Domina McQuade is Lead Technical Recruiter for Microsoft’s tech and data teams, and has learned that hiring the best developers requires a world-class interviewing process. To do this well, her recruitment team focuses on sourcing and screening the best developers, a well-designed interview loop process, an internal debrief session, and building your hiring reputation.
She talks us through what Microsoft’s interviewing process looks like, why it’s set up the way it is, and how she thinks about each stage.
Domina has been recruiting for Microsoft’s tech and data teams for the past three years. There, she’s been a full-cycle recruiter, which means she oversees all parts of the hiring process, from sourcing candidates through to their orientation day. Her position has enabled her to get a great oversight of what success looks like at each step of the process.
But what sets Microsoft’s hiring process apart?
Overall, Domina and her team’s ability to hire the best tech talent comes down to two things: a structured approach that tests for a candidate’s core competencies as well as their technical ability, and a core focus on candidate experience.
“You’d be shocked at how often a candidate’s experience in the interview ends up being an attractor, or a detractor,” Domina explains.
“I’ve had candidates tell me about other companies, where they got ‘waterboarded’ for a day, and ultimately chose my offer, for less money because of the ‘meh’ experience they had at another company.”
To understand how each step is designed, and what her team does to make it really effective, Domina discusses Microsoft’s four-step hiring process in detail. The steps are, in order:
- Tech talent sourcing and screening (recruiter)
- Technical assessment and screening (hiring manager)
- In-person interview rounds
- Internal hiring team debrief session
- Building a hiring reputation
Teach talent sourcing and screening (recruiter)
At Microsoft, Domina says any recruitment process tends to start with one of three ‘streams’ for talent sourcing, namely:
- Online applications from people applying via Microsoft’s job page, for example.
- Referrals from current Microsoft employees, or people within a recruiter’s network.
- LinkedIn searches, where Domina’s team uses tool like LinkedIn’s Talent Insights function to conduct out-bound candidate sourcing.
Online applications tend to be where the most tech talent sits, but they require the most heavy-lifting for Domina’s hiring team. Often she says that they’re a hit-or-miss: “On the bright side, you know that they’re interested in your company, so you don’t have to do as much selling; but the downside is you get a lot of people that apply who aren’t quite qualified.”
Statistically, Domina has found that referrals still have the highest rate of successful hires, and is where a lot of Microsoft’s hiring energy is focused. This is because they are not only more likely to fit the culture of that particular team because of their networks, but referrals also make the hiring process much faster for the recruitment team:
“We’ll often have an idea of their work ethic and their competencies, so they tend to do better in interviews.” Domina explains. Referrals come from past experience, or known qualities, which help inform her hiring team of some traits they have already shown. “They’re also typically easier to close, because they already have a friend they know there, so there’s that sense of, ‘If I go there, I’ll fit in’. Plus, they’re easier to close because the person referring them usually does some kind of ‘side selling’ on behalf of the hiring team.”
Some advice she has for encouraging referrals is to build internal referrals contests, whereby team members are given rewards or badges for referrals that turn into hires. Alternatively, she’s also seen companies host ‘referral lunches’: “A manager, for example, would take everyone who referred a hire out for lunch. So, you get some face-time with a leader in your company. There’s a lot of creative things you can do if you don’t have a lot of budget to increase referrals.”
Mining LinkedIn is one way of reaching-out to top tech talent, but Domina’s team uses the LinkedIn Talent Insights tool built into the app. This tool’s data insights on the market helps her team understand how they need to adjust their scorecard to fill that role with the top tech talent available:
“Talent Insights basically takes all the data of everyone on LinkedIn, and breaks down all kinds of cool data: How much is male versus female? Where is that talent located? You can also see trends of your competitors, and what companies are hiring the most of that talent.”
Another benefit for Domina’s hiring team is that they are able to do specific keyword searches relating to the tech talent they need, and halve the number of profiles they need to look at. For example, if a candidate needs to be in Redmond and know basic Python, Talent Insights can pick out those keywords from someone’s bio, experience, and education, and only display candidates who match those keywords exactly. You can also filter out certain keywords to get an even more specific search result.
Online/telephonic recruiter screening
All three of the streams above turn into an online or telephonic screening with one of Microsoft’s internal recruiters: “What I do in that first conversation,” Domina explains, “is: I focus on trying to uncover what’s motivating them to talk to me at all.” Candidate experience lies at the heart of Microsoft’s recruitment experience, and taking this approach not only helps make a candidate feel like you’ve considered them, and it also informs the rest of the interview process. By knowing what a candidate wants, Domina’s team can can clearly communicate how the company does and doesn’t meet those expectations - so that the hire can be the best possible fit.
