Preparing for an interview at Microsoft


Seen lots of talk lately, about what the Microsoft interview entails (puzzle questions, white board drawings, etc.). My sense is that people are trying to do 2 things: 1) prepare for the interview and 2) control their nerves by knowing what to expect from their interviews. Well, I can’t do too much about the nerves part except tell you to breathe, get a good nights sleep and take it easy on the caffeine. But I can tell you how to prepare for the Microsoft interview.

1) Know your resume. Before you say “duh”, let me tell you what I mean. Most people with a current resume wrote it a month or 2 ago. In fact, many people today, including myself, keep their resume up to date (never know when you are going to need it for a speaker bio, etc.). Sometimes you can look back on something you have written and wonder what you were thinking; what was the actual point you were trying to make by wording things the way you did. If you are using bullet points, have a little snippet of dialog in your head to explain in a little more detail (as I’ve said before, a resume is a teaser….you shouldn’t try to explain it all on paper). Easiest way to do this is to take every bullet point and ask yourself “how, why and who”. OK, so let me give you an example. Let’s say I am a product manager and the first bullet point under my current role says “ Managed product roadmap, providing clear product and feature strategy for company’s X product”

How- (How did you do it? What made you successful?) I acted as team lead, owning the roadmap for X product. As we were evaluating potential opportunities in the server space, I noticed that this market was underserved and pitched to exec management a product that would…

Why- (why is your work important to the company)-this opened up a new market for us and allowed us to increase sales of existing products by demonstrating…

Who (who else was involved and what was your relationship to them?)- I worked closely with corporate research on a market segmentation strategy, then engaged directly with our filed sales organization to develop key customer scenarios. I worked with my team to prioritize these scenarios and then engaged with program management to determine a time line for delivery. Then I led the effort to work closely with dev to create a PRD that was delivered 3 weeks ahead of schedule.

OK, it’s clear I am not a product manager, but you get the idea here. This exercise is especially important when you list achievements and/or results. An interviewer may not ask a lot of questions about some of the more mundane responsibilities listed. But if you state some kind of accomplishment, even if just out of curiosity, you’ll be asked how you accomplished it. Working well in teams and across orgs is super important here so always be thinking about who else was involved. Knowing who to tap or collaborate with is more important then knowing how to do all the work yourself. And keep in mind when answering that your interviewer may want more or less detail. You have to gauge this based on how they ask the question and their body language. But if you have them a quick snippet, you could ask them if they want more detail on X,Y and Z. This keeps you from explaining in depth about Z when they are really interested in Y.

2) Know your space. If you are working in a certain technology market space (business intelligence, security or server for example), it’s a good idea to see what is going on in the competitive environment if that is not something that you have checked out recently. Folks in marketing and product management here really know their space and expect that you know yours. So you should know your top competitors in your space, their strengths and weaknesses, how you are positioned against them, etc. (see below for some research recommendations)

3) Know our space. Specifically, do some research on the product space that the Microsoft position sits in. A great place to start is analyst reports (I would look at both industry analysts like Gartner and Jupiter–for reports , blogs and press releases– and also financial analyst like Merryl Lynch). This is where I start when I’m going to recruit in a new space. Use some research tools like Hoovers or just google the heck out of it. Look at the websites of some of our competitors and also Microsoft.com (there are product links off the main page targeted at potential customers, press releases, and more product info off of our PR site). This will give you a sense of the taxonomy used around this product and how we are positioning the product.  

4) Anticipate questions. This is what I did and you might call me a big nerd for doing it or just a little crazy. I tried to look objectively at my background and predict what questions I would be asked. Honestly, I was asked a lot of questions other than  what I wrote down, but it gave me  sense of control going into the interview and was kind of like a positioning exercise. My answer to the basic questions of why I wanted to work at Microsoft and what I would see myself doing long term reinforced what I saw as myself as someone on the leading edge of recruiting who likes challenge and change. Dare I say that I feel I did an effective job of “branding” myself?

5) Come with questions of your own. Listen, every interviewer is going to ask you if you have questions. Have some. It can be kind of awkward if you don’t have any. Some of your questions to the interviewer can be kind of personal (”what do you find most challenging about the position?”, “how does Microsoft compare to other companies you have worked for”, “how much of your time is spent in meetings?“) and some general (”what is the potential career path for someone coming into this type of role?” “What is the hiring manager’s style” “what is the culture of the team?”). Get your more important questions answered at the front end of the interviews so you can save some for later. You can recycle the personal questions, if needed, but be careful. Interviewers do compare notes and if you ask the same thing over and over, they will know. Also, make sure that the person hasn’t already addressed the question during the interview. Your questions show your desire to make a good decision and show that you take your interviews seriously.

