Best questions to find a great I.T. helper?
October 17, 2011 8:57 AM   Subscribe

What are the best questions to ask a potential employee to identify that they are knowledgable and effective as a I.T. professional?

I'm currently looking for a helper to take over some of my duties, general office support, networking, active domain/windows server maintenance, some basic database stuff, installations. A good all-rounder, but doesn't need to be a developer/coder.

I've got a stack of resume's, and the interview process is looming near. What questions can you recommend I ask to identify real capabilities and knowledge of the candidates?
posted by Static Vagabond to Work & Money (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a PHP programmer so the questions wouldn't be the same but during the last interview I went on, they asked really technical questions. They started out really easy and gradually worked their way up and even threw in a couple that they didn't expect me to know (but asked how I would go about figuring it out). Not sure if this helps but just wanted to say to go ahead and ask really specific questions - it seems like a good way to know if someone knows what they are doing or not.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:01 AM on October 17, 2011

When we were interviewing for Unix systems administrators, we had a punch list of questions we ran by all candidates to measure their baseline knowledge and problem solving ability. It helped shake out technically unqualified candidates pretty quick.

How would you do X? What about X and Y? How would you start troubleshooting this problem (describe)? What are the Unix commands to accomplish foo and bar? Where would you find the documentation explaining qux?

Things along this line, but tailored a bit to our environment.
posted by jquinby at 9:07 AM on October 17, 2011

I would ask about Powershell experience, many of those tasks such as AD/Server Maint. are scriptable via PS. Maybe have them write a very basic one.

Run some basic support scenarios as well.. "user X says the internet is down, but it is up for you..." and see how their troubleshooting style meshes with yours.
posted by mattdini at 9:14 AM on October 17, 2011

Asking a few questions they don't know the answer to is good: see how they deal with that uncertainty, how effectively they would go about discovering what they need to know. They shouldn't freak out; running into oddities, new technologies, or dusty corners they don't know about is a thing they (and you…) will have to take in stride.
posted by hattifattener at 9:21 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Think back over the general type of things you've had to do as part of the aspects of your job that the new hire's intended to take over. Pick a few routine ones, and a couple of the weirder situations that really tasked the wider systemic grasp rather than any particular deep specific skill. Present those situations in the interview. "Important Person A asks you to do task X. At the same time, Important Person B reports that Y is happening. Walk me through your thought process on how to proceed, and how you're going to prioritize what you approach."
posted by Drastic at 9:23 AM on October 17, 2011

The best IT interview question I've ever seen was disguised as a simple knowledge question about a piece of software; the interviewer asked what the interviewee would do if confronted with a particular error in that software, and then said, "What would you do if that didn't work?" more or less to every answer. It was less about the actual knowledge the person had and more about getting a feel for their problem-solving process and their approach to the unknown.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:27 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Do they understand TCP/IP??

Can PC1 Ping PC2? if not what is wrong, what fails where and why?

PC 1
PC 2
posted by jannw at 9:28 AM on October 17, 2011

If this person is essentially "Jr. IT Guy", I'd be a lot less worried about specific skills than basic demeanor, as others have mentioned. You should be able to quickly tell what someone at that level knows just by asking questions about their resume.

Hard skills, though, are much easier to teach than soft skills like how this person handles pressure, interacting with VIP's, etc. Here's, IMO, a good question: "The CEO comes sticks his head in the door after business hours, when you're the only IT person around. What do you do? Go." Assume, in your head, that there's a fairly serious "you didn't have it plugged in" problem. Let the candidate walk through troubleshooting until it gets to the point where he has to tell the CEO that he is going to be without his computer for a few hours. Does he immediately think about a replacement? Does he treat it like something where he stays late until it's done, or that it can be done tomorrow?
posted by mkultra at 9:33 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

er, fairly serious, more than "you didn't have it plugged in" problem.
posted by mkultra at 9:34 AM on October 17, 2011

Good support people can think on their feet, which isn't something you can pick up with "what are the arguments to ls?" sort of questions. I normally try something along the lines of "Someone rings up and complains that a server process you've never heard of on machine X has stopped responding. What do you do?". If they make a suggestion, then I can usually ask "What happens if that doesn't work/doesn't tell you anything useful?" and keep going until they run out of ideas. A good candidate will usually talk about logging into the machine or trying to find documentation or asking around or looking at the logs or running a debugger, etc; a bad candidate will say "um" and stare at you.

The nice thing about this question is that it's open-ended in a way that means you can just keep drilling down until you hit the limits of their knowledge/experience. A similar question (for more development-oriented stuff, possibly) is "What happens when I type into my web browser?" and then just keep asking "How does that work, exactly?". You can get to absurd levels of depth with this.
posted by doop at 9:46 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Installations: "You've been directed to a network share to install Office. What file are you looking for?"

Networking: "User can't access internet. First step?"

Backups: "Define 'incremental' versus 'full' in a backup situation."

General knowledge/troubleshooting: Ask for the three letter file extension for the usual suspects, and a few odd ones. Ask what the first step is when a user gets an error message (screen shot or write down the exact verbiage of the error message).

If a junior I.T. assistant can answer the above, they can be taught most of the rest, in my experience.
posted by Mooski at 10:03 AM on October 17, 2011

One of my favorite "see how people think and what they know about their environment" discussions is chmod -x chmod. Probably not directly applicable to your environment, but possibly useful as a way to think about how to frame questions that may seem absurd but can go really really deep.
posted by straw at 10:14 AM on October 17, 2011

I'd poach a few questions from the CompTIA Network+ exam; there are plenty of test-questions available online. Ask a few questions about the things one commonly does in a router, basic network services (DHCP, DNS), troubleshooting (why would I use a tracert?), getting PC's on a network (name some private addresses; what does the subnet mask do?), make sure they've used the company's OS, describe the parts of a PC that can be replaced or upgraded.

Most importantly, find out how they learn about problems they haven't encountered-- how and where do they research issues?
posted by Sunburnt at 10:33 AM on October 17, 2011

Prioritize and explain why you put these in the order you do. Assuming the tickets all come in at once or are waiting for you when you walk in the door.

1. A High level exec walks into your office and says he wants you to put his email on his ipad or iPhone
2. An executive assistant can't open email or the emails/calendar of the people he/she is responsible for.
3. Some one calls in and says they think they have a virus.
4. IT Security calls and says so and so ( different than #3) has a virus.
5. Several people are complaining that they can't access a share/server
6. Broken shared printer.
7. Someone can get email on their blackberry, but not on their computer.
posted by Gungho at 10:44 AM on October 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

It is unclear from your question if you have the technical expertise yourself or in-house to evaluate this. The open ended question approach suggested here is excellent but it hinges on your deep knowledge and experience to lead the questioning down a fruitful path. If your organization has been winging it in the IT area you have two options as I see it:

1) Working from a credible reference hire a senior IT manager for a competitive salary. The right individual will like the idea of whipping things in shape and have autonomy to do the right thing.

2) Hire a junior person, but base your decision more on their willingness to learn and grow with the organization. In other words, place more weight on character and fit than technical expertise.
posted by dgran at 1:09 PM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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