“You need to give them something - a better title, more money, more growth paths,” she says. “So I just try to figure out what’s important to them, and once I do that I can relay it to the rest of my team, and we sell on that through the whole process.”
Online/telephonic hiring manager screening (hiring manager)
Once a recruiter has had a successful screening, they share their learnings from their interaction with the relevant hiring manager - this includes a candidate’s goals, reasons for moving job if relevant, and some noticeable takeaway traits. The hiring manager then has an online or telephonic screening as well, which takes two forms depending on whether the candidate is a junior or a senior programmer: An online technical assessment or an hour-long remote meeting respectively.
The reason for this differentiation is that, in Domina’s experience, seniors don’t consider online technical assessments to be a true reflection of their experience in areas like leadership, for example. She explains: “They need a little more ‘wooing’, and selling, and a personalised type of process.”
For juniors, though, the online technical assessment helps Domina’s hiring team remove as much bias from their recruitment as possible. A candidate often has abilities that go beyond their CV, and by doing an online screening like a technical test, Domina has seen rock-star candidates shine through, where they otherwise might not have been afforded the opportunity to:
“One fun story was a candidate who worked at Pizza Hut, but he had a master’s - or maybe even a PhD - but his resume said Pizza Hut. How many managers do you think would have given that person a chance? But doing the online tech screening, he made it through. Interviews went well, and what ended up happening is the guy had two promotions in less than a year.”
In-person interview loop
After both the recruiter’s the hiring manager’s screens, Domina’s team invites a candidate for an in-person ‘interview loop’. This loop is done in one day, and comprises of between four and five interviews in total. The day is split into a morning and an afternoon session: The morning session normally tests for coding, design, and problem-solving abilities, and the second-half of the day tests for Microsoft’s six core competencies:
“Being a strong coder and designer is obviously important; but what is more important is what we call core competencies.”
Some examples of core competencies Microsoft looks for are:
- Adaptability: “The tech industry is changing so quickly that we need developers that are adaptable to changing technologies, environments and circumstances,” Domina explains. “The language you specialise in coding now could be irrelevant in 10 years.” Being able to show specific examples of when you’ve been able to pivot or adapt in the past will give the interviewers an idea of how you’ll act in the future.
- Collaboration: Domina’s team wants people who are good team players and can work across different teams or organisations successfully. “Part of our reviews,” she says, “are actually based on how we made others better. We don’t want brilliant people who can’t be team players.”
- Customer-centric: Whether or not a candidate thinks about a customer’s needs during problem solving, is another area that Domina says big tech companies look for core competency skills: “Are you anticipating customer needs or expectations? Can you give examples of when you put customer needs first or solved a customer pain point? We want people who put the customer first.”
The focus for the interview loops is the candidate’s experience. Domina and her team recognise that every candidate they interact with is almost always also a customer: “If they have a terrible experience with Microsoft in an interview, and they’re our customer, that’s bad news.”
For this reason, Domina schedules a prep-call with the candidate before the interview loop, does an entire interview loop in one day, and uses behavioural-based questions that encourage candidates to show examples of where their abilities shine through. These help candidates feel better prepared for their interview day, as opposed to arriving nervous or stressed where they won’t be able to do their best.
The prep call takes a candidate through logistics for the day - things like where to park, and who they’re going to be meeting when they arrive - which Domina says really helps a candidate feel confident on the day, and gives the opportunity to prepare:
“Those details matter. It can make the difference between them showing up at the interview and being really stressed, or being like, ‘I got this. I know I’m going to park here, I’m going to walk through that door, and I’m going to ask for this person.’ If they can prep, they can look up the people they’re meeting on LinkedIn and see what their background is like, see if they have some common ground. It can make the difference between somebody being successful in an interview day or not.”
Meeting a candidate on a human and genuine level in that prep call will make them feel a lot more comfortable when it actually comes to their interview day: “I tell candidates on that prep call, ‘If you get flustered or feel like you’ve messed up one round, the interviewer should be asking you for breaks. Just center yourself, refocus, and start fresh.’ I also make sure the interviewers are prepared by telling them to let candidates grab a glass of water, use the restroom, and give them a chance to collect themselves for the next round.”
One-day interview loop
Instead of stretching a round of interviews over a few weeks, Domina and her team do four to five interviews in one day, all with different interviewers. This, she says, comes down to their focus on candidate experience and efficiency:
“From the candidate experience perspective, they only have to take one day off of work to meet with the team, as opposed to multiple days. Also, if you drag those five interviews over a few weeks, it extends the time to fill the role. So, it’s efficiency on both sides.”
