I chat with Ayman Al-Ghazali and Tim McAliley about their careers at Microsoft and the impact it has made to them. We talk about keeping up with Technology and the importance of mentoring. I was not able to get good embarrasing moment out the them; however, Tim does tell a story of how Ayman saved the day.
This was one of the very first episodes I made and the audio is just not very good so I have removed it. If you really want to listen to this episode, email me or message me and I will send it to you.
Transcription: Working At Microsoft
Carlos L. Chacon: Welcome to the SQL Data Partners Podcast, I am your host Carlos L. Chacon. This is episode one and I am super excited to have two of my good friends on the show today, Ayman El-Ghazali, and Tim McAliley.
They both work for Microsoft and we’re going to be getting their take on them making their jump to Microsoft. What it takes and how it’s little a bit different from their previous employment, maybe some of the things that they’ve learned along the way. Of course, if you like the show, we ask that you please leave a rating and even a review.
I met up with these guys in Philadelphia, we had a chance to talk and I think you’ll find it very interesting. Again, welcome to the show.[intro music]
Ayman El-Ghazali: My name is Ayman El-Ghazali. I am a Senior PFE with Microsoft, just started actually as a Senior PFE. I was hired on about a year ago as a Senior Consultant. I have been in Microsoft for a year. My specialty is SQL server, my passion is technology, my sport is soccer.
Carlos: You’re on Twitter?
Ayman: I am on Twitter.
Ayman: Thesqlpro, that is correct.
Carlos: His other claim to fame is he does quite a few YouTube videos in a…
Ayman: I have a video training series in Arabic for DBA stuff, and I’ve started one on BI in Arabic as well. I have some other stuff SQL Snacks, there in English. There is plenty of smarter people doing English, so I stick to Arabic.
Carlos: [laughs] . Very nice. I don’t speak any Arabic, but I did listen to one or two of them. I should say, a few minutes of one or two of them, and they’re very interesting to see. Very nice to…
Ayman: The mouse clicks were interesting?[laughter]
Carlos: Just to hear that. Arabic is not something that I normally tune into. And we also have Tim.
Tim McAliley: Hello my name is Tim McAliley. I have been with Microsoft since October 2012. I am a SQL server PFE, in the Washington DC area right now, but on Monday I start a new role in commercial sales as an Account Technology Strategist. I’m doing fist pumps right now.
Carlos: [laughs] .
Tim: My passion…I love technology and I certainly love getting out in the technology community. I co-run the Mobile First Cloud First user group at DC. We focus on cloud issues broadly. I also help co-run the Northern Virginia SQL Server users group. Speak, somewhere, someplace, two or three times a month.
Carlos: All the time?
Carlos: You are also on Twitter?
Tim: Yes, “SysFrameWorks”.
Carlos: “SysFrameWorks”. Very good
Tim: I don’t know what it means but it sounded cool. Makes it sound like I’m a product. I’m not a product. I just talk about SQL service stuff and on occasion I complain about Avis.
Tim: Get it together Avis.
Carlos: Very good. Very good. Thanks for being here. We want to talk a little about working at Microsoft. What it’s been like for you. First thing, let’s talk about the hiring process. There may be some out there that are wondering. If I want to work at Microsoft, what would I do?I happen to hold in my hands at the moment, a sheet of paper with some immediate openings. These are all specific to the SQL Server project management in here.
Tim: SQL Server Platforms Account Management.
Carlos: There’s quite a few positions there. What would someone do if they wanted to get hired by Microsoft?
Ayman: First of all, they’d need the intention. Getting off the bat. It depends on what you want to do. If you’re going to be a technical person, obviously you’ve got to be at the top of your game. Clean up your resume, do training. If you can, certification definitely helps. It shows that you’re committed to getting certified, and just the certification process by itself is a good training as well.Then you apply. I’ve had tons and tons of interviews. I’ve had with sequel MCMs from overseas, from the United States. I’ve interviewed overseas as well, in Egypt at some point.
One of the things, passing the tech screens is a big deal. If you can pass a tech screen, that’s excellent.
