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Microsoft Research Interview process – an overview

We interviewed Prashanth Mohan, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley about his time at Microsoft Research (MSR). Scroll down to see what you should keep in mind when trying to crack the Microsoft Research interview process.

Hello Prashanth, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I graduated from College of Engineering Guindy, Chennai with a B.E. in Computer Science. After graduating, I went on to work for a couple of years at Microsoft Research (MSR) and then moved on to Amazon for a brief period.

Today, I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. My goal is to learn how to improve energy in data center buildings, using IT.

What's the recruitment process of Microsoft Research?

The recruiting style of MSR is a little different compared to other companies. They do their head-hunting mostly by word-of-mouth (or) referrals. Generally, MSR employees refer other people.

If you are a student, you have an excellent internship program - one of the best in the country! You can head over to MSR's site and directly apply to the group you're interested in. They generally won't advertise a lot, so the onus is on you. You can find more details here.

Is it a mandatory thing to have a poster/publication to get into Microsoft Research? How important is CGPA?

I don't think it's essential to have a publication before you apply. However, having one definitely helps. When I was in college, I did not use the opportunity to contact my professors for interesting projects.

I strongly urge students to work with their professors on solving big problems. It definitely helps! They generally don't focus much on your CGPA, however, having a healthy CGPA is always good!

I heard that the Microsoft Research interview process is very different from interviews conducted by other top tier companies. Could you give us an overview?

Yes, the interview process is pretty unconventional. You will be asked to talk about your project for an hour and people will then question you on that. Everyone in the group you apply to, no matter how senior/junior they are, will interview you. There are typically 8-10 interviews before you get into the company.

Great! What would the interview questions be like?

The questions are mostly open-ended ones. For eg; what are the problems associated when 2 servers communicate with each other? There is typically not a wrong answer to their questions, even a sub-optimal answer would work fine. But, the important thing to concentrate on is how well you can articulate and provide a robust design to the problem.

Design questions involve mostly drawing architecture diagrams. Was there a coding round also?

Yes! There will be software developers who will focus on Data Structures, Algorithms. There will be typically 1-2 interviews focusing on these areas. It's a must that you possess good coding skills. Because once you get in, you will be required to frame a prototype of what you have done.

Since the questions are open-ended, could you give some tips on how to solve the problems?

  • Essentially start off with a large picture
  • Through the course of the interview, the interviewer gives you inputs over a specific scenario, which makes it much easier for you to solve the problem

What kind of preparation can one do to get into Microsoft Research?

I would suggest going through the recent papers/publications in the area in which he/she is applying to. Brush up on your basics and get a good night sleep before the interview.

During the interview, try to start off with a large picture and grab the hints given by the interviewer. Keep narrowing the scope down and nail the problem! Most importantly, if you really don't know the answer to a particular question, it is important for you to tell the interviewer.  You will be interacting with Ph.D.'s from top universities!

Hows the work environment at Microsoft Research?

The work environment is quite different compared to what you would see in other MNC's. You will generally read a lot of publications, and identify the problems in it, (or) find ways of making it better. The workload increases multi-fold before the publication deadline.

The work is very exciting as you get an opportunity to work with a technology that can change the world and positively impact people's lives. However, the office culture is pretty informal. You get to refer to everyone by their first name including the director!

Thank you so much, Prashanth for taking the time to participate in this interview. I am sure a lot of candidates will benefit from the information!

NEXT: Hear from a Microsoft developer on how to crack their interview here.

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