Screening question for IT-drudges
November 21, 2012 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Screening questions (and answers!) for low-level office IT admin staff.

I am helping to place some people with varied low-level IT backgrounds in employment. The employer wants someone that can take care of the usual day-to-day problems in an office environment, like reinstalling the printer, why can't I get out on the net, some active-directory stuff (more on a buzzword level than actual deep administration I think) and so on.

I will be asking my preferred "are you actually a nerd" questions regarding describing their home setups, and their ideal fresh install of a new computer etc, but I would like a few questions where I can gague actual proficiancy. It's a given that I don't actually know whether the question has been extremely well answered or not, but pre meeting the client I just want to screen out the people who give me deer-in-the-headlight eyes when I say "router".
Valid attempts at answering the question, or reasoning out their process of troubleshooting will count strongly.

As well as a rough scetch of valid answers please specifiy if they relate to Windows or *nix environments (not much call for mac answers here, thanks tho).

I saw this question and quite liked it although I probably couldn't answer it myself in an interview, I could probably get it working in the end.
A Windows 7 computer cannot load any Web pages. You've verified that it's configured for DHCP and is plugged into a switch (that other machines are using successfully). The NIC and switch both show an active link LED. Concisely describe the troubleshooting process you would use.
posted by Iteki to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Dude, you are SO far ahead of the game by actually, you know, screening your applicants at all. I've been in IT for a decade and for some reason, the caliber of low-level IT people seems to have fallen in recent years. The two greatest qualities in a good IT person, for me, are a logical, scientific-method-y mind AND a willingness to take stuff apart and look at the "guts" (mostly in a figurative sense, but sometimes literally). So rather than asking precise technical questions, I'd probably ask more general ones to suss out the kind of tech they'd be - e.g., "The printer is jammed. What's the first thing you do?" ("Try to open it up and clear the jam" is good. "Call the guy who does that!" is not so good).
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:27 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also: if you can meet them in person, it's SUPER-helpful to plop them down in front of a PC and ask them to do certain things and see how they do it. That's how I got my last job - they sat me down in front of a PC and left the room to get a notebook or something. When they came back, I was tapping away, checking out their environment.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:28 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Having hired a number of IT folks I would also add take into account the culture of the workplace. I made some bad hiring decisions because I ignored my gut on the personality of the candidates. They did not fit into the culture of the company and because they ended up touching every other employee there were some difficult work situations that developed. IT folks need to be able to work with the staff they are supporting or staff will end up not wanting to call IT when they need to- lead to lots of drama.
posted by shaarog at 7:29 AM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Could you just ask them to, for example, install a network printer for you? I might not even tell them the IP address of the printer and make them dig through the printer's menus. Just trying some mildly challenging basic task like that might help you weed out the weakest candidates.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:33 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: We setup a laptop with various issues on it and had people work through them in private. (Can't print: spooler service off, can't access webpage: wifi off, etc) Writing down their process/thoughts. The end result didn't matter as much as how they got (or were trying to get) there.

Personality trumps pure technical skills for us.

A favorite question of mine has always been "what are the top 3 sites you visit daily?" and "tell us something you did last year that you were proud of."
posted by mattdini at 7:34 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Empathic people skills are much more important than tack-sharp IT skills on the front lines.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:34 AM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I like the network printer question a lot.

You could ask them a simpler version of the sample question you've given: "You're at home and your internet connection stops working. What do you do? [before calling tech support]". This is a scenario that lots of people deal with regularly and should be able to answer.

Because if they can't troubleshoot their home computers, you don't want them troubleshooting the ones in your workplace.
posted by deanc at 7:39 AM on November 21, 2012

Tech questions like you mention are great, as they let you see thought process, a bit of how they deal with pressure (and there will be pressure, no matter how lowly the position). It's much more useful than checking them out for true nerddom, which really only indicates how much time on the clock they're going to spend gaming or RDPed back into their home computer or whatever.

