How to get a job at Google, Apple or Microsoft

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have vacancies on their websites and now could be the perfect time to land a job at one of computing’s biggest hitters.

But what does it take to beat off hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow applicants and land a job at one of the tech elite? We’ve talked to people inside Microsoft, Apple, and Google to discover how to track down the best jobs, and what it takes to get through the arduous selection and interview processes.

We’ll reveal what type of personality the big three are looking for, how to apply, and how to prepare if you make it through to the interview stages. And we do mean stages: candidates can face up to a dozen interviews before they’re given a name badge and a space in the car park. So if you have the stamina, a nice clean suit, and a brain the size of Birmingham, read on to find out how to join tech’s top table.

Finding a vacancy

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The first port of call when casing a job at IT’s heavyweights is their websites. All three list available posts online, with options for submitting CVs and cover letters for specific roles.

Microsoft says it generally advertises only full-time posts on its careers site, “because otherwise we’d be inundated, and there are only so many CVs we can sift through”.

However, specific roles with rare skills occasionally appear with specialist recruitment agencies. Full-time technical jobs are sourced on-site, through a department run by recruitment agency Penna Barkers. Temporary and contract positions are handled by the Brook Street agency, while sales positions are filled through Manpower.

Google, likewise, prefers to hire through its Google jobs website but is more likely to post jobs with skills-specific recruitment websites.

Apple advertises on its Apple jobs website but uses agencies to identify staff for certain positions.

The official websites might be the front door, but high-flyers are invited round the back – all the giants use headhunters to help them fill specific roles.

Increasingly, the big three are also using social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook when searching for fresh talent. Microsoft, for example, occasionally recruits directly through LinkedIn.

It’s therefore imperative that jobseekers, even latent ones, manage their online presence – both by keeping it professional, but also up to date. According to LinkedIn’s Christina Hoole, “users with complete profiles are 40 times more likely to receive opportunities through LinkedIn than subscribers with patchy details”.

Who are they looking for?

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It isn’t surprising to learn that the tech giants have a huge pool of talent to pick from. These companies are so well-known for their benefits and prestige that there really isn’t an absence of qualified candidates.

Yet, it isn’t only technical acumen that the companies are looking for: hiring managers are trying to find candidates that fit the company’s cultural identity. You may be the most qualified, but if you don’t fit the type of employee one of these companies is looking for you’ll likely lose out on the position.

A candidate that fits perfectly in one company could be a bad match for another. “Google is generally looking for ‘budding entrepreneurs’,” said HR expert and business consultant, Marc Lawn. “Microsoft is generally looking for solid academics, while Apple tends to look for a balance between the two. If you think about analogous businesses, then Microsoft is very similar to a Barclays, Google is like Innocent Drinks and Apple, like Coca-Cola.”

That might mean buying into the company’s brand ethos and cultural traits, but candidates must also show a willingness to work like a demon. “Obviously, the skill set is a pre-requisite, but there is a lot to be said for the passion that someone has for a company,” said Microsoft product manager and hiring executive Chris Sells. “They want to work here, they are self-motivated, the sort of person who will work on projects that aren’t really their job at the weekend and in the evening. Or it might be that they’ve written books or articles, or are members of open-source groups. It’s about people with passion for what they do.”

Google demands equally high technical ability but says it’s also looking for extracurricular flair that hints at a more lively mind. “If you’re going to work for Google in a technical role then you’re going to be technically very good,” said Parrin. “But that doesn’t always mean academic skills and qualifications – there are lots of people at Google without a degree.

“We also look at an applicant’s ‘Googliness’, which is what’s cool about them and makes them tick. Is it running, rock-climbing, go-karting, cycling, or gaming – what do they do outside work? We test tech skills, but also look for personalities with a passion and how it might apply to what they are applying for at Google.”

By stating that working there is “less of a job and more of a calling”, Apple reveals the cult-like dedication it seeks from employees. The focus is on creativity and fervor for Apple design. “We want people with backgrounds in electrical, mechanical, and specialized engineering – as well as industrial design and quality assurance,” the company claims.

“People who are smart, creative, up for any challenge, and incredibly excited about what they do. Apple people.”

It is, however, prepared to indoctrinate the exceptional. “The best way to understand our company… is to use our products, but if you have an attention to detail, a collaborative spirit and a readiness to learn, don’t worry – we’ll help you make the switch once you arrive.”

The Application Process

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For most jobseekers, the application process begins by submitting a CV and supporting letters. These tedious documents are critical for getting a foot in the door, but at least they can be filled out online, and the companies will hold resumés and profiles so that you can apply for more than one job. That’s the easy part.

Applicants should be clear about why they are qualified for specific roles, referring back to the job description and highlighting relevant skills and experiences in their CV. Although there’s no right or wrong format for a resumé, some under-pressure recruiters love bullet points near the top, saying “they make it easy for us to read your CV and assess your suitability”.

