Audio: Domina McQuade, Microsoft: How To Smash a Microsoft Interview

Domina McQuade, Microsoft: How To Smash a Microsoft Interview

By Jomiro Eming

What does it take to get a job at Microsoft?

Domina McQuade is Lead Technical Recruiter for Microsoft Data centers and has been recruiting for Microsoft’s tech and data teams for the past three years. She says that doubling down on networking and levelling up your LinkedIn profile can help developers and engineers land an interview with her. In this article, she discusses how her hiring teams test for six core competencies with everyone they interview, and shares some tips on how job-seekers can smash an interview at Microsoft.

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Domina is a full-cycle recruiter at Microsoft, which means she oversees all parts of the hiring process, from sourcing candidates through to their orientation day. Her position means that she has a really good idea of what success looks like at each step for a candidate, namely: Getting the chance to interview, and then going through Microsoft’s interview loop of between four and five interviews.

  • Landing the interviews: Microsoft relies on both in-bound and out-bound recruitment. Doing an online application is hard to get better at, so Domina suggests focusing on being discovered by her team. She says that doubling down on building your networks and beefing-up your LinkedIn profile can greatly increase your chances of being approached by a Microsoft recruiter.
  • Smashing the interviews: Once you’ve got the interview, there are a few things you could practise to showcase your ability in the six core competencies that Domina’s team is trained to look out for. Getting this right, she says, means you’re more likely to smash your interview and leave an impression that gets you an offer!

Here are some tips and tricks that Domina recommends in order to land and smash a technical interview at big tech companies like Microsoft.

‘Getting in’: How to land the interviews

Big tech companies get hundreds of thousands of applications. Microsoft uses three streams for their recruitment and candidate sourcing, which Domina outlines as online applicants, referrals, and LinkedIn scouring.

Online applications might be the easiest thing you can do right now to reach out to a company and showcase your experience and qualifications – but because everyone else is doing it too, it’s really hard to stand out from thousands of applications.

Domina says that developers and engineers can get an edge by being referred and discovered by Microsoft’s out-bound recruitment: “You’ll show up higher on recruiters searches, and you’ll have recruiters reaching out to you instead of you having to apply online”.

Here’s how job-seekers can do this:

Build your networks, get referrals

Domina says that referrals are still one of the best ways to land an interview in general. Whether at Microsoft, or any other company, referrals not only get you to ‘the front of the queue’, but recruiters and hiring managers trust referrals more than they do blind applications. She says, “Because there’s someone else that’s currently on our team vouching for your experience, your work ethic – all of those things that take us a little while to interview for – statistically, you’re more likely to have a successful on-site interview”.

In order to increase your chances of being referred, you need to build a solid network of contacts. Domina suggests tapping into, growing, and leveraging your network by reconnecting with past school connections and colleagues. “Think about who you went to school with, who you’ve had past work experiences with and start there.”

By connecting in this way, you get to tap into new networks of people who can genuinely vouch for you and your strengths. These are also the kinds of people who can then vouch for the smaller things that might not be on your CV – things like what it’s like to work with you, what they admire about you, and their first impression of you from way back .

Or, if your old connections don’t prove fruitful, Domina suggests reaching out to people who are in a position at a company that you can see yourself fulfilling, and picking their brains: “Say, ‘Hey, this is my dream job. I’m really impressed by X on your profile – would you be open to me buying you a cup of coffee and picking your brain?‘. By doing this, you can artificially make some of those connections”.

Good referrals, Domina says, are something recruiters often use when trying to source candidates with high potentials for success: “A lot of times,” Domina says, “the referrer will help by ‘selling us’ on the candidate”.

Level up your LinkedIn profile

Another thing you can control is your LinkedIn profile. Domina says that sourcing candidates on LinkedIn is a major part of Microsoft’s out-bound recruitment. What makes it hard, though, is how many profiles are out there, and how little time recruiters spend looking at them: “Statistically, when people are looking at resumes, they spend about 45 seconds on each,” she explains. “I’d argue that recruiters probably spend even less time on a LinkedIn profile, just because it’s so easy to click through them.”

As a result, crafting the perfect LinkedIn profile is crucial if you want recruiters to see the information they’re looking for. Domina has a few tips to help candidates beef up and improve their LinkedIn discoverability:

Maximise job-specific keywords: Domina’s team uses LinkedIn Talent Insights, which enables them to search by keywords. To use this to your advantage, she suggests “looking at the job descriptions that you’re interested in, scrolling all the way to the bottom of the basic qualifications section, taking those keywords, and infusing them into your profile”. By including these keywords in your profile summary, in the experience, and endorsement, and skills sections, Domina says that you’re more likely to appear in the top results of a recruiter’s LinkedIn search.

Pick a picture that makes you easy to identify: Microsoft has been very deliberate about removing as much bias from their recruitment as possible, but having a picture that’s easily identifiable makes it easier for the team when it comes to meeting you.. “I really try to coach my teams not to use the picture too much,” she says, “but when a candidate is coming to an on-site interview, and you’re like, ‘Is that the person I’m meeting with?’ it can be awkward.I find that it removes the awkwardness if both people’s LinkedIn pictures actually look like them”.

