Please share the secrets of the Microsoft interview process.
January 27, 2011 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Do you work at Microsoft? Please share the secrets of the Microsoft interview process. Because it's not working for me.

Hi there.

I've been through five in-person, all-day interviews with Microsoft's games groups over the past five years. I have failed at each one, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. I've been successful in other interviews over the same stretch of time with other companies. But I really, really want to work for Microsoft for several family-related and professional reasons.

The failures seem to center around the following:

1) The hiring manager likes me on the phone (after all, he brought me in), but his opinion gets trumped by the team.
2) There was a misunderstanding somewhere, and I'm not actually technically suitable for the role ("Oh wow, it turns out we're looking for a person with experience in X"). Note that this isn't uncovered during any part of the previous process, as if everyone -- hiring manager included -- is looking at the resume for the first time.
3) During the interview, I'm asked to demonstrate problem-solving skills, but the open-ended problem presented really isn't as open-ended as it seems. It's like I'm being asked to read someone's mind.

I was once asked to design a new Boeing 747. OK, I said. Boeing sells planes to airlines and not airline travelers. So, I focused on making the plane more economical, safer, quicker to turn around on the ground, more likely to be on time and a real selling point for an airline's passengers. I thought I was being smart by focusing on Boeing's true needs.

Nope. Apparently the guy wanted planes that could ... I don't know. Be invisible. Fly underwater. Run on fairy dust. I'm not an aircraft engineer, and neither was he. But the real, actionable ideas were greeted with disdain.

I feel like I'm being played.

What's going on here? What am I not getting about this process? Are hiring managers divorced from the actual hiring process? Is no one vetting the resumes? Are there so many applicants and so little pressure on hiring managers that they can burn enormous amounts of time and resources? Is there a "Microsoft Interview Class" you all take? What are they teaching you there?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Work & Money (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Somebody wrote a book about it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:30 PM on January 27, 2011

Response by poster: Somebody wrote a book about it.

And I actually read it. I suppose I could re-read it, but I'm looking for more insight.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:33 PM on January 27, 2011

Generally the trick with that "design an X" question is not to design anything but to ask the interviewers questions. The trick, such as it is, is to gather requirements as opposed to actually knowing how to design anything. I personally feel it's more of an object lesson rather than an interview question - it's more Socratic than anything else.

Other than that the process is a crap-shoot. If you've read Mt Fuji there's not much left to say. Interviewers are capricious. My only suggestion is that you have the read the interviewer to try to get a sense of what they want. This isn't always possible though as borderline-Aspergers software developers don't exude body language. Kinda the opposite.
posted by GuyZero at 2:41 PM on January 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

I am a MSFT employee (not in the games group). I won't share any amazing, mind-blowing secrets though, sorry.

Possible explainations to your experience:
1) you simply weren't a good candidate
2) there was a much better other candidate that got the position
3) you had bad interviewers
4) you had bad hiring managers
5) solar flares

Yes, there is an interviewing class which is mandatory for any employee who will perform an interview. Half of this goes over legal issues, the other half is actual interview technique. Even if someone has gone through the class, they still may be a lousy interviewer - this should be noticed by their manager and corrected, but it is possible to slip through the cracks.

There are gobs of resumes submitted, and of those a still significant number of candidates will get called in for interviews. If there is no candidate that is agreed upon is awesome and should be hired, then the process repeats until that special someone is found.

The person who went through the 747 design exercise was either a poor interviewer or you have a different perspective of how the exercise went down. Regardless, it most likely did not result in your hire/no-hire decision - it's just one small piece of the decision making process.

Feel free to email me if you'd like to discuss further.
posted by Diddly at 2:50 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Generally the trick with that "design an X" question is not to design anything but to ask the interviewers questions.

Which is funny because that's exactly what I would look for in an interview ... but in every example I had, attempts to ask questions were deliberately deflected.

"So, could we...?"
"Steve Ballmer doesn't care, he just wants the problem to go away. All you have to go on is that."
"But what about...?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:56 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

They have your name...are they doing background research on you (on the web or otherwise) that would possibly result in information that could exclude you from these positions?
posted by circular at 3:04 PM on January 27, 2011

obiwanwasabi: Somebody wrote a book about it.

In 2004. And two of the reviews for the book (one from December 2004, and another from December 2005) say these sorts of questions aren't being asked any more.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:15 PM on January 27, 2011

I don't know shit about Microsoft, since I was in Hospitality, but after I hit 40, interviews started to get strange.
posted by lobstah at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2011

Reading Mt Fuji is still essential for doing well in a tech industry interview. It's not a silver bullet though. I also recommend doing practice case study exams from consulting firms.

