by Tiffany Eaton

What I learned from flying to Seattle for Microsoft’s final wave of design interviews

Before I tell you about my onsite interview with Microsoft, I applied for the UX design intern position. My experience may differ from others, but it is definitely similar in regards to the rather rigorous (and long) process.

Background

One of my goals is to gain experience in a really big company and work on products that have a HUGE impact on millions of users around the world. Out of the companies I interviewed with, I am writing about Microsoft because it was a very comprehensive experience. This gives me a chance to reflect on each aspect of the interview process. Though things could have gone better in regards to the interviews, I have learned SO much about myself and how to improve as a designer.

I have used Microsoft’s products in past and since using them, they have helped me do simple tasks effortlessly, such as a writing a paper in Word or creating spreadsheets in Excel. Through countless uses, these products have left a lasting impression on me because of how versatile and convenient they were.

I also saw the kinds of designers who were working at Microsoft and their recent product releases. I saw the sheer amount of diversity and cross-collaboration driving the company to reimagine productivity for a wide range of users. And this was what really made me want to work at Microsoft.

The First Email

Hello Tiffany,
We are very interested in speaking with you more about your technical skills and abilities to continue in the interview process for a User Experience role. There are many exciting opportunities and challenges to take on at Microsoft and we’d like to talk with you about the possibilities.

When I saw this e-mail, I was ecstatic. It was so unexpected and out of the blue that I thought it wasn’t real. I actually passed the resume screening and had the chance to intern at Microsoft.

I applied to Microsoft via online application with no referral and 2–3 weeks after sending the application, I received an email from a recruiter who was interested in interviewing me and sent me a link to schedule my interview.

I quickly entered my information and the times I was available. Now it was just a matter of time before the first round of interviews. Time to OWN it.

Preparation

Before the phone interview, I had 2 weeks to prepare so I did a little research on Microsoft, such as what they were doing at the time as well as the company itself (values, products, etc). I was also actively searching for companies and had an onsite interview with another company in which I had received an offer from, so I had a feeling of what to expect from the phone interview.

I looked up people’s experience with the phone interviews online (Quora, Glassdoor, blog posts) and questions which might come up.

These three questions are typically asked in design interviews to lead the conversation:

  • Tell me about yourself (your background in design such as how did you get into it)
  • Tell me about xxx project (a rundown of the project; title, what the project is, contribution, bullet point version of process, results, learnings and what you would have done differently, WHY is the project important to you)
  • Why x? (summarize your skills, how can you contribute to the company, are you a culture fit?)

By having a basic understanding of what questions I might be asked, I wrote them down and then bullet pointed experiences (examples of projects, situations in school or from my internships) I could talk about for each question, connect it to Microsoft’s values and convey how I could contribute to the company’s needs.

Phone Interview

I interviewed with a senior interaction designer who is part of the Bing team. From some other people’s experiences, they would interview with a recruiter first to screen applicants but this was not the case for me. I believe they expedited the interview process for whatever reason.

Tell me about yourself

After exchanging basic how are yous, the interviewer immediately asked me to tell me about myself. Because, it was such a broad question, I asked her to clarify a bit more by asking what she wanted to know about me. If you are not sure about answering a question, it never hurts to ask clarifying questions as it shows your thoughtfulness to what the interviewer would want to hear.

Tell me about a project you did

After I told her about how I got into design, she asked me to talk about one of my recent projects at the time. I talked about a start up project I was working on with a team of three designers to connect junior designers with senior designers. I told her about the process of coming up with the idea as well as the overall purpose of why we were designing the product in the first place.

Answer every question like a story

I didn’t just talk about the project; I told a story about how my teammates and I came up with the idea, the struggles we had as a team, how we overcame it, and what I learned from the experience. By framing every answer like a story, the interviewer can relate to you better and it creates a better interview atmosphere. Here is a structure my teacher, Christina Wodtke taught my class to answer questions without having to remember a script: S.T.A.R.

  1. Situation - Explain the experience (context)
  2. Trigger - What was the problem you needed to solve?
  3. Action - The steps you took to solve it
  4. Result - Was the outcome positive or negative? (describe you learned or what you would take away from the experience)

With this method, regardless of the question, I was able to describe a story of facing obstacles which resonated better than giving a straightforward answer. Interviewers want to know about you as a person and why you made the choices you did.

Tell me about a technical problem and how did you overcome it?