At the other side there also needs to be that social match. The soft skills. There needs to be that other piece of the actual job is there, and the need is there. Sometimes clients fall through, and stuff like that.
Carlos: Opportunities aren’t available. You talked about different phases. You go and you apply. I see a link here careers.microsoft.com. You’ll see some availabilities, you’ll submit your resume. Let’s say they call you. What kind of levels of screening are you going to go through?
Tim: You can go through several. I had an initial A Charge screen. To make sure I was a mammal.Once that was established, I was sent to a tech screen, and I had about a 90 minute tech screen to talk about SQL Server issues. If you’re going to get a platforms job, or an exchange job, or SharePoint job, you’re going to have that tech screen that’s usually on the phone. It’s to make sure you know the basics.
How you do on that tech screen, it will be passed on for probably a finals day interview. What the finals day interview is, it will be six to eight people usually. One person per hour for six to eight hours where you meet account managers, your program manager for the project on which you’re going to work. They might pull in peers who might work, not directly on the same project that you’re being hired for but maybe on the same team, so they can assess you.
Like Ayman said, it’s a social fit assessment, a technical fit assessment, and they’re trying to see how well you would fit in to the overall Microsoft scheme of things. Then on top of that, exactly like Ayman said, there needs to be a customer on the other end waiting for you, particularly if you’re applying for a services job. Those are usually mapped to existing or pending contracts.
Carlos: I see. Are both of you involved in that you have a specific client that you normally work through?
Tim: That depends because in our roles you can be either designated to a customer, or you can be designated to blocks of customers in 400 and 800 hours. Or you can be transactional, where you’re a transactional premier full engineer, where you’re dispatched to customer science.In that case, out of 40 weeks, you might go to 40 different customers and do a range of things from risk assessment, best practices reviews, ad hoc knowledge transfers, formal classes, or break-fix.
Ayman: From the consulting side, which I have more experience in it, is very similar. You’re architecting new systems, you’re generally there for longer term. Maybe four weeks, eight weeks. I’ve been on a client for nine months. Some people have been for years. Sometimes you get a week where you’re just doing a demo for a new product. 2014 BI or now it would be 2016, that sort of thing.With regards to the interviewing, sometimes they do a full finals day, sometimes it’s a little bit shorter. It really depends. One other thing that I thought about was getting out to community events like this. I got this job by meeting Tim and Paul Rizza, who both referred me. I’m not going to lie, referral gets you in front of the hiring managers. It’s a little bit easier.
If you’re out there in the community and people notice that, they tend to help you out. They just said, “Do you want me to refer you?” I was like, “Heck yeah.”
Tim: I’ll add two things to that. I also got my job with Microsoft through community exposure. I was running a Jacksonville IT Pro Camp, and I met one of my mentors now, Blain Barton. He’s a Platform Evangelist out of the Tampa, Florida area. He put my resume in the hopper, probably in late June early July of 2012. I started the Microsoft hiring process toward the end of July of 2012.The only other thing I’ll add is that during my interviewing process, I had specific hour-long session where I was asked to describe my community involvement. At the time I was, well I still am, but I was heavily involved in community activities. So I was able to tee that one off and knock it over the fence.
Carlos: Sure. Let’s talk a little bit about the community responsibilities. I know in certain instances, I guess I think about the classic one as even the 64-bit architecture, there were several organizations or platforms that were sitting on the sidelines waiting for Microsoft to come out and do the community work, the leg work, to do the explaining. “This is how all these things work.” They had that large infrastructure.Is there that expectation as you join that you’ll continue to be involved in the community and doing the sharing components?
Tim: Just on a basic administration level, there’s an area on our time sheets where it’s for community events or non-sanctioned IP community mentoring. At the administrative level there’s the combination for it. Also, during our performance evaluations, you’re more than welcome to put in all your community involvement as a consideration for how well you did.
Ayman: The thing is, Microsoft is a for-profit. Obviously you want people to use our product so we evangelize them. At the same time, we get to meet our clients on a less formal setting and what not, so it’s important to do that. As well as the fact that working in services, it’s important to get that they’re not customers but that customer facing experience.We do a lot of presentations, workshops, talking about technology. There’s a saying that if you teach something you know it really well. Coming out, being part of the community is going to build a lot of those soft skills that you might not get sitting in front of your computer.
