How to ace a technical interview at Microsoft

Intimidated? Don’t be. Recruiters share tips to help you succeed

If you’re excited about the possibility of landing a technical job at Microsoft, chances are you have a passion for coding, solving problems and the incredible things technology can do for people around the world.

A technical interview is your chance to show you have the skills to match.

But there’s no question that coding on the spot, in front of the very people you hope to work for, can be daunting. What can you expect? How do you prepare? What are your interviewers looking for? Several Microsoft recruiters agreed to share their best tips — including a few surprising ones — to help you ace it.

“Hiring managers generally want to see how you think, not just that you can,” says Kenji Yamaguchi, a senior talent acquisition manager whose team recruits for various roles across Microsoft Office. “They also want to see that you care about the quality of the product you ship and the experience our customers will have.”

Technical interviews can vary depending on what team or role you’re applying for, but they often involve questions related to problem-solving, analytical thinking and computer science fundamentals, as well as an open-ended problem you’ll solve through coding.

They’re also often the first step before you’re brought in for a day of more traditional interviews, so it’s crucial to do all you can to make it count.

Getting ready for the big day

It’s a good idea to brush up on some of the basics beforehand, according to recruiter Abby Arvanitidis, who brings in engineering and program management candidates for OneDrive and SharePoint. She says there are loads of online resources to help you sharpen your skills.

“Don’t wing it,” she advises. “Practice your coding, design and algorithms, and always validate or test your solutions.”

She also recommends studying up on what’s in your résumé so you can give real examples from your past work or projects, highlighting the impact you made and how it benefited customers or end users.

In an in-person interview, you’ll likely be asked to code on a whiteboard. If it’s by phone, you’ll probably use a code editor that allows the interviewers to see your screen and watch you work in real time. In that case, Arvanitidis says, make sure you have a reliable Internet connection in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted.

It helps to know what to expect, so find out what you can from your recruiter. Seema Chandrasekharan, a recruiter for teams including Outlook, Office 365 and Enterprise Cloud, suggests your enthusiasm and ability to think on your feet can be as important as your programming abilities.

“The technical interviews for my teams usually focus on technical depth, passion for technology, interest in Microsoft, analytical ability and being able to adapt on the fly,” she says.

Study up on the specific technology the team focuses on, as well as Microsoft in general, its vision and what Yamaguchi calls a “culture change” that’s transformed the company in recent years, making it a place where teams collaborate freely and people are excited to work.

Chandrasekharan says her team looks for a passion for technology to assess candidates’ capacity to think creatively and come up with new ideas. It’s also helpful to be able to articulate what you want out of your next job and your career.

The coding portion of your interview

When it comes to coding, your interviewers may give you an open-ended question with some variables and ask you to code a solution. You might hope to show you’re eager and ambitious by diving right in — but don’t, advises Arvanitidis.

First, ask questions and clarify any information you need “to understand the different factors that might influence what approach you would like to take,” she says. “Really listen to what you are being asked, and validate your assumptions.”

Explaining what you’re doing as you go not only helps make sure you understand what’s being asked, it might also help you get tips from an unexpected source: your interviewers. After all, they want you to succeed.

“Try to talk out loud through your thinking process,” Chandrasekharan says. “This will help the interviewer follow your line of thinking and give you guidance along the way.”

Strong candidates tend to diagram the problem, ask questions before trying to write code and check their work without being prompted, Arvanitidis says. She also advises that you consider the efficiency of your solution and whether it’s unnecessarily complicated.

And keep in mind that this is more than a skills test. It’s also a chance to show your personality and what you might be like to work with, Arvanitidis says, so try to make it a conversation rather than a technical question-and-answer session.

Showing them what you’ve got

Just what, exactly, are the interviewers looking for? Chandrasekharan offers this list to get you thinking of how to let your best traits shine through:

(1) Your interest in the technology

(2) Your ability to innovate

(3) How well you think creatively

(4) How you adapt to changing requirements

(5) Your problem-solving approach

(6) Your analytical thinking skills

(7) How you handle feedback

Strong communication, of course, is key in any interview. Make sure you understand what’s being asked of you, and watch the interviewers for clues that show they’re following what you’re saying.

“I like to remind candidates that the interviewers are not omnipotent mind readers; they’re just people — who hopefully end up being your future coworkers,” Yamaguchi explains. “I’ve seen more than a handful of occasions where candidates have accidentally answered different questions than they were asked, or have overcomplicated their answers due to a communication mix-up.”

Don’t forget to ask questions about what’s important to you, your interests and your career objectives, Yamaguchi says. Interviews are a two-way street, and you should make sure the role is the right fit for you. Along those lines, he strongly recommends one more thing: “Be authentic,” he says. “Be you.” And if you mess up your coding or completely botch a response? It happens. It might even work in your favor, depending on how you handle it.

“Sometimes showing you are agile on your feet and receptive to feedback can be even better than acing all of your interview questions,” Yamaguchi says. “It proves you have potential to grow.”