather than their individual contribution. Of course, we're looking for people who work well in a team setting, but telling me about a project that you worked on that was particularly successful doesn't give me any indication of whether you were the star performer that turned it around or whether you were a knuckle-dragger that just happened to be associated with the project. Tell me what things you did, what impact they had, what you learnt from the experience, rather than making me want to hire someone else from your project team!
  • Show passion for both what you've done in the past and what you're interviewing for. I want to see evidence that you care about the job enough that it's not just another notch on your resume. Even if you're historically a star performer that we'd be lucky to hire, I want to be convinced by you personally, not just by your performance on paper. Do some reading around the area; if you know the interviewer's names, search for them on MSN Search (or Google if you really must!) and find out what their interests are, what they've written about, and what they have a passion for - not to flatter them, but to demonstrate your commitment to the role.
  • If I ask you where you're weak, it's not a trick question. It's amazing how few people are prepared to own up to any flaws at all. Sometimes people do this fake thing where they highlight a strength as a weakness ("people say to me that I care too much!"). I don't believe that you're completely perfect - really, I don't! What I want to see is that you're aware of your limitations, you're not so arrogant to presume that you can't learn anything or accept feedback, and that you have the ability to reflect on your own character. Give me something - even if it's just that you're not a morning person!
  • Lastly, demonstrate vision - share your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions. Tell me where you see this job as a stepping stone to - where you'd like to be in five years time. I want to see that you have a sense of the strategic - that you understand the industry, that you have knowledge that stretches beyond the specific requirements of the role you're interviewing for.

In general terms, it's in both the interviewer and the interviewee's interest to determine whether the person is a "good hire" or a "bad hire". No matter how much you want a job coming into an interview, pretending to be someone you're not (more technical than you really are, more interested in a certain type of work than you really are) to land a position doesn't lead to satisfaction in the long run, when you wind up getting bad performance reviews because your skills just don't mesh with the requirements of a role. On the other hand, if you can find a job that really matches your interests, skills and goals, you'll have great fun doing it and naturally excelling in it.

  • What's a common clothing at a MS interview? A black tie or a t-shirt? :)
  • I found this post interesting and useful. I've been on a lot of interviews over the years. When I was...
  • Kostik, probably somewhere in-between. It's a pretty laid-back, casual atmosphere here - I have to take the dust jacket off my suit before wearing it - but equally some interviewers might feel a Grateful Dead T-Shirt and ripped jeans is just a little _too_ laid-back! Obviously it depends a little on the kind of role you're interviewing for...
  • "On the other hand, if you can find a job that really matches your interests, skills and goals, you'll have great fun doing it and naturally excelling in it."

    Yeah, gotta call BS on that one. The last three jobs I've had I really enjoyed and they fit my interests, skills and goals. However, they've all had some jackass that pulled a lot of political crap to get me either fired or to make my life so miserable that I wanted to quit. In every case, it was someone who was very threatened by my technical skills, and was either higher up the food chain or was much better at brown nosing the boss.  I honestly don't think there are anymore fun, interesting jobs out there where I can concentrate on what I'm doing instead of watching for the knife at my back.
  • Here's another one you could ask.  Have you actually shipped a product on time?  That seems very important to ask.  If the answer is yes, consider hiring for Vista, MS Office or even Virtual Server.
  • [Tim] Tell me what things you did, what impact they had, what you learnt from the experience, rather than making me want to hire someone else from your project team!

    [Tom Archer] I would add that the interviewer should take care to note that many of us were not raised in the same culture and have been brought up to believe that you should play down your individual contributions and talk about the team. When I first came to the states and started interviewing, I had to be reminded a couple of times that the company wanted to know about me and my contributions. For example, I frequently stated "we" even in cases where I was the only one on a project I was describing because that's how I was reared.
  • Tom, that's a good point - both interviewer and interviewee would do well to take account of each other's cultural references. However, it behoves the interviewee in particular to be aware of the mores of the interviewer, since it's the interviewee that's selling him/herself rather than the other way around.
  • Lone Deserter, I'm going to guess that very few developers have been part of a project the size of Windows Vista, and that even fewer have successfully shipped it on time. Can you name another project of its scale and breadth of distribution?
  • I intereviewed with Microsoft last year. It turned out that I was not the best fit for the role. I was disappointed and at the same time I was very impressed with Microsoft and how they handled it. Most companies just show candidates the door if you are not a fit for the role--the end. However, Microsoft stated that they were still interested in me for other roles and I was a good fit for the culture. They are taking a longer term view. There is still some hope. I learned a lot during the interview process about the company and people. I didn't have the name of the interviewers in advance, however I researched the group as much as I could. It was a very exciting day. I agree you don't want to be in a role where you are not positioned to be succesful. That only hurts the company, hiring manager, and you.
  • Well, ugh - of course you don't - who would? It's a horrible thought...! But perhaps you think you'd...
  • Hi Tim Sneath,

    This is my first step towards the preparation for Microsoft which is being my dream company since when i new about this.It is more than Awesome that peoples like you from Microsoft provides such kind of information which is very very helpful towards the Interview.

    Thank You Very Much,
    Pramod
  • >If I ask you where you're weak, it's not a trick question.
    No it's your job as an interviewer to find out the strength and weaknesses via your questions.

    Just my 2 cents. :)

    regareds Allan
  • Wrong Wrong and Wrong!
    Tim,
    If you have set your mind on what should the answers to your questions be and are expecting a standard type of answer from a novice to an experienced engineer, I am Sorry but you have utterly failed to interview, you'll be disappointed that no one would fit to the position you are hiring (majority of them unless they are just like you). Weren't you told when you were interviewing after the college to describe your -ve attributes as a +ve feature, don't tell me that you did not do that while you interviewed. If you read any of those 101 Answers to tough interview questions, all of them suggest to talk about a +ve attribute when asked about a -ve weekness. What about that???
    Like someone on these posts said all are raised with different cultural background and it has a great impact on the way one presents themselves during the interview. If your interview process cannot TUNE to understand what strengths an individual has you have failed not the candidate. Can you explain why Microsoft was asking Puzzele and trick questions for a long time. None of the puzzle questions would extract what the candidate can do and his strengths are they are just making the interviewer look good and superior. Take a written test on Math and Problem solving if you want to test someone’s real caliber.
    No interview I repeat No interview on this planet can test an individual in a single day on what his strengths and skills are. Most of Microsoft interviewers fail to make the candidate at ease, and all he/she utters is not what they are all about.
  • Hi Tim. I'm a tech writer of 6 years, and I've been a star performer at the companies I've worked for (web hosting and web content management). However, I recently bombed an interview at Microsoft for a position I was very interested in and knowledgeable on. I think it was because of the way I answered their questions (not clear enough, not detailed enough). But this is why I chose tech writing over tech training, sales, support, consulting, etc. -- my writing is more articulate than my voice. Any advice for someone like me?
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