Hiring: Lessons Learned at Microsoft

In all my experiences as a manager, none are more stressful and difficult than hiring. Probably because none are more critical to your professional success and day-to-day happiness. Working with great people is one of the things that makes life exceptional, but finding and hiring them can be a tremendous challenge - especially now in the technology field.

During my first year as a manager, I became keenly aware of the differences between my team and other managers' teams. Mine was full of open-positions and high aspirations, while other managers had filled their teams with actual rockstars and were reporting on actual results. I couldn’t figure out how they were able to do their day jobs, do the work of their open-positions and still have time to hire great people.

Flash ahead six years through a lot of trial & error and outright stealing of techniques, I’ve mostly figured out how to be one of the managers I aspired to be. And now I find myself mentoring new managers who are going through the same trails. I’ve tried to simplify what I’ve learned into this article so they will (hopefully) not have to go through all the same pain.

What Are You Really Looking For?

It is important to spend time to really understand the need that you want to fulfill with this position. If you are backfilling a vacated position, you should recosider the role incase things have changed.

Do you appreciate diversity?

The first tendency of most new managers (myself included) is to hire people who are exactly like themselves. This leads to a very myopic understanding of people being either ‘good’ (like me) or ‘bad’ (not like me). More seasoned managers have developed a nuanced understanding of, and appreciation for the different types of work styles and skills. They use this to expand their world view and find new ways to tackle new challenges. Great employees are also looking for this.

This is especially important in agile organizations that change quickly. Positions tend to change significantly every 6 months - 2 years, so having a balanced pool of talent makes it much easier to respond to whatever the next challenge will be. You should also think of balancing talent across your manager’s org as well.

Creating A Great Place to Work

The best place to improving your hiring is to make sure that your team is an amazing place to work. The happier and more successful your team is, the less likely they will be to leave, and everyone who interacts with your team will start to feel a gravitational pull. Here’s what great employees look for in a workplace:

Does your team do interesting and meaningful work?

It doesn’t matter which team you manage: Future Product Strategy, or Legacy App Operations, any team can be made an interesting or uninteresting place to work. Interesting is all about the types of challenges team members will face, and the culture the Manager provides. Are the challenges new, or is it reinventing the wheel? Are the challenges achievable, or completely unrealistic? Does the culture reward well-thought out risk taking and pushing boundaries? Do you strive to automate the crappy work to make more time for high impact work?

Great employees want an opportunity to think creatively, an environment in which they can make progress and have a real impact. But when Management creates a team, they only think about the Work they need staffed. It is always up to the manager to figure out how to frame the Work in a meaningful way, and to deliver on it in an interesting way. The good news is that management will appreciate these things once the Manager has structured them this way. Everyone wants to be part of something interesting and meaningful, even management.

Is your team setup for success?

Very few new teams are setup for success by default. This means that the Manager has clarified: the objectives, stakeholders/ dependencies, priorities, timeline, the way to measure progress, the way to report status, and the decision making process. The Manager also needs to ensure all this is aligned to the organization charter, has a good relationships, tackles the tough problems early, is a great communicator, and doesn’t sweat change. That’s a lot of work, but that is why you get paid the big bucks.

Will you provide a career?

Great people require more than just a job, you need to show them how a component of this role will help them grow as professionals, and that you are committed to supporting them in that process. Great people are also willing to do the crappy work every team has, as long as the burden is shared, and the Manager is working to minimize it. The best proof you can have, is a stable of employees that all have good jobs, professional growth to talk about, and a track record of people being promoted to bigger and better things.

Developing Your Personal Network

You’ve posted your job to Linked In, Monster, your company’s website, and now you’re getting thousands of applications. Awesome! Unfortunately, 90% of candidates are applying aspirationally, and you are burning hours to sort through and find the qualified ones, only to learn that by the time you’ve found them, they are deep into interviews with your competition. D'oh!

This is why your personal network is still the most valuable asset in finding great talent. It can take a long time to build a valuable network, but the more energy you devote, the more valuable it will become. Over the past couple years, my personal network has accounted for about 50% of all of my hiring. And people I hire from my network tend to start faster and have more predictable performance.

Here are a few tips for developing your network:

  • Every time you loose a good candidate in a loop, find a way to stay in touch with them. Sooner or later they will be looking for their next opportunity and then you get another shot to see if there is something you know of that will be a great fit.
  • Actively work on side projects with other interesting people. This gives you an opportunity to meet people outside of your normal circles and get first hand accounting of their particular talents.
  • Find opportunities to write and speak, it is a great way to get your name out there and you may find that great candidates might start coming directly to you. And, when a great candidate does come your way, this content will make you much more interesting to them.
  • Actively invest in your network, whether it is just making connections, mentoring, helping other people hire, sharing a drink or taking them rock climbing. This deepens you relationships with these folks and gives you something to talk with them about.
  • Treat everyone you meet with respect and compassion, no matter if they are a lowly intern or a completely unqualified, aspirational candidate. It is a small world and we live a long time. You never know when that person will be in a position to give you a job, or will come up with the next big idea. Then they will be much more likely to treat you in kind.

Interviewing

Interviewing is difficult and you are going to make a lot of mistakes, especially in the beginning. But don’t feel too badly about it, the whole tech industry is still learning a lot about the interview process. Google recently conducted some internal research and found out that many of our industry conventions are just plain wrong. For example, they found that brainteasers, GPAs and standardized test scores don’t correlate with future employee success.

