How do I show I am a quick learner in under 8 hours???
January 30, 2007 2:43 PM   Subscribe

I am interviewing for a network engineering position. They like me and my knowledge base. However, I have never worked with the actual model of equipment they use. I have experience with similar products and I am a very quick learner. They would like me to come in for a day to see how I work and how quickly I can pick up things. What is a good way to show them how quickly I learn?

I know I will be able to the job and be productive quickly. I need some suggestions on how I can show them. I'm pretty sure they will not allow me access to the production equipment...
posted by nivekraz to Work & Money (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps I'm missing the point here. They want you to come in and see what you can do; so why can't you just go in and do as they ask? It seems like this is just a simple test of your abilities, and the best answer would be to just do your best to learn. No sense in trying to fool them--they'd probably figure that out pretty quickly if they hired you.

As far as anything specific you could do, all I can say is to not be afraid to ask for help if you need it...they can't expect you to just magically know the information, so if someone else knowledgable in the area is there, use them as a source--it will show your employer that you know how to research. Alternatively, you could have a friend in mind that might know something about the equipment that you could call in a pinch (clear this with the friend first, of course.) Or, do some Googling and come up with a few websites that you can use for a quick reference.

Good luck!
posted by DMan at 3:08 PM on January 30, 2007

I'd second DMan's advice, and add that there's nothing wrong with using Google while at work to help you learn or solve problems. It shows you're resourceful and not expecting solutions to be spoon-fed to you. And above all, don't be afraid to ask good questions.

I've seen far too many people, especially of technical stripe, try to "bluff" their way through not knowing something, or be so afraid of looking "stupid" that they never ask questions, even obvious ones that would save a lot of time and hassle for everyone. It's always a red flag for me, and usually causes quick trouble. Conversely, sharp questions that show an understanding of various factors are impressive and helpful.

There's nothing scarier than a new person claiming to "understand everything perfectly" and having "no questions at all."

Show me a good question-asker, I'll show you a good learner and likely, a good employee.
posted by rokusan at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2007

Bring a ton of documentation for their equipment on your laptop, anything you can think of. All the documentation out on the web is useless when your network is down and you're trying to fix it. Your prospective employer might not actually put you in this situation, but you'll look prepared.
posted by ldenneau at 3:29 PM on January 30, 2007

I like Idenneau's idea, too. Heck, even carrying an old-fashioned paper book shows that you're trying.

"I've worked with mainly FooTechs for the last few years, so I'm working to get caught up with BarTech info."
posted by rokusan at 3:39 PM on January 30, 2007

And depending on the specific equipment you're talking about, Googling "differences between X and Y" or "moving from X to Y" will likely yield some good shortcut, cheat-sheet help for you.
posted by rokusan at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the input. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to fool anyone. I know I can do the job. This "one day on the job" was the recruiters idea and he is trying to show the hiring manager I am worth the effort. I think my resume and experience shows that I an a quick learner but he would like a way to "quantify" it.

As for getting into the system, that's up to them. I wouldn't let anyone who isn't connected to the organization into my system...
posted by nivekraz at 4:14 PM on January 30, 2007

Here's my tips as a manager:

1. Show up early.
2. Yes, always have writing pad available
3. Ask questions
4. Show them that you can put 2 and 2 together. If they show you X server and then shows you Y device. Ask if y device communicates with X server on said protocol. Bad example, but you get my drift.
5. This is a touchy one... if they show you something maybe say something like "Oh we had that at my old job and it did this, is that similar?" Of course if its true and don't say that too much.
6. Listen and show that your listening (good eye contact, body language..etc)
7. Show interest
8. Turn off cellphone

Good luck!
posted by bleucube at 5:13 PM on January 30, 2007

I also like Idenneu's idea. In addition, make sure your laptop is ready for anything, T?FTP server, good terminal program with large scrollback buffer, SSH/Telnet, SNMP tools... Just in case they let you use your own laptop.

They may have a test lab setup where you can safely play with some equipment. Find and use the 'help' command, ask if certain commands are the equivalent to some other platform: "It looks like this would be where you set the port negotiation options. Right?". Look for the FooTech way to do what you would normally do to configure/diagnose a BarTech box.

Ask them if they've found any bugs, tell them if you've found any.

I'm a Network Engineer at a large university for the past 7 years or so, I understand where you're coming from. Once you learn a few major products, the rest are pretty trivial.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:34 PM on January 30, 2007

I was in a similar situation last year (specifically, I had worked with Cisco gear in depth but only touched on Nortel kit which my prospective employer used extensively).

My advice:
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Even if a question sounds dumb, it'll show that you would rather know how to do it right than jump in and potentially make a mistake.

You might want to appeal to your supervisor's ego - not in an obvious or "kiss-ass" way but if you know your supervisor has been working with this gear for years then perhaps give them an opportunity to talk / brag about their experience.

Dress to impress. Find out what the expected dress code is and err on the side of caution (overdressing if necessary).

Reference manuals are your friend. If they work with a particular model of equipment then they'll have the manuals nearby. No-one knows the complete ins and outs of every device and in my previous job even the most experienced and senior guys used the manuals and reference books frequently. It stops you making mistakes, keeps your knowledge up to date and is standard practice in most network operating centres.

Show flexibility! I found this was the most important thing at my interview. I was exposed widely to Cisco (CCNA, training, terminology, etc) and am a huge Linux fan but by showing I was eager to learn about Nortel equipment and could adapt my knowledge to work with their Sun (Solaris) boxes I won them over. In the end, they emphasized how they were a "multi-vendor house" and were most impressed that I was interested in learning new products and technology.

