Software king builds young careers, too

Microsoft: The very word suggests success and wealth, a point not lost on those who get a foot in the door through the company's internship or recruiting programs.


REDMOND, Wash. - It's no wonder Rafi Khan wanted to spend his summer on this lush green campus: Shuttles move workers from one office building to another, and there are gym memberships, cable and maid service - all for free.

The problem for Khan, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, was that thousands of others wanted the same thing. For those in the computer sciences, Microsoft Corp. is the Emerald City of internships.

More than an attractive atmosphere, though, Microsoft offers something that most tech companies don't these days: jobs.

At a time when many businesses are cutting costs and slashing employment, Microsoft continues to recruit heavily. It expects to make 5,000 hires this year and bring in about 800 paid college interns for the summer.

"What Microsoft does in its internship program and recruiting programs is very smart," said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Maintaining the program, even during a down economy, is good for business, Challenger said.

Studies, he said, show that companies which are committed to healthy internship programs and hire during recessions have stronger growth potential once the economy recovers.

While companies other than Microsoft are still hiring top candidates, they do so only on an as-needed basis, he said.

But landing a Microsoft internship is a rigorous process.

Microsoft received about 50,000 resumes for both internships and jobs just in January.

Intern applicants who make the first cut - based solely on their resume - go through an interview on campus with a recruiter, and the final candidates are then brought to Redmond for a round of interviews at the company.

One of every 10 students who makes it to an interview on his or her college campus is hired for the summer, estimated Kristen Roby Dimlow, the company's senior director of college recruiting.

Khan, a computer science major, last month endured six interviews, each lasting more than an hour, in Redmond. While he was asked some technical questions, Khan said, he felt the interviewers were mostly trying to gauge how smart and creative he is, and how well he solves problems.

He described the process as "the most intense thing I've ever been through."

Khan said he was recently notified by Microsoft that he was selected for one of the coveted internships this year.

He will receive subsidized housing, a salary that Microsoft describes only as "competitive," access to the company social events and the same training available to full-time employees. Interns entering their senior year of college are also invited to an end-of-the-summer catered barbecue at the house of Bill Gates, chairman and co-founder of Microsoft.

Some firms don't pay

Many companies do not pay interns, said Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for Wellesley, Mass.-based, a software company that researches corporate pay and employment practices. He estimated that an internship at Microsoft may pay as much as $25 an hour, or $1,000 a week.

Microsoft, which had an employee turnover rate of about 6 percent last year, estimates that 30 percent to 45 percent of its interns ultimately are hired full-time.

"The bar is fairly high for interns because after only 12 weeks of an internship, we want them to be pretty close to being a full-time candidate," said Brian Schneider, a senior technical recruiter for Microsoft and the recruiter for the University of Maryland, College Park.

Schneider said that last fall he brought five University of Maryland alumni to a career fair at the school. At times the lines were six people deep for each recruiter.

The qualities Microsoft looks for in its interns include raw talent, passion for technology, potential and flexibility.

Attractive prospects

The company views Maryland as an attractive campus on which to recruit because several technology-focused high schools feed into the university, helping students gain at an early age technical skills they can use at Microsoft, Schneider said.

The software giant's interview process is similar to those of several large technology companies, Coleman said. But others have retrenched.

"Two years ago, if a company sent three recruiters to a campus, this year they're probably sending one or maybe two," Coleman said. "So those people are interviewing a third or maybe two-thirds of the people."

The competition for college students during the dot-com boom was much tougher.

"That was hard," Dimlow said. "We were seen as a big company and somewhat stodgy, and I think now, after the dot-com bust, people think Microsoft is working on really cool things."

Microsoft is not a typical company, though.

It employs 55,000, and its headquarters is on 300 acres and includes 57 office buildings and 22 cafeterias.

There is a small lake dubbed "Lake Bill," named after the founder. The conference center has an art gallery upstairs and a huge piece of the Berlin Wall on display downstairs.

Workers can join a variety of social groups from "Dads at Microsoft" to the ski club to the chess club.

Work hours are flexible, and cafeterias open as early as 7 a.m. and close as late as 7 p.m. And nearly all employees, including interns, have their own office to decorate as they please.

One of the offices, for instance, has a mountain scene painted on the wall. Another has red walls and a disco ball.

Philip Su, a University of Maryland alumnus, interned at Microsoft when he was in college and went back to work there. Su is now a lead developer on Microsoft's Tablet PC team.

"Microsoft has such a unique atmosphere," he said, "that once you're there and it clicks with you, that's the only place you want to develop software."

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