Why Former Microsoft Employees Struggle with the Job Search

I’ve been there.

In 2009, I was laid off from a Diversity Manager role at Microsoft and after more than 13 years, I found myself wondering: What next? It was confidence-crushing and on my way home from cleaning out my desk in Building 36, I stopped by my friend Michelle’s and cried on her shoulder. 13 years of being a cheerleader for MS and here I was, told I was no longer needed.

The good news was that I left with a solid exit package in hand and an opportunity to really figure out what I wanted to do. Out of the experience was born a terrific business that I still own today. I am now a job search coach and I pride myself on taking 20 years of recruiting expertise and “reverse engineering” what I know in service to my clients – many of whom are former (even current) MS employees.

Not that I’m a saint, mind you, but I have to share some key take-aways from my years of coaching MS alumni with a goal of making the job search easier for you if you are struggling. These observations are mine alone – although I think you’ll nod your head in agreement as you read through my advice.

[dropcap][/dropcap]It’s Not About You
During my years at MS, I found that one of the most important avenues to success was the ability to showcase yourself. When I began in 1995 (yes, I’m that old), there were 2 reviews a year. You spent so much time just trying to play up your successes so that you’d get a stellar review from your manager.

Talking about you and trying to impress people in the job search arena doesn’t work.

Listening does.

Each open position equals pain to a manager (for those of you who were/are managers, you know what I’m talking about). While these hiring managers want to hear about your successes, they also just want to hear about how your past experience can solve their current pain. That means you have to listen to their issues and speak intelligently to how you’ve successfully addressed the same issues.

No acronyms, name-dropping or Microspeak necessary. Don’t go into this like a review. It’s solving for X and demonstrating your listening skills. Hiring manager will appreciate it greatly. It’s about THEM – not you.

[dropcap][/dropcap]Name Dropping
For years I helped externally-hired Partners on-board at MS and they were shocked by the culture: it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. New employees would call counterparts in other groups and couldn’t get a moment of their time, even though they were wined and dined to come to MS and provide leadership. No one would return their calls or email.

It’s because they had little to no connections within MS. They knew so few people. What makes a difference at MS is when you name-drop and talk about how long you’ve been an employee.

Many of my clients who are MS alumni tell me their stories and they are peppered with names that even I don’t know. It’s as if the names carry weight, influence, and prestige.

Wake-up call: these names mean very little to people outside of MS and dropping names during the job search process (except when you’re connecting with people who are also former MS) means absolutely nothing. Those at start-ups all over Seattle will just give you this glazed look when you begin name-dropping (OK, maybe Bill G still carries some clout).

Drop the name dropping. It simply doesn’t work.

[dropcap][/dropcap]Microsoft is the New Boeing. You Need To Be Current.
Yes, I really said it. Gasp!

I held a Director of Staffing role at a very cool aviation tech startup a few years ago and when I brought MS candidates forward, the CTO would turn down his nose. Here’s why: MS candidates had little open source experience, had a reputation for a lack of collaborative spirit and didn’t stay technically current.

MS has not historically rewarded employees for A) being collaborative – especially when the old review process was in place and B) getting involved with anything outside of the company, such as professional organizations.

I saw this first hand when a friend of mine won a national award that had nothing to do with MS and yet didn’t even get a congratulations from her own manager.

As a job seeker, you can remedy this image and it isn’t that daunting.

1. If you’re technical, take some time and get up-to-speed on open source.
2. Get connected with other devs via Reddit or Meet-Ups.
3. Come up with examples of when you demonstrated true collaboration.
4. “Show Up” as someone keeping their fingers on the pulse of the world outside of MS.
5. Get involved in activities that current employers now value: environmental work, staying in shape, managing people in a volunteer environment.

Even Marketing candidates must know all the latest and greatest tools and trends. While you were heads down trying to get your work done at MS, the world was shifting, changing. Your job as a job seeker is to know what’s going on – NOW.

BTW: I don’t mean to knock Boeing – they are now an employer of choice among my clients!

[dropcap][/dropcap]Communicate With Ease
Maybe I should say it this way: Lighten Up.

I speak with employers everyday and when I ask them for feedback about MS alumni they almost all say that MS candidates take themselves way too seriously.

That intensity was great within MS but companies really appreciate a candidate who not only knows their stuff, but also can “hang” with others and add some energy to the team. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but I make this a focus during my mock interviews with clients because of the feedback candidates and I have received.

[dropcap][/dropcap]“At Microsoft….”
This is one phrase that will kill an interview. For that matter, if you do get the job and you use this phrase when beginning to work with your team, people will really dislike you.

Just because it was successful at MS, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. As a matter of fact, most companies think that if you bring MS methods with you, you’ll fail in their collaborative, upbeat, edgy, thoughtful, energetic and the “customer is key” environments.

It’s better to use phrases like this when you’re interviewing: “The challenge you face in getting vendors to complete projects is something that I have tackled. Here’s specifically how I worked through this issue with successful results.”


I am so proud of the 13 years I spent at Microsoft. I loved almost every day and I have a boatload of friends to show for my years there. Smart people, fun work (more in the early 2000’s I have to admit) and cool products. I carry these experiences with me to this day.

But, it’s a new day. Microsoft is changing and during this challenging transition, you can too.