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Sunday, February 18, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Microsoft: The Hiring Machine

Seattle Times Business Reporter

------------------------------------------------------------------ Each week an average of 50 people join the Microsoft fold. The company has more than 60 recruiters who sift the nation's population for potential job candidates. It's a prestigious organization and applicants who make the grade could, one day, be millionaires. So, how do you get hired? ------------------------------------------------------------------

When Brian Pertl was hired by Microsoft, he had unusual qualifications: the ability to play two obscure musical instruments, the Tibetan trumpet and Australian didjeridu.

In fact, when he arrived on the Redmond campus in 1992 he knew little about computers. He had traveled the world, won a prestigious fellowship and was about to earn his doctorate, but what interested Microsoft was the didjeridu.

Pertl was hired temporarily to record two pieces of music for Microsoft's multimedia CD-ROM "Musical Instruments." He was working toward an ethnomusicology degree at the University of Washington at the time, studying the music of different cultures, when a Microsoft manager who knew someone at the school came looking for an expert player of the didjeridu, an uncommon instrument formed from a hollowed-out tree limb. The temporary stint led to others, and last summer Pertl, 33, was hired full time to manage all music used on Microsoft's consumer software.

Two things about this are striking: that Microsoft, maker of

spreadsheets and computer-operating systems, would recruit from a music school at all; and that it would hire someone just to get a piece played on a didjeridu.

More and more, though, this is exactly the kind of hiring Microsoft is doing. The company founded by and for computer geeks has made headlines in recent months by hiring people like sharp-tongued Michael Kinsley, the former CNN "Crossfire" host who will head up an online magazine, and award-winning broadcast journalist Linda Ellerbee, who will host an online interview show.

Microsoft has cut deals with kitchen queen Julia Child, who spilled her epicurean secrets on a multimedia CD-ROM cooking guide; and Orlando Magic star Shaquille O'Neal, who occasionally trades his basketball for a keyboard during online "chats" on the Microsoft Network.

But the famous hires are only part of the story.

Behind the scenes, Microsoft has been reaching out to Disney animators, Hollywood producers, cartographers, anthropologists, radio disc jockeys and sculptors. At the same time, a new research lab has attracted renowned physicists who once considered Microsoft beneath them. All this has taken place while the company has continued hiring as many software programmers as ever.

The parallel moves make for a hiring pace unmatched by any area software company or most other local companies. Nationally and internationally, too, Microsoft stands out, luring new hires with full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and beating venture capitalists at the game of recruiting executives. There are tales of people dropping everything to go work at Microsoft, although headhunters say Microsoft doesn't have the reputation that some companies, especially those in the computer-chip industry, have for stealing highly skilled employees from each other.

Over the past five years, Microsoft has hired about 50 people every week. The company added about 2,000 people in the last half of 1995 alone and expects to bring on as many as 1,200 more by July. That would boost its total worldwide work force to nearly 21,000, up from 8,200 just five years ago. And that doesn't include the thousands of people who work each year on short-term contracts, the way Pertl began.

Microsoft executives say hiring key people - and keeping them - is more important than ever given the surging popularity of computers and the many companies looking to capitalize on that.

Yet hiring, even for Microsoft, is harder than ever in many ways. There's a nationwide shortage of programmers and engineers, and Microsoft is known for paying below-average salaries. Some prospective candidates are turned off by publicity about Microsoft's antitrust investigations and workaholic image. And the strength of the company's "golden handcuffs," the stock-option plan that has made millionaires out of 3,000 employees, has diminished as the company's stock price has begun to plateau.

Upstarts such as Internet phenomenon Netscape Communications are luring top talent from computer-science schools because they are now the ones with the greatest stock potential.

To cope with all these challenges, Microsoft has flexed its hiring muscles, forming a recruiting department of more than 60 people who fan out across the country to sell candidates on its tenets: work hard, play hard, think smart and compete ferociously.

Working at Microsoft is still viewed as a plum job. The company receives more than 10,000 resumes a month and hosts 150 people a week for daylong interviews, enough to support a full-scale apartment complex for out-of-town candidates and interns and a fleet of vans to shuttle prospects to interviews among 27 buildings on two campuses.

