Saturday, November 19, 2011

How to Get a Job at Microsoft

I am involved in a variety of mentoring programs in which I interact with college and high school students. A frequent question that is asked is how to get an internship or full time position at Microsoft. There are many paths to landing such a job, so my preference tends to be to help potential applicants understand a few universal principals along with how to assess their unique situation, which will continually evolve over time. The things I typically talk about are (1) several characteristics that are beneficial to have (2) things my team looks for when interviewing, (3) experiences that friends and I have had, and (4) things to carefully consider when applying for a job. This post will discuss the topic of applying in general and follow-up posts will address each of the 4 items listed above.

Being smart is a basic requirement for just about every high-tech job (even though it doesn't always seem like it), so no matter how smart you think you are, always assume that there are 2 to 3 people who are smarter than you competing for the same spot. This is particularly true when the job is in a hot area of tech, at a prestigious institution, etc. This may seem like it casts a dour outlook on one's prospects for winning the job offer, but this is only true to the point at which one realizes that hiring is not based purely on intelligence. People are highly complex with a multitude of skills and characteristics. If someone is brilliant, but lacks the discipline to deliver, their value is highly diminished in most cases. Nearly every interview assesses the candidate for a variety of skills and characteristics.

Something else people often miss is that interviewers are people too. Just as job applicants are complex individuals, so too are the folks who participate in their interview loops. They eat, sleep, and poop like everybody else. They had to go through the interview process at some point in time and now they are in the position of interviewing you and having to make a decision about whether or not to recommend hiring you. Because they are individuals just like us, the exact same interview with two different interviewers may have a very different outcomes. In fact, the exact same interview with the exact same person could have very different results at different times of day! As hard as we might try to exclude emotion from objective assessments, we're just not going to be in a good mood after we dropped our laptop because we sprained an ankle chasing the bus we missed the day after our grandmother's funeral. So be ready learn how interviewers think and be ready for anything.

Uniqueness is further not just limited to people. It applies to groups of people, meaning teams, organizations within companies, and companies themselves. Think about it - in the end, each is made up of lots of individuals with unique personalities. Essentially, any organization, regardless of size, will exhibit unique characteristics that differentiate it from others. These unique characteristics are usually called culture. This is a big topic and I will definitely write more about it in the future.

So what this sums up to is that you must be able assess yourself, the job you're interviewing for, the people interviewing you, the team your are interviewing for, the company you are going to be a part of, etc. Make sure that you prepare by first gathering as much information as you can, then focusing on the right things to positively distinguish yourself from the other applicants. What makes you unique? If you are unable to distinguish yourself from other candidates, the decision will basically come down to a coin toss. You don't want to wager your career on a coin toss, right? When it comes to interviews, you have the ability to affect the odds. Study the position, study the team, study the company, and study yourself.

Check out a follow-up post on the characteristics of successful candidates.