Good interview questions
June 19, 2006 2:13 PM   Subscribe

What are some good technical questions to ask a potential candidate for a tech support position during the initial interview?

I do tech support (helpdesk type stuff) for a large financial institution, it's been agreed that a promotion to a sysadmin position will be coming soon (YAY!). Because of this a new person will be hired to replace me at my current position. I've been asked to sit in on the interviews and handle the technical portion of the grilling. Can anyone suggest some good questions that reveal the intelligence as well as knowledge of the potential candidates?
posted by Cosine to Computers & Internet (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best that I've ever heard is:

"Describe what your home network looks like."
posted by purephase at 2:17 PM on June 19, 2006

When I interviewed for a helpdesk position in college they had me roll-play calls where I was the operator and they were the caller. Seemed both a pretty fair and accurate way to judge my abilities. So I'd think of some of the most common problems people call you with, and then pretend to be a caller and have him diagnose and solve them for you.

(The answer to "I can't log in" was "is your capslock key on" and I nailed it, but in the end took something else).
posted by ChasFile at 2:18 PM on June 19, 2006

In high school I interviewed for a help desk position - they asked me how I sound on the phone and I told them "well, I've never talked to myself on the phone before".

They also had a tech support 'test' with some general knowledge questions.

Aced the test, got the job :)
posted by jimmy0x52 at 2:27 PM on June 19, 2006

1. Have at least part of the interview in a busy, loud room.

2. Have the interviewee describe their worst customer service experience ever. When they're done, ask how the interviewee would have handled it better as the CSR.

3. Tech-qualify them with problems i.e. the example ChasFile gave.
posted by disclaimer at 2:35 PM on June 19, 2006

Based on the scope of the position, give a scenario of conflicting problems and ask how the person would address & prioritize them:

- boss can't get email to open
- sales person needs help with presentation due in 1 hour
- project manager can't access network drives for client demo

that kind of thing
posted by pgoes at 3:09 PM on June 19, 2006

i would say definately give them a few scenarios they would see everyday.

we employed someone recently and my god he has turned out to be useless. we asked a few questions on the interview but didn't give him any real scenarios. so wish we did now!

ive spent months trying to get him up to speed
posted by moochoo at 3:41 PM on June 19, 2006

"Tell us about a recent bit of computer problem-solving you are proud of" -- gives you some idea of their skill-level and where their interests lie, and may reveal aspects you wouldn't think to ask directly about.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:45 PM on June 19, 2006

"Tell us about a time when"... scenario questions, while a bit cliched, are the best way of finding out whether the candidate has real experience or just theoretical knowledge.

If you get "I would do this, then I would do this" - they've not done it before.

If you get "Something similar came up last week at work, it was a bit tricky, but this is how I handled it and this was the result" (or even, for an entry-level position, "my mate Sam had a problem with his PC similar to this last week...", then you're onto someone good.

Not specifically tech support related, but has served me well in general recruitment...
posted by bella.bellona at 3:56 PM on June 19, 2006

When I interviewed for support positions, I had no set interview pattern. More's the pity. But a friend of mine used to asked candidates how to describe how a flush toilet works.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:39 PM on June 19, 2006

One I got the other day (that I thought was pretty poor, actually) -- describe a funny IT incident you've had to fix.

The way I look at it, IT should be invisible. And the last thing someone wants when they've called tech support is to have the CSR start giggling at their predicament. YMMV
posted by coriolisdave at 4:50 PM on June 19, 2006

My favorite interview question that I've used is: You pick up the telephone and there is no dial tone. Please describe the steps you'd take to solve the problem.

IT is all about logic and problem solving. This question lets you know whether they can think in a clear, logical sequence.
posted by maelanchai at 5:04 PM on June 19, 2006

If his/her 1st answer to a scenario isn't "reboot" - don't hire him or her.
posted by k8t at 5:29 PM on June 19, 2006

I'd strongly disagree with k8t's answer there -- rebooting should not be the first answer to a scenario. The first answer to a scenario should be "give me more information".

Sure, a reboot may fix the problem. Similarly, a reboot could kill the machine altogether -- if the hdd is on the verge of failure, a reboot could kill it altogether, whereas taking the time to diagnose the problem _correctly_ may mean you can copy some vital data first.

I'm a Windows Admin. And I hate Rebooting.
posted by coriolisdave at 6:12 PM on June 19, 2006

Come on, 90% of "normal" user problems are related to rebooting.

If it is a hard drive failure, you'll know it based on the description of the problem.

I've worked as a Help Desk Admin for years. Perhaps being at 3 different universities and a snowboard company meant that I had more advanced users, by and large, but 90% of the b.s. problems that people call about require a reboot.
posted by k8t at 6:28 PM on June 19, 2006

Depends upon the level of IT support we're talking about here. I managed support for a medium sized regional ISP. "Reboot" makes sense. I worked support in enterprise-class internet software running the websites of major corporations. "Reboot", not so good.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:30 PM on June 19, 2006

Plus, who cares about a hard drive failure? At a legit company with a good help desk, users will be educated (or forced!) to not save ANYTHING on the hard drive anyway, AND a freshly ghosted drive for any machine in the company (which AT most should only be 5 or 6 different models at any given time - one for normal users, one for artists, one for engineers, and maybe some legacy machines from a lease about to be closed out) should be sitting on the back shelf! Or it should take only an hour or so to ghost a hard drive and set it up for the user.

