Recently, I interviewed for a new role within Microsoft. As is the norm here, the last 15 minutes of the interview allows the interviewee to ask questions of the interviewer. I usually ask the same two questions of each interviewer:
1. What do you think makes a good <insert position name here>?
2. Why did you choose to work for this group and what are your most and least favorite things about the group?
I was having a conversation about how my interviews were going with a co-worker and they asked me what my answers to those two questions would be. I thought it might make an interesting blog post as I am regularly asked by the high school and college students I speak to at Microsoft events about what they can do to “get into Microsoft” or the skills required to do my job. Many people think you need a ton of fancy degrees and certifications or loads of external work experience, and all of those definitely help.
But as I thought about how I would answer the two questions though, it became clear to me that question number one is an easy answer that’s becoming increasingly hard to find in potential candidates I speak with. So anyways, here are my answers to the question one above. Keep in mind this is MY opinion and doesn’t have any bearing on the way groups inside of Microsoft hire.
What do you think makes a good support engineer?
For me, this is relatively simple, it comes down to two traits and I think one trait begets the other. You must have a passion for technology first and foremost. I’m not talking about someone who “likes” technology and buys a lot of gadgets, although that’s not a bad start. I’m speaking of someone who lives and breaths technology. Someone who looks for interesting ways to make technology more a part of their lives or even define solutions for problems in their lives with technological answers. Does this mean that the person doesn’t interact with humans? Hardly. You still need to be able to speak to people (respectfully I might add), but I want you to be as comfortable speaking to a machine as a person. And I would prefer that you’re comfortable doing that with any machine and not just a computer. As an example, we recently got new phones here at work and I spent the better part of my lunch hour just trying to reprogram the ringtones (harder than it sounds) so that it would be annoying to the co-worker that sits across from me – sorry Scott. It should have been as easy as adding that dog whistle ringtone to the list, but once it wasn’t, I dug into the phone and its software and tried to modify the WAV file to match the bitrate that the phone application was looking for in an attempt to get it to work. It’s a small, childish example, but many people are prone to just get their phone, plug it in and make calls on it. I want someone who wants to play with the device to see how it works, even if for nefarious means.
The second trait is the ability to troubleshoot. As I said, I think an interest in technology begets an interest in troubleshooting and vice versa. However this is becoming increasingly rare to find in candidates that I speak to. There are plenty of brilliant people out there, most much more so than me, but if you cant troubleshoot, you cant do my job no matter how intelligently gifted you are. Microsoft, like many tech companies, we’re fairly notorious for asking questions about manhole covers, light bulbs and moving Mt. Fuji. While we don’t really ask questions like that any longer (it’s a shame if you ask me), but we do still test your ability to troubleshoot. I recently did a round of interviews of college candidates and the skill I am usually assigned to interview on is “problem solving”. A question I love for this is an oldie but goody: “How do you troubleshoot a keyboard?”. I love this question because of the possibilities of it and it does give you information on how much a particular person has “played” with computers throughout their lives. Do they even think about PS2? Do they try other devices, computers or combinations? How do they test the keyboard they have in the scenario is good by itself? I get all sorts of answers but rarely does someone give me more than 3-4 attempts before saying it must be a hardware problem and to buy a new keyboard. While I agree, that’s a fine answer, I really want someone who is going to exhaust every possibility they can (and maybe the aforementioned candidates are), especially if its to the point where I cant think of anything else they could have done. Now that’s a great candidate for the work I do.
Sadly, that’s a rare and dying breed. If you’re interested in critical thinking type questions, I highly recommend the book “How would you move Mt. Fuji?”. Its a classic from 2003/2004: http://www.amazon.com/How-Would-Move-Mount-Fuji/dp/0316778494/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1336390776&sr=8-3
Although I haven’t read all of it, I hear that the authors book on Google hiring is equally interesting: http://www.amazon.com/Are-Smart-Enough-Work-Google/dp/031609997X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1336390776&sr=8-2