Enter the microserfs

I met quite a few of Shell’s coworkers today – all bright, all young, and all newly-hired or less than three years in. Joel, an Australian bloke who was hired to be the program manager for some internal DLL stuff, and I got involved in some pretty interesting geek discussions. He used to work at Sun, and mentioned respins.

A respin is when a company has to revise and resend their microchip design prototype back to the chip fabricators, who make the mass quantities of chips and circuit boards in the devices that us consumers ultimately purchase. A respin is essentially the microprocessor version of a sculptor’s mold – if their is something wrong with it, you go back to square one and make another design. As you can imagine, a respin is a costly procedure for the company. Intel generally does two or three respins for its Pentium designs. His source of consternation was that Sun’s SPARC microchips, on average, required fifty respins apiece.

Drove in Shell’s Cavalier rental car. She’s right, it was a piece of shit. She is awaiting the delivery of her Acura 1.7EL with interest.

And, before I began to despair that no women techies were employed at MS, I met Julie, who is responsible for something codenamed Avalon for Longhorn. “Everyone in Seattle is so polite and friendly,” she remarked. When Shell mentioned that she actually thought that the folks here were actually quite rude compared to folks back in Toronto, Julie confessed that she was from Boston, and Seattlites were definitely more courteous than Bostonians.

After a great dinner of overpriced salmon (courtesy of Pike Place) and corn on the cob (courtesy of QFC and their accursed self-serve checkout lanes), the conversation turned to Microsoft interview questions. Microsoft is famous for giving multiple interviews, each one with a different department, in a single day, and packing them with challenging riddles. Aaron, who does smartphones, had several opportunities to interview Microserf hopefuls, and mentions on of his favourite questions is to ask his interviewee to make a binary tree reversal – which is like asking a novice yellow belt to go beat up Jet Li.

Shell got this question: how much money can Bill Gates put into Xbox? Everytime she would start on some form of strategic analysis, the interviewer would cut her off and yell “Irrelevant!” or “That’s BS!” This continued for several grueling minutes, her trying to make an assessment and him interrupting her. At the end of the interview, the interviewer asked her if she had any questions. She asked him, “How much money can Bill Gates spend on Xbox”, whereupon he replied, “How the hell should I know?”

Things learned: One does not need to “pass” every interview to be accepted, however it can take just one well-respected interviewer to say no to poison your chances completely. Plus, they’re not really trying to see if you can be a code Mozart or plan out the business strategy of Xbox in one sitting. They want to see if you know your fundamentals, and how you deal with pressure.