Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Road to Redmond

[Names have been changed to protect the innocent]

I wasn’t quite sure what would happen next when I walked out of my campus interview with Microsoft. I guess that’s something the candidate’s supposed to ask, or the interviewer’s supposed to bring up. I had more important questions to ask at the time, and it slipped my mind. I figured I’d hear back eventually if they were interested. So many applicants.. what were the chances they’d pick me anyhow?

Lots of time passed.. the process was progressing with other companies.. I had had a great final round interview with Deloitte.. and still no word from Microsoft. At this point, I asked Ayush, my MS intern friend, for some advice. He happened to have the regional recruiter’s cell phone number, and suggested I call her up to again express my interest and let her know about the offer I was expecting from Deloitte. I think I caught Nancy a bit off guard, but she was very friendly and helpful. She was in a cab on her way to an airport, but had all the paperwork from my university’s interviews in her backpack, and said she’d get back to me asap to let me know the results.

A few days later I got an email from Nancy telling me they’d like to fly me out to Redmond for a day of interviews! She said a Microsoft recruiting coordinator would be in touch.

I was pretty ecstatic, but remained calm. I knew how many college candidates Microsoft flies out to interview every day, and that the odds of getting an offer were stacked against me something like 6-1. I have one really bright friend at the University who’s interviewed with Microsoft in Redmond for the last 2 years, each time going home without an offer, and another friend who’s an amazing programmer and also made it all the way to Redmond and back without getting an offer.

I exchanged a few more emails with Nancy and her coworker Barbara about the process, and about a week later, I got an email from Hillary, my recruiting coordinator, with a bunch of questions and information to help plan and prepare for my trip to Redmond. The potential dates she provided were a bit outside my decision-making timeframe, so I played a bit of phone tag with Hillary and her coworker Laura until finally agreeing on a Monday that’d I’d be flying out 4 days later!

Touching Down

I got into Seattle around 6:30pm and took a cab out to the Fairfield Inn in Bellevue – just minutes away from Microsoft’s main campus. The hotel was pretty dead, and I desperately needed to eat, so I took a walk down the street to Red Robin where I sat alone at the bar eating a burger & fries and sipping on a Guinness. It was a bit lonely, but gave me some much needed time to reflect on the situation and get psyched up for the morning. Went back to the hotel an hour later, checked my email (free wireless!), and crashed.

I woke up pretty early the next morning. I pretty much remained jetlagged for my entire trip, actually. I knew I was going to be spending the entire day running from building to building interviewing in all kinds of strange places, and decided to take Microsoft up on its advice, and wear something I’d be comfortable in. Threw on a pair of Dockers, a sky blue Banana Republic polo-like shirt, my brown cloth/suede shoes, and went off to breakfast at the Courtyard next door.

Wow, was breakfast a wakeup call! There were college aged candidates swarming around the hotel every which way I turned my head – taxi after taxi driving up and taking them off to the famed Building 19 where all the magic begins. I grabbed some eggs and toast at the buffet, and sat down to eat. Next to me were two Microsoft guys chatting about how their group was severely understaffed, but they preferred to keep it that way because interviewing candidates was such a long, drawn-out process that it just wasn’t worth the effort. Great, I thought. After I was done eating, I walked across the room to a comfortable-looking chair, and whipped out my copy of How Would You Move Mount Fuji? I had already taken the book cover off so as not to look like a complete and total dork. Ah, last minute cramming.

My cab arrived around 10. I split it with another candidate who was applying for a developer position. We chatted a bit about the companies we’d been interviewing with. Good times.

Building 19

Building 19 was just as it looked in the Channel9 videos and just as it was described in my book (except the Xbox was working! Yay!). I checked in, chatted a bit with other candidates, then sat down and whipped out my Gameboy Advance to kill some time. Everyone else was wearing a suit. Great.

Around 10:30, a very nice woman named Jackie approached from behind the nearby smartcard-protected door and introduced herself as the recruiter who would be handling my campus visit. She was totally cool. We went back to her office, and chatted a bit about my interests, her time at the company, and our shared passion for the Pocket PC. Jackie gave me a primer interview question to prepare me for my day, and a few helpful tips. She also gave me some vouchers for a free meal with one of my interviewers later in the day. It was a really fun conversation. I think I’ll call her up and see if she wants to get lunch when I get back to Redmond again. Eventually, it was time to move on, and I hopped on the recruiting shuttle to my first technical interview. Even the recruiting shuttle, by the way, was a fun time. The drivers were all very friendly and easy to chat with, and I got to ride in my first Hybrid vehicle. Waay cool!


