[nSLUG] Interview questions

Aaron Spanik a.spanik at ns.sympatico.ca
Mon Oct 22 18:18:31 ADT 2007

On Mon, 22 Oct 2007 13:39:53 -0300
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?

ObDisclaimer:  I have interviewed for many System Administrator
positions and I have worked as a Unix System Administrator, but have
never interviewed a candidate for such a position.

I agree with many of the folks in this thread about asking questions
that are open-ended and which don't necessarily have a 'right' or
'wrong' answer.  I would rather hear someone speak anecdotally from his
or her own life experience than regurgitate anything from a manual OR a

I have had some experience interviewing folks for Technical Support
in a Linux context, which, for good or for ill, I consider to have a
significant overlap with what a System Administrator does, from
the "dealing with problems" perspective, anyway.  My favorite questions
to ask are:

- What are your usual troubleshooting steps when you are made aware of
a problem?

- What do you do when you don't know what to do?

- What's the worst mistake you've ever made?  What happened next?

- What do you consider to be your greatest success?

- What is the most recent thing you've learned?

When I ask these questions I don't demand that they be answered in the
context of Linux or job experience.  I believe that you find out a lot
more about what makes someone tick that way.  And when I get questions
like that in an interview myself, I feel free to answer from all of my
life experience, not just my professional or academic career.

I try to avoid the know-it-all type.  You'll know when you talk to
one.  These are the folks whose every answer is a challenge to you to
see if you know as much as they do.  These are usually the type who
don't learn well because they think they know it all already.  All they
really want from life is someone to measure it for them and tell them
how big it is, not the challenge of learning and growing.

In the search for a SysAdmin, I contend that you're trying to find a
problem solver who can also solve problems pro-actively; everything
else is gravy.  Also, remember you're interviewing the person, not the
skillset.  You may very well find yourself not hiring the most
apparently technically-capable candidate for reasons that have nothing
to do with his or her technical skills.


Aaron Spanik
a.spanik at ns.sympatico.ca

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