Have you followed up with the recruiter in each case? If the most recent interview wasn't too long ago I'd ask the recruiter for a debrief. I too find it amazing they'd continue to bring you back but keep turning you down.
posted by GuyZero at 3:27 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

My partner interviewed at Microsoft and ran into bad interviewers. One interviewer didn't seem to have a copy of his resume, and another was completely dismissive of his prior experience, having worked at a non-profit institution.

My partner works at another tech company in Seattle. He takes time out of his schedule to interview prospects. He has relayed stories of prospective hires being sent to the wrong buildings, and interviewers not having looked at the person's resume.

At the end of the process, the devs get together with managers and vote yes or no. Where my partner works, pretty much everyone has to vote yes before an offer is made, because the cost of bringing in someone new is expensive in time and money.

Sometimes it really isn't only or always about the interviewee being a bad fit, so much as some devs don't take the process seriously, and it is perhaps just the luck of the draw. It happens.

If it's any consolation, it seems like the company is going downhill, given they are laying off staff and long-time, high-level talent are leaving. Perhaps it's a good sign that your interviews haven't gone well. Turn lemons into lemonade. I hear Google is opening new positions in Seattle.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:35 PM on January 27, 2011

And two of the reviews for the book (one from December 2004, and another from December 2005) say these sorts of questions aren't being asked any more.

Ad yet here we have somebody posting today to say that they're still asking exactly those kinds of questions, and asking for advice on how to handle them. There was no mention of having read the book in the question, so I linked to it. Take it or leave it.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:59 PM on January 27, 2011

Have you tried looking at the Interview Experiences tab on ? It's interesting to see the questions and responses of people that were both rejected and accepted for various roles within the company. Granted MS is very segregated between Products and even Teams within Products, but you may be lucky enough to find someone that posted their experience about the Games Division you are interested in.
posted by xtine at 4:45 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

..asked to design a new Boeing 747

You're applying to Microsoft. It's my hunch this is more aligned with user experience. What are the cool features that would cause people to choose the 747 versus other aircraft (hint,hint other software companies). Think of seat-back entertainment screens and so forth. Essentially cattle-class with nothing to do versus 'entertainment wow in the sky, first-class pods, ...!!!!'. The perspective on their end is the user, not the manufacturer. They're already that.

"Steve Ballmer doesn't care, he just wants the problem to go away. All you have to go on is that."

You're given a top-level problem from senior management. All they want is a result. How do you achieve that? The interest is in the process. Research, gather requirements, any existing solutions, prototyping, proposal for further development, implement, test/debug, release candidate, ...
posted by hungrysquirrels at 5:17 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you know anyone in the games group? Or have you interviewed with anyone you clicked with? If you get another interview, having a person on the inside would help because they could give you a rundown of the personalities you'll be working with and that would give you some insight into how each person might want you to approach a question.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:26 PM on January 27, 2011

Check out CareerCup.
posted by halogen at 5:47 PM on January 27, 2011

I think Microsoft has weird things going on in their hiring department that have nothing to do with you. At least I'd like to think that.

I applied for a part time job with Microsoft a couple of years ago for which I was immensely overqualified. The problems they were wanting me to solve are things I teach in our basic 101 course. They sent me a worksheet with five problems to solve, which I solved perfectly. I'm not being stuck-up here: I seriously grade this stuff from first year students. There was not a single error. Apart from acknowledgment of the receipt of my solutions, I never heard from them again.

WTF MICROSOFT is my full answer to your question, I guess.
posted by lollusc at 5:47 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

There was a misunderstanding somewhere, and I'm not actually technically suitable for the role ("Oh wow, it turns out we're looking for a person with experience in X").

I can't speak for MSFT, but as a sometime hiring-guy for rent myself, I know exactly what this part is. You were not technically qualified for the job in the first place, no. You did not have the checkbox-item "X" to begin with, and the hiring guy knew it. The team probably knew it, too, but the guy who called you in most definitely realized this and was not noticing it for the first time during the interview.

Someone involved was interested or intrigued or just plain puzzled by something else on your resume, or in your past experience, and they willingly overlooked that gap in a provisional way. "Let's talk to him anyway, and see if he can make up for this missing element and blow us away with his other skills and experience. Heck, maybe he'll be good for this other position we haven't posted yet."

They're hoping that you will be so impressive in some other area that this missing point won't matter. So if and when they bring up this point as a shortcoming... well, it's over. They've now learned what they wanted to know, sated their curiosity about whatever-else you had, and they're now using the known gap as an excuse to explain why they are rejecting you.

No, I don't do this myself. I think it's cruel and as you have noticed, infuriating to the confused interviewee. I think that if you're bringing someone in this way, you should say so. "You don't really qualify, technically, but you're interesting anyway, so we should talk." is the kind of thing I say in advance. That way the interviewee knows that our interest is soft or provisional or a longshot, and they can decide if that's still something they want to invest time (and often travel) to pursue.

