Most of us have some association with Microsoft: Our first family computer. The Xbox in our living room. Microsoft Paint and Clippy, the friendly Office assistant tragically ahead of its time.
Microsoft has been creating powerful products and systems for the world since 1975. Yet the company isn't waxing nostalgia or reflecting on its long and storied past. It's focused on the future – the products, values and innovations that help people and make the world better. And it starts with design.
Within the last few years, Microsoft has made a decided shift toward collaboration and openness among its design teams. The Windows, Office and Surface teams work closely together and share their work with an "internal open source" mindset. The Fluent Design System is integral to this effort, driving consistency across product designs through a shared visual language.
Talk to anyone on the design team at Microsoft and this fresh, invigorating energy is immediately clear. We had the pleasure of talking to five of them.
The design opportunities at Microsoft right now are many and diverse, but where does one even begin? What is Microsoft looking for in a designer? What kind of work would we be doing? We asked members across Microsoft's design team to find out.
Role: Works across design strategy, systems design, UX design, inclusive design, accessibility, persona spectrums and coherent notifications systems for Microsoft and Microsoft 365
Homebase: Microsoft HQ in Redmond, WA
Tiffany: I was actually a UX design intern at Microsoft in 2017! My path to getting that internship was quite bizarre, though.
Up until joining Microsoft, I had virtually no experience in design. My previous two summers involved a business operations internship at a startup and an HCI research internship at Adobe’s Creative Technologies Lab, both of which had drastically different responsibilities and skillsets. I think I became interested in design by osmosis from sitting so close to the designers at Adobe.
Once I realized I might be interested in design, it was a lot of online reading, self-teaching, and pushing myself to create design projects in my free time. I used my development skills to pull together a portfolio of all the individual projects I’d done, and started shooting in the dark by applying to design internships at companies. Microsoft decided to take a chance on me.
From there, I did the three month UX design internship at Microsoft, loved it, and received an offer to return as a full-time designer after I graduated from Brown.
"The recruiter reached out and said the interview would occur in a week. Guess what I did: worked on my portfolio for that entire week!"
David: Technically, it began in grad school when I became good friends with Cindy Wong. We were frenemies 'cause we kept applying to the same internships. Cut to five years later, I was still working in New York as a design technologist when Cindy Wong from grad school sent me an email: “Hey, send me your resume and portfolio! There’s an opening at Bing!” I had a quick chat with her manager and I was flown out within two weeks for a full-day interview. I had been doing front-end development full time and I wanted to return to more design work, so I made sure my portfolio showed all my side projects and prototyping work. When I got the good news, I had to ask them to delay it for 2 months(!) so my wife and I could present our new graphic novel at New York ComicCon. I left NYC that Sunday and started at Microsoft 8 a.m. the next day. Cindy is the best frenemy ever.
Izzy: My first job at Microsoft was a really short contract for an incubation team for Windows Phone (that was a thing once). It was a great team and taught me a lot. I spent about 4.5 years jumping from contract to contract and doing some freelance in between. I worked for teams like Xbox, Microsoft Teams, accessibility tooling and Inclusive Design. I took the contracting path because I wanted to try out different projects and get a better scope of what type of work I wanted to do. It wasn’t until my last contract at Inclusive Design that I found my purpose. My managers at Microsoft taught me that my voice matters and my individuality is very valuable. This is really powerful when you are of color in the tech world.
I was at the tail end of my six-month break from my last contract when Sogol Malekzadeh from Microsoft messaged me to send her my resume and portfolio. A few days after I talked with my (now) design lead, Juliette Weiss. The project sounded amazing and after the call, I was told Microsoft's recruiter would get back to me. The recruiter reached out and said the interview would occur in a week. Guess what I did: worked on my portfolio for that entire week! The interview process started at 8:30 a.m. and went all the way through to about 4 p.m. Believe it or not, I don’t think I was speaking full sentences towards the end. I think I slept for about 15 hours when I got home that day. A few weeks later, I got an email that they were extending an offer and the rest is history.
