How do I get in the door?

Picture of a résumé

In the world of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to me, one of the most frequent is “how do I get a job at Microsoft?”. If I had a dime for every time I’ve been asked it, at parties, on the street, and especially when I post comments on the internet, I’d have… probably a couple of hundred dollars.

Microsoft is not that much different than most large companies with respect to getting in the door. The keys remain the same: apply for a specific job not just “any job”, work to make yourself stand out (in professional ways), and, if possible, leverage any kind of personal connection you can make.

The things that make MS different are things that only make these more important — they have thousands of hiring managers, many thousands of open positions, and tens of thousands of applicants.

At Microsoft, the crush of tens of thousands of applicants a month meant that we resorted to “data management” to get the pile under control. If you simply add your name to this pile, your odds of getting lost increase exponentially. So, just like at other companies, the need to become an individual, not just a résumé, is paramount.

So what does that mean? Sure, you can submit your résumé through the web. In fact, you should do that. But don’t expect this “shot in the dark” to work. Your résumé will be scanned into a huge database, searched for keywords, and maybe, just maybe, will get pulled up by the recruiter trying to fill the job for a hiring manager as a potential candidate. But the odds are, literally, 10,000 to 1 of that happening.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours.

It means you need a great résumé, and I’m sure you’ve worked on yours. I’m working on a post that will help with that. I’ll update this link when I get it completed. A great résumé helps you get it out of the pile and onto the short list.

It also means you really should decide exactly what you want to do, or at most a couple of jobs that are what you want to do. Search the career site, and narrow your application to just a couple. Huge “anything you’ll take me for” kinds of applications are just ignored. You clearly don’t have any meaningful goals, you just want in. That’s not interesting. So research heavily what the jobs are, and what you want to do.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate.

Be realistic, don’t apply for a higher position than one for which you can be an obvious candidate. You want to be a clear consideration, not a stretch and not “overqualified”. So apply perhaps just a tad low. There are a million jobs at the company, people move around all the time, so just get started in a job you can be great at, then move on to your dream job from there.

But, the best way in is with some recommendation, or at least some contact with someone in the company. Résumés that come in from someone in the company (even if just with a note that says “I don’t really know this person, but…”) come in the system through a different pipe and have a better chance of spending 10 seconds on the desk of someone who can move it on to a short list. Coming in through the normal channels just gets it into the massive pile with everyone else.

You should leverage any contacts you have.

This means you should leverage any contacts you have. And before you ask, I’m sorry to tell you that I don’t have any direct contacts any more. At one point I was a super contact. As VP of HR, I could virtually guarantee that someone who cared would look at your résumé. But that time has long passed.

So, if you know anyone (and I mean anyone) who works at the company, buy them a drink, ask them about working there, and ask them if you can send them your résumé for them to forward on to their HR person, and maybe a manager they might know who would be hiring. Most people will do it, and most people provide just enough added emphasis to get your résumé read.

I can guess that your best friend doesn’t work there, or you wouldn’t be asking me for help. But, I’m sure you know people indirectly. You’ve met people at parties, or someone lives down the hall in your apartment complex, or you have a friend who knows someone.

Life is a network, leverage it. Get an introduction, strike up a conversation, and enlist their help. If you are kind, earnest, and sincere, it’s almost impossible to people to resist helping you.

If you don’t know anyone who works at the company, fix that.

If you really don’t know anyone, fix that. Find out where people go have lunch or go after work, and find a way to introduce yourself. Look for the telltale employee badge and find some way to strike up a conversation.

“What’s it like to work there?” “How long have you been there, do you like it?” “Wow, it’s always been my dream to work there, how do I get in?” Just listen, and be interested. Everyone is human and likes to be listened to, and even though you may strike out, eventually someone will be a friend and will help you get past the door.

Don’t paper the place with your résumé. Don’t send in hundreds, don’t ask everyone you’ve ever met to send in one, and don’t play games (like “cute” or “trick” résumés). They will notice. And will immediately put you on the (informal) black list. It’s not a game, don’t treat it like one.

Once you do get a call from a recruiter, make sure you hit the ball out of the park. You are likely to only get only one shot at it. The recruiter is doing a phone screen and will get a feel for who you are from that phone call.

While they are probably calling about one specific job, they have more power than that. If you are interesting, and someone worth following up on, they will consider you for other openings they are working on, or even pass your resume on to a colleague. In any case, really work on making that phone call the best you can make it.

Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

If you do get called in for an interview, be prepared for a really lousy experience. Interviews are never fun, and for some reason Microsoft seems to delight in beating people up.

There are books about it (one example is: “How would you move Mount Fuji”), and lots of anecdotes on the internet. It all should be taken with a grain of salt, but like most things they are based in some fact. In any case, the results are a day that is not a joy, but can be worth the pain.

Whatever you do, don’t exaggerate your experience or your skill set. They will check up on it, and during the interview, they will test you on it. Don’t be overly modest, it comes off as insincere. Be confident of your abilities, but be careful about blowing smoke as people will detect it immediately, and that will be the end of it. As in most things, a good balance is hard to find, but when you do, it will feel right and will seem sincere. Practice these conversations, it will pay off.

Remember that your goal is to get in the door, not to get the perfect job. Just work on that, then once you’re in, you can get what you really want in the long term.

As I said in the beginning, Microsoft isn’t that much different than most other companies, so most of this will apply to other companies as well. Best of luck in your search.