Following the question about my project, the interviewer proceeded to ask me a technical problem that occurred in the project and how I approached it. In 5–10 minutes, I told her about the problem of validating our idea and reaching out to our target audience in regards to our value proposition.

I then presented one solution which was where I created a landing page to advertise on Linkedin, Facebook, etc. in order to see if people would be interested based on the number of signups we gathered and from there, found a way to interview them and gain insights on iterating our service.

In the end, I presented my findings, what I learned from overcoming the problem and our team’s next steps. The interviewer asked me questions regarding my idea, such as why was it important and even gave me feedback on next steps which I found very helpful moving forward.

Why do you want to work at Microsoft?

Every company you apply for will ask this question. They want to know how well you align with the company culture and their goals, but the most important thing they want to know is why are you interested.

Would you work well with one of their teams? Does Microsoft have what you need to grow? Do you have skills beneficial to the company? Are you passionate about their problems?

By conveying your interest and honesty to why you want the position, as well as why they should choose you over a bunch of other qualified candidates will go a long way.

Microsoft is known to have lots of benefits as well as enormous brand value. I wanted to be able to go beyond the company name and really understand what I wanted to get out of my internship experience. I looked at the role as well as overall culture to have a better understanding of what to expect and how could I align it with my goals. From my research, I would want to work at Microsoft for a few reasons:

Microsoft is going through a culture change

I would like to experience how they are becoming a company who focuses more on being customer-obsessed, diverse and inclusive.

Microsoft is constantly growing

I want to be able to learn in a fast paced environment which allows me to make quick and calculated decisions.

Microsoft has many talented and smart designers who don’t just have design knowledge, but experience on how design can be used to assess different aspects of the business and consumer

Receiving mentorship is something extremely important to me as I want someone who is very open to giving me honest advice and feedback to grow as a designer. During my last internship, Aviva Rosenstein was an amazing mentor as she wasn’t afraid to give me critical feedback and she always was able to set time to talk to her when I needed advice.

Microsoft has been in the process of moving technology to the Cloud and having it work across all products

They have also been creating products which have the potential to change the way we use software and navigate through technology such as exploring mixed reality with the Hololens. With the way product teams work, there is the opportunity to work on high impact products which are directly related to another product. I want to be able to explore the different technologies and how they relate + work together as one cohesive experience.

I would advise you to have a good idea of why you want to work somewhere before you interview. In fact, not understanding why you want to work at x company is a red flag for not doing your research. It wastes the interviewer’s time if they see you aren’t putting in the effort to know them and shows your lack of respect/enthusiasm for the company.

Do you have any questions for me?

This part is where I had the opportunity to show my interest and passion for Microsoft. I asked my interviewer questions about my role, such as what would be expected of me and how to be a successful intern. I also asked about deliverables and what kinds projects I might be working on to understand how my skills would be a good fit.

Going off from that, I then asked the recruiter about herself; what project she did in last 6 months, why she likes working at Microsoft and what she learned. It was really insightful being able to hear my interviewer talk about her work at Microsoft because I could tell from her voice and the amount of detail she went into describing her work showed me how much she loved working at Microsoft.

I looked at your portfolio and your design work is very thoughtful. I love your aesthetic. You’ll be successful where ever you go and anyone would love to work with you.

Before the call ended, the interviewer shifted the focus back to me and though she didn’t know what the next steps or when Microsoft would be getting back to me, she said some very encouraging things about my work that left an extremely positive atmosphere and was motivation for me to keep producing work that means a lot to me.

Good interviews are a conversation

By showing your passion in the way you tell a story to asking questions to your interviewer, it enhances the overall feeling of an interview to feeling more like a conversation and can lead to the interviewer to passing you because you are not just qualified and good at answering questions, but because of your personality (culture fit) and great communication skills.

The Waiting Game (more e-mails)

Days to turned weeks and weeks turned into almost a month when I received an email from my recruiter, hearing back on my results that I passed and was going Seattle for the final round of interviews!

Good Afternoon,
I wanted to reach out and thank you for taking the time to interview with Microsoft. You did a great job in your interview, and I’m happy to let you know that we would like to have you move on to the final round of interviews!

Because of hectic scheduling, the recruiter told me they had very few opportunities to schedule me for an interview during that month and I would have to wait. I exchanged e-mails with the recruiter to notify her of pending offers I had from other companies and asked if they expedite the process. My recruiter told me she would do her best to accommodate and schedule the interview earlier.