But I have seen other people be coy about it, as above, many, many times. It stinks.
posted by rokusan at 6:17 PM on January 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, the CIO at a company I used to work for did exactly what rokusan is talking about ALL THE TIME. She finally got such a bad reputation from recruiters for bringing people in she had no intention of hiring that they started working directly with me behind her back. At least I could articulate the requirements properly.

I think she had gotten lucky one time with her method, and didn't see any problem with wasting scads of people's time to have lightning strike once more. The difference was, she had moved from a startup to a big corporation, where that kind of thing is less likely to fly. That may be similar to what happens at Microsoft.
posted by bwanabetty at 6:46 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

From a MeFite who would prefer to remain anonymous:
Good stuff from Diddly, Blazecock Pileon, and GuyZero on topics of competitiveness of hiring process, the damned airplane questions, the interview class, bad interviewers, everybody gets together to vote, etc. I will skip those topics.

I have worked at Microsoft for over six years. At Microsoft, when you switch teams, you are subject to full interview loops. I got my first position I interviewed for, and I've switched teams three times, so I've been through full interview loops 7 times (so I'm 4/7 on loops). I have been through the interview training myself, and conducted a few interviews. This is coming from my experience.

First thing to note about Microsoft interviews - the majority of people called for interview loops for positions, both internal and external, are not hired. As you can see by my track record, it is possible to decline to hire people that are perfectly fit to work at the company because that person is wrong for the team that is doing the hiring, (or vice versa, I have walked out of loops where I would have declined an offer).

Second - Hiring managers are risk averse. It is expensive to make a bad hire, and managers that make bad hires (should be) dinged in the annual reviews, thus lowering their bonuses and stock awards. In a risk-averse climate, hiring managers will often choose an internal candidate that has proven to be successful at Microsoft over an external candidate.

Third - the hiring manager at least should know which position he is hiring for, although I think this may be untrue for people that come from campus recruiting events or other recruiting events. However, all of the other people on your interview loop were added at the last minute by some incompetant admin that is incapable of running an interview scheduling tool, so these people have no idea who in the hell you are, just found out about your interview less than 24 hours ago, and are in fact are only seeing your resume for the first time.

Fourth - the last guy on the loop has the power to override everybody. The schedule given to candidates (even internal candidates) never has the name of the last guy on the schedule. What happens is that the candidate is typically vetted first by the hiring manager, the hiring manager's manager, a person reporting to the hiring manager, somebody to do the technical screen (who may or may not be any of the former). External candidates start with HR before this stage. All these people make a recommendation as to whether or not the candidate should be hired. Once these guys all agree to hire, the last guy is notified, and the candidate sees the last guy. The function of the last guy is to determine the long-term fit for the candidate on the team. So, a candidate may have the skills to fill the position today, but if the candidate is deemed a flight risk or has no room for growth in the future, this last guy can overrule.

PS - your airplane designer sounds like a dick and you should be happy you are not working with that guy
posted by jessamyn at 6:49 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

At the SV tech company I work for no recruiter would answer if they had a feel for how you did. YMMV, but it can seriously compromise the hiring process to say something at that point. If you get a no hire, you can ask if there were any specific criticisms, and depending on the reason you might get some information.

I've never interviewed at Microsoft, but I interview a lot of people. It sucks you've had some bad interviews, but a lot of things have to come together for an actual hire. The entire team has to work with you and get along with you for potentially a very long time - that's pretty strong incentive to be picky. If you know you're nailing the technical questions, I'd start looking at how you're presenting yourself. I've given no hire recs to people that were really smart but were arrogant about how they presented solutions, or couldn't explain a concept to me in a clear way, even though they knew it.

Re problems... there are two types of problems we use. There are problems use as screening problems, that is, if you don't get this right you're not moving on, and there are problems we use to look at how you approach hard, complicated things. We've asked the screening questions a lot - we ask them to each other, to a million candidates, and we know how long they should take. It doesn't matter if you come up with a super creative solution or have an amazing process, you should get the answer to the question within at least a minute or two of our timeline. For the hard problems, not solving one usually isn't a big deal as long as you work through it cleanly and make progress. If it looks like you could probably get to the solution, I might even cut the problem short for the sake of moving on to other areas, but that's not a strike against you.

Hope that helps. Interviewing is hard on both sides of the table.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:18 PM on January 27, 2011

The Big Guns - Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, EA, etc - are not places you really wanna work. Too many applicants, and a toxic work environment that does not reward experience or hard work or even success.

The most prestigious job I've ever had involved a room full of curious, experienced smart people asking honest, pertinent questions and a fart machine taped to the bottom of my chair. The follow-up interview involved the manager showing me how to get to the cafeteria, and that was it. It is a fun and challenging and very rewarding place to work.

