Working at Microsoft: Tips & Realities

As you might imagine, being a Seattle-based career advisor, I’ve worked with hundreds of people over the years who have held jobs at Microsoft at some point or another, either as full-time employees or contractors.  And how many opinions have I heard about what it’s like to work for the 37th-largest company in the country?  You guessed it.  Hundreds.

Put simply, Microsoft — and other mega-corporations like it — can be extremely hard to pin down, culture-wise, given the enormous number of different groups and sub-cultures that exist in the organization.  While some overarching tendencies certainly exist, one must be careful not to characterize the entire company under a single, sweeping set of generalizations.  Along these lines, too, I have to always keep in mind that the majority of things I hear about this company (and many others) come from folks who are in the process of departing the organization — either involuntarily or by personal choice — so their comments may not be representative of how EVERYBODY feels about working there.

For example, while I’d admit that many of the ex-Microsofties I’ve met with aren’t terribly keen on the company, a quick glance at the 4,241 reviews of Microsoft you’ll find here on the site reveals that the average employee satisifaction rating for the company isn’t terribly shabby — coming in at 3.5 points out of 5.0.  And the company fares even higher on, where over 500 reviewers have pegged it (as you’ll find here) at a highly-respectable 3.84 score on a 5.0 satisfaction scale.

So again, when it comes to the question of Microsoft, specifically, or the general question of who the “best employers” are in the Seattle area, I’m afraid there are no easy answers — since as these reviews suggest, an employer that’s one person’s “bad fit” could easily be another person’s vocational paradise.

This being said, however, there are still some plenty of concrete tips/insights to be shared about working for the technology behemoth in Redmond.  And if I were to consolidate some things I’ve been told from reputable sources, including internal recruiters at the company, here’s what I’d pass along.

•  Microsoft has an incredibly complex work environment involving tons of proprietary internal technology systems, communications processes, and matrixed management hierarchies

•  As a result of the above fact, the company generally prefers to hire internal candidates or existing vendors/partners who already know the ropes of how to work effectively at Microsoft, whenever possible, versus hiring external candidates

•  The company typically has people go through at least four interviews before an offer is made, including a “case study” presentation exercise for many higher-level positions; as you go through the process, however, your interview series could end abruptly at any time should somebody decide you’re not the right fit for the role in question

•  Microsoft doesn’t tend to lowball people on salary — in an intentional sense — and works hard to make sure all positions and compensation packages are “on par” and have “internal parity” with similar positions throughout the organization

•  The resume screeners and recruiters at Microsoft have three goals as they speak with applicants: to determine if a candidate is 1) interested; 2) viable; and 3) affordable

•  Most jobs at Microsoft come with a healthy dose of stress, politics, and pressure — but at the same time, this culture attracts many amazingly bright and caring individuals who tend to be very generous in terms of donating time and money to the community, as well as in supporting others within the organization during times of need

•  One recruiter told me that while the company recruits an incredibly diverse workforce from all over the globe, including many people with limited English skills, the one universal quality employees need to have is “the ability, whether they accomplish it via brilliant oratory, PowerPoint slides, or sock puppets, to articulate their point of view and influence others around them.”

•  I’ve also been told that Microsoft is making a massive effort to improve its track record of hiring female and diversity candidates; at the same time, however, I’ll confess I’ve also heard allegations that lots more work need to be done in this regard and that a “glass ceiling” exists in terms of women being promoted into management roles

•  Given the vast number of jobs the company advertises, it’s apparently okay to apply to multiple positions at once, if they’re relevant to your skills — but if you apply to a wide number of jobs at random, a recruiter may notice this pattern and penalize you

•  Not all jobs at Microsoft are posted externally, as some only get posted internally and are accessible only by internal referrals; what’s more, candidates who get referred to jobs by current Microsoft employees get special treatment and there is whole separate applicant tracking system and recruiting vendor in charge of handling referral-driven candidates

•  The best place to find job leads at Microsoft?  Check out:

So there you have it, for whatever it’s worth.  A quick “data dump” of things I’ve heard about what it’s really like to work at Microsoft and some of the processes that come into play in getting hired there.  Without question, there are probably exceptions to some of these rules on a group-by-group basis, however, so please keep that firmly in mind.

And while we’re at it, since I’d love to make this posting an ongoing “resource” I can share with clients of mine interested in working for Microsoft, I’d kindly ask any of you who have interviewed with the company or who have direct knowledge of working there to chime in with some comments either confirming/denying any of my observations — or adding your own two cents on the Microsoft employment scene!

