The Microsoft Internship

Written on Aug 27, 2016

I should have cloned myself or invented time travel last summer. Just so I could experience my Microsoft internship - all twelve awesome weeks - once again.

The Internship

The candor of my interviewers had been the biggest factor in accepting an internship at Microsoft. On interview day, I had poked my nose into the company's mistakes and missed opportunities over the last decade, questioned their culture's strengths and weaknesses, wondered about the diversity of its product portfolio. I had received sincere responses, honest admissions of failure and impassioned plans hinting at a resurgence (Hololens!). The answers convinced me to spend a few weeks learning from and working with a self-aware team at El Redmondo.

I started with orientation on a sunny Seattle day. It was easy to fall in love with the campus and its greenery but I was truly floored when I met my fellow interns. All of them outgoing, happy, excited and terribly smart.
Lead by our indefatigable and pathologically happy intern program managers, orientation formalities proceeded smoothly (They do it 50 times a year. Microsoft has orientation every week except around New Year and Christmas). The number of social events planned for us were enough to satisfy the most extreme of extroverts. From free, private Maroon 5 and Macklemore concerts to hiking Mt. Rainer to attending American Football games and talks by the brightest at Microsoft, there was everything you could imagine to make college kids happy. Each intern got a free Surface 3 and more Microsoft swag than we could carry. I had to donate most of the t-shirts to make room in my closet.
There was an Intern Social Club for those wanting even more (I am greedy, sorry) which organized everything from yacht parties to room escapes and trampoline outings.

Taking Polaroid pictures with Phil Spencer, the head of xbox #retro

A photo posted by Erika Kirgios (@erikakirgios8) on

Outside work, Seattle is a wonderful city. I was sharing an apartment, assigned by Microsoft, with three other interns on the breath-taking University of Washington campus. Amazon and Nordstrom had placed interns in the same dorms. Plus, I had buddies working in downtown at Facebook. We had free cleaning service and were in close proximity with about twenty bus stops which made getting around convenient. Needless to say, the summer was full of shenanigans.

Weekdays were filled with fun work and intern events in Redmond while the weekends were occupied by food-fests, cultural fairs, hiking trips and book signings. The greenery of the Pacific Northwest and laid-back vibe of the west coast combined together to charm my socks off. Seattle also has a huge reading culture which I am ecstatic about. Nowhere else have I seen so many people on buses glued to books, Nooks and Kindles.

My Team and Project

When I met my mentor on the first day, my fears were put to rest. Sporting a marled black t-shirt with the Apple logo(!!!), he strode up to me with the energy of an eight year old in a candy store. His enthusiasm was infectious and we were soon chatting animatedly. Over the next couple of hours he told me about the culture of our team, what makes our core, the reasons he loved being at Microsoft, asked about what I wanted to learn this summer and how we could mould my project for it. As a PM I wouldn't be required to code, rather my focus would be to envision an experience Northstar, work with highly skilled folks and make magic happen at the intersection of their efforts.

I was on the Office Core Experience PM team that had also made the (acclaimed) Office for iOS apps. My project for the summer would be adding mirrored UI for right-to-left languages like Arabic and Hebrew across the shared frameworks of the Office iOS apps. This was a major chunk of the shared Office iOS 9 update and surprisingly enough, they were trusting it to an intern! This humbled and scared me in equal measures but also provided motivation to do some good work. Over twelve weeks, I would create mock-ups of controls, prototype animations, triage bugs, write-up specs and be a part of the feature crew which would implement the mirrored UI. I learnt a lot working alongside people of that calibre.

The Culture

It wasnt just the free events and perks - the work environment was awesome too. When I had expressed a love for UX and shown up with a resume full of iOS and OS X projects, I hadn't been sure Microsoft would have something for me. I was aware of Satya Nadella's mission to make Microsoft a cloud-first, mobile-first company but internal cultural change takes time, especially with a history and DNA like Microsoft's. Microsoft's workplace had built up a reputation for being siloed and competitive but the new boss-chief was supposedly turning things around.

I experienced these changes in how accessible everyone was. I had the pleasure of talking to people working across every discipline, from PMs to developers to the shuttle drivers, from new hires right up to Nadella (the interns nicknamed him Nutella) himself. They were all willing to share their experiences, chuckle over their follies and give advice to an eager lad like me. These chats, meetings and 1-on-1s were definitely the highlight of the summer. Another big push was for a growth mindset, based on the Carol Dweck book. Just complaining, admitting failure, staying in the old complacent ways does not help anyone. A better way is to think of a solution to each one of your frustrations. Ponder on what you learned the last time you did not succeed. Continuously seek out new ways to learn and improve yourself.

If you intern at Microsoft (or any big company really), I would recommend hitting up anyone you want to learn from. If you get reprimanded for trying to expand your brain, is that really a place you wanna work at?

I had an epiphany over the summer. Working full-time, getting intellectually stimulated from my Microsoft peers and freed of the stifling schedules of school gave me time to think. Once done with the structure set for me throughout formal education, I am making my own life. Every single moment I spend doing something was my choice. It's up to me to make sure that time only goes to things that make me happy. I had the fortune of doing just that and that made it the best summer of my life.

Thanks to Shree, Kelly, Jean-Luc, Lowell and Aman for giving feedback on the drafts.