Maybe Boeing would appreciate an engineer who understands their business the way you demonstrated you do?
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:49 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're given a top-level problem from senior management. All they want is a result. How do you achieve that? The interest is in the process. Research, gather requirements, any existing solutions, prototyping, proposal for further development, implement, test/debug, release candidate, ...

Yeah, from what I've understood MS buys very heavily into specific ideas about The Design Process and The Product Lifecycle. They want someone who Gets Those Ideas. It obviously depends on the position you're interviewing for, but for design questions you want to talk in project manager terms even if you're not applying to be one. On top of things like research to evaluate requirements, you want to be talking about milestones, about shipping (a very key word), about evaluating which features you have to include and which you hope to include but would be able to drop, about iterating between development and testing, about getting feedback at interim stages. If you know people at the company get them to describe its specific software development culture to you.

For something like the Boeing question, incidentally, I would also talk about how developing a plane would be different than developing software. For example, it's not exactly something you can "dogfood." That again can show awareness of the model that Microsoft follows.
posted by people? I ain't people! at 11:18 PM on January 27, 2011

The first 1-3 times, I might buy "something is skewed here". After time 4, I'd probably think "maybe it's me". Time 5, you really need to consider "it's me, and I need to go a different direction. Maybe gaming at M$ isn't my gig".
posted by kjs3 at 11:47 PM on January 27, 2011

Dude don't go to Microsoft. They are about to drastically cut their health plan (the one good thing about working there), their stock hasn't gone up since the 90s, and Windows is on a long slide to oblivion. I worked there for quite a while, left for something better, and would not go back.
posted by w0mbat at 2:17 AM on January 28, 2011

I have not worked at Microsoft, but I have worked at a large software company focused on a different industry (which is tough to do, since M$ is in so many industries). My experience may be applicable, or not.

Even if the below scenario isn't the problems, the takeaway is that you may have to consider intangibles. Maybe they get the feeling that you won't work your butt off. Maybe they get the feeling that you suffer from a strong "that's not my job" syndrome and will pass off work to other teams. Maybe they accidentally get the impression that you're snarky. I can't say because I've never interviewed you. So being honest with yourself (and maybe some honest feedback from a collegue) might help.

One thing that my last employer wanted to know is that candidates will work long hours when it was required without flinching. Highly-qualified, smart, knowledgeable candidates who would do excellent work from 8-5 were consitantly not hired at my last employer because they rely on last-minute races to the end and unmovable deadlines. M$ may or may not be the same way, but if they are they aren't going to take a chance on someone who might clock out at 6:00 the day before a deadline. Maybe your average week at M$ will only be 45 hours, but if they're like my last employer there are going to be weeks where Monday-Friday you never leave before 10 PM. Maybe it's a huge development deadline, or even worse a huge release is coming up, and they have to know that you're going to work those hours without being forced to.

So one possible theory is they are getting a "50-hour week, not 70-hour week" vibe from you. While it's unethical (and possibly illegal - IANA employment lawyer) to ask about your home life and not hire you because you want to focus on your life outside of work, there are subtler clues. Does the candidate talk about coding, or fishing with his kids? When he describes a very difficult project, does his tone of voice say "I'm so proud that we finished on-time, I'd do it again!" or does it say "I would never stay past midnight again, ever."

I'm not saying you're not a hard worker. But if M$ hires the way my last employer did, then giving off that vibe is enough to undermine you. You had to show lots of excitement and maybe a little desperation; M$ may want a similar attitude.

(please note: I don't condone this kind of hiring. I'm just describing a possible explanation. I think American employees, from CEOs to line workers, allow themselves to be abused, and we should all push back on employers who don't think balance is important. But that's the nature of at-will employment, for better or worse).
posted by Tehhund at 5:39 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Ballmer just wants the problem to go away" ... as an MSFT employee, interviewee and interviewer and hiring manager at various times that's a screaming red flag - why, Ballmer? No 'problem' and 'go away'. Previous attempts to build a 747 obviously screwed up and people below Comrade Steve should have been able to figure it out. Who had the project before? What did they do? Not that it would directly influence your plan but since you will be talking to people who will be talking to Steve you had better understand it in terms of what has been going on there. Rival groups? What is Airbus doing in this space? Who else inside has a stake? What external partners are involved? You will get some Kobayashi Maru, but this wasn't one of them. Also, requirements often change between posting and interviewing, typically by the next-level-up manager pushing the HR around. Real world, you may have to be just as flexible inside the job as you would in the interview. Best thing to ask: what are the new requirements? Worst thing to ask: why did the requirements change?
posted by skybolt at 12:32 AM on January 29, 2011

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