Interviews begin with demanding tests of skill and end, for the lucky ones, with job offers that include stock options, "signing" bonuses, twice-yearly merit bonuses of several thousand dollars each, health-club memberships, an occasional pair of season tickets to the Sonics, and, some say most important of all, the chance to join a team that believes it is changing the world.

`VELVET SWEATSHOP'

Microsoft's increasing forays into new businesses mean it must compete for employees with Los Angeles movie studios, symphonies, book publishers and TV networks. Specialists like Pertl often join part time to help develop one product. Pilots helped make the "Flight Simulator" game. An archaeologist helped make the "Dinosaurs" reference software.

For recruiters, that often means scouting not just at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but at cable-television trade shows, journalism conferences and gatherings of graphic artists.

About a year ago, the company began hiring television producers to help develop online programming, multimedia CD-ROMs and interactive TV.

"Those are very niche jobs," said David Pritchard, director of recruiting. "We needed to find out what do video people look like, what do they think like, what do they do. We watched a lot of TV. CNN."

Hiring people like this is tricky. Microsoft is a relative unknown in many of these circles, and it has an image as a "velvet sweat shop," a place where the potential for making a killing on the stock is supposed to make up for a hellish work pace. There's also a perception that Microsoft is not particularly creative when it comes to new ideas, and that it tends to rely more on marketing hustle to boost sales.

"Some students really like (Microsoft); some say it's the Evil Empire," said Giovanni Della-Libera, who will get his master's degree from MIT this spring and who is interviewing for a Microsoft job after interning there the past three summers. "It's a range, I guess," he said, adding that most students who despise Microsoft are "freeware types," people who share software over online computer networks and often scorn capitalists.

THE CHOSEN ONES

People competing for jobs at Microsoft fall into two camps: The Masses and The Chosen Ones.

The Masses walk through the door, mail a resume, attend a job fair or apply through the Internet. Microsoft won't divulge the chances of these people getting interviews, but the company acknowledges it screens carefully over the phone. On a rare occasion, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates himself has been known to call a college recruit.

The Chosen Ones, who make up some three of every 10 hires, are handled differently. They include top programmers, researchers, marketers and more recently, writers, editors, photographers and artists. They command special stock-option plans and signing bonuses of $2,000 to $10,000. Even for Chosen Ones, though, there is one thing that is never negotiable: No one starts with more than two weeks' vacation. Even Gates only takes two weeks himself.

Connie Waite, 33, and DeeDee Walsh, 32, were Chosen Ones. Neither was crazy about the idea of going to work for Microsoft, especially Walsh, who turned down four job offers over four or five years.

A Brigham Young University graduate in English, Walsh was working press relations for a small software company run by a family friend when she was first approached by recruiters in 1988. An earthy, energetic woman who jokes that she rolls out of bed and goes to work without changing clothes, she was known for her great contacts with trade-magazine editors.

But Walsh thought Microsoft was too large and had no entrepreneurial spirit - until she met Tom Button, a 30-year-old manager in Microsoft's developer division, which works with outside software developers. Button and his 90-person team made an impression. He told Walsh she could have free rein - - a promise that later spawned things like Microsoft's annual Geek Fest, a rowdy beer and pizza bash for programmers.

Waite, another marketer, worried she'd "be another cog" at Microsoft, even though she knew she wanted to leave her job at a small software company in Redmond.

After resisting Button for a few months, "I interviewed out of curiosity," she said. "Will I pass the Microsoft bar? And what kind of offer will they make me?"

During those three months, Button learned all he could about Waite, and called her often. He sent two bouquets and a basket of Northwest coffee, cheese and fruit.

When she finally agreed to an interview, Button convinced her she would be able to run her own show. And the Microsoft job, though it paid $10,000 less than another job she considered, offered good bonuses and benefits, the stock options and a chance to work on important projects. She was also drawn to the mystique of the company, the impression that only the best work for Microsoft.

"I thought if I can survive at Microsoft . . . that's a real personal test," she said.

Waite and Walsh were hired with specific jobs in mind. That's not always the case.

Pierre de Vries, a South African sculptor with a doctorate in quantum physics, was recruited in 1992 for no particular job.

