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Interviewing System Administrator recommended questions

Posted on 2016-10-09
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Last Modified: 2016-10-11
I am in the process of trying to hire a System Administrator to replace tasks that I am responsible for.  I was the Sys Admin prior to be prompted to my current position as IT Manager/Director.  Resumes always have lots of good highlights, but I do not seem to be able to ask the proper questions to weed out the good candidates from the ones that really do not know much, but think they do.  

I currently have a test that has about 30 to 50 questions ranging basic Windows Server, AD , Exchange, File Share (NTFS).  The last round of candidates all did less than desired.  During the formal interview they all did say that the test was hard.  I do not think so.  I think it is far.

With this next round the candidates seem to have a much better understanding from the preliminary phone screening.  I am giving them the same test that the previous round of candidates took, but this time around I am also give them a practical test. This will entail install the Server OS and apply AD Role, setup a few GPO's and test with a client workstation.

Does anyone have recommended verbal questions that can be asked?  
Do any of you know of practical Lab that potential candidates can also take?
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Question by:yo_bee
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by:OriNetworks
ID: 41835845
First I think it's important to step back into your own past and think of what you know when you were first coming into your position. I would assume that some things are ok to be learned and it's important to keep this in mind so you dont weed out candidates with high potential to grow. Maybe try asking how to do the basic everyday tasks that anyone with hands on experience would know how to do or would know information about.

If you have the benefit of time, I find it helpful to step away from the questions and go back to review them weeks later to make sure even I still know the answers. Sometimes answers seem obvious at the time of writing but after day to day work of other tasks you may not be able to recall how to answer.

While knowledge is key, dont place too much emphasis on it. To me it's more important for the candidate to get along well with the team and myself if they show potential to proactively grow their skills and imvestigate answers to problems they dont know.

You can give them open ended questions about your configuration to try to get them to ask investigative questions.

Try to stay away from long arduous tasks like your install example because that could take a while and waste both your and the candidates time. Also double check with HR to ensure that your questions are allowable and consistent across candidates.
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by:OriNetworks
OriNetworks earned 80 total points
ID: 41835854
Specifically I would be interested in asking what kind of scheduled maintenance activities they would do if they had the position. To me this would indicate their their level of hands on experience and proactive nature.

Also important to ask how they would test backups, if that is part of their role.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835859
Thanks.

These are good suggestions.  

I want to know that this candidate can work with the core Windows Server application and roles from day one.  
I was thinking of asking  
  1. "How would you create a GPO that only targets a group of users or computers?"
  2. "What tools would you use to validate computer connectivity?"
  3. "How to prevent users from logging on to certain computers?"
  4. "What tools would you use to assess an issue a server or workstation is having?"
  5. "What event happens on the second Tuesdays of every month?"
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by:OriNetworks
OriNetworks earned 80 total points
ID: 41835864
That looks like a great start. 2 and 4 seem a little too open ended so I would expect to hear follow up questions from the candidate on these.

Queston 2 could apply to connectivity to a specific server, internet connectivity, or overall network connectivity in which the client cant access anything. be ready in case the candidate makes an assumption, for example, cant reach the internet, and starts suggesting answer that you think may not immediately apply, such as checking the router. if you think they may not be answering as expected you can as why they answered the way they did.

question 4 is just too generic. you have to give a type of problem to see what their toolset is for that problem, like you did in question 2
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835879
Question 2  I want to see is they have knowledge of tools like  PING, TRACERT, NSLOOKUP.

Question 4: I want to see what steps they take to troubleshoot an issue with a computer or server  like Event Viewer or Task Manger to see if there are weird things that will jump out to them and they can start looking for a solution.
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by:McKnife
McKnife earned 60 total points
ID: 41835913
If I would apply for sysadmin and I would be asked your Q1-5, I would answer "you must be kidding". These are absolute entry level admin questions, I would feel like a jerk that my future employer is even in doubt that I could answer these, unless the job description would call it something like "junior admin".

In your position I would be more interested in how these guys work. Ask them, what projects they did during their former sysadmin activity (or during their apprenticeship) and how (in detail) they are going about finishing them. Let them describe what they did in what order during their latest project and you'll quickly see if that's someone who you can use or not. Also will the project title allow you to take a guess how good they are - whether it is a simple task (like for example setup disk monitoring for all servers) or rather a task that will have taken some weeks/months like an OS migration or creating an overhauled security concept.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835918
Thanks for that insight.

