How to nail an interview at Microsoft, Salesforce or Amazon

Microsoft, AWS and Salesforce logos
Microsoft, AWS and Salesforce – the big 3 companies

As a former engineering leader at Microsoft and a current hiring manager at Salesforce, a good portion of my time is dedicated to building a team. I see a fair number of resumes, get referrals and messages from my LinkedIn network, meet people applying for my positions as well as help other hiring managers fill theirs. Typical ratio looks like this – about 40 resumes land on my desk, so to speak. Out of those, about 20 make through the tech screen. Out of remaining, a little over 5 make it through interview. We extend offer to 1 or 2 of them. As you can see, this is a time consuming effort, both for hiring managers and candidates. I firmly believe that this situation can be improved and a large number of candidates could land their dream jobs quicker if they had a little help. I am going to pull back the curtain of mystery and shed the light on what interviewers are looking for and how to present yourself in the best light you can be.

What do you really want?

Before you even apply for a job, decide what is the most important factor pushing you to change. We are all humans and we have desires. That’s perfectly fine – seasoned recruiters and hiring managers understand that, because they have ambitions as well. Usually humans are driven by one of the following:

  • Money – some people need to eat and some need another Mercedes. This is a basic biological feature in our brains – we want more money so we could afford things for ourselves, our families or just because we are greedy. There is nothing wrong with this.
  • Social Status – we want our friends to see that we are now “Senior Software Engineer” because they recently got promoted and we don’t want to fall out of the crowd.
  • Opportunity – we are bored in our current role and seek excitement that comes from working on cool stuff that everyone talks about. Or, perhaps, there is a new product in the works and you always wanted to do that tech since school, now is the time.

You do not have to reveal dirty laundry to the recruiter but it would be immensely helpful to you and the process, if you were clear which of the factors above motivates you to apply for a position. When talking to the company – tell them exactly what you are looking for. If they can’t meet your needs – don’t waste your time and move on. If they do – great, both parties will have a straightforward negotiation process.

Resume

Your resume is your first opportunity to impress recruiter. It needs to pop out of the pile of resumes, be it PDFs or LinkedIn pages.

  • 2 – 3 pages tops – if you have a lot of accomplishments – great, fit them on a few pages. Resumes do not need to be verbose – they need to make a point.
  • Color, font and layout– do not be afraid to use more than black and white for your resume. Let a professional design carefully select a few more colors to make your resume more pleasant to read. If you are not a creative type, just go ahead and download a free template that has up to 5 different colors on it.
  • Focus on outcomes – Quite often I see a list of things that a person did, but I have to put them together myself to figure out the end-result. Sometimes, people give too much detail that dilutes the end goal. Make sure your results include numbers to allow reader to appreciate the magnitude of impact. Use statements similar to these:
    “I increased service X reliability from 96% to 99.9% over 6 months using heavy hitters approach”
    “I designed product SKU Y (link to the product) that increased customer retention by 15%”
    “I automated deployment pipeline using Spinnaker in 3 months and increased release cadence from 1/month to 1/week for a team of 5 engineers”
  • Use simple words – make your resume easy to read and understand. Do not use corporate jargon – it is not your friend. Avoid filler phrases like “increased collaboration among stakeholders”, “inspired thought process”, “moved the needle on team morale”. They hint to the recruiter that the candidate is full of fluff and, if hired, will spread more fluff in the organization rather than actually do something useful.
  • Be honest – describe your results as accurately as possible and do not reward yourself with accomplishments of others. Seasoned hiring managers will fish any false statements quickly and you will lose credibility. It is better to understate your value and exceed manager expectation, than over-inflate and fall short during interview or on the job.
  • Show passion and hunger – you will be more attractive, as a candidate, if you will not sleep, eat or rest until the goal is achieved. If you are changing a job because you burned out, perhaps it is best to just take time off, recharge and find your muse before looking for a next gig. Every manager wants to pack his team with ambitious and motivated individuals that will work on their own and keep making progress, despite ambiguity, organizational challenges, etc. In your resume you should highlight how “hungry” you are for results based on past track record. A few examples:
    “I detected a serious regression based on traffic pattern, I rallied my team and we worked over the weekend to hotfix the problem”
    “Most of my team was reassigned to do project X but I kept pushing and shipped feature Y 2 months behind schedule. Customer adoption trend was exponential and reached 1000 subscriptions in first 2 weeks after release.”
  • Recommendations – get your former bosses, peers or direct reports to speak about your accomplishments. When reputable individuals put their weight behind you, it helps tremendously to make hiring decision.
  • Life outside work – mention things that you do outside work, other than play video games, hike, take photos, etc. If you volunteer for a charity or help school kids with robotics – talk to it. If you are an army veteran with two deployments – make sure to mention it. If you run a business on the side – great, let your potential boss know. You will stand out as more diverse individual.

