The Microsoft PM Interview

There seems to be a lot of Buzz on the inter-tubes about the Microsoft Interview process. Everyone seems to be jumping on the MS bandwagon. My friend Justin, just got a FT offer there. Two of my housemates are applying for positions. A few of my friends at CMU just got interview dates. Some guy I ran into at a tri-delt party that turned into my TA co-oped and got a FT offer from there. Crazy!

Everyone wonders what to expect, what kind of questions will there be. After all, MS used to be infamous for a lot of Brain Teaser questions; why are manhole covers round? How would you move Mt. Fuji etc.? From my understanding, those no longer exist, or at least, are discouraged since they apparently “intimidate” people. Gee, how could a company with 80,000 employees, $50 billion in revenue, that simultaneously revolutionizing the way people used computers, and infamously coined the term “Patch Tuesday” come across as intimidating?!

Anyways, before I interviewed I spent a lot of time on Microsoft’s site, reading blogs etc. about the PM interview process to see what I could expect. I read a lot of interesting stuff and here are some of the more useful ones i encountered:

Here’s one that you probably shouldn’t base your responses off of but you should read right before you go into your interview to lighten the mood a bit:

Anyways, now for the juicy stuff:

Getting your foot in the door

Getting noticed by MS is a difficult process. Know your strengths. Recognize your weaknesses. Amplify those strengths, and Make a connection. The way I got my foot in was at the TOC job fair here at CMU. I looked for a PM alum that I could connect with. And sure enough, the moons aligned that day and I ran into a Windows Live MISM alum. Be passionate. I’m absolutely certain that the reason I got noticed was because I was able to show the alum that I had a passion for technology. I told him about a development project I was passionate about (yes,, stuff I was studying that I was genuinely exited about (security stuff), and why I wanted to work at MS. At the end of our talk, he handed me an invitation to a Microsoft dinner. w00t.

Getting to Redmond

Getting noticed is just the beginning. You will likely have a first round interview with someone on campus. The first time I had a face to face interview with MS (couple years ago), I wasn’t very prepared. I didn’t know what group I wanted to work in, and I didn’t have any real group project experience. The recruiter asked me to design a hand held device for a theme park. I was stumped. Be prepared to draw your ideas out and more importantly, speak what you’re thinking. Also, let your recruiter know which group/division you’d like to work for, so they can better match you. I know, the MS site looks daunting, ambiguous. Network with recruiters/alum, find someone that knows someone that has worked/is working there and talk/email/phone them to try to get a feel for the specific product/group that you want to work for.

For me, getting to the fly-out was the hardest part. I got a fly-out notification from my recruiter, Betsy Dimalanta, in September. A recruiter coordinator didn’t contact me until late December. Be prepared to wait. Be patient. Be pro-active: e-mail them, call them, remember to get business cards from recruiters/alum you talk to so you can email them to get in touch with the recruiter. They might not appear to be responsive. It could take weeks for your recruiter to email you back or months (like in my case) before you get contacted by a recruiting coordinator that arranges your fly-out. The people with a (v-) in their email address are usually temporary HR coordinators Microsoft has outsourced to arrange your travel stuff. They’ll ask you for days you prefer to fly-out on. MS gives you 3 days, 2 nights. Arrange it so you get a day to site see if you’ve never been to Seattle before. It’s awesome. MS is also pretty flexible about this kind of stuff, I asked to stay an extra day because I’d be meeting up with a friend that was FT at MS.

Once that’s finally all arranged, an on-campus recruiter will actually contact you a few days before your actual interview, and ask you a bunch of questions about yourself. This is the person you will likely meet when you get to building 19 in Redmond. If you haven’t already, be sure to ask them to set you up with a dinner. This usually ends up being an available alum from your school that gets a free dinner out of it. More on that later.

The Interview

Before they day of your interview, make sure to drive there the night before and scope out where the place is. Seattle traffic sucks at rush hour; in that respect the city is like Pittsburgh, but with NYC traffic. Bring a GPS if you have one; I used mine religiously while I was there.

When you interview, you usually start your day off in building 19.This is where you’re suppose to meet with your interviewer and chat up your resume/experience/what you’re there for etc and where your on-site recruiter (OSR) assuages your apprehensions etc. My OSR, Danielle Regan, was express, I was kind of hoping for at least a short sit-down, to figure out what I should be expecting. Instead, she greeted me by telling me my shuttle was outside and that I needed to head over to building 1 for my interview.

Once I got to building 1, i sat down at the front desk area and read a bunch of tech magazines to calm myself. From my understanding (and hearsay), the first group that interviews you usually chooses you, despite whether or not you indicated you wanted to interview with them.

The first person I interviewed with was Mike, a PM-II. He had been with the company for a few years with the BizTalk group…well…he started talking about web services, and .NET, and DCOM and rolled that into BizTalk. He talked to me about what I had done and asked me about myself. I talked about BibMe.


How would you design a thermometer?

How would you insert a word into a sorted array, while maintaining the sort.

If you had two sorted arrays, where the first one has enough space to contain the second one, how would you combine them?

After this, I was passed on to Mike’s boss’s boss. This was my worst interview. I didn’t really connect with Mike’s boss’s boss. He started the interview off by saying that his group was extremely technical, and that they were really looking for a CS major (Do these people read our resumes? I could swear mine says IS, and MISM). His questions were as follows:

Do you know even know what a PM does at Microsoft?

Tell me about the most difficult CS problem you’ve ever done.

What is the complexity of that (algorithm)?