6) Don’t get too wrapped up in the puzzle questions. We don’t do many puzzle questions on the business side (that’s not to say you won’t get any). The questions we do are more case study oriented and focused on marketing. The work you do to understand your space and the product space you are interviewing in will serve you well. But here’s the deal…there are about a bazillion different case study questions out there. You can’t really do much else to prepare for them other than maybe reviewing some b-school cases as a warm up; just to get your mind in the right mode. We want to see how you think in answering these questions so know that you have to walk the interviewer through your analysis and recommendation (did you look at the right things, did you make a solid recommendation). But I think if you look at too many websites full of Microsoft interview questions (almost all are aimed at tech candidates), you are going to freak yourself out for no reason. Notice, I am not linking to anything here…

7) Know why you want to work here. We know that you wouldn’t come here to interview unless you wanted to be here. But consider this an exercise in restrained enthusiasm and articulation. Every single interviewer is going to ask you. The thing is, we are all pretty stoked to be here (and I am saying this after being here 5 years even!) and we want you to be too ; )

If I think of some more prep exercises, I’ll add them. Anyone else have good ideas for preparing for interviews?

Comments (46)

  1. Arlene says:

    Wow, Microsoft is my idea of the dream job. But, unfortunately I’m so rooted in TN that I can’t leave untill my 5 year old is 18. I’ve always wondered what the interviews there consisted of. I day dream about it regularly. *sigh* :-)

    Thanks for the info! I’ll put it to good use in my next interview in my area.

  2. Thanks Heather, helpful info as always. I agree with you that preparation is key. When I get my interview I’ll be focussing my time mainly where I feel I’d be likely to trip up during an interview: writing code on whiteboards (whiteboarding processes, designs or charts is easy), standard questions (great idea) and questions I want to ask.

    Mainly because these are areas that my mind isn’t focussing on during an interview, so doing some prep work ahead of time is invaluable.

    During an interview I’m trying to be honest, trying to market myself and trying to be very, very aware of the interviewer’s non-verbal communication.

    Things like progress through the day, questions I have and so on are (more often than not) an afterthought.

    I’m sure that, at the very least, I’ll be making up a cheat-sheet of questions I’d like to know more about, and as they get answered I can mark them as done.

  3. ThomasC22 says:

    I have to admit, I’ve always been a little confused by the “puzzle questions” myself. Not that I don’t agree with the idea of testing someone’s intelligence it just doesn’t seem to me like the risk is worth the reward in that it really could scare good people away.

    It just seems to me that testing people on task oriented items is more beneficial on both sides than seeing if someone can determine which jar of jelly beans is heavier with only one measurement.

    But then again, I could be wrong…

  4. Heather says:

    Thomas-asking people task oriented questions reallly only qualifies them for the job they are applying for. It doens’t predict whether they will be a good employee long term…and it doens’t evaluate whether they are smart. I think you have to evaluate both: 1) whether the person is a fit for the job (task questions.functional questions) and whether they are smart and can get things done (that’s where the competencies come in). I think the case study questions can do a good job of evaluating the latter (as do the puzzle questions for tech candidates).

    At this point, I think the puzzle questions are so well documented that people know what they are getting into if they interview at Microsoft. Besides, we want folks that aren’t afraid of a little challenge ; )

  5. ABC says:

    I am up for an interiew in the next few weeks, starting with building #19. What are some of the most ‘common’ generic mistakes that people make during the interview day?

  6. Heather says:

    ABC- I would say the biggest mistakes people make are not doing what I recommend above (for example, people who have not prepared for the interview, can’t articulate what they want to do and why they want to work at Microsoft. )

    Good luck with your interviews!

  7. A. says:

    I failed my interview recently, and single reason why – I had to wayt for recruiter to come dow to me for 30 minutes. I assumed that they did it on purpose and was pissed of before interview even started. And why I failed it – because I did not solve 2 stupidest programming riddles, I was too nervous and tried to rush the answers.