It is important to be very transparent with your recruiter when you have pending offers, so they can do their best to expedite the interview process and allow time for you to decide between multiple offers.

Though, sometimes this doesn’t work and you have to take the other offer, it is MUCH better than rejecting it and counting on the chance to get a “better” offer. After all, job searching is extremely competitive these days and having an internship is better than none.

Eventually, I received an email to prepare for the final interview as well as the date and what to expect on the day of:

I have secured you a space in the next upcoming final round event, scheduled for x/xx/xxxx, and am very excited for you to get the opportunity to show your work to our broader design teams! Schedulers will be reaching out shortly to arrange travel and accommodations if needed.

All of the waiting paid off; I WAS GOING TO SEATTLE!!

More Preparation

The big focus will be on the 45–50 min. long portfolio presentation in the morning, as this will be your introduction of your work and design ethos to the interviewers.

Using the presentation guide I received as a reference, I prepared vigorously for the onsite, setting some time aside from schoolwork to prepare my presentation and practice presenting to my peers. I received feedback from my awesome network of classmates and teachers. I do not think I would have learned about my work or refined my presentation as much if I didn’t ask for help.

Microsoft wanted to see the breadth and depth of my process, my contribution to the projects and frame it in a way of overcoming great obstacles. They wanted to see me cover a wide range of problems and the outcomes which resulted from them.

A few weeks before the interview, a travel specialist prepared everything regarding my flight, hotel and whether or not I wanted a rental car. I filled out a travel form that required my basic information as well as dates and times for my flights. Once I finished the form, Microsoft made all of my arrangements.

Before D-Day

I took an Uber to the airport where I took an 2 hour afternoon flight to Seattle. Once I got to the hotel, I told the receptionist I had a reservation and when she found my name, she immediately greeted me by welcoming me on behalf of Microsoft and the hotel (SO cool). She explained how the room service and food was all paid for by Microsoft as long as I kept the receipts. The cost of transportation was unlimited so I could take as many Uber or taxi rides as I wanted.

I received my hotel key and went up to my room where I explored the hotel room. It was pretty nice and had a pretty decent view of city buildings!

Got a room with two beds!

By the time I settled down, it was already 3:30pm. I decided to go downtown to explore Pike Place Market.

Let me just say, the traffic going from Bellevue to Downtown Seattle during rush hour was TORTURE. It took me a hour to get to Pike Place Market. By the time I arrived, most places were beginning to close. In the end, I only went to a few places such as Piroshki Piroshki where they sell piroshki, fried buns with fillings inside.

For dinner, I went to a French restaurant. Let’s just say I ate pretty fancy that night with the budget Microsoft gave me. After a satisfying dinner, I went back to the hotel where I practiced my presentation. I prepared to defend my design decisions and other questions I would be asked on the big day.

Day of Interviews

I woke up at 5am to get dressed and prepare my presentation. I had to check into Microsoft by 9:30am, but I wanted as much time to present before I had to leave. The night before, I ordered room service (because free meal and YOLO), so at around 5:40am, breakfast was brought to me and after I finished eating an overpriced filling meal, I practiced 3–5 more times.

Overpriced meal but it was very filling and Microsoft provided

At around 8:30am, I ordered Uber and proceeded to go to the Microsoft campus. I left relatively early in case there would be traffic and there was, of course. As I was getting closer to my destination, I saw buildings. I didn’t know those were Microsoft buildings until I entered the campus, but they were was HUGE. The driver had a bit of trouble finding the right building, as there were lots of numbers, but I eventually arrived.

Each one of Microsoft’s buildings looked like it could be a building for ONE decently sized company

I entered the building of where I would have my interviews and I got my name badge at the reception. As I was about to go into the area where all the other interviewees, I asked the receptionist if I could take a pen or two as a souvenir. After taking some pens (I took a lot more later haha), I went to the meeting space where there were other candidates around my age or older hanging around and talking. There was a wide spread of coffee, drinks and food for the candidates as well as an area to play X-Box and go on a PC. This space was where interviewees would be called for their interviews as well as dropped off to take a 15 minute break between interviews.

Overall, I noticed that there were a lot of people applying for the full time UX designer position while I barely was able to find people applying for the UX design intern position like myself. Some of the people I met would be the people I hung out with and talked to between breaks. Before 10am, recruiters were greeting the candidates and giving us a rundown of how the rest of the day was going to look.