Tiffany: A surprising number of us went through Microsoft’s internship program.
Erin: The product design team has historically relied on referrals, but we’re working on evolving our recruiting practices to search a bit more broadly. For example, we’ve done active outreach via Twitter, Dribbble and by cold-emailing design talent, and are currently brainstorming ways we can host more events or talks within our local design communities (especially here in New York!).
Laura: Roughly ⅓ internal referrals, ⅓ headhunting (sourcing finding talent) and ⅓ traditional application process. When applying for a role, it is always best to leverage your network and have folks on the inside refer you to a role. It helps get you noticed and it never hurts to have someone vouch for your skills and experience. The team that I manage spends all of their time on outreach efforts for passive talent. We look at the current needs of the organization and then proactively reach out to folks who we think might be a great fit. We focus on building long term relationships with great talent. While you might not be looking today, we might have a perfect role for you tomorrow.
Tiffany: There are SO MANY opportunities. We have UX designers, visual designers, motion designers, interaction designers, hardware / industrial designers, developer-designer hybrids, videographers and more. We’re all working in vastly different areas, whether those are horizontal, strategic efforts, vertical product teams, incubation teams, etc. I will say that the vast majority of opportunities sit within product teams as UX and/or interaction designers.
Industrial design products and new form factors
Designing for emerging tech in mixed reality and gaming
Solving design ethics questions for next-gen AI products
Creating products and features for the modern workplace
Designing data visualization products for enterprise customers
Connecting and simplifying complex systems, platforms and experiences
David: One of the incredible things about Microsoft is the diversity of design teams tackling different problems in different ways. Some teams are very tactical, while others are exploring the future 3-5 years in the future with goals to never ship anything!
Erin: Keep it simple, link to your work and don’t be afraid to be confident in sharing what makes you a great designer if you’re applying for an opening on our team.
Tiffany: I’m pretty cool with getting emails and LinkedIn messages. I’m normally better able to help someone when their intention is simply to learn more about Microsoft Design, the different teams, my personal experiences, etc. Unless it’s someone whose work I’m already familiar with in some capacity, I don’t tend to put in personal referrals. That said, I always reply!
Laura: When reaching out to me, please share your work and let me know how I can help you. Clear and concise communication is best.
Tiffany: As someone who didn’t have a portfolio at the beginning of their design recruiting process, I think it’s super important – if not absolutely necessary – to have a portfolio that showcases at least 3-4 of your projects. It doesn’t have to be a website if you’re not comfortable with a website; it can be a PDF, a slide deck, etc.
I personally have never seen someone interview at Microsoft without a portfolio. Part of the design interview process itself is a portfolio review, so I think it’d be pretty hard to articulate your thoughts and projects to your interviewers without some form of a portfolio.
Erin: We want to see examples of your work, so if your portfolio showcases beautiful and polished design solutions, that’s great! But if we ask you to join us for an interview, we want to hear more about how you got there. Can you articulate the problem or design brief clearly? How explorative were you early on in the project? What constraints or guidelines did you have to work with or against? And if you were collaborating with others, what was the working relationship like? These are the details that help us better understand how you’d fit or contribute in making our team better. And if you’re applying for a role on the mobile team, we definitely want to see mobile work.
Laura: A portfolio of your work is absolutely required if you are looking for a design role. Every part of your portfolio represents your work, so it is important to organize and talk about the projects in a very organized manner. In addition to showing great work, you also want to make sure that you talk about the process. We are looking for folks who are equally strong designers, communicators, strategists and problem solvers. I also highly recommend working on projects that truly interest you. If you want to work in service design, find projects that align with that type of work.
Izzy: It is very important to have a portfolio! You would need to be pretty charming to pull it off without one.
Joking aside, a portfolio is a way to be able to talk about and show your process and guide someone through your way of thinking. If the design is not what you wanted, then talk about that. Talk about what you could have done differently or your learnings. People in the industry know about constraints and the reality of design.