My first interview of the day was with Jim, in the Windows CE group. The lobby of Jim’s building had a couple of enlarged Smartphone devices by the entrance. Spiffy, eh? As we went up to Jim’s office, he asked if I needed a drink or anything. I thanked him for the offer, but was ready to jump right into the interview.

Jim was a lead PM in the CE group. We hit it off right away, talking about all sorts of stuff related to mobile devices. The interview was mostly behavioral. He wanted to get a sense of my skills as a PM. He asked lots of questions about my past experiences working with groups on projects. Then, the conversation shifted somehow to a mobile technology proof of concept video I’d seen on a Microsoft Research web site. Here’s the link. We talked a lot about how this technology could be applied to navigation applications, and produced a lot of great ideas. It was a great time.

When our time was up, Jim walked me back down to the lobby and called me a shuttle to another building where I’d be meeting another PM lead in his group, Jack.

At this point, Jim also mentioned something about calling Jack and giving him a heads up I was on my way.


When I got to Jack’s building, I had to wait around for a few minutes.. apparently there had been some sort of scheduling issue with my interviews (Jackie mentioned it as well early on in the day), and people weren’t expecting me at the times Jackie/I were given. I didn’t mind the wait.. it gave me time to gather my thoughts, take in my surroundings, and rest my brain before the next round of challenging questions.

When Jack arrived, he asked if I’d had lunch yet. I hadn’t, but told him I was in no hurry, and that it was only my second interview. I could last a bit longer. So, we went up to his office.

Jack was probably the most technical guy I met with. His office was dark, and every square inch was covered with gadgets. I actually figured him for a developer or a tester initially. Turns out he is a PM, but has access to the codebase as well and likes to tinker. Pretty neat.

All of Jack’s questions were about handling issues that arise during the development cycle – new feature requests, missed deadlines, etc. Everything I’d read in The Mythical Man-Month came in handy here (i.e. don’t just throw more developers at a problem, or shorten the testing time). Jack had some insights I hadn’t thought about much before our interview, and that was helpful as well.

All in all, it was another good interview. Jack called me a shuttle, and I was on my way to another building!

Johnnie B

The next building I got to had an MSNBC kiosk in the lobby. Good thing, too, because it was a good 10-15 minutes before I met my next interviewer, Jose. I took the opportunity to relax again, and prepare myself for whatever the next guy had in store for me.

After a few minutes, a man approached, and introduced himself as Johnnie B (another lead PM). He said that because of the issues with my schedule, I’d be meeting with him rather than Jose, who had gone off to an important meeting.

Johnnie B was very nice. We talked about the project his team was working on quite a bit. He said he worked in a group called Windows Technology Services. He gave me a lot of time to ask questions about PM at Microsoft and the company in general. Then, he posed me an interview question.

Answering Johnnie B’s question was definitely the biggest challenge I faced throughout the day. I’d read up quite a bit on Microsoft’s interview questions and the various coding, design, and puzzle questions the interviewers ask. Nothing prepared me for this question.

I sat in front of him exploring option after option, searching the solution space as best as possible, and yet I couldn’t come up with a viable solution. As more and more time passed, and there was still no solution in sight, I started to worry. Here I was, in the hot seat, with my worst fear coming true: a puzzle question I wasn’t able to answer. He (or I) shot down every potential solution I came up with. In the back of my mind I thought that this was the end for sure, or I hoped that the others wouldn’t take his opinion as much into consideration.

So finally, the clock runs out on me, and I ask him, “How would you solve this problem?” To which Johnnie B answers, “there’s no solution to the problem”. So I sat silent for a moment with a grin on my face, then asked him, “Would you expect, or have you ever had a candidate sit in front of you and tell you that there was no solution to your problem?” He answered that it was more the process he was looking at, and suddenly, it all made sense.

Out of respect for Johnnie B and the process, I’m not gonna post the question on my blog. Even had I expected an unsolvable problem, I probably wouldn’t have answered much differently. What if I was wrong, and there was a solution I simply hadn’t found yet? Give up?

Anyhow, I guess I did alright, because I continued to have more interviews (at Microsoft, the number of interviews you have depends on your performance throughout the day).


After Johnnie B was done grilling me, he walked me down the hall to his coworker Morgan’s office. I was asked to wait outside for a few minutes while they talked about me. It’s alright, I expected as much.

Morgan was another lead PM, same group. We chatted some more about program management, about my experiences, challenges, successes, interests. Morgan also had a consulting background, which I could relate to. The interview still involved being creative and problem solving skills, but it definitely felt good to be back out of the hotchair again.

