Interviewing at Microsoft: Part 4

I’ve already given you a breakdown of what my interview process was like, but it was written right when I got home after a 9 hour day and 36 hours with no sleep… so I figured I should write a more “formal” report based less on gut feel, and focusing in more on the process itself– one that will hopefully be more useful to someone who is going to go through a loop themselves, and wants to know what to expect. Also, this will be a little more serious– I joked around a lot in the previous post. :)

The Night Before…
As you know, I was completely unable to sleep the night before the interview. I knew I’d be getting up bright and early, so I went to bed at a decent hour, but just couldn’t force myself to fall asleep. The way I’ve described the state is one of excitement– more like a kid the day before a big field trip than a kid the day before a big test. I was tossing and turning, my mind was racing with so many thoughts I can’t even begin to enumerate them here. What would the interviews be like? What would the team be like? If I got the job, what would the job itself be like? It was enough to keep me awake for the first few hours, finally I got up and decided I’d try and calm my nerves with a glass of warm milk and an episode of The Daily Show. Obviously, it didn’t work– when I went back to bed, I just continued to toss and turn, looking over at the clock every now and then. First it was 1:00am, then 2:15am, then 3:30am, etc. Finally, it was 5 minutes before my alarm was going to go off, and it was clear I’d have to do my interview loop with no sleep.

The Morning Of…
I got out of bed at 5:00am… now this was earlier than I needed to get up, but my thinking was threefold. First, I set the alarm way early so if I couldn’t keep from hitting snooze a few times it wouldn’t be a problem. Second, I could drive out to Redmond before the traffic hit, and hang out at a Starbucks and relax/prepare/wake up. Third, I’m useless for the first hour or so after I get up– I wanted to get as far from that useless zone as I possibly could. (Turns out this wasn’t an issue since I hadn’t slept.)

I grabbed a bite to eat, got ready to walk out the door, and it was still only 5:40am… and my interview wasn’t until 8:15. Better early than late, though… and I figured there would be zero traffic this early in the morning. I was wrong, though– although there was no gridlock, the freeways had a surprisingly large amount of traffic. I would describe it as nearly bumper-to-bumper, but without keeping you from a constant speed of 65-70mph. Crazy. I can’t believe there are this many cars on the road at this time of morning!

I arrived at Building 19, which I think is where all MS recruits go, at around 6:15am. I scoped out where the parking was, where the entrance was, etc. This is something I recommend everyone doing an interview anywhere– find out where you’re supposed to be before you’re supposed to be there. With that said, though– building 19 is super-easy to find, and applicant parking is right out in front. No problem.

Now I set out to find a Starbucks so I could relax, hang out, and soothe my crippling Frappacino addiction. Now, this is the greater Seattle area… normally, anywhere you are in the greater Seattle area, you can stand up, rotate 360 degrees, and you’ll see at least 3 Starbucks locations within line of sight. However, Microsoft has Starbucks locations on campus, so there’s no reason for Starbucks to open a location NEAR the campus. There were no Starbucks nearby! I panicked! It had never occurred to me that this might be the case. I drove until I found one, which was surprisingly far away.

I finally found a Starbucks, and I used their wi-fi to check my email, and hung out and caffeinated myself to my little heart’s content. After an hour or so, it was time to head back to MS for the interview, so I headed out. I must have turned the wrong way out of the parking lot, though… because I was lost somewhere in the middle of Woodenville. (Yes, really.) I had left with plenty of time to spare, but I was still a little concerned. I had no idea how to get back the campus.

Fortunately, I’m a pretty serious geek. I pulled over to the side of the road, and parked. I pulled out my tablet PC, and plugged in my GPS receiver into the USB port. Then I launched Streets and Trips, and typed “Microsoft HQ” into the search pane. It immediately gave me a little green line from where I was to where I needed to be, which I was able to follow because it updated my position along the little green line every couple seconds with new GPS coordinates. It was this moment that I realized the extent to which I was heading towards my mother ship– that I was going to the only place in the world where what I had just done would not be considered unbelievably geeky. I clearly belonged at Microsoft.

Arriving at Bldg. 19
I got to Building 19 a couple minutes before 8:00am, and got a parking place literally 50 feet from the front door. I packed my tablet back into my briefcase, and walked into the lobby.

Building 19 is a nice, modern office building both outside an in. When you first walk in, the first thing you see is the reception desk… I walked up and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Joseph Jones, and I’m here to meet with Anne ____ (You’ll notice that I’m not using ANYONE’s last name out of respect for their privacy.) I’m a little early, we’re supposed to meet at 8:15.”

The receptionist smiled and asked if I was there for an interview, and I nodded sheepishly. I filled out a visitor form that included information about my car so they wouldn’t tow it, and she gave me a little visitor’s badge. “Now make sure you wear this at all times, and you can return it to me at the end of the day.” Great… now I’d spend the whole day looking like a tradeshow geek with a little nametag. :)

She asked her cohort whether or not Anne was still in building 19, and whether or not she was still on the first floor. I had read that people move their offices a lot at Microsoft, so this didn’t strike me as odd. “Good, that means I won’t have to send you upstairs.” The way she said this sounded almost menacing, and I amused myself by making up all the horrifying things that they might have upstairs… was it a torture chamber of some sort? Finally, the receptionist said “OK, you’re all set. If Anne doesn’t come down to get you by 8:30, let me know.” I thanked her, and headed over towards the waiting area.