Having multiple people from multiple different roles involved in interviewing also means that a candidate is reviewed more objectively. As a result, the interview loop can better be designed to suit the candidate’s unique context: “It’s usually a mixture of contributors, people that would be peers to that person, managers, and then a ‘high up’ leader. I also try to mirror the loop to be like the person: So a female candidate in an all-male loop, statistically, has a lower closing-rate. So if it’s a female candidate, I’ll put another woman, or multiple women, in the loop.”
She also mentions how the interview loop is set up in the prep-call with a candidate. Candidates know roughly what to expect, can prepare for the different interviews a little, get advice from Domina on certain questions they have, and are thus less likely to arrive on the day feeling overwhelmed.
‘Normal’ interview questions, Domina says, tend to be straightforward and expect a one word or ‘yes-no’ answer. When it comes to testing for core competencies, however, she tries to ask questions that give her deeper insights into situational behaviours and responses:
“We frame it - not in a ‘yes or no’ type of question - in an open-ended question. We ask them for an example from their past work history where they’ve exemplified that skill. So, ‘Tell me about a team where you had to collaborate to be successful’, or ‘Tell me about a time where you failed and what you learned from it.’ Those types of questions go a lot deeper.”
This allows candidates to demonstrate real-life experience, and gives Domina insight into how a candidate responds and behaves in different scenarios.
Internal hiring team debrief session
Previously, Domina’s team would enter their feedback onto a form after every round of an interview, so that other interviewer’s could see what feedback a candidate was receiving. Recently, however, Microsoft has worked towards removing as much bias as they can in those interviews, so that candidate’s are given a fairer and more accurate chance.
Now, Domina and her team interview candidates ‘blindly’, so that they can make a decision based purely on their own experience of that candidate. She says, “Other than the hiring manager, nobody can see the interview feedback throughout the day. If the first interviewer says it is a ‘no hire’ - when two of your peers, or even maybe someone higher than you said ‘no hire’ - it’s really hard as an interviewer to not take that into account when making your decision.”
Instead, feedback on a candidate’s interview loop is shared during a 30-minute internal debrief session. This gives them a chance to see on which areas candidates excelled, and not be influenced by each other’s feedback during the day. Domina’s team shares what they thought a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses were, whether they thought it was a hire or not, and why.
These debrief sessions include two intentional features, namely:
- The least-experienced person goes first: As with the example of an interviewer being influenced by previous data, letting the least experienced interviewer share their feedback first means they’re less likely to change their feedback based on what a senior said before them. “Even though we have a collaborative culture, there’s something mentally about that. It’s hard for someone that’s one level or multiple levels down in seniority to go against that senior.”
- ‘Coachable’ is a trait worth exploring: If Domina sees an area where a candidate could be trained, she takes the time to explore whether that person has the ability to learn, or if they might be better suited for another role: “I ask questions like, ‘Okay, this person isn’t a senior, but could we hire them as an intermediate software engineer, and grow them to that level?’ Sometimes they find that somebody’s a hire for Microsoft, but not this particular team. That’s where I can get good notes, and then refer them to another team.”
But Microsoft’s hiring process doesn’t end there: Once a candidate has finished their round of interviews, Domina’s team uses that chance to ask them how they felt it went.
Building a hiring reputation
Asking candidates for feedback after they’ve completed their interview loop is an important step for Domina: “At the end of the day, after five interviews, a lot of them come out being energised and excited about the team. The more you can make that experience positive… I mean, it’s their first taste of what working for your company is going to be like. So give them an experience.”
Not only does it give her valuable information about how they can improve a candidate’s experience, but it has real business value that can give you something your competitors don’t have: “If ever I hear bad feedback, then it’s a coaching opportunity for me to coach that leader, or that manager. If candidates aren’t coming out of our interviews excited and wanting to work here, it’s a competitive disadvantage.”
To do this effectively, Domina encourages her teams to ask things like “How was your experience?”, “What are your thoughts on the role? Or of the team?”, “Do you love it? Do you hate it? Are you ‘meh’?” Doing this helps build a robust hiring reputation, and means that even candidates who aren’t offered a job leave feeling like they’ve been able to learn something, and contribute to a company of which they are inevitably also customers.
To follow more of what Domina shares online, or get in touch with her about advice for when it comes to interviewing at big tech companies, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.
(Please note: These are Domina’s own opinions, and are not necessarily those of Microsoft.)