Product Marty Cagan

Microsoft’s Advantage

In my last posting I criticized Google’s culture including their hiring practices. In this issue, I’d like to talk about the company that I think does the best job in the industry at consistently hiring strong people.

I’ve recruited, interviewed and hired literally hundreds of people. I’ve also worked with several leading tech companies. In general, I’ve found that most tech companies have a fairly similar and conventional recruiting and hiring process.

And for companies that have experienced rapid growth, literally every high-tech company that I had been exposed to always had to struggle to maintain high staff quality. However, the big exception to this has been Microsoft. Somehow Microsoft has been able to defy this trend and effectively establish staff quality as an ongoing competitive differentiator.

Years ago when I was considering an offer to join Netscape, I also interviewed with Microsoft. The Microsoft interviewing experience left me in awe of the incredible recruiting engine that they have built, and even weeks later I found myself reflecting on the experience and asking myself how I could incorporate what I learned into my own recruiting practices.
In this note I’ll share my experiences and what I learned about recruiting and hiring.

The Recruiter

The heart of the Microsoft recruitment process is the recruiter. Forget everything you know about high-tech recruiters. Microsoft’s are different. They are highly trained, effective, and extremely competent, and deserve a large degree of credit for Microsoft’s business success.

Microsoft only occasionally uses outsourced headhunting, typically for very specialized positions. By my very rough estimate, Microsoft has approximately 40-60 full-time, on-staff, recruiters. These recruiters are supported by an admin staff that plays an important role in handling logistics for the candidates. They have a separate building on the campus dedicated to recruiting, with what I’d guess is approximately 100 offices. Each recruiter is assigned to a functional unit of the company. It is the recruiters job to get to know the management team of that unit, the business and technical goals of the unit, and the precise requirements of the open positions. The recruiters are centralized so that communication and sharing can occur across projects and divisions.

The Screening Call

Candidate’s resumes are routed to potential recruiters, and the screening process begins. The purpose of the screen is to determine if the person is a) a reasonable candidate for Microsoft in general; and b) to start the process of finding the right project for the person.

As with everything about the recruitment process, the screening call is well-scripted, efficient and all-important for the candidate. The recruiter first collects considerable background information on the candidate, beyond what’s on the resume. Then the recruiter tries to narrow down the appropriate job category (e.g. developer, tester, product/program manager, etc.). Finally, the recruiter asks a series of increasingly probing questions. My reading from the questions was that the recruiter was interested in the actual (versus claimed) job responsibilities, the degree of imagination and creativity displayed, and overall personality and attitude. The screening calls lasted between 45 minutes and an hour.

After the first screening call, I was told by the recruiter that I was someone that she wanted to move to the next stage (interviewing on site), but that she would first be working to find the right project. I was told I might get additional calls, which I did.

The Candidate Auction

If the recruiter likes the candidate, the recruiter will champion the candidate’s cause throughout the company, even to recruiters from other divisions. The recruiters meet periodically (I’m guessing weekly) to present good candidates and to try and find potential matches.

While I was personally recruited from an in-house recruiter, there were three different divisions that all called in order to gauge my interest in their projects, and to further screen me as to my qualifications for their open positions. I received a total of four screening calls, one of which was from a recruiting manager that had been asked to help narrow me down from two divisions to one (he was asked to determine which of the two I was the best fit for).

Candidate Ownership

An extremely important point is that throughout the screening process (indeed, throughout the entire recruitment process), I was given the name and phone number of the recruiter that “owned” my resume. Even when another recruiter would call about a position, “my” recruiter would follow-up to make sure the call happened and to make sure I was still on board and interested. Taking ownership and responsibility for candidates was something that was demonstrated to me by two different recruiters as I made my way through the process. Follow-up to my questions was virtually instant, and the recruiters always knew instantly about me and where I was in the process.

Recruiter Training

The quality of the Microsoft recruiters truly amazed me. I was exposed to four of them in total, and they were all very bright, very knowledgeable about the positions they were recruiting for — and not just at a superficial level, very dedicated (several talked to me late into the evening), and as you’ll see later, professionally trained in negotiation.

The Interview Package

Once a position had been identified for me, I was asked to come up to Redmond for an on-site interview. Again, everything was smoothly orchestrated. I received a call from a recruitment admin person proposing travel times, and the next morning, by overnight FedEx, I received a several pound “Interview Package” full of info about my upcoming trip.

The package arrived at my home during the day, and was promptly read by my wife, who quickly became Microsoft’s biggest champion. She was so impressed by the benefits, the company, and the area that it seemed to turn her around from initially being very wary of anything to do with Seattle to very open to the possibility of moving there. I’ve little doubt that the interview package is aimed as much at the spouse as the candidate.

The goal of the recruiter and the recruiter admin was to make my visit very comfortable, smooth and leave a great impression all the way around. After picking up my car, I was put up in a well above average, luxury class hotel (the Bellevue Club), and told to eat or drink or play as much as I wanted (at the full health and sports club) and that everything was already taken care of.
In the morning, I followed my special map and drove to the Microsoft campus where I entered the Recruitment building. There, along with probably 20 other candidates, I waited while my recruiter was called out to come get me.

The Interview Prep

My recruiter brought me to her office and we talked for about a half hour about the position and the team. She made a strong effort to position herself as “my ally” and she gave me lots of advice about what the team was looking for (I believe this was intentional and in fact instructed, as this becomes important later during negotiation).