The screening technology employed at this stage shouldn’t be underestimated. Apple’s website, for example, suggests relevant jobs based on the content of applicants’ CVs. If the company is providing such facilities for job hunters, you can bet your first pay check that Apple is also narrowing down applicants using the same techniques. Inserting relevant keywords in your CV is vital.

After posting your details online, it’s a waiting game. Some recruiters don’t get back to candidates for months, other times an applicant can be in the position within weeks. If there’s a major developer conference somewhere then recruitment is put on hold, for example.

Once you have passed the application process, the three giants have surprisingly similar techniques for filling the posts. Most roles will involve an initial screening interview by telephone, which will ask technical questions designed to make sure candidates’ resumés stand up to scrutiny.

The phone interviews will weed out the no-hopers from the possibles, and in most cases, the IT companies draw up a shortlist of between four and ten candidates who will be called for on-site interviews – more on that later, but safe to say potential employees can expect a full day.

“Then there will be a shortlist of three or four people, and they can expect another two to ten interviews depending on the role. The candidate will come in for a day and be squirted through all those interviews in one blast,” said our Apple insider.

The Interview

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The on-site interview – or interviews – are the most nerve-wracking aspect of the process, and critically important, so they need to be prepared for as thoroughly as a CV. Most HR teams will reveal who will be interviewing you. According to recruiters, this information is vital because properly researched, it can generate questions that make candidates look intelligent and informed.

“I try to let people know the job titles and preferably the names of people they will be interviewing with, which can help, and you should research what that person or at least their group does,” said our man at Apple. “The more time you spend asking relevant questions of the department’s work, the more impressed the interviewer will be, and the less time you’ll have to spend answering questions about yourself.” A Google search to discover the interviewer’s interests won’t hurt, either.

The three computing giants employ similar techniques to assess every aspect of an applicant’s skills and personality. There will be tests of technical knowledge and aptitude, peer interviews, and discussions with people from other departments to gauge flexibility.

Often, it starts with the technical. “I had an hour-long meeting with a developer, where I needed to show that I could work out code on a whiteboard,” said Microsoft staffer Simon Davies, of one recent interview. “The point is that this shows you can execute good code in your head without running it through a computer.

“Follow-up questions involved that code. How could you make it run faster, take more user input, or run using less memory? It’s basically bouncing ideas back and forward, refining the initial code, because that’s what you’d be doing if you got the job.”

Outside the technical tests, many of the other questions asked are there to show how you think and communicate. “What the interviewer is looking for is the same no matter what the question is: a good fit in the role,” says Microsoft’s Sells. “If it’s a developer role, they’re looking for thinking that would produce an efficient algorithm to solve the problem.

If it’s a program manager role, they’re looking for an organized approach that covers the range of details involved and makes sure the customer gets the right thing. For an architect, they’re looking for a dissection of the problem into its core parts and to understand the implications of the problem and the possible solutions.”

When it comes to quizzing candidates on their work experience, interviewers try to make questions behavioral, so rather than ask what you would do in a given situation, they ask what you have done. “What was the most difficult problem in your recent past and how did you solve it,” is a common question, which Sells claims is designed to weed out the bluffers. But it also means that candidates can prepare in advance. Have a stock of situations in hand, and be prepared to explain what you did and how you made a difference.

What shocks applicants is the number and variety of interviews, which come thick and fast throughout the day. The picture painted by one Apple interviewee is typical. “There was someone from a similar department from Switzerland, peers, my potential manager and his boss, and someone from marketing,” said Mark Symonds, who applied for a software engineering post. “Most of the interviews were one-on-one, but sometimes with two people, and they were all very different. It was exhausting.”

This mix-and-match approach is common on interview days – partly because it fits in as many people as possible, but also because it highlights flexibility under pressure. “There’s no magic button,” said our Apple insider. “There will be different styles – my boss always drills straight down to the technical things; senior management wants to talk about the academic background; the next guy might want to talk only about you, your hobbies and experiences.

Another might be talking about stock fixes and the next guy might be strategic, asking those ‘Where do you see yourself in five years’ questions. You have to remain flexible and quick, and it can be quite disorientating.”

Don’t assume the traditional tech uniform of T-shirt and jeans is suitable for the interview, either. Microsoft is candid about what it expects from interviewees, stating that: “we have a casual dress code in our offices. However (and this is a big, however), we take the interview and selection process very seriously and that’s why we’ll expect you to wear smart business dress”.

Google, on the other hand, suggests a more relaxed atmosphere, but acknowledges that for certain positions – perhaps client-partner facing executives – it would be wise to err on the side of the traditional. “They can wear whatever they feel comfortable in,” said a spokesperson, “But yes, it varies of course, by role or position.” Apple gives no guidance.

And finally, if you’re lucky enough to be offered the job, we arrive at the tricky last hurdle of salary negotiations – a financial grapple that varies from company to company. “Microsoft works within a very rigid ‘banding’ structure for roles at all levels – so grade x gets paid y,” said consultant Lawn. “Google is much more fluid at senior level and what’s on offer is down to the company and the candidate to discuss.”

And if you have any energy left after that tortuous recruitment rigmarole, you do have cause to celebrate.

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