Also, I've always felt strongly that technical questions in an IT interview should allow for 'consult the application's help system', 'f@$^ing Google it' and 'escalate to a vendor' as valid steps in atroubleshooting process. For junior techs these should be worth half credit at least; for senior engineers, they should be required. I mean, if an engineer has never gotten to the point where they throw up their hands and called Microsoft or whoever, I don't want them on my team, because they're more invested in ego than solving the actual problem at hand.

On preview: I see I disagree with julthumbscrew posting above. There's of course a spectrum here; I and most IT monkeys at all levels do tend to want to take things apart and work out issues ourselves. But knowing what your resources are, and being willing to use them, is absolutely part of being a professional. A helpdesk person can get away without it, but it will be a headache for their team and career-limiting for them...
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 7:40 AM on November 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think we're actually on the same page, The Prawn Reproach - I totally agree that being able to utilize your team, and Google, and vendors and whatnot is HUGELY important! I didn't mean to discount those at all. I didn't mean that IT people should ONLY use their own skills and desire to take stuff apart. I just meant that they should be WILLING to get their hands dirty. I've dealt with a rash of help desk people recently who will reboot a PC, panic when that doesn't work, then kick the ticket up to an escalated team. That ain't cool. A willingness to solve stuff - either by investigating it yourself OR utilizing your resources - is what I was talkin' about.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:47 AM on November 21, 2012

I would take the time to ask them to explain something non-technical to me, as if we're on the phone together. Being able to give clear direction to an end-user, no matter what the circumstances, is terribly helpful. Maybe say, "Talk me through the process of tying your shoes," or something, so that it's not at all about what they know, but about how they explain it to you, including how they answer questions along the way.
posted by xingcat at 7:55 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Building on what people say here about personality and culture fit, I'd recommend focusing your questions on the interaction rather than the technical problem: how people feel after dealing with them is generally more important than time to resolution. So for example the question you posted would become:

"An employee calls in saying their computer cannot load webpages. You know all the company computers are running Windows 7 and were properly configured for DHCP at time of deployment. Walk me through your actions."

From there you keep an eye on how they handle the employee - good ones will notice the question and actually answer the employee, while others might excel at the technical part but would rather never deal with the person (and will usually simply act as though that was not part of the question.)

If you'd still like to get more concrete questions after this question, MeMail me and I'll try to come up with some after work.
posted by pahalial at 7:56 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

julthumbscrew, agreed! (I say this as someone who was an escalation point for a help desk just like you describe...10 time zones away. That wasn't fun.)

One other thing I wanted to throw in: make part of the tech exam practical, like actually sit them down in front of the broken whatever. In my own last interview, we didn't do that, so there was a ton of "I'd check X." "It's not X." "Then I'd check Y". "Y works fine". etc etc. Three quarters of the things I rattled off would have been immediately evident from context in a practical exam, which I think would have given them a better picture of the applicant's technical actuity than them just rattling off a checklist.
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 8:01 AM on November 21, 2012

I will be asking my preferred "are you actually a nerd" questions regarding describing their home setups,

This question makes all kinds of assumptions about the candidates. That is absolutely not your role when hiring. Being a nerd is not a requirement of the job. Being technically competent to perform required tasks is. Shortlisting on the basis of likeism - "I'm most comfortable with people like me" - introduces all kinds of really bad bias into the hiring process.

Maybe someone can find you the Ask question from the woman engineer who was shunned at work because despite being fully competent and experienced at her job, she didn't have a rooted phone because she had other priorities in her non-working hours. That needs to be OK too, whether those priorities are playing Call of Duty or, you know, kids.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:15 AM on November 21, 2012 [11 favorites]

Front line client here, I want someone who is technically competent and actually, you know, likes to help people. The awful stereotype character from the IT Crowd and SNL is sadly possible. I like people who are helping me and not being resentful or angry about it, this allows me to cut them slack if the case needs to be escalated and it is not fixed immediately.