Carlos: Another nod to the idea that it is more than just about the technology there are the soft skills, and the interactions that are required. You mentioned mentors. We’ve gone through the fairly grueling process it could be.
Tim: For the position that I’m moving to on Monday, because it spanned over two positions, I counted it up. I did 14 one-hour sessions. Sometimes with the same person twice. It was 14 units of time to get approved, and that was an internal move.
Carlos: Wow. Maybe not for the faint of heart. [laughs]
Tim: I Consider myself well-vetted.
Carlos: You mention mentors. You go through the process. You get that, not acceptance letter, but the offer right on the table. What about the mentoring process?
Tim: They try to align you with a mentor as soon as you come on board. It might be multiple people. Ivan asked me to be one of his mentors. Whether I did a good job or not, but just to help guide him. He was a consultant. He needed mentors who were also in the consulting area.When I got on board my mentor was a fellow PFE, a senior PFE. Now that I do more community stuff, I have an evangelist mentor. They’re super serious about that.
Ayman: Sometimes you get a mentor within your practice within your technology. The two mentors I got that were assigned to me, other than Tim, one of them was a SharePoint guy. He’s a career mentor for me. He’s talking to me about SQL.Then the other guy was SQL dev, so I’m more on the DBA side. Luckily for me, we worked on the same project, my other mentor and myself. It’s good to have that.
Managers try their best to pick someone who’s a good fit for you personality wise as well. For me, my mentors, I’m always going to be interacting with them. Even though I’ve rolled off. You usually roll off six months to a year from your mentor, but I keep in touch with them regularly. They want to build that relationship because it builds that sense of community internally as well.
We always receive, but to give is a big deal. Microsoft does a big gift program internally, where they would match up to $15,000 a year of your own contributions to charities and what not. And your hours that you put for volunteering and all that. Now they’ve actually upped that.
They’re really about giving back, because they understand we’re privileged, we’re in a good place. That’s part of the culture which is one of the things I love about working there, to be honest.
Carlos: All of those trainings are made available to you? Is that formal training that they have on a regular basis? A lot of those it seems like you reach out, can find answers, and look up things? What’s the training…
Tim: On the topic of training, that’s really based on your role. If you’re on a premier role in services, like a premier film engineer. The training’s really focused around you getting accredited to deliver the training at a customer site.The training’s formal. Some of it’s on site at a training center. A Microsoft training center. Or it might be over link, but it’s always taught by a fellow Microsoft. Over Skype. Skype for Business, everyone. It’s delivered over Skype for Business.
It’s a trainer technique, where you might watch the instructor tee off of the first few modules of the training. Then you and your other co-students, your other students in the class finish up the course and handle at least one or two other modules for the rest of the class. You act as a presenter and demonstrator.
You have to start day one knowing it in case the instructor says, “OK Tim, you’re going to handle 10:00 on SQL Server locks and latches. Go.”
Carlos: [laughs] Hence some of the processes of going through the interview process to flush some of that out. You always feel like you are up on the latest and greatest on that. I think part of that would be fairly difficult. Microsoft is always coming out with all kinds of different products. Now the SQL Server 2016 just came out at least in the SQL Server world. How do you balance that learning and working balance? All of us struggle a little bit with that.
Tim: I don’t have a good answer, it’s just a challenge. They’re hoping that they bring people on board who are interested in learning the new thing. There’s really that reliance that hopefully in the end they realize they have a star team on board that’s interested in learning about SQL Server 2016. And learning about Office 365, and learning about Azure.Some of that you do on your own, but there’s all kinds of training opportunities. Particularly if you want to train on your own, and stay cutting edge on your own…
Ayman: It’s literally a bottomless resource to dig into.
Tim: Of knowledge, yeah.
Carlos: No question. If you’re going to stay in technology, I think you have to make the commitment to continuous learning. It’s very, very difficult to progress, to find other opportunities, if you’re not willing to put in the time to do that learning.