Here are a few resume design preferences just to demonstrate the points above:

Tech screen

Congratulations, you got a phone call to meet an engineer on the hiring team. People who do tech screens are experienced interviewers, that talk to hundreds of candidates. They calibrated their measuring stick and can form an opinion within 15 minutes of the phone call by listening to how you speak and what you say. Your goal during this phase is to substantiate claims from your resume with specific details. Describe every one of your accomplishments, in vivid and exiting details, with plots and twists.

During phone tech screen you should not expect coding or design questions. Be prepared to answer general technology questions, speak to your values and ideals, aspirations, etc.

It is important to be honest during phone screen. If you are nervous – say it, if you are hungry or thirsty or tired – let the other person know that you are not your best self.

Interview is a two-way street and while the company is interviewing you, you are interviewing the company. Never forget that and do not put yourself mentally in a disadvantageous position. Speak with confidence and ask questions back. I find following questions useful:

  • What technology does your team use?
  • What are your personal values and what do you value the most?
  • What are your expectations during tech screen phone call?
  • Is this a net new position or are you filling an attrition?
  • What is your business growth trajectory?
  • How long do people stay on your team?

Ask as many questions as you see necessary to build a strong opinion about the person on the other end of the line. It is possible that after peppering recruiter or a hiring manager with these questions you realize that this team is not a good fit for you because you are culturally incompatible. For example – you need freedom to execute, while your future boss has tight grip and controls every move in the team.

Think how does the other person make you feel – do you enjoy this conversation or is it a torture? Would you like to spend another 2 hours with this person on the phone call? Use your feelings and impressions to guide your decision. If tech screen was a breeze – great, let recruiter know that you enjoyed the chat. If you felt under tremendous stress – provide feedback to the recruiter. Perhaps tech screener is not experienced and needs more training.

Interview Day

You have clearly impressed at least two people – a recruiter and a tech screener. You are doing great.

On this day you will meet between 4 – 6 people, one of them will be your future boss and the rest are his trusted allies. Show up with the assumption that the team wants you to join, they just need to be sure you will be successful. They didn’t call you to just make your day miserable, so be positive even if some things aren’t going the way you’d like them.

  • Be honest – this is a common theme across entire process. It is extremely important to say exactly how things are. Do not think for a second that the other party will not find out if you are not truthful. If you have made it this far, you are the right candidate for the job. There is no need to sugarcoat, it will only ruin their impression.
  • Say “I don’t know” – people feel uncomfortable saying this during interview because it may put them in the wrong light. It is better to say “I don’t know, but I will find out”, than waste time guessing. Do not guess and speak to the best of your knowledge. Interviewer will appreciate it.
  • Be engaged – demonstrate with your behavior that you are full of energy and passion. You are ready to jump in and get things done and the only thing that’s stopping you is this interview process. However, if you are not this type of individual, see point #1 and be honest.
  • Ask questions – you are in the same position as the interviewer. You are trying to decide if you want to work for the company and the team. Make sure you ask questions that will help you decide. If you have decided already, let interviewer know that you are not asking the question because you have already decided and explain why.
  • Be assertive – do not let interviewer waste your time asking unreasonable questions. If you are presented with the problem that has very little to do with the job at hand (like count manholes or calculate surface area of a strange shape), clarify how this question will help interviewer predict your success on the job. Interview is not a “how smart the interviewer is” show, it is a dialog between two future colleagues. If one of them is wasting other’s time – take a note and bring it up with another interviewer or hiring manager.

Compensation package negotiation

This part is important. Know your value. This is your starting point. Tell recruiter what your expectations are for compensation package and what package options you would not accept. Use resources like glassdoor.com to calibrate your expectations for the industry, area, company and role.

If you have high expectations – you may inadvertently pass on a great job with tremendous growth opportunity, just because recruiter wasn’t able to get you the money you asked for. Another downside of starting too high – set yourself for failure in eyes of your peers and future boss. A great example – if you are a solid Software Engineer 2 but to get you, recruiter has to go out of her way and lands you land you on a higher level, you will immediately be evaluated against other Senior engineers on the team. Your first performance review may not be rosy.

I suggest starting close to your target numbers but be flexible to accept a lower offer if team offers rapid growth opportunity. You want to start in a safe environment, surrounded by support from you peers in the same level, without pressure to deliver beyond your usual throughput. You will grow at your own pace, which can be really fast.

One mistake I see people make is rely on internal sources for compensation package insights. For example – your buddy in department X makes Y$/year and you (or he) feels you should make the same or more. You take that number and give it to the recruiter. This is a bad strategy because your buddy and you are in different situations, different length of time with the company, etc. You may beat your friend in a year or two if you join the company or your may not get an offer at all if your recruiter can’t hire you at quoted starting salary.

Day 1

Alright, you landed a dream job at the right compensation package and conditions. This is great start. To help you navigate first few months on the job I recommend “The First 90 days” book by Mickael Watkins.

The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter

This is very insightful book that helped me during my time of transition and I am sure will come in handy for yours.