The portfolio I used was made in PowerPoint and I got a job. In the end, use what you feel best gives the message you want to say. Make it work for the audience you are targeting and if you are sending your portfolio ahead of time, make sure you don’t send the full presentation. Send a teaser of it and show the wow stuff during the interview. You don’t want to bore people with something they have already seen before.
Erin: This is a major pet peeve of mine, but I have an aversion to bar graphs that are meant to illustrate your proficiency in certain tools or skill-sets. If I see that on your resumé or portfolio, I am immediately turned off.
Tiffany: Please no pictures of murals of colorful post-its on a board.
Laura: Please leave your selfie off your portfolio.
David: Low res images aren’t great and stock graphics aren’t great. Pro tip: Have a local copy of your site ready to go if your internet connection becomes wonky. Prototypes or personal projects... really, anything that shows us your passion for solving problems is always good.
Izzy: Club photos, typos and what I call "the Behance effect." The latter means just having pretty photos with no blurb explaining the context. I want to know what was done and how you got to the execution of the idea. That is far more meaningful than a bunch of images I will just glaze over.
"We take the growth mindset seriously and I’ve seen coworkers up to CVPs call out their mistakes."
Erin: The most common misconception is that we’re required to use Windows machines. Surprise: a lot of designers in Microsoft use Macbooks! Not only do we need certain tools that are Mac-only (e.g. Sketch), but a lot of designers are focused on the Mac-versions of their product.
We may have the perception of being a more antiquated tech company, but the reality is that it’s super exciting to be at Microsoft right now. The Verge recently wrote an article about our culture of open design – product teams are sharing and collaborating more and we’re simplifying processes as much as possible. Every design team within the company has the opportunity to define this shift. For example, we on the Outlook mobile team devote time every quarter to having week-long design sprints. It gives us a break from our normal feature work and lets us dream up innovative ideas and solutions for our apps. The best part: we get to invite designers from other teams join in on the fun.
Tiffany: My old expectations, which I assume might be shared by other people who don’t know much about Microsoft design: cubicles, homogenous people who work in silos, collared shirts every day, very 90s vibe, overly corporate and enterprise-driven.
My current reality at Microsoft: open office, diverse teams (with regards to identity, discipline and work style) which collaborate horizontally and vertically, people who dress how they want, a very modern vibe, and designers who interact with real customers and think about the consumer-space increasingly often.
Moreover, I’ve also been super impressed by Microsoft’s values; tech is increasingly under fire for selling data, designing and working unethically, and cultivating toxic cultures. It’s amazing to work at a company that has so many historical successes that are not predominantly built on the monetization of your digital identity.
David: A lot of folks are shocked to learn I work on a Mac and use modern tools. To be clear, every team is free to use the best tool for the job, whether that be Sketch, Figma, XD, Abstract, Principle, Framer, Flinto, ProtoPie, etc. Design’s seat at the table grows every year.
Tiffany: We’re making huge moves towards diversity and inclusion. I guess that means as a designer at Microsoft, it’s important to be self-aware and appreciative of the privileges you have in designing experiences at such a large level of scale and impact. It also means that we expect people to be receptive to feedback, respective of different attitudes, and to grow from those experiences. It’s a growth mindset.
David: We definitely have designers that are invested in other interests – everything from farming, theatre, punk music, hiking. Getting to work with people from all walks of life with a diversity of can only make Microsoft better.
Tiffany: I’d argue that personality, values, and being a cultural add are equally as important as industry experience and hard skills. When you’re spending more time with your teammates than you are with your family, it becomes pretty obvious that the people on your team can make or break your work experience on a day-to-day basis. Work can be challenging and stressful at times, but I’m a huge proponent of not having team culture be a reason to feel emotionally burdened.