Tim: If you’re entrenched around SQL Server 2005, awesome, but you might want to rethink your career growth and your strategy on your learning plan.
Ayman: I was going to say as well, they do encourage you to go a little bit wide sometimes. If you’re doing sequel stuff, maybe learn a little BI just to expand your platform because it’s all built on one. Within the hours that you do as a consultant or as a PFE, you’re given an allocation of hours that you need to complete in the year. 1,600.In part of that, they calculate your vacation, they calculate two or three weeks’ worth of training, and all that sort of thing.
Tim: Four weeks of training.
Ayman: Four weeks of training. Typically you would work Monday to Thursday, and then Friday is the day that you would be doing your administrative [inaudible 16:35] training. You could work your Monday to Fridays and then take the week off and do training because you’ve you made up all those hours.Basically you’re responsible, kind of choose your own destiny. You have a set amount of hours that you need to do in the year. You do that, and the rest is in your hands.
Tim: Here’s what it’s akin to. If someone was to set up a shop for you to be an independent consultant, which we know a lot about, this basically puts you in an environment to behave like an independent consultant, with obviously a tremendous amount of infrastructure.You work with your customer to determine your schedule and your expectations for your on-site and off-site time. You interact with your peers to make sure you’re implementing the right solutions and reach out for help. You interact with your manager to make sure that you’re in compliance with things like time and billing and expense policy.
You’re really given a lot of tools if you’re interested, in becoming an independent consultant later down the road because of the flexibility that you have.
Carlos: Is part of your YouTube videos of that training, can that be part of your training? Or is that above and beyond?
Ayman: We have these connects that we do with our managers, which is basically one-on-ones. You do one a quarter just to keep things flowing with your management team and what not.I put that kind of thing as my community contribution. They look at that positively as how you’re contributing to number one, your own team. Number one, your practice. If you work for public sector or whatever it is. Then Microsoft as a whole company, as that third level. Then the world outside.
I can’t really justify, “Well, because somebody watched my training, they purchased this amount of product.” Still, you can say that evangelizing the product and having people reach in a market that’s not penetrated.
They look positively on that because you’re also helping yourself, getting your name out there, getting the product name out there. I always make a note of these contributions that I’m doing, and it’s been appreciated so far. I’m happy for that.
Carlos: I heard every Microsoft employee has to have at least one service certification?
Tim: Services and certain categories.
Ayman: Yeah, PFEs and consultants. TAMs have their own Pitch Perfect training that they have to attend, which is a little bit less technical. Consultants only have the option of architecting. To kind of bounce off of what Tim said, consultants generally have to able to be a bit more broad, because you’re developing a solution.There may be a clients site where they have share points and BI and scam and SCCM and that sort of thing. Where PFE and again it depends on clients, you may be only touching the sequel piece of things.
I have a client where they’re doing SQL with SCON and SCCM. I’m starting to learn about the different pieces of that to understand how it’s collecting data, and how to perform its [inaudible 19:35] because it’s different than doing [inaudible 19:37] to share point. It’s kind of like a pyramid.
I’m not using that because I’m from Egypt but the wider your base generally the higher you can build up. If you’re going to build that nice wide base with general knowledge about everything SQL, Platform, SharePoint. Then you can start building up and specializing. Edmond Sormiento used to mentor me informally a little bit and he said, “Jack of all trades master of one.” That’s kind of how you’ll be successful.
Carlos: I think I’ll [inaudible 20:10] a little bit of that knowledge for the continual learning. Too many times and this is what we’re going…A little bit professional development idea here. Too many times I hear, “Well, that’s not my job,” or, “I’m not going to do that.”
Ayman: Don’t say that in an interview.
Carlos: It’s so limiting. If you have that idea or philosophy of, “Well, I’m a SQL server guy,” for example, “I’m not going to do share points.” I think [inaudible 20:39] into the opportunities that are available to you. I’ve told this story before but then going through college, I was going to be a network guy. I took two databases courses in college I hated both of them.[laughter]
Carlos: I said, “I will never be a DBA.” I was trying to find another way, other summer classes trying to take a second data base course because was like, “I’m never going to do this.” There would be [inaudible 21:08] fast-forward then here I am. That idea that it would never be needed even talk about networking. Now let’s say, to use the SharePoint for example.You have to reach out to someone to help you with SharePoint. You don’t know what future interactions you might have with that person. It could be beneficial.