    I always was it top 5% at school, at University, and hard to find a single riddle ever I was not able to solve, but when I am nervous … I think if you know you can get into same state – go bye some pills on internet before to calm down,

  8. Heather says:

    A-you probably should not assume that the recruiter made you wait on purpose and I’m not sure how this contributed to your trouble with the puzzle questions but I am sorry you had a bad experience. Unfortunately, it sounds like your nerves impacted your success in the interviews. I would not recommend that anyone buys pills on the Internet to prepare for a Microsoft interview. Remember that tens of thousands of people have successfully made their way through the process without buying drugs.

    Since puzzle questions aren’t as applicable to marketing interviews at MS, I don’t think any marketers reading this and considering a career at Microsoft should worry about these types of questions. And they shouldn’t buy drugs either ; )

  9. Nish says:

    Hey Heather

    How different do you think are telephonic interviews from real in-person interviews?

    Thanks.

  10. Heather says:

    Nish-I would say they are pretty different. The purpose of the phone interview is to assess whether to move you along to the next step in the process which is generally another phone interview or an in-person interview. The purpose of the in-person interview is to assess whether to hire you. The stakes are higher for everyone involved. For the recruiter doing the phone interview, they are evaluating whether they want to put the money and time into considering you further. At the in-person interview stage, it’s more important for the recruiter and interviewing team to be extrmeley thorough because of the risk involved. Maiking a "bad hire" is extremely costly to a company, not only in terms of salary paid and the costs assiciated with replacing ghe person (estimated at 2X the annual salary), but also the time it would take another team member to train and mentor the person and team morale.

    Additionally, on the phone, you don’t have the benefit of reading body language or building rapport in person.

    But don’t discount the importance of the phone interview though. You have to get through it to get to the in-person interview. I’ve always tried to be extra through in my phone interviews as a service to my hiring managers. If I can screen out people that aren’t a fit for whatever reason, it saves time and money for the group.

    But it’s hard to say what you are going to get because all recruiters aren’t that thorough. I think that wither way, it pays to prepare for the phone interview.

  11. RajneeshSehgal says:

    Thanks Heather,

    The info you have provided is helpful and I really appreciate it.

    I was working as a contractor at Microsoft and have received an offer for an oppurtunity to work there, from the group manager. I am told that I still need to go through the interview process.

    What is the interview process like in this scenario? Does the fact that they have already seen my work help at all?

    Thanks,

    RAJ

  12. jelly says:

    I have an interview with Microsoft for a MSN Account Manger position. this is my dreaaam job. I would love any advice anyone can offer. Does anyone know what "functional" questions are?

  13. HeatherLeigh says:

    Functional questions are about the core role…in your case, account management.

    Good luck!

  14. jelly says:

    i am not a business major, what kind of cases should i study? can you give me an example of a functional question? Thank you. You are a big help.

  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    If I were interviewing a recruiter I could ask "When a position opens that you need to recruit on, how do you decide where to look first for candidates? How do you plan out your sourcing stragegy and prioritize your candidate generation tactics?"

    I don’t know anything about college interviews, myself since I don’t recruit in that space, so not sure I could help identify cases, but I would guess that you would be looking for cases that are the most relevant to the group or position.

  16. Melanie says:

    A lot of great advice. I am going to use your pointers on my Product Manager interview tomorrow.

    Hopefully I will return with some good news:)

    Thanks,

    Melanie

  17. Pradeep Udtha says:

    good information and great advice. It’s was very helpful.

  18. Solomon says:

    Hi Heather,

    What is the best preparation way for Microsoft’s telephonic interview.

  19. HeatherLeigh says:

    I’d say that the advice above applies to the phone interview as well. Good luck!

  20. Solomon says:

    Thanks Heather for the answer.

    Could you also provide some useful links for the preparation of the interview.

    Cheers,

    Solomon

  21. Like says:

    Hi, Heather,

        I will have an on-campus MS interview for SDE summer internship (I’m a phd student). Is the intern interview the same as the normal SDE position? Any difference?

        Besides, many people have said PhD degree might be overqualified for software engineer position. How about MS? Does a PhD degree have any negative effect for applying the SDE position (the full time position, not the intern)?

         Thanks. This is really a great blog.

