Landing a job as a Microsoft consultant

Before Igor Leybovich even came to the United States, he had dreamed of becoming a Microsoft consultant. Now that he's done it, he recalls the anxiety of the interview process and offers some advice for potential Microsoft candidates.

When Igor Leybovich was studying computer science at Kiev State University, he dreamed of working for Microsoft. His plan was to immigrate to the United States, get some work experience and, with some luck, maybe get a chance to interview for his dream company.

Once he arrived in 1990, he worked at a string of jobs including technician in a computer store, programmer at Exxon, and a year as a consultant before he got a call from a headhunter asking him if he was interested in interviewing for a consultant’s job at Microsoft’s office in Berkeley Heights, NJ.
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An interview in three acts
The 35-year-old programmer was called to the plate to see if he could play ball with technology’s superstars. As much as Leybovich had heard about Microsoft being a tough place to land a job, he wasn’t prepared for the rigorous ordeal ahead. Think of the entire interview process as a three-act play. The first act is what Leybovich calls a “cursory phone screen,” a 30-minute interview to “get a good idea of what you know.”

Was it tough?

“It was more broad than deep,” Leybovich said, but it wasn’t a piece of cake, either. If you flunk the phone interview, the screening process grinds to a pathetic halt. Ace it and you get a chance to play in acts two and three, which together amount to an all-day round of interviews that Leybovich described as “intense and exhausting.” You have to turn in a stunning performance during act two in the morning to earn a callback for the final act.

The interviews started at 8:30 A.M. on the nose after Leybovich was offered a continental breakfast of pastry and coffee (not that he could keep anything down). First, an HR person asked the expected questions centering around work history, aspirations, goals, and reflections on prior jobs. Then, he moved on to meet with a consultant followed by two managers. Each back-to-back interview ran about 45 minutes.

Most of all, Microsoft wants to know if you’ve got the right technical stuff to join its global force of 3,000 consultants. Once the technical interviews began, Leybovich quickly concluded that, “There was no way I could know everything.” When asked about a specific area of programming he never worked in, he had to plead ignorance. He quickly recovered by steering the conversation toward similar programs he knew well.

Quick thinking on Leybovich’s part kept him in the game. At 12:30 P.M., he was invited to lunch, which was Microsoft’s way of saying, “You’re doing fine, now let’s see how you fare in the final act.”

The afternoon consisted of three more interviews, which he felt went pretty well. Unlike many companies that make you sweat for a couple of weeks until they let you know whether you’ve passed or failed, Microsoft lets you know where you stand as soon as the interview ordeal is over.

Before Leybovich left, an HR person told him he impressed everyone and that most likely an offer would be forthcoming. Two days later, an offer was made and this hard-working programmer felt as if he had scaled Mount Everest in his bare feet.

Life at Microsoft
Leybovich joined Microsoft as a consultant. A year later, he was promoted to senior consultant. The job? He works closely with Microsoft customers, most of whom are Fortune 500 companies.

Typically, projects last four to six months and entail heading a team of four developers, usually two from Microsoft and two from the client company. “The goal is to deliver functionality,” Leybovich says, which involves starting with high-level architecture—writing specifications and all the intricate programming necessary to deliver applications clients can manage themselves.

The tables have even turned—now part of Leybovich’s job is to interview potential candidates. As a Microsoft interviewing veteran, no one is more qualified than he is to offer priceless tips to potential candidates. Uppermost, Leybovich advises that your technical skills had better be near flawless. Don’t try to snow a Microsoft consultant if you don’t know something. You also need good interpersonal and team skills.

Finally, Leybovich warns against spitting back answers too quickly. “The speed of your thinking is not as important as how you think,” he says. Microsoft is more concerned with unearthing creative thinkers.

Think you’re up for a shot at a superstar company like Microsoft? If you’ve got what it takes, not trying for it is a cardinal sin.

Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. The column appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

What’s it take to be a Microsoft consultant? Is this a good time to shoot for a job with Microsoft, considering the recent Department of Justice rulings? Give us your thoughts by posting a comment below or sending us an e-mail.

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