The remainder of the interview was spent dissecting the web search engine I had coded in our data structures & algorithms class. We broke down what algorithms/data structures were used. I was asked how to code the hash/re-hash functions and collision detection. I was interrogated on why we decided to use certain data structures instead of others, and what complexity O(n) they were.

My final interview was a lunch interview. I had about five bites to eat throughout the interview, but I think this was the most exciting one.

My interviewer, who was a lead PM talked extremely fast. We talked about a few internships I had and what my role was. We talked about BibMe a bit, and the different types of interfaces it consisted of. Then he asked me what I did outside of school, and what the most difficult technical thing I had ever done (in such hobby). He asked me about tech trends I was following, and I talked about collaboration features of BibMe. At that point, he asked me how we would go about redesigning the system. We spoke briefly about other internships I was interested in. I spoke to him about Microsoft Popfly and Yahoo Pipes.

After the lunch interview, I was sent back to building 19. I was hoping to meet with the Microsoft Popfly team next. When I was doing some research into MS, Popfly was the one that was most relevant to my experience. I had played around with it before my interview and gotten excited enough to spam the MS recruiters about my interest in speaking with someone on the Popfly team. It was one of those products that really stuck out as new and refreshing, and I thought I would be able to add a lot of value if I had the opportunity to intern with that team, or even talk to them about a few ideas I had.

When I got to the front lobby, I searched around the front lobby for my recruiter. With her no where in sight, I went up to the front desk to see where I would be going to next. Apparently my on-site recruiter, Danielle Regan, had left me a note instead. It’s rather unfortunate that she was not present, since in most companies, the recruiters usually stay at the end to answer questions, or at least leave themselves open for easy contact. In my case, this would have been critical since I wanted to explain that I got the vibe 10 minutes in, that what the BizTalk team was really looking for, was a developer, with PM traits. From the questions I was asked, I was thinking to myself, any developer that technical should have applied for a Dev position, not a PM. I didn’t think it was a good fit; the HR process really needs to be refined to match candidates with the right team.

Both my FT MS friends were both pretty shocked about the way my interview process went, especially since I was only able to interview with one team. It is my understanding that good recruiters generally try to set you up with two or three teams, to anticipate situations just like this;bad fit for one of the teams. They also couldn’t believe I was grilled with algo questions since most of the PM interviews they were familiar with did not get as technical. They recommended that I contact my recruiter back and let them know that I felt the interview was a bad fit for the PM role and see if they could set me up with another team. Unfortunately I didn’t hear back from Danielle until I was back on the east coast, at which point she encouraged me to read a book. (hah!). She recommended these three to “gain a better understanding of the PM role at Microsoft”:

Bentley, Jon. Programming Pearls: Second Edition. Addison-Wesley, Inc., 2000.

Gamma, E., Helm, R., Johnson, R., Vlissides, J., eds. Design Patterns. Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Kernighan, Brian, Pike, Rob, eds. The Practice of Programming. Addison-Wesley, 1999.

Though I’d already read through them, I found their value a bit lost since my niche had traditionally been in web applications development. Though it’s important to understand the programming principles, I don’t think these books do a good job of covering the skill sets required as a technical PM.

Alumni Dinner

After the interview,I had the opportunity to get to know two really cool CMU alum. One was a Physics major that ended up working on kernel development for Windows CE. The other was an humanities/HCI major that ended up as a PM on Office Project. They were both great sources of information. The dinner is NOT part of the formal interview process,and I was assured nothing would be emailed back to our interviewers, and not even feedback would be sent back to our recruiters. Both of them re-assured me that this was a good time to ask questions you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking your interviewer/recruiter, which is precisely what they had done when they were in my shoes. Both of them had very positive experiences at MS, especially with work/life balance. Both spoke greatly of the perks of working at Microsoft; health insurance/local deals with redmond/seattle companies/gym memberships/being able to work from home/attending conferences etc.

Overall I have to say the MS interview was a great experience. While I was in Seattle, I also got to visit Pike’s Place (farmer’s market), the Space Needle, and next to it, the Experience Music Project (think Rock Band, but real life Rock Band), and the Sci-Fi Museum, all of which MS reimbursed me for. My friend Justin, also sent me a list of places to visit; Dicks Drive-In Restaurant, Sapporo Teriyaki. MS also lent me a rental car; a chevy cobalt(big mistake), that I discovered could be brought on to oversteer and had no ABS. Ben and I played NASCAR and left-foot braking while I was in Seattle xDDD!!!.

Most importantly, I had met a bunch of people at MS that were not only brilliant technologists, but awesome, awesome people. Ben Andrews is one of these people. He works FT in Office and took the time to show me around Seattle, let me know what to check out. He even brought me to a meeting about the MS intern game, where, once again, I was introduced to about a dozen of the funniest, most creative, and talented individuals.

I think the best advice came shortly before i left from my MS friends. It may take years to find your place at Microsoft. Many of the interviews are hit or miss; neither of these two brilliant engineers got intern offers until their second try. In retrospect, I might have tried interviewing with a group that dealt with some of the PM concerns I faced working on BibMe; Windows Live, Popfly, Forefront, etc, which is why I keep reiterating how important it is to find a group you can be passionate about working for.

For those of you that may not get offers from Microsoft, do not be disappointed. Microsoft is a big corporation, and like any other, the group you interview with initially may not be a good fit, or maybe they just didn’t eat breakfast that morning. In either case, don’t give up; try and try again until you find a group that is the fit for you.

Best of luck!