David: We tend to look for good people over rockstar designers. We luck out more often and get good people that are also rockstar designers! Empathy, humility and openness to collaboration, people who are willing to jump into unknown territory and give it their best – that’s the person who you want to work with.
This is the opportunity for you to highlight all of your skills/experience/preferences, etc.
If Microsoft is interested in your background, they will schedule a phone interview with a hiring manager. This is your opportunity to ask questions about the role and also highlight your skills and experience as it relates to that specific team or role.
This usually includes a portfolio review plus 1:1 interviews. This is your chance to not only showcase your skills and experience, but how you communicate, problem solve and approach design strategy. Each round gets progressively longer. Be patient, and know that if you've made it on site, Microsoft is interested.
PRO TIP: Be prepared to take a few curve balls - the full-day interview is both fun and exhausting. "In my first interview, I was asked why I chose a specific color blue and had to qualify it for 15 minutes," said David. "Once I did a design exercise for an hour and a half. But every team is different. The main items we look for is how well do you take feedback and whether we think someone would be a great collaborator."
Erin: The Outlook mobile team tracks all our feature work with Github, where we post designs and get feedback from product managers and engineers. We really value designers who can synthesize their thought process via writing since it’s so core to our culture of collaboration. Having any other sort of creative passions definitely gets our attention since Microsoft strongly encourages we always find time for continued learning and education. The company provides a lot of resources to make sure we’re able to pursue the interests that aren’t a part of our normal day-to-day work.
Tiffany: I imagine it depends largely on what position you’re applying for and the needs of the team you’re interviewing with. For example, there are design-developer hybrid roles that assign huge value to someone who is interdisciplinary in both UX and CS. On the other hand, photography skills could be great on teams that do more branding work.
I personally get excited when I hear about designers who are also programmers since I find that that helps them better understand and communicate with developers at Microsoft. But that’s just a personal penchant and it’s completely unnecessary to be able to code as a designer. You just have to understand what tools you have in your own toolbox and work with what you’ve got!
David: Having a superpower always helps. If you’re great at telling a story, if you have a development or creative coding background, if you are great with data or data viz, if you work with After Effects or audio... really, anything that helps with conveying the user experience or clarifying the problem for the team. Many of my coworkers started in a totally different career and bring those skills over to the design world.
Laura: I'll take this one for the team:
1. An application missing information or very pertinent content.
We often ask our applicants to submit a cover letter, their CV and a link to their portfolio, but the number of people that forget at least one of those items is staggering. Perhaps a stellar CV and portfolio can make up for a missing cover letter, but the broader point is an important one: by not paying attention to the details, you are not demonstrating real interest in the job.
2. A cover letter that doesn’t say anything of real value.
Talking about how you’re “hacking your dreams while dreaming up hacks” or something similar doesn’t tell me who you are and why you’re the right person for the job. Keep it simple.
3. Your resume is more than two pages long.
For many of our design roles, we are looking for folks who can take complex problems and simplify. Your resume is the first step in showcasing your ability to present information into an easy-to-read format.
4. Your cover letter talks about yourself in the third person.
5. Your resume doesn’t say anything about what you did in each position.
Avoid the temptation to simply list a handful of the standard "I was a designer" tasks (“designed web pages, designed emails, designed marketing materials”). I want to know what you accomplished, what your greatest achievements were, what you are most proud of from your time with each company. And make it relevant! If you’re applying for a job with our office product group, play up the most relevant experience from your previous roles and background the parts that are not relevant.
Mention why you decided to start the project, what you learned and what you would do differently. "This is especially great if it is a project in an area that you are truly passionate about," says Laura.
"If you have the time and inclination, a unique portfolio site can really stand out," Laura says. "Treat it like any other UX project and put your user (i.e. the recruiter) at the center. What do they need to be able to find information quickly and easily? How much information do they need to make an informed decision? Are you highlighting the skills and work most relevant to the work you want to do?"
Make sure your portfolio represents your best, most recent work. If you have pieces from a decade ago, they may appear dated.