Finally: you don't have to get it all right, just show that you're willing to learn!

Hope that helps a little - Good luck!
posted by TheAspiringCatapult at 6:26 PM on January 30, 2007

I've hired and fired tech people. What every technical manager knows is that 95% of hires succeed or fail on cultural issues, not technical knowledge. Technical knowledge is fungible. If you don't know something, and are teachable, you can be taught what you need to do the job efficiently, by effective training. The lack of technical knowledge is rarely a deal breaker in entry level positions, for an estabilished company.

But cultural and personal issues are. A "bad" hire is a bad investment, and, in IT, perhaps a significant security risk. So, it's probably that you're being brought in for what is known as a "look, see" by perhaps other personnel with whom you'd be working. In a "look, see" they are checking you for all the intangibles a company can't ask about in interviews, by law, but that make or break a new hire's chance for success. The hiring manager wants to see what you look like in the work environment, and whether it seems you'd contribute positively. Everything from your personal hygiene to your problem solving skills are under examination. You might even be presented with some "panic" situation to see how you function under stress. You'll probably meet several other people, some of whom may ask you questions, and who will appear to be intensely interested in your answers. You may go to lunch, to check that you don't chew with your mouth open, just in case there are any customer facing or vendor facing aspects to your position.

Eventually, those who you meet may gather to discuss you, or you'll be mentioned in a meeting called for other purposes. Your appearance, your attitudes, and your interactions with them may be reviewed in some detail, and the senior team members will make a hire/don't hire decision based on their shared impressions, in respect of other candidates.

You can't do a lot to prepare for these kinds interviews, except have a good meal and a good sleep the night before, dress appropriately for the interview, show up on time, and take a serious/watchful attitude about the events that transpire. Feel free to ask questions, and to follow up, if you are asked questions, but be frank about your experience, in a positive way. There is no reason to apologize for what you think may be your limitations, which might not even be considered by the hiring manager or team. And there is no reason to say things like "I learn quickly." If you do, it will be completely evident, as they will see you learning about them as you go through the interview process.

Be the person you can be, but be quietly self-assured about your ability and your capability to learn, as if you knew time from God's clock. Don't overplay your hand, however. Nothing is more intriguing than quiet self-confidence. And nothing says "desperate" like trying too hard, at every corner of the day.
posted by paulsc at 6:51 PM on January 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

All they really want to know is whether you're a total fool whose hand must be held in order to complete even the most trivial tasks or whether you can take initiative to find the information you need to get the job done. If you've made it to the "pretend to work with us" stage they already know you're a smart guy now they want to know if you're a hard worker with a solid work ethic who can take the initiative to get the job done. So if they do give you some trial task, ask a few questions to make sure you know what they want, ask when it needs to be done and then deliver it a little bit early. That's all any overworked manager wants out of his employees.
posted by nixerman at 7:29 PM on January 30, 2007

Prepare a killer question that shows you are looking at the big picture and are capable of making intuitive leaps.
posted by TorontoSandy at 8:09 PM on January 30, 2007

Get a good night's sleep.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:21 PM on January 30, 2007

The single most important aspect of being a network engineer:

Always, always, always have a backup plan.

And please note I'm not talking about data retention. I'm talking about implementation: if you go screwing around with something on a whim that you're pretty-sure will work out great and save the company a million bucks and...

...well, be absolutely certain you can put everything back when things go wrong. Because they will go wrong. They always do. The key to being a good network administrator isn't that you never fail. Failing is just part of the job description, since everything around you is in a constant state of potential failure. What separates the good guys from the bad guys is that when things do inevitably break, the good guys know about it before anyone else and have something they can immediately switch over to. They have fail-over strategies. They think two steps ahead. The bad guys are the ones that don't hear about it until the users are sending them emails asking "Why can't I get my email" or "Our customers can't process transactions... do you know why?" and then throw their hands in the air and run around in circles and make everyone's life more difficult.

Show them that your primary concern is keeping the ship afloat, not necessarily making it cut through the waves faster.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:53 PM on January 30, 2007

So to answer your question more directly:

In your first eight hours, I would ask a shitload of annoying questions like:

What happens if this system goes down? Is there a fail-over system in place? Do network switches have identical hardware replacements ready to swap? How are administrators notified? Is the notification system automated? Does that system have a backup system to fail over to? What is the data retention policy? Where are backups stored? How often are snapshots of production data saved? Is any sensitive data being stored off-site? How about network security? Is there a policy with regards to open system ports? How much is being staved off at the firewall? Are end users going to be running Windows? Are their systems clean (virus scanners running on auto, daily snapshots of shared folders, no IE/Outlook Express, etc.)?

Keep in mind, when you say Network Engineer, that can mean a lot of things, and a lot of these questions are more suited for a Network Administrator; feel free to ignore the ones that are beyond your scope of responsibilities.

Bring a laptop if you have one. Bring a rescue CD, a rescue USB drive (Knoppix + a bunch of useful apps). Unless you're living in the stone age, you're almost always going to have access to a network of some kind, so the only books I'd bring along are reference materials for the systems you'll be using.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:05 PM on January 30, 2007

paulsc has it. Unless they have their heads up their collective fundament (which is possible, given how many really bad managers there are around), they're not bringing you in for a day to see how fast you can learn (or at least not primarily), they're bringing you in to see what kind of person you are, how well you work and play with others, if you'll fit in to the group.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:37 PM on January 30, 2007

Of course, your tech chops have to be good, too, but if they're not, you can't fake really fake that, in the same way you can't fake your personality.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:38 PM on January 30, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. This are great answers. Very helpful!
posted by nivekraz at 6:25 AM on January 31, 2007

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