Rob Collie’s Real Microsoft Stories: Paper or Plastic?

A “Chuckler” of an Interview Story

My use of “paper or plastic” in today’s post reminded me of a funny story from Microsoft.  There was a manager in Office who used to sit across the hall from me in the late 90’s – let’s call him DH.  He was famous for being a tough interviewer.  And I don’t just mean tough in the “only good candidates got by him” sort of way.  He was tough in ways that went above and beyond the call of duty.  In fact, on at least one occasion he made a candidate cry.  (Not a good thing).

But this isn’t about one of those times.  This particular story is about what happened when a particularly eccentric candidate crossed paths with that draconian interviewer.

For many people, the MS interview was their first exposure to an interview where you couldn’t just talk a lot, sound smart, and get the job. You were going to be asked difficult, specific questions and expected to answer them.  (This style of interview is much more common these days I think).

Most people enjoyed that actually – they found it refreshing.  But every now and then we’d see very strange reactions.  I once asked a legitimately stellar candidate – someone with a monster resume that was solid, not fluff, and who was off-the-charts intelligent – to draw a sketch on the whiteboard.  He outright refused.  In fact he refused to engage with any of the questions.  He didn’t think the “grunt work” entailed by the questions was a legitimate judge of his capabilities.  So he refused to answer questions all day long (not just mine!) and experienced the first failure of his life.  He was stunned when I told him he wouldn’t be receiving an offer.  (He’s probably made a billion dollars on Wall Street at this point, so the final joke is on us I guess.)

The Semi-Famous “Paper or Plastic” Showdown

Anyway, back to DH.  One candidate had made it through the grueling day and was now facing DH as the “As Appropriate” interview.  In video game terms, the “AA” interview is the Boss Battle of your interview day at MS.

The interview went something like this:

DH:  “OK, first question.  Let’s say you are building a new tech company.  Do you hire a programmer or a business pro first?”

Candidate:  “Well there are pros and cons for both…”  <the candidate then launches into an impressively comprehensive ten-minute list of tradeoffs between both approaches without ever approaching a decision>

DH:  <finally interrupting> “OK that’s great.  Now that you have all of that on the table, who do you hire?”

Candidate:  “Well I’d start weighing those pros and cons against each other and creating a scorecard of sorts…”  <another five minutes without approaching an answer>

DH:  “You’re going to have to choose.”

Candidate:  “There are entirely too many variables.  This requires much more analysis…”

DH:  “No, you have to choose one.  You can’t hire them both and you can’t analyze forever.”

Candidate:  “All right so then I guess I’d need to complete my scorecard…’”

DH:  “OK, you know what, let’s change gears.  Paper or plastic?”

Candidate:  “I don’t understand.  Can you explain?”

DH:  “You’re in the grocery store and they’re asking how you want your groceries bagged – in paper or in plastic.  Which do you choose?”

Candidate:  “Well if I choose paper that means I’m killing trees, and if I choose plastic I’m polluting.  I suppose one may be cheaper to produce…”

DH:  “You’re in the grocery line.  There are people behind you waiting.  You are holding everyone up.  WHICH DO YOU CHOOSE?”

The candidate never made a decision, and DH sent him home without a job offer.  Can you imagine being a fly on the wall for that conversation?  Two incredibly stubborn (and eccentric) personalities locking horns in this bizarre manner?  Doubly bizarre in that one of them clearly held all the cards and yet the other still refused to realize it.

What a crazy place that was, late 90’s Microsoft.  I’m richer for the experience, having interacted with so many outlandishly different people – people like DH and like that candidate – under such pressured circumstances.  It’s not like this particular story made me a better professional or anything, it’s just that my life seems fuller for having sat ringside for it.

One Response to Rob Collie’s Real Microsoft Stories: Paper or Plastic?

  1. I love it. What a great story – and an important lesson. Like my dad always said, “$#!@ or get off the pot.” Make a decision, one of the most basic of fundamentals so many people don’t get. Sounds like a lot of common sense to me. :)

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