After meeting with Morgan, I was again offered some refreshments. My throat was getting dry, and I’d realized that it was already late afternoon and I’d missed out on lunch. So I had this bright idea of snagging a Mountain Dew out of the fridge (btw Microsoft has a GREAT selection of free beverages).

Mountain Dew in hand, I was walked over to Jose’s office. It turns out that Jose’s the general manager of the Windows Technology Services group. Again, I hung out in the hall while Jose, Johnnie B, and Morgan talked about me. There was a proof on one of the whiteboards showing how 2=3. Hmm...


Jose had a nice corner office – indicative of his position I suppose. Looking out through the windows, I noticed it was starting to get dark outside. The Mountain Dew was starting to kick in, giving me a much needed second wind.

Jose was a lively, energetic kind of guy. His interview style was very aggressive. It was also getting late, and I could tell he wanted to get home to his family (Friday night.. Shabbat – something we connected on, actually). We spent a lot more time getting to know each other than solving problems. He began the interview by looking at the clock, and saying something along the lines of “I’m gonna tell you about myself in 2 minutes, then you do the same”. He had me rank the divisions of the company in which I was most interested, and asked a few practical questions like “In order for you to accept a job right now, who would you have to talk to?” (I told him: my hiring manager and one of my future coworkers). I think my answer may have led to my next interview with Johnnie R, another PM, actually.

I’m not gonna detail the rest of the interview with Jose. He’s an important guy, and I have a feeling some of the information discussed wasn’t meant to be broadcasted to the world. We chatted for what I recall to be something like 30-40 minutes. Like every other interview, it was pretty intense, but a good time nonetheless.

Johnnie R

Johnnie R was the last person I met at the company. He’s a PM in the same group, and gave me a good feel for what it would be like to work on the team. We interviewed each other for a good 45 minutes, mostly about our interests and experience, and then walked back to Building 19 together where we met back up with Jackie, with whom I started the day. She had her daughter with her too – cute as a button! We chatted for a few minutes, I told her about my amazing and intense day (she seemed very disappointed that I hadn’t had the chance to eat, despite it really being my own fault), and then she gave me some company swag and sent me off in a cab with a few other candidates back to the hotel.

Final Thoughts

I recently accepted an offer from Microsoft for a PM position with the Windows Technology Services group. Everyone I met on the team was bright, energetic, intelligent, and motivated, which certainly ended up being one of the deciding factors. I suppose I was lucky to be matched up with such a great group of people – I’ve heard stories from friends about being matched up with groups that just didn’t do it for them. I guess if there was one thing that could be improved about the process it would be the matching process between candidate and division. I lucked out with Technology Services, but generally it would seem to make sense to match candidates with divisions working with technologies about which they may already be passionate. I would’ve also liked to have spent more time getting to know members of the Windows CE group. The process seemed to grind to a halt with that group as soon as I started interviewing with Technology Services, despite all of the interviews apparently having gone very well. Again though, I lucked out in the end.

One thing I’ve noticed about the company was that almost everyone I’ve spoken with (as part of or outside of the interview process) has been there for 5, 10, 15+ years. Going into the process, I viewed Microsoft as a great place to launch my career. If I was happy staying there indefinitely, great. But more likely than not, I’d move on to other great opportunities after having it on my resume for 2-3 years. After meeting the people, experiencing the environment, and receiving the details of my offer, that mindset completely changed. They very obviously take great care of their employees. Without going into detail, the offer was substantially higher than the others I received as part of the University recruiting process. The benefits were amazing as well. It’s obvious that they value their employees and go above and beyond to keep them happy working at the company.

Finally, I can’t stress how important it was to do some recon before beginning the recruiting process with Microsoft. If you don’t have what they’re looking for, no amount of reading or preparation is going to get you a job. But if you do have what they’re looking for, it might just help it come through in your interviews.

Err.. one more crucial thing. The day definitely plays out based on how the first couple of interviews go. William Poundstone explains this in How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, and I certainly experienced it firsthand. The interviewers email, phone, and face-to-face chat between interviews. I had a great first interview, and the day kept getting better and better from there. Have a not-so-great first interview, and you may find yourself in a difficult position. What interviewer wants to recommend hiring a candidate that his colleague just publicly recommended against hiring? Again, covered in more detail by the book (wow, by this point one might think I'm taking kickbacks or something..).

So again, some great resources:

How Would You Move Mount Fuji?
Technical Careers @ Microsoft
What is it like to interview with Microsoft?
Riding the Recruiting Shuttle
Mock White Boarding Problem

If you would like to read more about my experiences with University recruiting and with other companies, I've written a bit about them in another post.

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