In short, don't forget the soft skills such as, comportment and communication.
posted by jadepearl at 8:47 AM on November 21, 2012

Best answer: I will be asking my preferred "are you actually a nerd" questions regarding describing their home setups

This is sort of silly, my home set up is ridiculously consumer oriented - airport, couple of macs a gaming pc all on wireless. That's it. If you judged me by my home set up you'd never guess I design, implement and manage network, systems and security infrastructure for banks, airlines, hospitals, etc.

If you want something practical and actually want to get some detail about their ability to troubleshoot start simple and build a conversation and troubleshooting scenario out from an every day thing - flaky network connectivity for a PC connected to a switched network. Then adapt that baseline scenario to more complex technologies - client to server, server to server, server to internet, etc.

Then you can take the conversation any number of directions, and more to the point discuss why they would troubleshoot one area and investigate rather than some other area. You don't even have to know all the technology in depth but you're having a conversation with someone who is going to need to be conversant and troubleshoot at the same time.

The last thing I would suggest is ask them to draw or describe the last network or systems logical architecture they supported. Even if they were basic helpdesk they would have needed to have a basic understanding of the logical architecture of what they supported in order to be effective. If someone can't draw and explain in detail what they supported most recently, then they simply don't have the capacity to build a model of the infrastructure in their head and manipulate it to determine where a failure may be. Which means more guessing and digging a hole when there is a problem and less problem isolation.
posted by iamabot at 8:51 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When interviewing people for a school IT job I would give them a practical test. I had a perfectly working PC set up, powered off, but the vga cable in the back was loosened so it did not get a signal.
Pretty early on in the interview I would point to the computer and say "It's broken. Fix it"
Mindblowing how many would start by opening the box before even trying to turn it on.
Only 2 out of about 20 started by turning it on, checked the monitor could pop up a built in menu, then fixed it by tightening the cable.
posted by Sophont at 12:14 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe say, "Talk me through the process of tying your shoes," or something, so that it's not at all about what they know, but about how they explain it to you, including how they answer questions along the way.

This is actually very clever, though it veers into roleplay if you make it 'talk me through a phone consultation with someone who wants to tie their shoes'. You could take an IT illiterate parent approach to shoelace tying... "I pulled them and nothing happened and now my shoes are stuck!"
posted by Sebmojo at 6:44 PM on November 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input! I have a good handle on the soft skills and values, and while I absolutely remember the "you haven't rooted your phone?" thread and appreciate the reminder, the one thing that is for sure is that the population I am working with are not "like" anyone they will be meeting in interview :) I am recruiting from a group of people without documented skills or experience, low language skills and varied psychomedical histories.

Your home setup doesn't need to be advanced, but if it's just a plain TV, even if I am offering you a grand to spend, then I am interested in hearing your reasoning around that; again, the reasoning is the interesting thing, not the actual tech. I don't want you to not know that it's possible to have a home network. I do like the tip about drawing the network architechture. If any of them have some experience of a system I will totally ask about that.

Unfortunately our own IT setup here is so infernal I probably can't have them poke around on it, but I am seriously considering "Please bring up your CV on the projector" with the wiggly cabling. The three sites you visit daily/weekly etc ties in well with what I consider my nerd questions. I am not asking that you devote your life to tech, but I do need to know that you are keeping abreast of developments or at least have a base level of curiosity. Knowing where to go to find the answers you don't have is key, but I do need to require a certain level of basic knowledge if I am going to present them to a client.

TLDR; anyone got a few more actual tech screening questions for me?
posted by Iteki at 1:01 AM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tech Questions:
--What is an IP address?

--What is the Windows registry?

--How would you change the boot order of a PC so it would boot from a CD or USB drive first?

--Where would you check to see if a driver was installed for a windows device?

Less technical:
--What kind of problems do you like working on?
--Tell me about an interesting problem you solved recently?
posted by nalyd at 7:43 AM on November 22, 2012

Some outside the box ones:

"Tell me about a bad experience calling tech support. What was the problem, why did you call them, and how would you have handled it better?"
"You just accidentally deleted a dozen email accounts, what do you do?" (Hopefully 'notify somebody' is somewhere in the list).
posted by empath at 1:57 PM on November 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

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