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Life at the Top : For workers at Microsoft, the base salary is low, the hours are long and the demands are large. So why are thousands of applicants turned away?

February 26, 1996|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Microsoft Corp. receives about 12,000 resumes a month. Yet Chairman Bill Gates complains that the greatest limit to the company's growth is a lack of good people.

David Pritchard, Microsoft's head of recruiting, says the software giant has 1,000 technical jobs available today, some of which have been open for six months. What gives?

It isn't just the lack of good software programmers available. Microsoft is looking for a rare breed of person. Call it the "Bill Gates type."

The perfect candidate is smart, has a Type A personality, loves computers, doesn't mind 60-hour workweeks with little vacation time, and is willing to trade a relatively low base salary for attractive stock options.

"We hire computer freaks," says Microsoft Vice President Chris Peters, whose office is cluttered in typical Microsoft fashion with bric-a-brac including water guns, a mini basketball net and old Coke cans. "They spend a lot of time in front of computers."

The goal, says Peters, is to find people powerfully focused on their work in computers the way leading sports pros or artists are focused on theirs. Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is "probably not particularly well-rounded," Peters notes.

It isn't uncommon for small high-tech companies to expend great management effort to find the kind of person who will fit in and be willing to work the long hours to keep up with fast product cycles and tight deadlines. But technology analysts and consultants say Microsoft is unusual in having succeeded in maintaining that attention to hiring and challenging new recruits as its work force has swollen to nearly 18,000.

The result for Microsoft is an army of skilled workers who don't complain about the heavy loads placed on them. In an oft-told story, a young employee once boasted to Gates that he had been at work until midnight the night before. Responded Gates: "Working half-days again, are you?"

Even mid-level managers put in long hours. Dick Wadell endured 80-hour workweeks last year as head of a group looking for bugs in Windows 95, the new Microsoft operating system released last summer amid great hype. But Wadell says the hours never bothered him.

"Every morning I woke up roaring to go," he says. "We had a sense we were creating a product that was revolutionary."

Wadell says he is confident he will be well rewarded in bonuses and stock options.

"It's common knowledge that you don't have to be old and decrepit before you leave here," he explains.

The heavy demands Microsoft puts on its workers in exchange for relatively low base wages may force other companies that intend to compete with Microsoft to follow suit with equally high-pressure work environments.

Microsoft's pressure-cooker approach starts with recruitment.

Technology companies typically prefer experienced workers who can fill a position with little or no training. Microsoft bucks the trend by taking an unusually high proportion of its new hires straight out of college. More than half the 2,000 people Microsoft will hire this year will be recent graduates.

Using this approach, the company gets the recruits in their most productive years--and has the opportunity to mold them to the fast-paced Microsoft culture.

Only a small percentage of the thousands of students interviewed by Microsoft recruiters at the nation's top 40 or so universities are accepted into the tight fraternity. Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and author of "Microsoft Secrets," says that of 50 MIT students interviewed for software development jobs in a recent year, only two were invited to Redmond, Wash., for follow-up interviews, and just one was hired.

Interview questions can include those one might find on a Mensa test to screen people for high IQs.

Peters, who was heavily involved in hiring for Microsoft's large office-products division, likes to quickly assess a candidate's technical ability.

Among the questions Peters has asked: "What's an easy way to divide an integer by 8?" (In the binary code used by programmers, 8 is 1,000. To divide 8 by 8, for example, you would simply move the decimal point over three times and you get 1.) "If they don't answer, you start talking about the Seattle weather," says Peters, who says the question should be a no-brainer for anybody with a basic knowledge of programming.

Recruiting director Pritchard, who has done some programming himself, begs to differ. He doesn't know the answer and insists most candidates won't be asked questions like that. What they will be asked to do, says Pritchard, is to write code. Although experienced candidates from other companies are often surprised at being asked to program, "if someone says they can juggle, and you want to hire a juggler, you would ask them to juggle."

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