Ayman: You kind of sometimes internally try to drive your own career. If you’re proactive…Usually for consulting side they’d have a list of clients. If you’re pro active you could try to get a client that’s more inclined to what you want to do. If you want to do more infrastructural DBA stuff, you could try to get that client from the DBI.PFE sometimes you can do depending. You can kind of drive your career and always talk to your manager about it. I’ve been working on share point a lot. I’m not that passionate about it. I’m more passionate Infrastructure cycle or BI or development. We have those discussions to try to broaden your career. Everybody there is there to help you. They know that helping you helps the company.
Tim: I’ve had a range of engagements. I’ve had transactional engagements, risk assessments and classes and ADHOC, brown bug sessions. I’ve had engagements where I just kind of sit behind the customer and watch them right click and step through the interface with me kind of guiding …
Carlos: Don’t click that button.
Tim: That’s right. Other couple of engagements where I was the operations DBA when I was the hands on the keyboard and everyone that ran the infrastructure was from Microsoft.
Carlos: I got to see it from my consulting perspective. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about consulting is being able to…The diversity of the different environments. I got to think your discussions they’re getting into those different environments. Like it?
Carlos: It depends. There’s always going to be an environment you don’t honestly care for. We’re going to gauge when you be like, “Yeah, I’m glad that’s over.”
Tim: Yes. The environments where it’s just difficult, it’s a challenge because there’s a compliance issue with how the system’s configured. The customer may or may not have a mature change management process. The recommendations you make might not see the light of day for a couple of months.
Carlos: It’s frustrating waiting for the change to take place…
Tim: Yeah, because you kind of want things to go. You can certainly explain the pro’s and cons, the security implications, the risks of your recommendations by Microsoft’s best practices. If there’s some type of compliance push-back and you’re still in a waiting game. That’s one of the most frustrating of times. But also it’s a customer by customer basis.
Carlos: We spoke before we started recording. As you work at Microsoft, you get a badge with your name on and on it is a blue boarder. Lots of different organizations have different badges and as contractor I always have the other color. You both have a blue badge. What are people’s reactions to you? Now that you’re a Microsoft employees?
Tim: Sometimes I get off the wall questions because I am a Microsoft employee. I get so much, “When are you going to fix the zoon?.”[laughter]
“I got 40 gigs [inaudible 24:32] I can’t get it off”. I don’t have a good answer. Some of the more interesting ones are when you walk into a customer side and there might be some territorialism. We’re not out to take anyone jobs, we’re to trying to help people solutions.
Help the customer make best choices and maybe move on to the next engagement. There’s a little bit territorialism sometimes some tension of some hesitancy to work with us. Our focus is to be a pleasurable co-worker type of relationship sort of an SME type role. Where we’re not there to challenge, we’re just there to help provide good guidance. I get a little bit of push backs sometimes but…
Ayman: I haven’t gotten any marriage proposals. Just to let you know, I’m already married.
Carlos: Off the market. [laughs]
Ayman: That was a poor attempt at a joke but anyway. The territorial issue is one and sometimes people see you and they have a big target on your back. Sometimes people are happy to see you. I’ve had a client out in Denver who is happy to see me. I went through and did everything and I was like, “Why am I even here?”They’re like, “We already discussed this with management and they won’t believe us. So we’re glad to have you here you can just reiterate what we said and move on.” From the community perspective it’s double edged. I had a lot of friends in the community before I became a Microsoft guy. Things haven’t changed.
There’ve been other people that have taken notice and, “Oh, you work for Microsoft now? Remember when we interviewed you long ago?” I was thinking in my head, “Yeah, I remember. You interviewed me and screwed me over. Yeah, I remember.” You get a different feeling.
Carlos: I think with the community you have a little leg up. You’ve gone through the grind, the process…
Ayman: I’m still me. Whether I have a blue badge or not, I don’t like people treating me better because I do. I’m a victim of negative discrimination. Maybe this is positive I should be happy I don’t know. I have my friends in the community and I appreciate them being as friendly before and after.
Carlos: Very good. Thanks for the discussion it’s been good. I’ve definitely learned a little bit about what it’s like to work for Microsoft. We have a couple of questions we’d like to post to both of you as we wrap up. Here I have an embarrassing moment. Neither one of them really wants to talk about their most embarrassing…Turns out the most embarrassing question wasn’t a very good question. I was hoping they were going to…[music] Tell me something good
Carlos: …but they didn’t so let’s just skip ahead to the next question.
Tim: I must comment. We talked a bit about collaboration and team work. I over-scoped or under-scoped the requirements of a briefing on BI. I was supposed to be presenting to….I just thought the NILA, BI here is the stack generically kind of users.As we approached the delivery date for half day chalk talk, it was data scientists who wanted deeper questions about the calculations capabilities of SSAS. The different features inside the BI. They wanted some deeper explanations, and I realized that I was out of my league. This one wasn’t going to work.
Ayman, in the darkness of the morning responded over Skype and got on line and delivered the session. I would not have delivered what they wanted. He delivered the session and got major kudos for them which led to next part of the road map or something like that which was a sort of a data assessment to move on to our BI engagement.
Great networking, great friend, great co worker, I was able to reach out immediately to get some back up. I was on the way to having an embarrassing story.
Ayman: It’s funny because they didn’t think they were on mute and I talked to them about a bunches. I’d gone through slides and as I’m going through the slide I’m trying to get my VM up and running to demo it, and I could hear them say, “This is not going to work let’s cancel this”.”Can you give me ten minutes?”As I bring my VM up and I’m in my pajamas at this point I go to the bathroom because I’m sweating and nervousness makes me want to got to the bathroom. I come out and everything worked out. The demo worked fine. Kind of locked down on that, and they liked it.
It was enough with my bs to get by.[laughter]
Tim: He was literally going to Codeplex go get the adventure works database.
Ayman: I could never recover…Every time I tried to attach that database, it would give me a failure except on that day I was like, “Yes, my prayers have been answered.”
Carlos: Very nice. To close this out. Last question? Best thing about working in Microsoft?
Tim: It’s the best I’ve ever had. I feel like I’m able to do what I want have control over the direction that my career is going. At some previous career endeavors you’re kind of holding back a little bit because you know it might never be the best direction for you.You’re standing off a little bit so you can have room to pivot. With Microsoft, I haven’t held back at all. I started swinging from the fences from day one and raced on comic level which career path level’s paid off so far. Best job I’ve ever had and it’s mostly the environment and the co-workers that make it like that.
Ayman: I would say just the issue of respect. Respect from social stand points, diversity. People appreciate you even if you’re different. They might not necessarily accept your beliefs or how you are different. There’s just that respect because it’s so multicultural and so diverse.The other side is from the technical perspective. I’ve been in training sessions with PFEs who I would think are probably a billion times smarter than me. Literally like one billion or maybe 1.5. They would just say good things about you and about other people and they won’t put you down.
Managers that are respectful and appreciate the work you do and give you encouragement. Colleagues that see that spark and flare in you kind of respect that and try to help you out. It’s just that place where you feel like…It’s tough it’s not an easy job.
It’s stressful. I haven’t been able to blog as much, but you feel like your work is respected. People respect you for who you are, what you bring. Even though you’re amongst people who I would consider myself at the very bottom and everyone else is super genius. But they don’t make you feel that way, which is great.
Tim: Sometimes I feel like a fraud like this whole thing is going to be revealed.
Ayman: That’s why we’re here actually–you are about to get fired.[laughter]
Carlos: OK compañeros, thanks again for tuning in. We had another great session. Tim, Ayman, thanks for being here.
Carlos: If you’re interested in making a jump to Microsoft you can go to careers.microsoft.com and we hope to see on the SQL trail.[music]