  22. HeatherLeigh says:

    Like – I’m not sure i’m the right person to answer your questions since I recruit for marketing. You might want to check out jobsblog. My guess (and it would only that) is that the internship interview would be similar to the SDE interview. We have many phDs around here, specifically in Microsoft Research. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

    Good luck with your interviews!

  23. John Michael says:

    Hi Heather,

    I’m in the process of scheduling an onsite interview in the NYC office for the AdCenter product.  What is the process when Microsoft is interested and makes an offer?  Will I find out at the end of that day of the interview or will they contact me days later?

  24. Gina says:

    Thanks for the info, Heather! I am a contractor and looking to land a FTE position in marketing. I made it through 2 phone interviews for an outstanding position and have my all-day interview next week. I’m trying to prep as well as I can and even my boss has been really supportive and is trying to help prep me, so I appreciate all your info. I’m going to take extra time to "google the heck" out of the group and its offerings and be superprepped. Any other marketing-specific interview info you could share too would be greatly appreciated!!

    Thanks again!

  25. HeatherLeigh says:

    I’d just look at the space the position is focused on (an audience, product, industry, etc) and understand some of the competitive challenges in that space. I’m all about anticipating tough interview questions. I’ll be thinking good thoughts for you!

  26. rithik says:

    Good day Heather,

    I am so much passionate about MS and its products, and have been applying for few positions, now that I have heard from MS (so excited!!!), and this time it is not for a particular position, but the telephonic interview has been setup for a general insight of me. So what kind of conversation could I possibly expect? I am aware of general stuffs like about myself, my work experience, what do I want to do at MS and why? Would that preparation be enough? Kindly advise me about additional info I can gather. And Heather this is the opportunity I was waiting for more than 3 years. I want a wIN situation here. Kindly help me. Many thanks in advance. Have a nice day!

    – Rithik

  27. rajj says:

    This week microsoft arrange a GM  round for me and i want to know what type of question they normally asked for the support engineer post

    Thanks

  28. HeatherLeigh says:

    Sorry, I have no idea what kinds of questions they will ask in an interview for support engineers.

  29. vivek says:

    Hi

    coming Thursday microsoft HR would arranged a GM  round for me and i want to know what type of question they normally asked ??

  30. Chan says:

    Hi Heather ,

    That’s a lot of great advice, thanks Heather.

    I have few questions regarding  "Program Manager Intern" position and would be  glad if you can answer them .

    The questions are : "are PM’s asked any questions on coding and algorithms If yes, how significant role do these questions  play towards the final decision of accepting/rejecting of a candidate?

    Regards

    Chan

  31. Greg says:

    Hi Heather ,

    I am interested to work in MS and have 5 years exp in IT services.But i have small problem …i am a stutterer.Would this be a problem/hurdle in my selection?Do you guys also pay attention to this

    Thanks

  32. HeatherLeigh says:

    Hi Greg, we focus on the candidate’s ability to do the job. I’d be really happy to get your resume into the right hands if you want to send it to me. I’m at heathham@microsoft.com.

  33. Vick says:

    Hi Heather,

    I had appeared for a phone interview recently after which recruiter told me that there is no matching position available right now but the company is interested in my profile and will contact me in future (maybe in 2-3 months). Does company really go back again to a candidate when you have tons of new applicants every day? Any suggestions to remain alive in the potential candidates list?

    thanks,

    vick

  34. HeatherLeigh says:

    Yep. All candidate resumes are retained in the same database. If you asl your recruiter, they may even forward your resume out to other recruiters. You might try finding the job codes of some interesting roles on our careers site, send them to the recruiter and ask that he/she forward your resume to their appropriate peer. Hope that helps.

  35. Kaur says:

    Hi heather,

    I have telephonic interview with microsoft….I really do not what i will be asked..Can you please kindly tell me what kind of Question they ask in telephonic interviews?

    I have applied for SDE full time position and a Master student in engineering.

    Thanks in advance

  36. HeatherLeigh says:

    Kaur – I can’t tell you specifically, but I’d make sure that I understand the technologies listed in the job description and/or that you have discussed with the recruiter so far. I’d expect some coding questions. Also expect to answer a question and then have some variables changed and then you have to think through the impact. Unfortunately, I don’t know as much about the technical interview as I do the marketing interview but I am working on it.

  37. Daniel says:

    I worked at MS from 93 to 01; in the last half of my time there I performed many, many interviews of job applicants.