He had decided he wasn't smart enough to become a famous physicist (despite having been a Rhodes scholar), and he didn't like the venture-capital work he was doing, so he dropped out and entered sculpting school in London. On the side, he was researching the software industry for a video producer, a job that took him to Dusseldorf, Germany, to interview a Microsoft manager. The two hit it off, and the interview led to a visit to Seattle and a dinner with Microsoft executives who later visited Europe.

De Vries figures his quirky background impressed someone. But at the time, he says, he thought he had come off as "a great guy to have dinner with, but we can't employ him."

Months went by and then, to de Vries' surprise, Microsoft offered him a job though he never formally applied for one. After weeks of work to get a visa, de Vries took the job and wound up designing the Microsoft "Home" lab, a suite of offices converted into an apartment with a living room, kitchen, dining room and study where Microsoft tests new software, computerized television systems and prototype products.

`LOVE BOMBS'

Think fast: How much water flows out of the Mississippi River every day? How many gas stations are there in the United States? How many times does the average person say "the" in a day?

Welcome to a Microsoft job interview.

Interviewers often use questions like these to see how fast candidates can think on their feet. To estimate the daily use of the word "the," for example, someone might start with a one-minute estimate then calculate up to the number of waking hours - 16 for most people, 20 for Microsofties.

A programmer candidate also might be asked to write a short series of software code on an erasable "white board" hung on an office wall. Or several Microsoft employees might join the prospect, and the "team" will conduct a hypothetical meeting to brainstorm new product ideas.

The series of one-to-1 1/2-hour interviews frequently lasts a full day, although the schedule beyond a half day is often not divulged to the candidate. That way, if the person flops early in the day, the candidate is told he or she is done and subsequent interviews are canceled.

Throughout the day, the interviewers e-mail one another to pass along their impressions. While the candidate is being shuttled between interviews, the first interviewer might e-mail the next to point out the candidate's weaknesses or suggest questions.

By the end of the day, a final interviewer, or "closer," might get the sign to go into "sell mode," trying to persuade the candidate to take a job. If a prospect is particularly impressive, this switch might take place as early as noon, over lunch at the Thai Kitchen in Redmond or in Microsoft's famed food-court style cafeteria.

Button says he often drops "love bombs" - bouquets, wine, hiking books for outdoors lovers - on job candidates to get attention. He books a nice hotel room (the Four Seasons for city people, the Salish Lodge for country folks, the corner room at Kirkland's waterfront Woodmark for suburban types) to show off the Puget Sound area's lifestyle. "When we get a sports fan, I know we can get 'em" with courtside Sonics' seats, he said.

But in the end, Button said, he sells his candidates on an energetic work environment, "cool" technology and the chance to work with smart people.

"When you're all done with it," he said, "it's not the fringe around the edge that's going to get people to Microsoft. You just flood them with a view of Microsoft that looks exactly like home to them."

Todd Kinion, vice president of the San Jose, Calif.-based recruiting firm Hall Kinion, said Microsoft holds sway with prospective employees - especially young college graduates - by piling on the responsibility early on, putting them on big projects right away, giving them their own offices, and making them part-owners of the company (through stock options).

"There are a lot of companies out there that are much freer with signing bonuses and things like that," Kinion said. But Microsoft still has one unbeatable advantage:

"They still have the luxury of being able to attract people solely on the basis of being Microsoft."

------------------- The fringe benefits -------------------

Microsoft is known for coming in on the low side when it comes to salaries. Competitors often pay more. Microsoft's benefits are the real draw for many. The value of some perks, such as stock options, increase the longer an employee stays, a strategy designed to keep people from leaving. Here are Microsoft's standard benefits:

# Semiannual bonuses.

# Fully paid medical premiums.

# Stock options that are negotiable upon signing.

# Discounts on stock purchases (85 percent of the market value)

# A health-club membership.

# A 50-percent match for 401(k) contributions.

# Twelve weeks' paid maternity leave.

# A one-for-one match of charitable donations, up to $12,000 a year.

# Full tuition for work-related courses.

# Adoption assistance up to $5,000.

The only benefit that is said to be nonnegotiable at Microsoft is vacation time. The limit is two weeks.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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