What’s more, Domina says that your picture can also give a recruiter a sense of who you are: “I like pictures that show a little bit of personality. I saw one the other day from a chief-of-staff that I used to work with, and it’s of him laughing. It shows him as a person. He’s this chief-of-staff, in this high up role, but you can tell by that picture that he doesn’t let the stress get to him”.

Show some personality: You can also show more of your personality throughout your LinkedIn profile too. Domina says that it leaves an impression on a recruiter when coming across things that are not only related to technical qualifications: “I love coming across those LinkedIns where you get a sense of not only their technical capabilities, but their personality too.” It helps a recruiter imagine what that candidate is like, and what they might bring to the culture of a team. “When you’re hiring,” she explains, “you want to hire people that you like working with, because you spend a lot of time with your coworkers.” A little extra detail – such as hobbies, humour, or ‘did you knows?’ – can also go a long way in helping you stand out.

Avoid the fluff: On the flip side, adding too much detail is going to work against you. As mentioned earlier, Domina says that recruiters do not spend that long looking at LinkedIn profiles. If a recruiter doesn’t get the details they need, they move on: “So you need to be able to bull it out or have those big things that make you stick out so that somebody can understand your story really quickly.”

Domina has found that candidates who follow these steps are usually more successful in landing a job interview at big tech companies like Microsoft. Once you’re in, though, Domina also some advice on how to actually smash the interview and land a job offer.

‘Staying in’: How to nail the interviews

Domina says that the interviews she conducts are based on Microsoft’s six core competencies. Although her team looks closely at technical ability, these six competencies are what’s going to land you an offer: “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: “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. The more specific, the better.
  • 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 Domina says big tech companies like hers look at 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.”

In order to test for these, Domina and her team use behavioural-based questions and whiteboard coding. Here are some insights into how and why she does this, and some tips on how you can prepare for these tests:

Behavioural-based questions

‘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:

“It’s trying to get the candidate to give an example of where they’ve shown that particular trait. So, if an interviewer is testing for collaboration, instead of asking ‘How would you rate your collaboration on a scale of X to Y?’, they ask, ‘Tell me about a time you collaborated on a team, or about a time where you had some sort of conflict on a team’”.

This allows candidates to demonstrate real-life experience, and gives Domina insight into how a candidate responds and behaves in different scenarios.

To answer these well, Domina suggests the following tips for improved preparation:

  • Prepare five really good examples: It’s almost impossible to anticipate which scenarios you might be asked about, and it’s likely that you’ll struggle to remember any when you’re nervous if you don’t prepare. So, Domina suggests picking five examples of things that you’ve had to work through which show where you excelled, as well as where you worked through some of your weaknesses. This shows the interviewer that you’re able to learn from past experiences and improve.
  • Use the STAR method: Rather than giving general answers, and nervously talking through an entire situation before getting to the point of a story, Domina encourages candidates to use the STAR method: situation, task, action and results. Structuring your answers in this way that makes it really easy for interviewers to follow your story, and identify the areas in which you displayed certain traits. “That gives you a lot more credibility,” she says. “Where I find people make mistakes is either that their answers are too generic, or they ramble and it turns into a 30-minute long answer.”

Whiteboard coding

Domina says that, because writing code out by hand isn’t something any developers ever does outside of interviews, it’s absolutely crucial to prepare for whiteboard interviews. For her team, whiteboard interviews offer useful insights into the inner workings of a developer’s mind, and how they approach or think about coding problems.

At Microsoft, whiteboard interviews are set up as broader problem-solving questions: “We ask some sort of technical problem-solving type of question, that either involves design, or coding, or both. So, with that, we actually want you to ask clarifying questions to figure out all the requirements, and uncover any missing information. A big mistake I see is people just making assumptions, and jumping into coding what they think an interviewer is asking – and then they get it wrong”.

To perform better in whiteboard interviews, Domina says practise is absolutely key:

  • Practise writing out code by hand: “You’re not coding from memory on a whiteboard typically in your day job,” she says, “so even just practicing it at home helps a lot”. An easy hack is to spend 30 minutes in the evenings writing out code you’ve written that day, or creating your own ‘problem questions’ and pretending you’re interviewing yourself.
  • Practise talking out loud while you write code: Writing code from memory is difficult enough, but Domina says that being able to talk through your thought process is just as important: “It engages the interviewer,” she explains. “At Microsoft, if an interviewer sees you going down the wrong path, they’ll actually give you hints to redirect you to get back. If you’re not talking out loud and sharing your thought process, then you don’t even have the opportunity to get those hints.”

At the end of the day, however, just being as authentic as you can will get your further than any amount of experience on your CV ever could. Domina says that if nothing else, she coaches her hiring teams to seek coachability, and look for candidates who show drive and passion even where they are open about their weaknesses.

Her advice is that, “If you show that eagerness to learn throughout the interview, that goes a long way. Even if you don’t know something, and you say, ‘I haven’t had a lot of experience, but I’m really excited to grow my knowledge there’, You’d be surprised how far that takes you”.

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.)

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