Last spring, 2010 Alum Erik Kennedy returned from his new job at Microsoft to "sit on the other side of the table..." His job was to interview Olin students here on campus, and determine whether they have made it to the next step - a site visit to Redmond WA. Erik interviewed several Oliners for positions as interns and potential full time employees. Here's his advice for anyone who hopes to survive ANY technical interview, not just one with Microsoft:
I really had a blast coming out to Olin to do interviews for Microsoft. It was fun to return to my roots, but also gratifying to see Olin is still producing so many students with their heads screwed on straight, who will go on to do great things - wherever they go.
It was also wonderful seeing Sally (Olin's Director of Post Grad Planning) again. I remember all the tough choices I was making navigating the world of job/internship interviews and offers for the first time, and how she always had advice that was practical, personal, and positive. I don't mean to make up some cute triple-P thing here--instead, I mean to say that she was a huge help in my internship and job journey at Olin, and I'm still thankful!
In the days following my visit to Olin, I did some thinking about the performance of Olin students on technical questions. Oliners can be lacking a bit in the technical question department. I want to offer some thoughts and do what I can to make Olin students more marketable at big-name tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, and (now!) Facebook and Twitter.
At Microsoft, I'm a Project Manager. Obviously, this advice is based on my experience with one company, but it does give you a 'real world' data point that might make the difference next time you go into that technical interview. Here are the reasons why a PM definitely needs technical knowledge:
1. I'm working with developers all the time, and if I can't empathize with their problems in the same way they can, it's harder to earn their respect. I also need to know enough technology to understand their problems and help them work through them, or I am not going to be effective as their Project Manager.
2. Most products at Microsoft are very complex. As much as I want to rise to the level where I can affect the entire product (versus than the single-feature level I start out at), I need to understand how all the different parts fit together and have at least a somewhat intuitive understanding of the paradigms that would determine that.
Here are a few ideas on how anyone can build up these technical chops. First years, sophomores, juniors, if you want to end up in awesome PM roles at the aforementioned companies (or anywhere), here are some tips:
1. Get a developer internship. A few reasons for this, all from personal experience:
a. The best way to get coding experience is to do it 8 hours a day for a few months
b. Even if you don't learn the syntax of multiple languages, you learn the concepts of programming, and that's the only part a user experience PM really needs to know (backend PMs will likely need more!)
c. Being able to put this on your resume will assuage the fears of your interviewers and reviewers
d. If you don't like all the coding parts, but did like some of the design parts and the working with designers and testers parts, then it helps put together a GREAT story on why you know a PM role is for you
2. Code for fun. Make a personal project or participate in a hack-a-thon. Don't shy away from the coding side of a software project.
3. While I never took Fundamentals of Computer Science, my senior year roommate Greg Marra strongly recommended the class. Frankly, talking to him every evening-- about everything from CS "logic" puzzles to tech company strategy--was a huge factor in making my interviews a lot smoother. Soak up the knowledge of your classmates!
At the risk of being long-winded, I'll leave off here. But I hope that some of the thoughts here will be of use to current Oliners. Would love to continue this conversation with anyone who wants to chat. ~ Erik