Sunday, January 18, 2009

Microsoft Interviews

I get to participate in my first interview loop at Microsoft this week and believe it or not, you have to complete an internal training course before you're allowed to interview candidates. The company has gone to some effort to develop a hiring model and interview strategy that gives every candidate the best opportunity to succeeded. Training is therefore necessary to ensure that the interviewers know what to expect.

The interview loop consists of a number of employees and includes the recruiter, the hiring manager, 2-4 interviewers and optional subject matter experts. Each member of the loop will spend up to 1 hour alone with the candidate, so you can expect to spend 4 hours or more being interviewed. That may sound daunting but feedback actually suggests that most candidates enjoy the experience.

There is a lot of information on the web about Microsoft interviews and much of it focuses on hypothetical problem solving questions like "Why is a man hole round?" or "How many ways can you make change for $10?". The company has actually moved away from these kinds of questions because they tend to be ineffective. However, I still think it's useful to practice these questions because they teach to you think outside the box and to develop a strategy for answering difficult questions. The first thing you should always do is clarify the question and then repeat it back to the interviewer to make sure that you understand the problem. So for the second hypothetical question above, you should clarify the currency being used and then restate the question.

However, you are unlikely to get one of these questions. Sometime before the loop, the interview members will meet to discuss strategy and this typically involves selecting a number of competencies to assess. Some examples of competencies are communication, leadership, negotiation, problem solving, career path and team fit. The competencies reflect the requirements for the position and they are chosen at the discretion of the hiring manager. Each interview member is assigned a selection of competencies and is responsible for devising a number of questions to assess the candidates. Typically, all candidates for a position will be asked the same set of questions because this allows for a direct comparison between responses.

So what kind of questions will the interviewer ask? Typically, the interviewer will use 1 behavioral and 1 hypothetical question to assess each competency and you should attempt to spend 10-15 minutes on each. While providing your answer, the interviewer will ask additional probing questions. Pay attention to these probes because the interviewer is looking for specific responses.

Behavioral questions are used to determine how you behave in particular work situations. For example, if the interviewer wants to assess your communication skills, a behavioral question could be: "Tell me about a time when you had to convince your manager to change a strategy that was successful in the past". When asked this kind of question, you need to be specific about what you did, how your actions were perceived and what was the outcome.

Hypothetical questions are used to explore your creativity and to determine your ability to think on your feet. For example, if the interviewer wants to assess your testing capability, a hypothetical question could be: "Assume that this pen is a product that Microsoft has developed. How would you go about testing it?". To answer this type of question, it pays to be methodical. Start out by saying that you'd write a test plan to describe the product and to capture the testing requirements. You'd devise and document a series of tests to verify product quality. You'd also update your test plan with any resources you require to test the product. The interviewer is also likely to ask probing questions like: "What scenarios would you test?" or "What test cases would you use?". Again be specific with your answers.

Aside from the questions, my advice is to come prepared. You need to be focused, positive and enthusiastic. Microsoft is looking for people who want a career with the company and who have ambition. Make sure you tell the interviewer that you want to work on the latest technology and that you want to build products that make a difference to people all over the world. Microsoft places a lot of value on cultural diversity so please think about this issue and try to address it during your responses.

Finally, take a look at the Microsoft Job Blog and pay particular attention to the tips section. This site also tells you how to apply for jobs at Microsoft. If you're currently located outside the USA, take a look at the international section of the blog because it has some great tips on how to apply from overseas.

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