The Microsoft Campus

Microsoft has a large wooded campus on several thousand acres, composed of approximately 20 2-3 story high buildings. In order to transport the candidates between the various locations, Microsoft maintains a fleet of vans for this sole purpose. The vans are only for interview candidates, and the drivers have also obviously been trained to help the candidates in any way they can. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Disneyland, where every employee is trained that they affect the overall experience, no matter what the job).

The Interview Sessions

The average interview was for one hour, and I met with six people during the day, including one over lunch in a Microsoft cafeteria.

All of the people I met with were fairly senior, and when I asked if I would be meeting some more of the people that would be working for me, I was told later by the recruiter that only people that have completed the “Interviewing at Microsoft” class were allowed to interview. It was quickly clear to me that every person I interviewed with had certainly been through a detailed training program, and that it was a very specific and explicit program, and that everything that was asked was asked for a reason.

My reading from the interview sessions was that there were two overriding things that all interviewers were searching for: my technical depth and breadth; and my general problem solving skills.
Each person came at me from a different angle, and I’m fairly sure that for each that angle was assigned in advance, but each person was looking for the same sorts of things. I met with people from several levels in the organization, and with people with different technical specialties. For example, the database expert quizzed me on the database issues, and the user interface expert on user interface. The senior managers quizzed me on my knowledge of the industry and the competitive landscape.

Once technical competence was established, the interview session would move to the problem solving skills. For this, the interviewer would pose some hypothetical or actual situation, and ask me how I’d solve it. Then, after I gave an answer that he liked, he’d change the rules slightly, for example, by introducing another constraint, and asking how I’d handle that. We’d continue down this path through several iterations. They were clearly looking to see if I’d get frustrated or run out of ideas or be dogmatic about one of my earlier proposed solutions. Note that, for the interviewer, this is much easier said than done. They have to know the domain enough to have realistic yet difficult scenarios. They must have thought through the scenarios in advance so that they could keep the candidate thinking and at the edge of solvability.

Interviewer Training

A friend who is an ex-Microsoft employee that had been through the interviewer training later informed me that they are encouraged to make the interviews challenging for the candidate. They teach that making it too easy leaves a negative impression. They’re taught to start with easier questions, but then progress to difficult ones.

The interview team is designed to be composed of mainly peers, with the hiring manager at the end of the day. While the recruiters are supposed to focus on personality and whether or not the person is a fit for the culture, the peers focus on technical knowledge and general problem solving skills.

The formal training covers the normal legal issues of what to ask and what not to ask, but the main emphasis is on describing the “ideal Microsoft employee.” Based on the training, the main factor to look for is “smarts.” More general guidelines are:

– Hire for Microsoft, not just your division
– If the person is “just ok”, they’re probably not
– Make the interview challenging
– Look for smart, creative people with strong problem solving skills
– How the candidate approaches a problem is as important as the solution

Interviewer Communication

Between each interview, I was told to sit tight while the previous interviewer communicated with the next interviewer. I later learned that there are two reasons for this. First, any interviewer can choose to end the interview at any time. In fact, they generally don’t give the candidate any indication of the length of the interview day. I did have a small sheet with the names, and all of the interviewers remarked that that was highly irregular, and my recruiter later said it was because I had been extensively prescreened and the hiring manager knew I would have a full day. The second reason is that the two interviewers are instructed to pass along info on any areas where there are open issues remaining in the mind of the previous interviewer.

Directly after each interview, the interviewer is also instructed to send an e-mail to the hiring manager and the recruiter, describing their evaluation of the person.
By the time I made it back to the recruiter at the end of the day, the recruiter already knew that the hiring manager wanted to make me an offer. She told me that I would be receiving a call the following Monday, after they’d had a chance to put together the specifics of the offer. She finished the day with a half hour in heavy sell mode, describing the wonderful benefits of working for Microsoft in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, working with the top talent in the industry, and how Microsoft would make the entire transition smooth and painless.

She also began to lay the groundwork for an offer by explaining that I probably already knew (I did) that Microsoft does not pay the very top dollar in salary, but rather they put together an entire package of salary, bonus, stock and intangibles that they believe is the best around.

As I left, my recruiter made sure I had the self-addressed, stamped envelope to put any receipts for anything I might have needed to purchase during my interview visit, and she encouraged me to take out to dinner that night a friend of mine that worked for Microsoft.

I left with images of John Grisham’s “The Firm” in my mind.

Lessons Learned

The interviewing process confirmed in my mind that Microsoft does indeed have the highest quality personnel of any large company in the industry, and that the recruitment process is one of the major advantages behind Microsoft’s success. I also believe that attracting and retaining the best people is absolutely essential for any company that wants to successfully transition into a successful large company. After reflecting on the Microsoft interview experience, I came up with the following “lessons learned,” which I have tried to incorporate into my own recruitment practices:

1) Never underestimate the importance and value of the recruiter. Make sure these people are properly trained, and that they understand their dramatic and direct importance to the company. Make sure that they take ownership for the candidate, and that they are aware of their impact on the overall impression the candidate gets of the company. Make sure that they are treated as the critical member of the product team that they are.

2) If your company is too small for a recruiter, the hiring manager must step up and serve that function.

3) Train each interviewer carefully on how to probe and assess the talent, problem solving skills and attitude of the candidate. Several firms offer live or video-based training on this topic.

4) Orchestrate the interview with care, and make sure each interviewer has an assigned area to focus on. Emphasize the critical nature of recruitment to the entire interviewing team.

5) Make sure that every hire raises the average talent level in the group.

While I ended up choosing Netscape instead, I was very impressed by Microsoft and I believe I could have enjoyed working there. They’ve been overshadowed lately by companies like Google and Yahoo, but with the talent they have I fully expect we’ll hear lots more from them.