5 Responses to “Working at Microsoft: Tips & Realities”

  1. I’m a ten year female Microsoft veteran–there is absolutely no interest in promoting women at the company. There is no true diversity, and attempts by women in the company to develop Sponsorship rings to support and promote one another are actively shut down by the GM of Diversity. going from org to org is like traveling to a new country every time, that you haven’t been allowed to research–you never know if you’re going from a democratic republic to a hard line dictatorship. Innovation is absolutely not rewarded, and the seven (or is it five now?) divisions are run like fiefs by their respective VPs, all of whom are only on the look out for number one. Ballmer is largely the architect of the back biting, self-destructive rewards and review process–until he goes, the company will continue to founder.

    Certainly the news has been full of stories about Microsoft’s dire “need” to fill all those software dev roles. Well, recruiting at the company is an absolute nightmare, with lack of follow-up, poor (if any) communication between recruiters and candidates, and utter conviction on the part of recruiters that Microsoft is still “the place” to be. How many of those thousands of jobs exist because of a “Reduction in Force” or “RIF”, allowing them to sweep out the veterans who made the company successful? For example…

    Many of the employees in their 40s and higher were unilaterally laid off after Sinofsky’s departure from the company–even though they had received the highest possible review scores the prior cycle. The reason: it’s cheaper to bring in fresh-from-college hires, pay them less in salary and benefits. They don’t have families and they’re still willing to burn into their weekends and evenings working on products that the public ignores, or that just plain don’t work with each other (for example, you can’t play any previously purchased Xbox movie content on your Windows phone). Even the college hires recognize Microsoft is a stepping stone–they no longer plan to spend their careers at a company that is fast becoming a technological dinosaur.

    From personal experience, Microsoft has about 1000 “Business administrators” that the company could not run without. They open the hiring requisitions, take care of your furniture and hardware/software needs, organize morale events, and manage budgets. They are unilaterally paid the lowest (hourly) wages at the company, and are not eligible for bonuses. In addition, their jobs “level” out around 55–the next roles, junior level PMs, start around 59–since you need VP dispensation to jump more than one level, these women are often left with no avenue to grow their careers or improve their experience, because no manager is going to “waste” ( a term I heard often) a promotion on an admin. When the recent benefits change was announced, many admins highlighted this would result in a major decrease in their pay, as so much more will be coming out of their pockets. HR’s response was that they should be glad they had jobs.

    I find it sad that Bill Gates spends so much of his time focusing on issues around the world ( I do acknowledge many of those issues are much greater and more important than what I’m describing here). Yet he ignores the culture at the company that made him a billionaire, watches people regularly get overworked, abused, and derided, and chooses to do nothing.

  2. It’s me again — just heard from an acquaintance whose wife recently changed groups in Microsoft — and her comment on the article was that many hiring managers at Microsoft are being strongly influenced by HR to hire externally in order to infuse new blood into the organization. She interviewed for two positions, apparently, and both times HR was significantly involved in pushing for more consideration to outside candidates to be given. Just more grist for the mill, in terms of understanding the current trends over there…

  3. Having spent the better part of 20 years at MS, I would add a couple of things:
    – MS used to be AWESOME. Great people, lots of energy, tons of innovation and creativity, and where new ideas were encouraged and rewarded. Now it’s great place if (1) you’re early in your career and you want a good job that pays reasonably well where you can learn a lot that you can take to your next job where you can do truly great things, or (2) you’re later in your career, your satisfied with the job level you’ve achieved and advancement isn’t that important to you, and you want something safe and stable where you don’t have to work crazy hours.
    – Many groups within MS no longer value truly innovative thinking and want people who toe the line and don’t rock the boat. Yes, you’re expected to be a smart, high-performing person, as long as you’re not veering from the strategy set in place at higher levels. There are exceptions to this of course in some groups but, on average, you’ll find this is the modus operandi at MS.
    – The review system sounds great on paper (lets continually weed out the bottom 10% so we get a higher-performing organization over time) but in reality it causes systemic organizational dysfunction because it’s requires you to compete with your peers more than cooperate with them. People withhold info, sabotage other’s work, and relish in other’s failures if it makes them look good. Your project/group/idea is brilliant and everyone else’s is stupid. Like many (most?) MS programs, the review system is over thought, overly-complex, not well implemented, and causes more harm than good. Sinofsky was just one exec who fostered that mentality. His leaving will not fix this well-ingrained organizational mentality.
    – WRT diversity – it’s sadly still mostly just words on PPT slides and not truly inculcated in the org. Walking the corridors in Redmond you do see and hear a lot of different skin colors and accents but it’s non-diverse diversity. By that I mean it’s not an organization of white males; rather it’s an organization of white, East Indian, Asian, and, to a lesser extent, Eastern European males. More diverse than a GOP convention? Yes. A truly diverse organization? Nope.

  4. I worked at Microsoft for 12 years and agree with most of your observations. However, I do not know if the company is truly attempting to hire/promote women. This was not the case when I was there; hopefully things have changed since I left 2 years ago.

  5. Excellent overview. Microsoft appears to be a mountain to many. Appreciate your willingness to share the tips.

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