Saturday, December 31, 2011

The On-Campus Interview Process at Microsoft

At Microsoft, on-campus interviews for external candidates typically go roughly as follows (transferring teams internally require interviewing too, but the process is slightly different):

  1. Check in with the recruiter managing the interview process
  2. Meet with the hiring manager for a short conversation about the team and an initial interview
  3. Interview with about 4 members of the team
  4. If all goes well, interview with an "as-appropriate" interviewer
  5. Meet with the hiring manager and/or recruiter again to wrap things up
The first conversation of the day, with the recruiter, is light and informational. The recruiter will let the candidate know what the day's schedule looks like and possibly chat about the team and the location (i.e. Redmond, Silicon Valley, Charlotte, etc.). They will often suggest a few useful tips like to try to relax and have fun, to ask questions to get a feel for the team, etc.

The first conversation with the actual team is usually with the hiring manager. They will often tell you about the team and warm you up with conversation about yourself. Some hiring managers will conduct actual technical interviews at this time and others will just get a feel for the candidate's cultural fit, leaving it to the remainder of the interviewers to test the candidate's technical skills.

The interviews with the actual team will definitely involve some technical interviewing. For software engineers, this means getting up in front of a whiteboard and working out challenging design or coding problems. Typically, each interviewer will be evaluating a particular skill set (algorithms, design, coding, etc.). If a candidate doesn't meet expectations in an earlier interview, a later interviewer may assess one or more of the same areas since (most) interviewers acknowledge the fact that nervousness can affect performance during interviews. One may also notice that interviews often start off with 5 to 10 minutes of friendly conversation. This is to help the candidate feel comfortable in the hope that they won't feel as nervous during the technical portion of the conversation.

What kind of whiteboard questions are asked? This is highly variable depending on the interviewer. Over time, most interviewers develop a methodology for assessing candidates. For testing technical capability, I personally like to start with a simple coding question, followed by a more complex coding question, followed by an open-ended design problem. I sometimes reverse the order of the second coding question with the open-ended design problem to base the coding question off the candidate's response to the design problem. Whatever the case, I try to be consistent to make a fair comparison among candidates. Each of the interviews with the team are about an hour long, so there is definitely a time squeeze when trying to get through these three problems.

Most technical interviewers will also take some time for two additional things. The first is to find out a bit about the candidate's characteristics. This frequently falls into those first 5 to 10 minutes of friendly conversation. The second is to let the candidate ask questions about the team, product, and/or company. The candidate's opportunity to ask questions almost universally comes in the last 5 to 10 minutes of the interview. After the hour is up, the candidate is handed off to the next inerviewer.

One of the team interviews will be over lunch and will be less technical in nature (no, you don't have to code while eating). I have seen some interviewers discuss a design problem over lunch, but most will have a deeper conversation about the candidate to root out their characteristics and about what they are looking for career-wise. Clearly, there are no right or wrong answers here. Just be honest, reflective, and thoughtful. Always remember that it's best to identify a poor fit as early as possible. Not only will adding someone who is a poor fit to the team be damaging to the team, but it will also be harmful to the candidate, who will suffer career stagnation and will be generally unhappy in their job.

The as-appropriate interviewer is someone who has been a Microsoft employee for a long time and who has had more hiring experience than the other interviewers. This interviewer is usually focused on the candidate's long-term potential at Microsoft. Sometimes this interview is technical, but it is almost always heavily focused on on the candidate's characteristics. Unfortunately, it can be pretty hard to tell if you're interviewing with an as-appropriate interviewer, but if you are, it's a good sign. This interviewer is called "as-appropriate" because they don't participate in the interviews if the team doesn't feel positively about the candidate.

To wrap things up with the team, the candidate will often chat briefly with the hiring manager again. This is usually just to discuss how the candidate felt about the day, answer any final questions the candidate might have, and possibly sell the candidate on the team. Depending on the situation, candidates may also have a final chat with someone higher up the hierarchy than the hiring manager. If this happens, it is usually because the team already decided that they like the candidate and really want to sell the candidate on the team. As with the as-appropriate interviewer, this is a good sign.

Sometimes, candidates will also meet with the recruiter at the end of the day. The recruiter will probably have a few questions about how the day went and might offer some suggestions of things to do while visiting the area if the candidate is from out of town.

Although it is reasonable to be eager for feedback, don't expect any indication of the results until the recruiter follows up. The team will make a final decision within a few hours after completion of the interviews and may have other candidates to follow up with. Also don't execpt any information as to why or why not a hiring decision is made. Again, it is understandable why one would want additional information, but for legal reasons, it is inappropriate to discuss the reasoning behind the decision and such information simply won't be provided.

Candidates are typically notified of the final outcome of the interview by phone within two weeks. If the teams decides to extend an offer, the recruiter will follow up the phone call with an offer letter, which will include details such as salary, etc. If the fit wasn't right, this will be the final contact, but don't forget that if you feel Microsoft is an important part of the path to your goals, be persistent and keep trying!

For an example of a technical interview (one of the interviews from step 3 of the day), see this post.