Work ‘Soft, Play ‘Soft: Interning at Microsoft, Summer 2016

This past summer, I had the exciting opportunity to intern at Microsoft as a Program Manager. It was an incredible time — I won’t soon forget the fascinating people I befriended, the professional advice and education I got at work, or the many adventures I went on with the hundreds of other interns.

Here’s a rundown of the entire experience, from getting interested to getting so much out of it.

A bit of background

By way of introduction, I’m studying computer science at Harvard (class of 2018), where I’ve worked in student government, community service, teaching, global health, and social science on the side. I interned at Microsoft after my sophomore year in summer 2016.

The making of a PM

I’ve been developing software for about six years now. I’ve done lots of software engineering work, most recently at Khan Academy, where I interned in summer 2015.

Throughout that process, I learned that I was a coder, but I was fundamentally a people person. I enjoyed computer science, but I also enjoyed social science, business, leadership and design. I liked making software, but I found the challenges of understanding people’s problems and helping people out more exciting than wrestling with bugs.

So when I learned that there was a role that let you do all the things I enjoyed, I was in. I learned that that role was called product management, and when I learned that Microsoft had what many consider the best internship for that role, I was sold.

The road to Redmond

My friend referred me to Microsoft in my sophomore fall, and after a phone screen with a recruiter I was whisked away to Redmond, Wash. for onsite interviews to become a Program Manager intern. (Program Management is subtly different from Product Management, but they’re similar enough.)

Students interviewing for an internship write the names of their colleges on this wall. You’ll notice that I wrote “Harvard” inside the “c” of “Microsoft.”

The process was pretty rigorous: five hour-long interviews, one of which was over lunch, with high-ranking PMs from the Microsoft Office division. The interviews tended to be about product design (e.g. design an alarm clock for the blind), with some questions about my past work and leadership experience thrown in. The last interview was especially great: it was with a Group Program Manager (who would be an intern’s boss’s boss) who’d been at Microsoft longer than I’d been alive. He packaged everything he’d learned in a 20-year career in a 60-minute conversation — and the advice he gave me about professional growth and understanding people was invaluable.

A few weeks later I was fortunate enough to get an offer, and you’d better believe that I signed it as fast as humanly possible.

Life in the Microsoft Office Office

I started my internship working on Microsoft Project, an enterprise project management tool in the Microsoft Office family of products. So I often joked that I worked in the Microsoft Office Office and that my project was Project.

Microsoft Project is an enterprise project management tool and part of the Microsoft Office suite.

Microsoft Project is big business: it’s been around for 30 years and has revenues of over $1 billion. The biggest manufacturers in the world use Project — for instance, major aircraft makers use it to coordinate building an airplane (which, I imagine, is a hugely complex process involving hundreds of workers, tasks, and materials.)

As a PM on Project, I got a chance to talk to some of these huge clients, work with other teams to develop some business strategy, and design features to help employees report the tasks they were working on and how long they’d spent on them.

In the second half of my internship, I turned from the venerable Microsoft Project to the opposite end of the product age spectrum. I worked on Microsoft Planner, a brand-new visual task management tool for teams. I’m not kidding about it being new — we released it to the public during my first week on the job.

Microsoft Planner, a new visual task management tool for teams. It’s like a collaborative, souped-up to-do list.

Because Planner was such a new product, I got a chance to work on some key new features. I designed a guided product tour for new users and an import feature to bring in tasks from other to-do list apps. Later on, I even got the chance to work with engineers as they implemented my features.

I really enjoyed working on both these products because they let me experience the challenges of massive scale but also the difficulties of launching a new product. They let me interact with both huge companies and random users off the street (for Planner, I interviewed some everyday users who we almost literally pulled off the street.) And I relished the challenges of thinking big-picture (what makes people quit using your app after they’ve tried it?) but also sweating the details (is an “X” button or a “Close” link on a popup easier to use?)

Adventures of a lifetime

As you can tell, I really enjoyed the work I did, but the most memorable part of my summer was the absolutely ridiculous amount of fun things we interns did.

Just a few of the incredible friends I made at Microsoft.

In the Seattle area alone, there were over 1600 Microsoft interns from schools around the world, so there was never a dull moment — I was always meeting fascinating new people and making friends who’ll stay with me far beyond college. I took the corporate housing that Microsoft offered, and they put me up in University of Washington dorms in Seattle along with hundreds of other interns, many of whom became some of my closest friends. I also made friends from work (50+ interns worked in my office building alone) and the amazing events that Microsoft put on for us.

Name a school with a CS program, and I’ve probably made a friend from Microsoft there.
Hiking Mt. Rainier with Microsoft interns!

Microsoft treats its interns better than anyone, and they organized so many fun events for us, including:

  • The Intern Game, where my team loaded up in a van and drove across Washington state over 36 hours, doing all kinds of crazy puzzles along the way. We went spelunking in old railway tunnels, “forged” passports in a town modeled after Bavaria, hunted down albino alligators, and more.
  • The Signature Event, where Microsoft rented out the entire Space Needle and invited every Microsoft intern from around the world. Ellie Goulding made a surprise appearance and gave a free performance, and Microsoft VPs handed out free Surface Books to everyone at the end of the night.
  • Puzzle Day, where teams of interns took over conference rooms and solved dozens of mind-twisting puzzles, racing to the final checkpoint once we solved all the puzzles and learned where it was.
  • Hiking 6000 feet up Mt. Rainier, through meadows and sheets of ice, with hundreds of other interns.
  • Mariners baseball games (I was rooting for the visiting Red Sox, making me one of the least popular guys in the stadium), Sounders soccer games, go-karting (I made it to the finals), etc.
The Intern Game. My team loaded into a van and drove across Washington state over 36 hours, doing all kinds of crazy puzzles along the way. At this farm, they’d set up a 10-foot-tall bunny statue in the middle of a cornfield, and we had to use this slingshot to hit the statue with a tennis ball.

We interns organized all kinds of fun stuff ourselves — here’s a very condensed list:

  • Driving to Portland for a weekend, where, in the span of 24 hours, we had gourmet donuts, ice cream, burgers with grilled cheese sandwiches in place of buns (that’s 4 slices of bread total), and Southern comfort food.
  • Trying out Geocaching, our new favorite hobby, and Pokemon Go, our least favorite.
  • Watching Malala Yousafzai speak at UW.
  • Taking a yacht cruise on Lake Washington.
  • Visiting the Boeing factory, where the world’s largest planes are made. We even saw a mega-jet that carries parts of other jets inside it!
With a few friends at Portland’s famous rose garden.

Takeaways

I learned so much this summer about being a PM, working at a major company, and making new friends in new places. Interning at Microsoft was a transformative, exciting, and — above all — fun experience that I’d recommend to anyone. Drop me a line if you’d like me to tell you more about it!