The Waiting Area…
The waiting area was interesting in that it had all sorts of things for you to do while you are killing time waiting for your interview loop to begin. They had TV sets with various programs (I think one of them was on MSNBC) and X-Boxes with games. There was a surprising lack of reading material available– I intuited that they wanted you to relax, but I would have been more interested in reading a company report about Microsoft than watching the news. Fortunately, I was able to grab a seat over by a big plasma screen that was showing various promotional videos about Microsoft products, initiatives, and research projects that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.

One thing that I found amusing was that the waiting area had a surprisingly lame assortment of beverages. Microsoft is famous for providing employees with a staggering selection of soft drinks, juices, etc., but in the waiting area for recruits it was coffee (with icky powdered creamer) tea, or water. This seemed strange to me. No big deal, since I already had my Starbucks drink, but it just didn’t strike me as the best place for them to cut corners. Maybe put a $500 27” TV in the lobby instead of a $5,000 plasma screen, and hook us up with the good stuff in terms of beverage selection. OK, so I have weird thoughts when I’m waiting for an interview. Shoot me. :)

After a few minutes, Anne the super-recruiter walked int o the lobby and introduced herself. I said something stupid about the cool videos I’d been watching, and she escorted me to her office for my first interview. It’s always nice to be able to attach a face to someone with whom you’d shared countless faceless communications.

HR Interview
“Don’t mind the mess– you’re walking though our new college recruiting area, which is currently in a state of chaos.” It looked like they had just moved a bunch of people into this area, and they weren’t done setting everything up yet. However, it was early enough that there weren’t many people around yet. We got passed the battle zone, and Anne showed me into her office. The first thing I noticed was that she had a Motorola MPX-200 SmartPhone on her desk, which is a very cool phone. I used to have an MPX-200, but I lost it, and had recently replaced it with an MPX-220. Again, I’m a geek.

Anne started out by describing how my day would proceed, and handed me a document with my schedule on it. It showed that I would be interviewing with 3 people, and would be done by around 1:00pm. She then hit me with the understatement of the century… “Of course, after that 3rd interview, they may have you chat with a couple more people, or they may not. It just kind of depends.” Of course, I knew this was the case, but I didn’t realize the extent to which it was flexible.

Anne went on to give me some general tips to help me do well in the interviews to come. The biggest one was that when asked a scenario-style question, I should look at it not as answering an interview question, but try to pretend like I’m a consultant to the team, trying to work with them to solve a problem. This was fantastic advice– I wish I had internalized it sooner– I didn’t really take full advantage of it until my third interview. (More on that later.) She also gave me a promise: “You won’t get any of the famous Microsoft Puzzle questions.” She explained that this was something that had been phased out at Microsoft. I knew that this was the case, thanks to the jobs blog, but I had also heard that a lot of managers ignored this, and would still throw out the occasional puzzle. However, I figure Anne knows all the people that are on my interview schedule, so she knew what she was talking about. (I’ll give her a pass on this one: I did receive 2 puzzle questions, but neither of them were from people that were on my schedule… but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Anne then explained what the organization looked like, drawing an org chart on the whiteboard that gave me a top-down view not only of where I would be sitting in the org, but where all the people I was talking were. I wish I had paid more attention to this, but fortunately, it would be repeated a couple times for me throughout the day. Maybe this is just for interviewees, but people at Microsoft seem to answer the question “so what’s your job?” by drawing their place in the org chart on a whiteboard. It’s kind of funny.

Anne then explained that she had a 1:00 meeting (which, coincidentally, was in the same building I’d be interviewing in) so she probably wouldn’t be available when I was finished up. However, she did give me her cell phone number, and encouraged me to call if I had any problems or questions.

Finally, she asked if I had any questions. I think I had one or two relevant questions, but I don’t remember what they were. We talked a little bit about Microsoft’s insanely great benefits package, which included a pretty funny exchange…

Anne explained that MS employees got free membership to “the pro club” which was a huge fitness club. She then talked about “lifestyle change” classes and clinics, and used weight-loss as an example. I was literally like “OK, I get it! I could stand to do a few extra sit-ups here and there! I’m working on it!” and we both laughed.

When it was time to end the meeting, Anne walked me down to the recruiting shuttle that would take me to my interviews, and I nervously chatted about everything from kids (I don’t have any, but I have a niece the same age as Anne’s little girl) and cars (Anne and I drive a Volkswagen Passat, which was kind of a cool coincidence) and anything else I could think of… for some weird reason, I was unable to be silent. I felt like I had to fill every moment of “dead air” with some kind of meaningless chatter. I realized this as I sat on the recruiting shuttle, and decided that I would curb that tendency for the rest of the day. I shook Anne’s hand, thanked her for her time and for the opportunity, and the little white van they called the recruiting shuttle drove off towards the building that housed what would hopefully become “my team.”

(To be continued…)