Job Descriptions

Within a company, most job descriptions look the same, especially for the high volume roles like those with ~5 years experience. Make your job descriptions stand out. The key is to get past the generic parts so you can talk about how interesting and meaningful the work is, and how great of a place the team is to work. Don’t forget to include some of the challenges the employee will face, it makes the position real and people like to overcome challenges.

The one exception to this is the secret project that you can’t actually talk about. For this type of project, the traditional job description probably isn’t the right approach. You don’t want to be the manager who caused the PR incident and gave away the secret to the compeition.

Qualify Candidates

When reviewing candidates from the high volume sources like Linked In or your company’s website, you will need a process to narrow down the list to just the few qualified candidates that you want to interview. I recommend you get help with this activity by distributing some of the work to your team, or peer teams if you don’t have any employees yet. This is a great opportunity to get them involved in the hiring and to have a broader discussion about what great candidates should look like. Use standardized phone screen, and track results in shared spreadsheets.

I highly recommend asking people for a portfolio with a few samples of their best work, this can really help you see what they are likely to produce on your team.

After the initial screen Managers should always do an informational interview before setting up a loop to ensure it is worth your team’s time.

The Loop

As with many things, the more you invest into an interview loop, the more you are likely to get out of it. I highly recommend that you email interviewers in advance with a summary of the candidate, the position and what you expect from each of them. You should also include all major stakeholders for role on the loop so you can check for a cultural fit in addition to a skills fit.

You should instruct interviewers to only share hire/ no hire decisions and feedback with you. Otherwise, this creates peer pressure on the rest of the interviewers and can affect their decisions - especially strong recommendations from senior team members.

The Interview

The first thing I think about in an actual interview is to ensure that the candidate is relaxed and comfortable, so I know they will be at their best. I also try and save the last 10 minutes for them to ask questions.

The biggest change I’ve made to my interview approach is to lean much more towards Structured Behavioral Questions (SBQs) for the types of questions I ask. The defining characteristic of an SBQ is that it gets the interviewee talking about their specific experience and actual knowledge more than the hypothetical questions people often use. Here are some examples:

Core Skills and Requirements:

  • How would you analyze the market opportunity for a new product?
  • How do you get a feature team from a feature idea to the spec complete milestone?
  • What should a PM do during the coding milestone?
  • How do you run an A/B test? What do you do if the results are ambiguous?

Employee Experience:

  • What is a difficult decision at work you’ve had to make in the past year? How did you arrive at your decision? What was the result?
  • Tell me about your contribution to this project on your resume
  • Teach me about something you’re an expert at
  • Check here for a large archive of questions

Real Problems Faced by Your Team:

  • There are two approaches we’re considering for our go-to-market strategy: build our own channel, or partner with agencies. What do you think we should do?
  • We have this feature that we’ve built, but it doesn’t have any user interaction. How can we measure the success of this feature?
  • Here’s a copy of our most recent experiment results. What do these results tell you? What should we do next? How would you communicate these to the team? To upper management?

After asking these types of questions for a while, I’ve started to bucket responses into high, medium, low, based on how deeply they were able to address the question. This has made it much easier to compare candidates quality over time.

Making the Call

Generally, if I’m on the fence about a candidate then I go with not hiring them. However, in the past couple years I’ve started taking a chance with 10-20% of my open positions, when someone is culturally a good fit, sharp and highly motivated, but might not have the specific skills or experience I was looking for. These folks tend to take a bit more support early on (which is why I do this sparingly). But they have been some of my best hires, and a great way to find people in a highly competitive market.

Sell, Sell, Sell!

You’ve found the most amazing candidate and you want to lock it up? But they start dragging their feet, or they have competitive offers they want to consider - this is where the rest of the advice comes in big. I have found the best approach is to (1) Inspire them with the impact they could have on your team, and (2) Show them what a great place it is to work.

Get on the phone with them and try to understand the real decisions they are making, and find out what is really important to them. Are they deciding between two locations? Or between companies, or teams or careers? Then taylor the sales strategy to that.

  • Which senior manager would be the most effective in selling. Stop by to ask them to do the sales pitch. (I’ve never had anyone say no, from GM, to VP to President)
  • Invite the candidate to spend time with the team. We had a design review meeting thursday afternoons where the team got together to gave feedback on all the new feature designs. This was the perfect meeting to bring a candidate to: they were inspired by the cool new features, and how the team came together in a supportive way to give feedback.
  • Send them the names of a couple people already on your team (or as close as you can) so they can ask some frank questions about your management style and team culture.
  • Send them a few of the finest and most interesting deliverables created by your team, that align to growth areas they discussed. For example, many of the people I interviewed at Bing were excited to use more data and experimentation to design their features. So, I would send them a few of the most compelling experiment write-ups so they could see how much they would learn.
  • Never oversell the role, and always be completely upfront about the challenges they will face. Great employees will be able to tell anyways, and many of them will be inspired by challenges they can overcome.

Most hiring managers don’t do any of these things. If you do, they will always remember it, even if they don’t take this specific role. And you have a much better change of keeping in touch with them and rehiring in the long term.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, talent management is like playing Tetris in slow motion. You should be always looking for where people will have the best fit and move them into those places. And the blocks never stop falling. Even though your team may be full today, you will always need to be planning for inevitable attrition and investing in your network. Don’t be afraid of losing your best people, because it will happen and it may just be a blessing in disguise. Just be prepared in advance to replace them and ensure they had a great experience on your team so your network will extend with them into their new role.

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