    This article is pretty much spot-on. You’re going to be interviewed by people who are really good at what you’re applying for. They won’t expect you to be the total expert but they do expect you to have a solid grounding in what you profess to be your forte and to be teachable.

    The puzzle questions are more about seeing how you approach a problem, especially ones that seem unsolvable ("how many gasoline pumps are there in the state of Wisconsin?"). If you can get the answer, great and more power to you. But you have to try even if it sounds silly.

    Sadly, MS is not what it used to be in terms of being a great place to work (which is why I left). Has to do with being a large company with metric-oriented management

  38. HeatherLeigh says:

    Aww, Daniel. You had me until the last paragraph! Boo! :)

    I didn’t join until 99 so I suspect that some of the things you didn’t like by that point are some of the things I did. I have struggled with the merics issue myself. The type of work I do impacts the works of others significantly but it’s really hard to isolate my piece for the purpose of measurement. I guess you do the best you can with customer sat and use the downstream metrics to weave together a story.

    For most roles, I feel like the numbers driven culture was a necessity to get us to the next stage of growth. But I don’t know anyone, at Microsoft or elsewhere, who has done a great job of metricking (??) some roles. So I guess observation and storytelling are important and frankly, that is a whole different skill set.

    So yeah, I’m not going to say that you are wrong about the metric-oriented management. I think most folks who come here are accustomed to that kind of culture and expect it.  And those of us in weird roles probably get a little more creativity and satisfaction than the others and have to work harder to demonstrate the value we bring.

    The measurement part is hard. But I don’t know anywhere else I could be doing this for a living. I’m sure there are places, but I love working here. Anyway, the numbers thing is one of many factors I use every morning when I decide to get out of bed and what kind of attitude I am going to have about work that day.

    Thanks for your comments, Daniel. Hope you are doing something you love right now!

  39. Sean says:

    Hello Heather,

    Thanks for the great advice thus far. I have an interview coming up for the finance intern program. Do you have any suggestions in preparing for it? You’re right, most of the resources online are geared toward tech related jobs. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Have a great day!

  40. HeatherLeigh says:

    Sean – Hi! I’m not sure what I can add about the questions specific to finance. I would still do the research I mentioned about the company and space, etc. I’d look at press releases from our CFO, try to get the most recent and long-term picture. And I would anticipate some case questions.

    Does that help at all?

  41. Aaron says:

    Hi Heather,

    Thanks for your advice thus far. I had an interview for a summer internship position just over a week ago. I was told that I would hear back last Friday(3 days ago). How should I proceed? Should I just wait? Should I follow up with my recruiter? How would you advise following up with my recruiter? Have a great day!

  42. HeatherLeigh says:

    I’d say wait between 3 business days and a week to contact the recruiter. I hate to even say that because a recruiter should get back to you when they said they would, even if to tell you that they don’t have an answer yet. Many times, it’s the interviewing team that is the hold-up. So checking in to find out when the recruiter exptects to hear back doesn’t hurt at all.

  43. Curious says:

    Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the wonderful resource. I’m interviewing for a financial analyst position with MSFT in the next few weeks. I’ve been trying to scour the web for any insight on what to expect during the whole process, but details are scant for people looking to get in on the Finance and Accounting side. Do you have any information you can share on what sort of interview structure an accounting professional goes through? And what types of questions they ask of accountants?

    Thanks

  44. HeatherLeigh says:

    Hi Curious,

    The general interview structure is the same. You should experience the same types of question, just that the case/scenario questions will be about finance/accounting. I’d dig into our financials before that interview, that’s for sure! I’d also do the same for key competitors and the industry (for example, the search industry or the business applications industry…depending on which group you are interviewing with).

    When it comes to the scenario questions that you could be presented with, there really isn’t any prep you can do. But I also realize that knowing what to expect helps you feel prepared and confident.

    This might help: https://community.dynamics.com/blogs/msftfinance/archive/2008/01/29/what-do-i-look-for-when-recruiting-for-finance-roles-at-microsoft.aspx

    That site might have other little pieces of info. One thing you might want to think about is finding MSFT online talking to companies about how to interview for finanace openings and, like in the dynamics link, to candidates about interviewing for finance in general (not just at Microsoft). I imagine that a lot of the advice that we would give in these 2 areas is based on some of what we have found to be successful here and therefore, probably the most used interview techniques at Microsoft.

    Hope that helps!