Wednesday 9 November 2011

Landing a job at Microsoft, Part2: The Phone Interview, Make a Very Good (first) Impression!

So, I’ve recently posted about the offer I got to work at Microsoft. Then, I started a 3 part series to talk about my experience getting the offer. The first one was about writing a good resume. In this one, I’m going to talk about the second step in the process: The Phone Interview.

In the previous blog post, I mentioned that writing a good resume is essential since it’s usually your first interaction with the company, and allows them to filter interesting profiles that match their requirements. However, as big companies get tons of resumes regularly, they usually have a second filter, and that is, usually, a Phone Interview.

A phone interview takes usually about 30 minutes, where the interviewer would call you by phone or using Skype. They introduce themselves, tell you how the interview is going to take place, then start going through the interview questions (more on that shortly). In the end, they’ll ask if YOU have any questions (more on that later).


Before the interview, there are some things that you need to prepare. First, when you’re asked to provide your availability in order to schedule the interview, make sure you’re absolutely free and that there would be nothing to distract or disturb in the times you mention. Calm and quiet, both on your nerves and in your environment, are crucial for a successful phone interview.

If your interview is by phone, make sure you provide a backup phone (and line), preferably a landline. Remember Murphy’s Law “if something can go wrong, it WILL!”. I know, the hard way, the call kept dropping on my mobile phone. I got my interview rescheduled (lucky me :p), and in the second attempt I used a landline, and it went very well. Now, to my defense, I did try to find a second phone number but couldn’t. I should’ve tried harder :P

If, however, your phone is through Skype, you better make sure you won’t lose internet connection that day :P Make sure you’ve paid your internet subscription and preferably have a close secondary location where you can run to and finish your interview ;)

That was for the logistics. How about the questions?!

The answer for that is simple: “it depends”. What it really depends on is the kind of interview you’re having. Could be purely technical, could be situational(how “would” you react to a certain situation?), could contain a lot of brain teasers, or, could be the kind of interview that I had which is called a Behavioral Interview (but which actually contained a little of all of the above). I’m not sure how it usually happens with other companies, but I was informed about what kind of interview I would be having beforehand. This was very helpful for my preparation :)

Now, a good question would be “what’s a Behavioral Interview?”

As I understand it, in a Behavioral Interview you’re not asked about how would you do in fictional scenarios, but instead, you’re asked about previous experiences and how did you behave in situations of stress, of conflict, or with technical difficulties. It uses past performance to predict future performance. That was how “I” understood it. Now here’s how people, who actually know what they’re talking about, define it:

Behavioral (experience-based or patterned behavioral) interviews are past-oriented in that they ask respondents to relate what they did in past jobs or life situations that are relevant to the particular job’s relevant knowledge, skills, and abilities required for success. The idea is that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance in similar situations. By asking questions about how job applicants have handled situations in the past that are similar to those they will face on the job, employers can gauge how they might perform in future situations. (Wikipedia)

Here’s an example (from the previous source, and others) of Behavioral Questions:
  • Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone to see things your way.
  • Give me an example of a time when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone's opinion.
  • Tell me about a technical question you faced in one of your project and describe what did you do about it?

This is not going to be a listing of all the questions you could get (because, well, they’re endless, and this isn’t the place for them). You’ll find many on the internet just by googling “Behavioral Questions/Interview” with Bing ;) (you’ll find some links about this in the resources section at the bottom)

Now, what’s really challenging about this kind of questions is that you’ll need to remember some specifics about the situation you’re going to describe! Heck! you’re going to have to remember that you actually were in such a situation in the first place (big problem for me apparently :P)! Then you have to remember the task at hand, the actions you took and finally the outcome.

If you could remember ALL this instantly, well, good for you! but that’s not how my brain works. As I said, I (was lucky to) have been informed about the kind of my interview beforehand, and so I had a chance to prepare for it (what I call, a fighting chance ;) ). The first thing I did was, obviously, to google it with Bing and see what the heck is this “Behavioral Interview” stuff and what kind of questions would there be. After seeing what I’ve just told you, I realized that the solutions is quite simple. Prepare a list of “stories” corresponding to a) as much of the questions that I could possibly find, b) previous experiences relevant to the job, especially those I mentioned in my resume (see?! here comes the resume again ;) )

