Local boy done good? My “experience” of being recruited by Microsoft

by Jason SalasSunday, September 09, 2001

How a kid from the NeverNeverLand of high technology got a shot at the big-time, made it through The World’s Toughest Job Interview…and lived to tell about it


Irony can just be too cruel sometimes.

If you’ve clicked on the link and followed it to this story…thanks. I’m genuinely glad you took interest in learning about the spring of my discontent. You may not like Microsoft too much or what they stand for yourself, so if this isn’t your cup of tea, fine.  Chances are that you're using at least one of their products to read this.  Millions of devs across the planet use MS technologies and architecture all the time and continually bash the company; I just tend to lean towards the company’s values and vision. The point is I wanted in. To represent – myself, my family, and my island, and really have a chance at learning and creating at a true world power – and make a buttload of cash in the process.

Obviously, I am not in the employ of Microsoft Corporation at the moment, although at one point in time I came pretty darn close, being interviewed to be a Group Product Manager for the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications. Then 25 years old, with 9 years of work experience under my belt, having just left a somewhat responsible but not-so profitable position at an ISP on Guam, and halfway through my MBA, I was quite flattered with this opportunity.

Yes, ‘tis true…I was once officially a Microsoft recruit, one of the chosen few (actually, about 35,000 candidates get the call per year) who is selected to take a trip up to Redmond and get a shot at working for the most prolific organization on the planet (OK, so I’m biased...and that really is me in the picture above). I’ve still got the info kit they sent me by Federal Express Next-Day mail, letting me know the stock history of the company, how good its human resource policies are, employee benefits packages, relocation assistance, and how it’s level of employee retention tops the computing industry. I also got several trinkets of useful information, such as what life is like in the Greater King Country area of Washington State, and how much history, culture and natural beauty surround Seattle. None of which, I knew I would ever get the chance to see if I was lucky enough to get in as a full-time ‘Softie. Which I was completely fine with.

So after being in commute for 16 straight hours, going from Guam to Honolulu to Seattle, I arrived…ready to shock the world. Or so I thought. Arriving at 5:30 in the morning at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I called a cab from a card I had in my wallet form a previous business trip. Sadly he knew nothing of the existence of, much less the directions to, Microsoft’s monolithic headquarters in Redmond, which is about the size of Dededo. Check that…a little bit bigger. Our drive should have taken the normal 25 minutes, but 90 later we still numbly tooled around neighboring Bellevue, completely lost.

Apologetic, he admitted he had no idea where the place was, and didn’t charge me for the ride…instead dropping me off at a Bellevue Sheraton. Eventually I hopped another cab, and made it to my hotel…with 20 minutes to spare. One thing…my hotel room wasn’t ready, so I had to change into an Armani suit in the bathroom. Then, I got a ride form the hotel concierge over to Building 18, because the cabbie that was supposed to take me over got stuck in traffic and was late. Plus, my jetlag was quickly sinking in.

So, standing outside Building 18, my packets of resumes/cover letters in hand (debating whether I should cross out IT&E as a former employer at the last minute, thinking it would hurt more than help), I did a quick self-check in the reflective-tint windows…Armani, tie, breath, armpits, teeth, hair. “SHA-ZAM! Jas, you are da man!” A yuppie personified. Irony then proceeded to slap me upside the head. Upon walking into the waiting room, I saw about 42 other carbons copies of me…checking Armani’s, hair, ties. Themselves, personifications of yuppies---with better resumes. Yikes.

What followed was nine straight hours of mind-bending, grueling work, which tested and gauged my level of strategic thinking. At times, I felt like this was more interrogation than job interview. Six different hiring managers, all within the Office Development Group, all grilled me on topics ranging from software design, to strategic marketing tactics, to high-level mathematics. No question were asked about “So why do you want to work here?” The corporate recruiter who was outsourced by Microsoft took care of that on our phone interview weeks ago, when I was still on Guam. This was about whether I would have the “stuff” to fit in and hang with the MS crowd.

Because of the Privacy Waiver that I signed, I’ll spare revealing the intricacies of the questioning (hell, for those of you who might also make the journey, I want you to go through it raw, as I did). But one thing to keep in mind…”How do you make the perfect toaster?” Is a question that I expected them to ask…and they did. Downing nearly an entire Coca-Cola with each Hiring Manager helped to battle my aching jetlag, which made it hard to think. Oddly enough, though...I did better on the math questions than on the marketing section, which made me look out at the Douglas Firs which seem to consume every building and chant to myself “Rah, rah, University of Guam” sarcastically condemning my undergraduate marketing education. Irony reared its cruel head, once more.

It was pretty interesting to eat at the trough of technology in the Great Northwest, and get the skinny on what goes on…straight from the horse's mouth. The method in which MS structures its interviews is half sit-down interview, half tour of the Campus. You go all over the place, transported by shuttle bus between buildings to get to your assigned Hiring Manager, all the while taking note of the beautiful surroundings.

Unfortunately, I did have an ulterior motive upon my trip to Redmond that didn’t quite pan out. One of the things I was really looking forward to was being able to visit the MS Bookstore on campus. Being a realist, I knew that my chances at landing the job weren’t up to me, and so if I didn’t make it in, I wanted to pick up some cool gear (polo shirts, books, whatnot). But, leave it to me to pick the single most important time in the company’s history to make the trek across 14,000 miles of ocean to find out that the entire Redmond Campus was sealed nearly airtight, pending the Department of Justice’s investigation of antitrust charges. Irony began urinating on my shoe.

Upon returning home, I found out a week later that I didn’t make the cut. One of the replicated Armani’s in the waiting room got the gig – a cool cat who I actually had chatted with as we both waited for our interviews…and a former Vice President of Product Engineering from Sun Microsystems. The official post-mortem comment I received from one Hiring Manager (whose name I am so tempted to reveal here, but as a measure of my professionalism I'll withdraw from doing so) was that "I felt that Jason was too passionate about technology to work here". Huh? If that ain’t ironic, then I don’t know what is. I immediately stored this little gem in my mental Rolodex. I refer to that very summation of my abilities frequently as my one funny line I use in parties and in other job interviews as an icebreaker. I guess something good did come out of it, after all!

So...let's sum this up. Not talented enough in Microsoft technologies to be able to be productive? Possibly. Not completely aligned with what the company’s focus was/is and in what direction it was/is heading? Arguably. Too stupid to work for Mighty Mighty Microsoft? Not likely. Not passionate enough about the future to want to create new product and bring it to the world incorporating the Internet? Complete excrement.

In retrospect, the one thing that I did take away from the whole experience was that I was able to survive what’s thought to be by many in the biz as the computer science industry’s equivalent of Navy SEALs training. It stills holds as one of the most fun (albeit, the most brain-draining) experiences I’ve ever had. And not to be overly-melodramatic about it, but when the friendly Microsoft Recruiting staffer said to me upon my exit interview, “Do you have anything final you’d like to add?” I said that although I really wanted in, the judgment wasn’t mine, so I left it up to fate, and closed with the oh-so-overused Schwarzenegger-ian “I’ll be back.”

And honestly, when it comes to job interviews since then, nothing’s shocking. I’ve met with large companies and distinguished business leaders, and there’s no anxiety to perform. I’ve been to the plateau, and lived to tell about it. I chalked it up as growth. I haven’t copped rage or disdain against the company, and still use, advocate and base my consulting practice to a large degree on its products. So who knows? It’s the nature of the business that we’re in to create the future. And I’ve got 38 years left before I retire, so I very well could be back in Redmond.

And wouldn’t that be ironic.

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