Portfolio Presentation

Once it was 10am, my interviewer called me and took me to a room where I would be presenting my work to her and two other designers from different teams. She told me that the presentation was informal and reassured me not to worry. It wasn’t specified as to what team I would be working with until after the interview. I presented for 30 minutes with a good amount of time saved for Q and A.

It’s important to show your design work where interviewers can understand how you interact on a day to day basis and your problem solving skills.

They want to see a breadth and depth of different work and process. Make sure to stand behind your decisions, show that you are able learn from feedback and I think one of the most important things which may make or break your presentation is whether or not you have an understanding of is the fundamental design principals to support your design style.

At the end of the presentation, the interviewers asked me questions regarding my projects, such as clarifying whether or not I shipped product (which I did), and asking about what my contributions were for each project. They also asked some questions about my design decisions in which they didn’t ask too much in detail, just a lot of general questions regarding my technical skills and process. Overall, they wanted to know the outcome, the tradeoffs of WHY I did something and how was that beneficial to solving the problem, rather than the WHAT.

Lunch

After the portfolio review, we had a hour left until lunch, so I chatted with people I met in the morning. The time in-between interviews is a great opportunity to network with other people, especially when the candidate pool for big companies is high and extremely competitive. I was able to meet super passionate and talented designers.

The design industry is small, so by connecting with the people you meet, chances are, you’ll probably meet them again

At 12pm, a recruiter and some employees came and led us to the cafeteria to get food. The cafeteria was HUGE. It was like a mall, where there was a plethora of food choices as well as other stores in it. The food isn’t free, but it is subsidized. We received a meal card to purchase food with and if we wanted more food, we could get more cards. My new friend and I ordered Thai food and it was pretty good in terms of size and quality! There was no lunch interview with your interviewers like in some other people’s experiences, but instead, candidates and some of the employees ate together.

After lunch, we went back the interview building and waited until our first interviewer came to pick us up individually.

Every interview was different in regards to the structure and the kind of questions I received. Because it won’t be fair to the interviewers, I will not disclose specific questions as they were unique to my interview or the people who interviewed onsite.

1st Interview

In the first interview, my interviewer asked me to describe a team project and how I contributed to it. I went to my website to show her one of my pieces where I described to her my role as a leader of the group and each part of the process. I could have described how I specifically contributed to each step but I did not. The next part of the interview was to a whiteboard challenge where I had to design an improved experience for an app. From here, I asked clarifying questions to understand the problem better as well as talked about my design out loud.

I framed the process like this: problem, user, value of product, persona (assuming i had research insights), mapping out current experience, finding pain points and opportunities and brainstorming key features. This process does not apply to every problem but based on the information I was given and being able to brainstorm different solutions in the time given.

Everyone has a different design process depending on the context you are given and being able to show your framework of analyzing the problem is more beneficial than solving the problem

After the exercise, the interviewer asked “Do you have questions for me?” and I asked her questions about her role and what would be expected of me. I would say this interview ended on a pretty good note and we left the conference room to go back to the waiting room.

2nd Interview

The second interview was probably one of the most “casual”, but challenging interviews I had. At first the interviewer asked if I had questions for him and then when I was done, I was ultimately given one extremely open-ended question which would then be used to ask other questions.

Along with the one open-ended question and the questions relating to that, the interviewer asked me to show a project that was related to my design statement, why I wanted to intern at Microsoft and how did they align with my goals. I explained how I wanted to able to work with a wide range of different designers and people from different backgrounds as well as the mentorship. I also talked about wanting to work on products which have an impact on many people and being able to create new meanings and uses through the continued use of their products. The interview ended with me asking questions to my interviewer in which some of the questions were a little unrelated to my role or the interviewers role.

What kind of designer am I?

I believe the overall interview could have been better in that I do more research on the company, read more on design in general and the most important thing, think about what kind of designer I am. What problems do I want to solve? What are my strengths? I still don’t quite know what I want to do specifically and how I could use my strengths to contribute to what the company is currently doing. Also thinking thoroughly about the questions I was given and asking clarifying questions before answering would be something to do moving forward.

3rd Interview

The third interviewer was focused on my technical skills as a designer. I was asked what my strengths and weaknesses are, the kinds of tools I used and what my design style was. I provided examples to products related to my style and why they were successful in doing what they do. We then talked about design trade offs, where the interviewer used my example of a design feature I mentioned before and presented a problem with a particular design feature. I was to provide alternatives around the problem and I answered with examples of other UI features I remembered through research and use of apps.

