By Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: March 1, 2019 | Last updated: April 22, 2020
Microsoft's renaissance is in full swing.
With Satya Nadella, the third CEO of Microsoft who was hand-picked by Bill Gates, at the helm the company has flourished. Morale is up, the company vision and product line is increasingly focused and market is taking notice - its stock nearly doubled since Satya took the reigns.
As a result, it's no surprise that product management roles at Microsoft are a hot commodity.
In this deep dive, we'll cover what to expect in the Microsoft product management interviews and how to prepare:
As one of the largest major tech companies, with over 130,000 employees, Microsoft's product management interview process has more variance than that of its peer companies, like Google and Facebook.
That said, most Microsoft product management interviews follow a common structure: a quick phone screen, one first round interview and an on-site interview day with three to five interviews, depending on the team, the role and seniority.
Depending on how you apply, the recruiter screen could happen over a quick 30-minute phone call or an impromptu discussion at a career event (e.g., an on-campus career fair).
At this stage, the recruiter is assessing whether or not you've got the right background, have an interest in the Microsoft vision and could be a culture fit with the company.
In first round interviews, Microsoft will typically try to get a broad assessment of your product sense and design skills, your level of technical fluency and knowledge about relevant Microsoft products.
Depending on your level and background, the nature of the technical questions could vary significantly (more on this below). For example, if you're applying out of undergrad and have technical background (e.g., CS degree), you could face prototypical software engineering questions about data structures, algorithms, etc.
Onsite interviews at Microsoft typically involve three to five, forty-five minute interviews.
Based on your experience level and background, Microsoft will match you up with one of the core organizational units and then your interviewers will likely come from different teams within that organization.
Before we jump into the specific types of questions covered, let's review the core organizational units at Microsoft.
Currently, Microsoft is organized into a handful of core organizations:
For example, if you were matched up to the core services engineering unit, you might have a interviews with people who across a variety of different teams like MS Teams, Skype and supply chain.
The unit you're interviewing with is important because it will influence the context around the questions you're asked (even though Microsoft will consistently test the same skills). For example, in the core services group, the product, analytics and technical questions you're asked might revolve around MS Teams (or other core services products).
As discussed above, the context around the questions you're asked will vary depending on the organizational unit, but the types of skills tested will not. Primarily, Microsoft will focus on testing your product design skills, your analytical thinking skills, your technical fluency and cultural fit.
Here, Microsoft wants to understand how you think about products. Overall, they want to know if you can conceptualize a high level idea, articulate a clear strategy and think through the tactical steps needed to launch and/or build it.
In most cases, the questions will revolve around product challenges from the particular organization you're interviewing with.
In this category, Microsoft wants to understand what type of analytical process you'll bring to bear on the problems you'll face on the job.
Often, the prompts will center around Microsoft products and force you to demonstrate how you'd rationally walk through a problem, step-by-step. More importantly than arriving at a specific number, Microsoft product managers will want to see that you have a logical approach and make reasonable assumptions.
The nature of the technical questions can vary dramatically depending on the specific product manager role you're interviewing for.
For example, if you're interviewing with the AI and Research group, expect to get some questions probing your knowledge on machine learning and AI techniques, models and approaches. However, for many roles on more established products, Microsoft will focus on whether you have enough technical know-how to communicate with engineers and ship software products effectively.
Finally, Microsoft will probe on how you work and what results you've been able to achieve in the past. The type of questions asked here will be similar to those asked at peer companies like Google, Amazon, etc.
When interviewing, it's also important to understand Microsoft's history and how that's led them to their current market position, product suite and strategic focus.
Microsoft's runaway success was the Windows operating system. Rather than focus on building hardware plus software, like Apple, Microsoft focused on building a killer operating system, licensing it out to hundreds of PCs makers to get scale and then attracting developers to build applications on top of Windows due to that scale. This worked exceedingly well and, occasionally, Microsoft picked off the most attractive app categories, and built and sold their own software to capture additional opportunity (this is how the Office Suite came about).
Eventually, two major computing shifts ended Microsoft's dominance: the rise of the internet and the smartphone. The former meant that increasingly the browser was operating system of note, as more and more applications and services could be handled via web apps. The smartphone moved a significant amount of computing to mobile devices and Apple and Google seized the lion's share of those markets. These two shifts led to Microsoft's lost decade where competitors like Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook gained power at its expense.
In the last three years, Satya Nadella has ended Microsoft's focus on windows and rebuilt the company around services.
The three core layers that they focus (and report on) are: productivity and business processes (e.g., Office 365, Skype, Teams), intelligent cloud (e.g., Azure et al) and more personal computing (e.g., Windows and devices like Xbox, Hololens, Surface, etc.).
A few key observations from Microsoft's recent revenues:
Microsoft is an elder statesman of the tech scene. And that's a good thing!
It's been through its startup phase, its high-growth phase, its everyone's anti-Microsoft phase and is now in it's renaissance phase. Importantly, this evolution has an impact on what type of candidates end up being successful at Microsoft.
As opposed to peer companies, who often use grandiose language about only hiring the best of the best, Microsoft humbly focuses on two core cultural signposts: 1) people who truly care about the Microsoft mission and product and 2) people with very high potential (versus a significant record of accomplishment already).
Real interview questions. Sample answers from PM leaders at Google, Amazon and Facebook. Plus study sheets on key concepts.