Interviewing at Microsoft: Part 3.1

I had my interview loop today, and although I will do a full write up in the next couple days that goes into what it was like, I wanted to do a quick brain dump of how I’m feeling after the marathon of interviews.

First of all, it was literally the most fun I’ve had in a really long time– I know that sounds a little masochistic to those of you familiar with the process, but it’s true. If you haven’t done an interview at MS, you should– even if just for the experience. It’s exhilarating in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated– you’re constantly bombarded with questions that have no good answers– not in a silly, abstract, puzzle sense, but in a real-world-scenario that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending at the end of the tunnel, and forces you to think through some tough compromises. These people are SMART with a capital S, and they’re not trying to throw you off per se, but they ARE trying to see how you’ll respond to fairly intense situations. Every interview was completely different from the one before it– not only in focus, but in style, substance, and contents. Even within the interviews themselves, you were forced to switch contexts on the fly, think deeply about one thing, and then turn on a dime to think just as deeply about something completely different.

Last night I was so excited about the interview loop that I couldn’t sleep. I went to bed at like 9:30pm, but I just tossed and turned for a few hours, got up and had a glass of warm milk, tossed and turned for a few more hours, and then just gave up at about 5:00am– I knew I wasn’t going to sleep a wink. I’d just have to do this one on no sleep.

How’d I do? Well, off the top of my head I think I had 9 or so interviews. First was a chat with Anne the super-recruiter, who was just as friendly and comforting in person as she had been on the phone. Nothing but softballs and exposition from her today, though– I think she didn’t want to rattle me. One surprise was that she gave me some very real advice in terms of how to approach certain situations… and it was GOOD advice. (Although I didn’t internalize it until Interview #3, more on that later.) Then it was on to the interviews with the team…

The first one (Chad) was great– I feel like I really bonded with the guy (who was a fascinating mixture of laid back and intense– at the same time… it was wierd. I would come to realize this was the norm.) For a first interview of the day I felt like I was reasonably on my game, and handled myself pretty well… my read was that he agreed.

The second one (Steve) I think went a little less well– I think I did OK on most of the questions, but blew one pretty badly. His rapid fire and intentionally random series of questions, design tasks etc, told me he obviously wanted to know if I could task switch.

After the second interview, though, I think I really hit my stride. I suddenly found myself ignoring the fact that I was interviewing, and simply answered the questions as if I already worked there and it was a problem we were working on together. (Read: I remembered Anne’s advice!) Once I started doing this, I feel like things just gelled– I was able to come up with solutions, analyze the goals behind the questions, ask the right clarifying questions, and really have a good time. It was like a mini picture of a day in the life of a Microsoft PM, and I was hooked. I had 5 or six interviews that were like this– I really felt like I was firing on all cylinders, and showing each interviewer what I was capable of in a very real and meaningful way. It was great, and got me even more excited about the position.

Then I hit the brick wall.

I was so tired… I’d been there about 8 hours at this point, but that’s not really the point– this is a draining process to be sure, but I’ve worked 18 hour days doing things that were just as draining. The problem was the lack of sleep (I’d been up for over 30 hours strait) combined with nerves, combined with excitement, and I just froze up. The second-to-the-last guy I talked to was great, but I could feel myself starting to slip. I was exhausted, and after 8 hours of really nailing things, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Fatigue had gotten the best of me. I think I did OK in this interview, but not nearly as well as I had in the previous ones. Then he took me to the office of the next interviewer, and everyone I had talked to throughout the day was sitting around a small conference table obviously talking about me. This was the moment that I realized that I had gotten deep enough into the process that my last interview would be with someone a couple layers above my position, and that this would likely be the deciding factor. I think the team liked me, but would their boss like me? I was escorted back to a waiting area for a few minutes while they finished up.

Obviously my seeing this ad hoc meeting was unintentional, but it totally phsyched me out for some reason. When I finally got to sit down with my last interviewer I was nervous in a way that I hadn’t been all day– I was genuinely intimidated by this guy, which is funny in retrospect because he was about the nicest guy he could possibly be. He was so obviously trying to make me comfortable, but I was past the point of no return in terms of intimidation and nervousness, and this combined with my level of fatigue turned me into a rambling idiot. It would have been really comical if it hadn’t been so sad. Here’s a brief segment from the conversation… (Yes, this is slightly exaggerated for comedic effect, but not NEARLY as much as I wish it were.)

<blockquote>(First he introduced the fact that he would be asking a series of seemingly random questions, and why he would be doing this.)

INTERVIEWER: Tell me what you know about TCP/IP.

ME: I’m pretty sure it’s a desert topping. It’s delicious. Why? Do you have some?

INTERVIEWER: Here’s a really simple algorithm question disguised as a puzzle. Talk me through your solution, and try to come up with a solution that’s as efficient as you can.

ME: OK, here’s the dumb brute force way of doing it, which is obviously wrong, but it arrives at the right answer… now that we have this to use as a baseline, let’s make it efficient. (I actually liked that I did this.) Then I proceeded to very quickly stumble on the core idea of the answer, but didn’t believe that it was that easy, so I proceeded to not be able to do basic math (seriously– like addition and subtraction of double digit numbers basic math) that kept me from believing that my solution was correct enough to distill to the next step. Finally, I smack myself on the head, realize that I’m right, and all I have to do is reduce my answer in a really obvious way, and make myself feel even more intimidated/nervous/exhausted/embarrassed despite having found a great solution in a reasonable amount of time.

INTERVIEWER: What does a PM do?

ME: Uh… PM… I don’t know… I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of it. Pineapple Monkey? No, that’s not it… Pumpernickel Movie? Yes! No, wait… etc., etc., Ad nauseum. I then proceeded to belch the alphabet, but forgot what came after “G.”
</blockquote>
At this point, he kept going, but there was just no saving me. I collapsed not under the pressure, but from sheer exhaustion. He could have asked me my phone number and I wouldn’t have been able to answer him. That part’s NOT an exagguration.

However, the interviewer was the perfect picture of poise. He tried his damdest to rescue me and make me comfortable, and continue asking questions, and although I recovered to some degree, I think there is a very real chance that I nailed the first 8 hours of the interview loop only to completely blow it in the last hour because I was too excited to sleep the night before.

Despite my complete meltdown, I still think I have a really good chance. I think the team was sufficiently impressed by me, and I think that I fundamentally fit into the team to a degree that they would be willing to go to bat for me. Also, I think that this guy clearly saw exactly what was happening, and it wasn’t the first time he’d seen it. He acted as if he didn’t notice that I had turned into a drooling puddle with the IQ of a flat tire, and was clearly trying to help me out of it. He went above and beyond the call of duty in terms of trying to help me not blow my chances, and once I realized he was doing it I think I started to recover a bit. Maybe it was enough. I hope it was… and if it wasn’t, I hope that I impressed the rest of the team as much as I THINK I did, and that they will be able to convince him that the puddle of drool he interviewed was not the same guy that THEY interviewed.

I’d put my odds at pretty close to even money at this point… I should have more info in the next couple days. (In the mean time, I’ll post my REAL overview of the day.)