"Prototypes are a big plus for us," Erin says. "Not only can they help us understand any sort of complex flows you’ve designed, but they show us that you consider how transitions between screens can influence the experience."
For your case studies, have a business purpose in mind and to tie the work back to how it helped the business.
"It doesn’t have to be packed with a lot of fluff or buzzwords," says Erin. "The more concise, the better."
Erin: While we do have a lot of designers based in our WA headquarters, the Outlook design team is distributed across a few cities: San Francisco, Vancouver, New York and Bangalore in India. And we’re not the only team within Microsoft that's remote-friendly; it’s becoming increasingly obvious that by expanding our pool geographically, we can truly recruit diversely.
Tiffany: No! You don’t need to be in Washington! I think Redmond campus probably feels the liveliest given it’s the largest central campus in North America, but you can absolutely be a designer at Microsoft in non-Washington offices.
Izzy: I don’t think you need to be in the Northwest to get hired. I have met people who work for Microsoft and live in New York. I’m also connected to a few Latinx employees in Chicago.
Laura: While we have offices around the country, more than 85% of the design opportunities are based in our headquarters in Redmond. We hire folks from all over the country and many of them re-locate to the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It is home to a thriving economy but is also surrounded by nature (mountains, water, lakes wilderness, etc.), has quality education on all fronts and has a diversity of culture that is world class.
David: We also have offices in Prague and London. So I think you’re good. I know we have a principal design manager in Boston and another in North Carolina. It’s not too surprising; we build Skype and Microsoft Teams that are geared toward remote working so they are the proof in the pudding, so to speak.
"I don’t know anyone who has the notion of vesting in three years and moving on. Everyone I know hopes to work at Microsoft for as long as they can."
Tiffany: It’s interesting comparing my experiences interviewing at Microsoft with my experiences interviewing at other large tech companies. While I didn’t realize it in the moment, many of my then-Microsoft-interviewers were partner-level and principal-level individuals in the design space. The fact that people higher-up the food chain took recruiting so seriously is something that I hadn’t experienced elsewhere. It really makes you feel like Microsoft cares a ton about who they’re hiring and bringing onto the team.
Izzy: It’s very different but in a good way! In my personal experience, I had colleagues and principal-level designers giving recommendations to the hiring managers. During the portfolio review process of the interview, I had adjacent team leads sit in and take part. A month into my role, I ran into one of the leads and he not only called me out by name but remembered my presentation. This makes me feel good about the place I work and also keeps me coming back every day with a smile.
Laura: I lead the Pivotal Design Sourcing efforts and we partner with all the design teams across Microsoft to find the best possible talent. We are able to talk to candidates and find out their true passions and align them to roles where they will thrive. Microsoft has so many different products that we have a lot of options for candidates/employees to find roles that align with their passions and interests.
David: From my understanding, people tend to stay at Microsoft longer than other tech companies. I don’t know anyone who has the notion of vesting in three years and moving on. Everyone I know hopes to work at Microsoft for as long as they can. I think that has shifted our mindset to look for good people.
Microsoft team! Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. This is by far the most personal conversation we've had in the series, which says a lot about who you are and what kind of company Microsoft is.
Readers, if you're interested in joining the Microsoft team as a designer, here are a few key takeaways:
When reaching out or working on your cover letter and resume, state clearly what you want, your experience (including what you did specifically in your position) and why you believe you're the right fit for the job. The same goes for your portfolio. Think about what Microsoft needs to know to consider you for their team. Be precise and concise.
You will have several interviews and an interview might last a full day. During the interview, be prepared to answer questions about the design decisions you make, and show a willingness to receive feedback and collaborate.
The designers at Microsoft are some of the most open and friendly people I've talked with in this series. It's clear Microsoft sees potential, values individuality and seeks diversity. And plenty of opportunities exist on the design Microsoft team no matter what kind of work you do. Update your portfolio (re-read Microsoft's tips above first) and show Microsoft why you belong on their team.