Hard drive failure means nothing!
posted by k8t at 6:33 PM on June 19, 2006

Oh, and one of my old bosses used to say,

"If he/she doesn't ask how many users we support, I refuse to hire him/her."
posted by k8t at 6:36 PM on June 19, 2006

Oh, and key at a help desk is the ability to prioritize. (Both technology-wise and with the big shots at the company!)

Say something like this:

A customer service rep is is having a major spyware meltdown on her PC and is unable to work, meanwhile the admin assistant of the senior VP of something runs into the help desk saying that her boss can't get his e-mail open, then the phone and e-mail start blowing up with people saying that they can't get into SAP, meanwhile HR comes down saying that they have a scheduled video conference with a new recruit and even though they can dial out, nothing shows up on the screen on the other end. Your partners are at lunch.

Ask him/her what he/she would do first and then in what order to do the rest and what (on a base level, not too in-depth) he/she would do about each problem.
posted by k8t at 6:41 PM on June 19, 2006

This Joel On Software article is about recruiting programmers, not tech support, and it's also addressed to those in charge of recruitment, which you are not. However, it's an easy read and I've found the principles outlined useful in a variety of situations.

Oh, and congratulations on the promotion.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:05 PM on June 19, 2006

I always like to do an actual practical test for helpdesk positions. I just pull the network cable, and tell them that the user reports that they can't print to the shared printer. If they don't figure it out inside of a minute, (the really strong candidates should get it within seconds) they don't get the job.

It's amazing how many poseurs have gotten as far as reinstalling the print driver before even looking at connectivity.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:13 PM on June 19, 2006

Give them this situation. "A user calls you and says that they cannot print. What troubleshooting steps would you take?"

I asked several candidates that exact same question, and I was pretty amazed at how many of them were totally baffled.

Basically, I was looking for someone to say something along the lines of:
* Have the user try another printer
* Check the status of the printer itself
* See if anyone else is having the same problem
* Check to see if there's network connectivity
* Has the user ever been able to print to this printer?
* When was the last successful print job sent to this printer?
* Does the damn printer have any damn paper? (VERY common issue, I've found. heh.)

Yeah. Lots of people that have MCSE on their resume lack basic troubleshooting skills. I can't believe how many people just bomb the simple questions, which are a huge percentage of the help desk calls.
posted by drstein at 9:47 PM on June 19, 2006

"my computer wont turn back on"
"is it plugged in?"

"i can't tell"
"why not?"

"its dark behind the desk"
"turn on a light"

"why not?"

"the power is out right now"


another good one for roll playing is "my start menu disapeared" lots of people seem to resize it down to nothing.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 1:42 AM on June 20, 2006

And the last thing someone wants when they've called tech support is to have the CSR start giggling at their predicament.

It's called delayed gratification. You giggle AFTER the call. Because if you can't laugh about it, it'll end up depressing you.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:17 AM on June 20, 2006

For practical testing, we've used with some success. We used it specifically for a developer position (PHP and VB.NET), but I've noticed other general knowledge questions as well as personality tests.

Web-based and very easy to setup. Very easy to use, and the tests are timed, forcing completion within a reasonable timeframe.
posted by Zebble at 8:25 AM on June 20, 2006

coriolisdave writes "The way I look at it, IT should be invisible. And the last thing someone wants when they've called tech support is to have the CSR start giggling at their predicament. YMMV "

Sure IT should be invisible but a help desk position isn't. And yes don't laugh if you can help it in front of the users, but feel to LOL after the user leaves. Users are nothing if not inventive with new problems. Last month I had a user ask me if they could still use an SD card that had made a trip thru their dog or if it would damage their laptop. Some how they never covered that scenario in PC Support 101. How can you not laugh a little inside?

k8t writes "If his/her 1st answer to a scenario isn't 'reboot' - don't hire him or her"

I'd disagree, rebooting shouldn't be the first (or any) course of action unless you know it'll fix the problem. You lose the state of the machine (which can make further troubleshooting problematic) and some virus/worms need a reboot. Advise someone to reboot because they can't send mail and they may not be able to do anything when their machine comes back up. Plus it takes a couple minutes which wastes your time and theirs if, for example,all they needed to do was plug in the CAT5 cable.

I like to ask 2nd tier help desk hires the difference between REGEDIT and RegEDT32. This is a good question to weed out people used to locking down desktops in corporate environments from those who have only worked in "Every user runs as administrator" environments.

Ask them to describe the difference between dragging and dropping something between folders on C:\ and from H:\ to C:\.
Ask when to use share permissions and when to use NTFS permissions.

I'll second drstein's writes "Give them this situation. 'A user calls you and says that they cannot print. What troubleshooting steps would you take?'"

But instead act it out and you play the most neo-Luddite user you have. You know the guy who can't print because the printer queue wasn't setup on his login and after you figure it out he can't add it because the guy is calling from the coffee room and he doesn't have a network connection there.
posted by Mitheral at 11:37 AM on June 20, 2006

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