[nSLUG] Interview questions

D G Teed donald.teed at gmail.com
Mon Oct 22 15:45:51 ADT 2007

Good question.  I've done a little hiring in the past, so I'll chip
in my ideas.

There was a boss I had years ago whose email sig said: "it doesn't
matter what you know, but what you can find out on time."

I think this is an interesting viewpoint, as the volumes of information
and variances between one thing and another make testing of
command syntax or command names something you can't always
test for "the right answer".

I also met the guy who I considered my first Unix guru back
in 1980, at the 2006 CANHEIT conference.  He still works
at MUN, and confessed to looking at things like history
to jog one's memory.  Experience and memory don't
sync as one gets older, but it doesn't mean older experienced
people are less useful - their resourcefulness might far
outstrip the benefits of someone with everything committed
to memory.

Let's face it, after using many versions of apache, sendmail,
postfix, bind, across various versions of BSD, Solaris, Linux
and possibly other systems, who can be expected to memorize
syntax in comands and conf files in all the detail?

Given these considerations, I would test Unix knowledge with a little
quiz, showing both regular and more sophisticated commands and asking
what they do.  They don't have to be brain teasers to test this.

Many people remember getting tough questions in an interview
like "what is your worst habit?"  People might think a Unix
knowledge quiz could be a similar opportunity.  However, the
only real point in tough interview questions is to see how people
handle pressure and tough situations, not to get a "right answer"
(might filter out keyboard smashing types).

Aside from the quiz, it would be useful to ask questions which
test knowledge of troubleshooting.  These don't get into the
command syntax so much, but test the knowledge of what
aspects could be related to a problem - such as network
not working.  You want to assign more points to more thorough

I won't post sample questions and answers here as it is pointless  -
the candidate could easily look up this LUG mailing list or
web archives prior to the interview.

I think it would also be interesting to test the person for which
sorts of errors can be assigned to hardware problems and which
to software, which can be fixed by reboot and which can be fixed
by restarting a service.  It might be fun to have multiple
choices, and see, for example, how many people think disk errors
in message logs can be fixed be editing /etc/hosts (I've seen this
in my workplace during my career).

In the end, I would judge the candidates by 2 basic factors:
1. is the person solid or flaky?
2. is the person addicted to *nix

Number 1 takes some time to learn.  Number 2 you can figure out
pretty easily by whether they desire to play with this stuff like it is fun.
For example - if they tried Ubuntu, Xandros or something similar
and avoided others because they were "too hard", all you have
is a Windows convert (so far anyway).

In terms of education, I prefer hiring from University.  It produces
well rounded characters, and it proves the person has a
minimal amount of perseverance.  You can call it a big brownie
badge of sorts, but it does correlate with the better hires I've had.

Good luck!


On 10/22/07, Bill Davidson <billdavidson at eastlink.ca> wrote:
> Hi:
> I have always hated job interviews, but now I find myself in the
> unfamiliar position of having to conduct one.  I have been asked to
> handle the technical parts of a couple of interviews for Unix/Linux
> sysadmin positions.
> What are you favourite interview questions?  What best distinguish a
> competent or experienced dullard from someone with a strong and deep
> understanding of unix?  Is there some technical question you were once
> asked in a interview (or elsewhere) that made you stop and think?  What
> question could you be asked (or would you ask of another), the answer to
> which would summarize all the best qulities of a really good sysadmin?
> Or at the very least, what can I ask so that I don't look like an idiot?
> Thanks.
> Bill Davidson
> _______________________________________________
> nSLUG mailing list
> nSLUG at nslug.ns.ca
> http://nslug.ns.ca/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/nslug
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