The other interviewers and I really want to know: Do you want to focus on more UX research or UX design in the future?

This question was really important as it showed how much I must have emphasized my research work to the point where it sounded like I was applying for the UX research intern position instead. It also made me realize I might not have been clear on my UX strengths and what problems I was passionate solving for.

After this question, I was asked on what products I would like to work on and if I had any questions for my interviewer.

Despite how good the conversation is with your interviewer, you are in an extremely professional situation where it is make or break.

Overall, I think I did a pretty good job on being able to explain my technical skills, but I definitely need to look at the job description more, highlight my strengths better with regards to UX and how that was conveyed through my design work. I made a little mistake where I felt too comfortable with the interviewer and ended up asking a question that was not related to the job or Microsoft AT ALL and also asking a question about how I didn’t know about one of their products.

After the interview was done, I was sent to the waiting room where the interviewer told me I would receive an e-mail with the results in the next week or two.

After Interviews

My new friends and I went downtown to explore Seattle. We met my friend’s friend where she took us to a Japanese restaurant and gave us a list of where to explore after dinner.

After dinner, we went for ice cream, drove to the Starbucks Reserve, Space Needle and then to Kerry Park where we saw the beautiful skyline of the city. We definitely bonded through our passion for design and I think being able to meet them was one of the best parts of the interview experience.

We have kept in contact since that day and I believe we will all see each other soon.

The beautiful skyline of Seattle; a perfect way to end the night!

What I aimed to accomplish

I had small goals where I wanted to make connections with new people, understand Microsoft better in terms of employees and the culture, presenting confidently, answering questions and understanding the overall interview process. I can say I met all of those goals and that I have improved more from them than if I were just aiming for the job.

Never think about how SURE you are going to get the job until you get it.

Job hunting and getting the job is an extremely competitive process so even when you do get a job, definitely do not take it for granted. I was originally going to decline all of my other offers for Microsoft, but as a student, the internship doesn’t matter too much as long as you get one, and despite getting so far into the process, there was no guarantee I would get the job in the first place. In the end, it is more important to learn from the opportunity you are presented with rather than dropping it all to chase one.

Learnings

Huge presence of Microsoft in Seattle

When Uber/taxi drivers asked me what I was doing in Seattle and I said I had an interview, they immediately assumed it was Microsoft.

The company itself

Microsoft still feels quite corporate despite being in the process of changing their culture. When I talked to my interviewers and the emails I received from multiple recruiters, I could definitely feel an bureaucratic vibe where people often move in-between the ladder to make decisions, which is probably why the interview process with Microsoft was so slow.

Amazing pool of candidates

Because Microsoft is a huge company, it attracts top talent. I was able to meet people doing amazing things and having a big penchant for design. I feel so thankful to have met my new friends and they are definitely people I look up to for feedback or advice because they have had lots of experience and are not afraid to share their tips. Being apart of a open, growing community where people encourage each other feels so amazing and I want to be a person who people can come to for help or encouragement. There is no need to create competition amongst your peers if no one is able to learn and grow from one another .As a designer, it is not all about you, but the community you surround yourself with and the ability to create relationships with others.

Preparation goes a long way

I prepared a few weeks before the interview and that really helped me be calm and composed during the interviews, as well as have a better understanding of who I was as a designer through my work and how to express that.

Seattle has bad traffic

The one thing I did not enjoy too much during the trip was the traffic. It was hard to get anywhere on time unless you planned accordingly in which I learned to do after the first day of my trip.

Takeaway

Overall, I learned lot about the interview process, made new connections with employees and friends, and opened new opportunities for my career. In the end, the most important thing for me was having fun during the process and enjoying my trip.

Final Thoughts

Getting to your dream or goal is a process. It doesn’t always happen right away but eventually if you put your mind to it, along with determination, hard work and luck, you’ll get there, one way or another. You might just not get there now.

My Microsoft experience was a learning opportunity and the main goal was to have fun, keep an open mind to learn and constantly be curious. Even if I don’t get the offer, there is still so much for me to improve on instead of being complacent where I am. I am really grateful to Microsoft for giving me the opportunity to notice my potential and challenge myself, as well as being able to interview in a company I admire so much and would want to work for in the future.

If you have any questions about design, message me on LinkedIn and I’ll write about it!

To help you get started on owning your design career, here are some amazing tools from Rookieup, a site I used to get mentorship from senior designers: