Every now and again someone asks me if it’s even possible to get a job at Microsoft without a technical degree. I’ve been at Microsoft for more than ten years as a technical writer, and I have an undergraduate degree in English. Here is how it worked for me.
I moved to Seattle from New York City in ’96 with a B.A. from Hunter College and quickly found work writing for small software companies. My first jobs as a technical writer were for consumer products in vertical industries (healthcare accounting, court record search). They wanted people who weren’t afraid of computers but not necessarily heavy-duty tech heads. My job was to explain to their nontechnical customers how to use the specialized software those companies made. The nice thing about consumer software is that the people who hire you often understand that they’ll have to explain how the tech works to you, with the expectation that you’ll then be able to relay that information in easy-to-understand prose for their customers.
I interviewed for a position answering phones in Microsoft support in 98, but didn’t get the job. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was good news for me, because a job in support would have derailed my career in technical writing. I was discovering a real passion for writing about software. Because I had experience writing about software, I was eventually able to get contract writing jobs at Microsoft. With my first contract, I owned the documentation for Windows Media Player. At that time, Microsoft was converting a lot of its contract positions to full-time (FTE), so I interviewed for the position I already held as a contractor. Once again, I didn’t make the cut. This, too, was probably more good fortune for me. I realized that if I wanted a good paying job in technical writing, I would need to know a lot more of the technical details in a specific area, like server administration or computer programming. I started teaching myself system administration by reading textbooks (Doug Comer basic textbook on TCP/IP is a really good, readable book) and experimenting with personal web sites.
After the first big tech crash in 2000, I started getting writing jobs at bigger software company (Concur, RealNetworks). By the time I got to RealNetworks, I was documenting heavy-duty systems administration stuff. The job at RealNetworks was a decrease in salary for me, but it offered me hands-on job experience I wanted on my resume. I eventually went back to contracting at MSFT, this time on the Windows Server writing team (ServerUA). I got that job based on my experience at RealNetworks, but I needed some official paper to bolster my technical skills, so I started looking at Microsoft’s technical certifications. If you work at Microsoft (even as a contractor) Microsoft allows you to take its certification tests for free. During my last contract, I earned a few related Microsoft certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). Through some connections I made in Server UA, I got an interview for another FTE writing position.
On my third try, I got the job. Yes!
Microsoft is a great place to work, especially if you get on the right team. I’ve been lucky to find a few. I hope this information is helpful. If you have specific questions, leave me a message in the comments. I may not have the answer, but I am happy to respond.
Good luck you liberal arts majors!