Apparently (I’ve just learned this), there’s a “method” for replying to such questions. From Wikipedia:
One way individuals can prepare for behavioral type questions is to practice the STAR method. The STAR method is a structured manner of responding to a behavioral-based interview question by discussing the specific situation, task, action, and result of the situation you are describing.
Situation: Describe the situation that you were in or the task that you needed to accomplish. This should describe specifics rather than general descriptions of past behavior.
Task: What goal were you working toward?
Action: Describe the actions you took to address the situation with detail and focus on yourself. What specific steps did you take and what was your contribution?
Result: Describe the outcome of your actions. What happened? How did the event end? What did you accomplish? What did you learn? Make sure your answer contains multiple positive results.
As I said earlier, I also had some technical questions and brain teasers, so I had to prepare for those as well. I found it useful to just go online and look for some examples of such interview questions and answer them on my own. Some of the questions that I had are: “describe good code”, “describe bad code”, “suppose you’re here in my office, and I asked you to tell me what’s the temperature outside without you going out”, etc.
During The Interview
Now that you are all prepped up and ready for your interview, let’s talk about the interview itself.
As I stated in the beginning, it’s critical to have a quiet environment for your interview, and to be calm and ready. There are some things you can do that would make for a better experience and hopefully for great results.
Here’s a list of such things that I copy-pasted from a great article on
  • Don't smoke, chew gum, eat, or drink.
  • Do keep a glass of water handy, in case you need to wet your mouth.
  • Smile. Smiling will project a positive image to the listener and will change the tone of your voice.
  • Speak slowly and enunciate clearly.
  • Use the person's title (Mr. or Ms. and their last name.) Only use a first name if they ask you to.
  • Don't interrupt the interviewer.
  • Take your time - it's perfectly acceptable to take a moment or two to collect your thoughts.
  • Give short answers.
  • Remember your goal is to set-up a face-to-face interview. After you thank the interviewer ask if it would be possible to meet in person.

In addition to that, you should keep a pen and paper handy. It could be quite annoying (and time consuming) to tell the interviewer that he needs to hold up a sec while you fetch something to put your notes on (like data for a brain teaser, notes for future reference). In the other hand, one thing that you don’t want to keep around is the detailed information about your experiences which we talked about earlier. A short list of achievements or particular “story titles” can help you focus and remember, but keeping the whole inventory in front of you could have the opposite effect of causing distraction and confusion. Your resume, on the other hand should be useful as the interviewers will ask about stuff you mentioned there ;).

A couple more hints here. I’ve read, and I believe to be true, that you shouldn’t sit in one location for the whole interview. Stand up and pace around the room. This will help your blood circulation and make you sound more energetic, in contrast with the feel of laziness which would come from someone sitting “comfortably” :P. The second thing is, don’t be shy about asking your interviewer clarifying questions. Keep in mind that they’re not there to make you “fail”, they’re there to understand you and get to know you more ;)

After the Interview

At the end of your interview, your interviewer will probably ask if you have any questions for them. You should. I’ve read an article about this, and most of the interviewers are asking this and are sincere in that they really want to help you make your decision and know if the company is a fit for you, as well as if you are a fit for the company. It’s not a trick question. Don’t shy out, and don’t over-stress about this. There are some examples of possible questions that would both be beneficial for you to know more about the company, and make you seem more passionate, intelligent, whatever. I say take some of those, but more importantly see deep inside if there are some real questions that concern you and which you want answered. This is your chance ;)

Make sure to thank your interviewer, and ask about what happens next.

After the interview, write down or just mentally evaluate how you did in the interview. Note what you did well, and what wasn’t so well. This will help you whether you make it to the second round of interviews (in-person), or for future endeavors ;)



  1. I wanted to ask you a specific question, if the team I will be interviewing with is "OSD" online service devision, and they're working on products like bing or ads.

    Must I study OS concepts before the interview, and what actually I must study before such interview?


  2. I don't think you need to do that. However, you should always check the job description for the position you're interviewing for to see if there is such a requirement.

  3. the problem that they're who chose the position, that's why I'm trying to know, but anyway thanks a lot :) ..

  4. Hello Abdelmoumen. Thank you so much for the insightful and detailed posts! I am currently preparing for my phone/Skype interview and reading your stories is like watching a preview of the exciting process I will be going through soon.
    I want to ask how you knew if your interview was going to be via phone or Skype?
    In my phone interview invitation email. They asked for both my phone number and Skype username. Should I have both ready before my interview time?
    Thank you!

    1. Glad you found the posts useful :)
      If they asked for both, you should definitely have both ready. I myself was only asked for my phone number. My guess is that they want to have a backup way of contacting you in case something happens during the call.
      I suggest you ask them which is the primary and which is he secondary to make sure you know where they're going to contact you first.
      Another suggestion: use landline if possible, since it's more reliable, and let them know if you usually have bad cell reception or a bad internet connection so the my can plan accordingly.
      Good luck with your interviews, and I hope to hear some good news in the future ;)

    2. Thank you for your reply and suggestions! My interview is next week. I will have both ready. Thanks for your kind words.

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