Those are good suggestions.
This person will be wearing many hats. He/she will not just be solely dealing with sys admin duties, but will be involved with assisting Desktop Support team with issues as well.
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by:OriNetworks
OriNetworks earned 80 total points
ID: 41835923
mcknife, I know what you mean and while someone in an admin position should know these things easily, I still think they are useful questions because unfortunately you have to weed out the candidates that try to squeeze by thinking they can pass a cert and cram some online interview questions that I have surprisingly seen to not be able to answer similar questions.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835931
I concur to that reply. I am do not have certs and I know people that have them and I know much more than they do.

I have done a round of phone screenings. One of the candidates did a great job highlighting his project achievements.  I am leaning towards him, but did want to see what they can do with a situation presented to them and some of these questions can highlight whether the candidate has this knowledge to start attacking the problem.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835952
Can you recall if there were any changes since the last time you created a new mailbox?
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by:pgm554
pgm554 earned 80 total points
ID: 41835961
My go to question is do you trust Microsoft products.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41835966
That is interesting considering this candidate will be responsible for a lot of MS software.
I hope he says yes.
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by:pgm554
pgm554 earned 80 total points
ID: 41836004
Personally the answer that I would be looking for is it depends.

Somebody that would install untested patches simply because M$ says they are important would draw a red flag in my interviewing process.

Just my 2 cents.
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by:yo_bee
ID: 41836033
I was looking at it differently, but I like that angle.
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by:No More
No More earned 80 total points
ID: 41836318
@yo_bee
I would say troubleshooting questions, will show you if the person have actually interest to work in this field.  
1. There is an issue with replication between DC's, How would you troubleshoot this problem ?
( dcdiag ,repadmin, dfsdiag, etc) + examples IPC,RPC issues
2. There is a time sync issue in domain, where would you start looking for the issue ?
(netdom query fsmo find PDC, do w32tm to set NTP)

Testing people from GPO's is pointless , most of admins, are searching on google, you just can't remember whole group policy + with all those changes now with win10

I would say look for somebody with MCSA  win 2012r2 cert for start, don't even try to give this job to somebody without cert.
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Adam Brown earned 200 total points
ID: 41836330
Questions I like to ask:

1. "How did you treat your toys as a child" - My preference is usually the people who took their toys apart to see how they worked or make them "better". This is usually a sign of someone who is good at learning new things, but you'll want to include follow-up questions to weed out the ones who weren't able to put the toys back together again.
2. One good tactic I've seen is to ask them to rate their level of experience with various types of technology on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 meaning "I know nothing" and 10 meaning "I could write a book on it". Use this rating against questions later in the interview to weed out arrogant incompetence and overblown ego.
3. Don't worry so much about technical questions, but do make an effort to determine how much of the "lingo" they know. Almost every technical question you can ask in an Interview can be answered easily with a little google search, which doesn't happen in an interview environment, but is easily available in the real world, so technical questions in an interview aren't a good metric for determining how much experience or knowledge someone has.
People can easily blank in an Interview on those types of questions, but, getting a sense of how much IT terminology they are aware of will help you determine their level of experience. For instance, if a person whose resume says they have experience managing Active Directory can't tell you what a GPO is may be either embellishing their resume. Basically, look for knowledge of concepts instead of IT tactics. Ask things like, "What is Loopback Policy Processing" as opposed to "How do you cause User Configuration settings in a GPO to apply when users log in to a specific computer, and only that computer?"
4. Ask them what kind of computer they use at home. Mega geeks will rattle of specs and open up to you real quick when you ask this question. I had one interviewee that was very quiet and reserved at the start of the interview completely open up and show that he had quite a bit of promise just by asking this question.
5. Ask them to tell you about a time they faced a major challenge in their career and how they were able to succeed at resolving it. This gets people talking about technical stuff, and can help you determine if they are the type to use a "just works" solution vs. trying to find the way to do things according to best practices.

Those are some of the things I've used in the past or that have been used on me. I would honestly avoid asking people "how do you do this?" kinds of questions, because it's very easy for people to suddenly forget how to do things or not be able to explain the process in words because they've always had a computer in front of them when they did it before and have never had to explain how to do it to someone else before. That's why I recommend terminology questions instead. Terminology is a normal part of communication, which is what you're doing with interviewees. Server administration is not something that translates well to spoken instruction if you haven't spent a portion of your career as a public speaker. The major exception to this rule is "How *did* you do that?" questions. Particularly when people are explaining major challenges or projects they've worked on. It is much easier for people to explain how they solved a problem in the past than it is for them to explain the solution to some hypothetical issue they may or may not have faced before.
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Author Comment

by:yo_bee
ID: 41838555
Thank you all for this great feedback.
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Author Closing Comment

by:yo_bee
ID: 41838567
Thanks all
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