Interviewing 99 for SysAdmins

Back at the University of Georgia, we had the 101 classes, which were introductions to a topic. We also had the 99 classes, which usually meant you weren’t supposed to get into school, but squeaked by, but that you actually needed to do this to stay there. I have no business telling others how to conduct themselves during a job interview, given that it’s been a long time since I interviewed anywhere myself. But I’m going to anyway, since I interview plenty of people as a part of my job. I’m just going to teach the 99 class though, since I have no business teaching anything higher…

My post from yesterday involved tips on resumes. But what happens when you get the interview and you go in for the first time to meet your potential employer? I have a few tips, just some basic rules I like. Others are sure to have their likes and dislikes, but whatever on that, I’m the one teaching Interviewing 99 for SysAdmins, so I get to express my own opinions:

  1. Shower. I might not shower, but you should. If you’re not sure whether you should shower, the answer is always yes.
  2. Dress for the part. Don’t show up in a tuxedo. Don’t show up in shorts. There’s a happy medium. Know your audience and dress just a tad up from them. But, even if they wear less, don’t wear shorts. Wear pants. Or a skirt. If you’re a guy and you wear a skirt, I don’t care – just don’t wear shorts. Don’t wear a shirt that shows me your armpits. Doesn’t matter what sex you are, I don’t need to see shoulders or unshaven pits. Or shaven pits… Also, don’t show me that tramp stamp that’s still a little red around the edges. Seriously, I don’t care; just don’t show me more than is appropriate in an interview. It’s an etiquette thing… You can never dress too nice. Unless you show up in a tuxedo. Then I assume you’re an ironic hipster and I think you should move to Portland. Unless I’m hiring in Portland. Then I think maybe you can show up in a tuxedo. But not shorts. If you show up in a tuxedo with shorts, then there is a high probability that things will be thrown at you…
  3. Be about 5 minutes early. If you’re more early than that I feel guilty (see, I told you guys who thought I was pure evil that I was in fact, human). If you’re more than 5 minutes late then I assume you’ll be late to work every single day of your employment, which annoys me mostly because if I’m usually late then I can only assume you’re always late since I’m not there to see you.
  4. If you are going to be late, call. I am pretty sure that everyone has a cell phone. If you don’t have a cell phone then I am going to be worried that you won’t carry one at work either (and in some professions you really need to carry one). If you do have a cell phone and you don’t call then I’ll assume you haven’t figured out how to get Siri to call. If I figure you can’t figure out how to use Siri then I’m going to figure on being very concerned about you in more ways than just being late.
  5. If you don’t call and you’re more than half an hour late, make up a really awesome excuse and bring proof. Broken bones are awesome (hopefully I won’t get a nastygram from an HR attorney about that last sentence). If you pull a Ben Roethlisberger and snap your nose back into its socket and run back in the game, I honestly don’t care if you pulled a fight club downstairs to get your nose in that shape, I’m sold.
  6. Bring a copy of your resume. On paper… I know, it’s a digital world. I know, you’re interviewing to be a systems administrator, not a paper maker or a typist. I’m not going to ask for it. But someone will (I know plenty of people who always ask during an interview, just to make sure).
  7. You don’t live in a fraternity house any more. Or at least I hope not. Don’t tell me about the bar you were drinking at last night, that finally kicked you out at 10am when the interview is at 10:30. Also, don’t tell me about how you threw up in the bathroom at the bar. Both of these are bad ideas. If I saw you throw up in the bathroom at the bar, still, don’t mention it. If you saw me throw up at the bar, definitely don’t mention it. This should go without saying, but don’t mention that you bought an 8 ball off someone in the bar either. Nor that you smoked a big fatty on the way to the interview to come down off the 8 ball, which you somehow managed to demolish in just under a couple of hours. Any time discussing drinking is off the table, discussion of illegal substances is as well – even if it’s basically legal in California anyway…
  8. Stay on point. I ask you questions, you ask me questions, we keep it professional and that’s that. A few minutes of pleasantries up front are fine, but if you can keep things on track in an interview then I’ll assume you can do so on the job as well.
  9. Don’t lie to me. If I figure it out, I’ll wrap things up and say goodbye and that’s that. If I don’t figure it out and I hire you and then I figure it out, I will despise you for it. And I have been known to carry grudges.
  10. I ask technical questions. It is fine not to know something, but if you don’t, let me know how you would figure it out. Actually, let’s refine that a bit. It’s better to say, “I’m not sure how to do that in RHEL but I can tell you how I’d do it in Mac OS X and I am guessing I could Google for the differences between the two.” When you ask a politician a question and they answer a completely different question, it bugs people. But it doesn’t have to. If you asked Mitt Romney some religious question and he said “that doesn’t matter. But since I’m not going to talk about something that doesn’t matter, let me tell you what does” then people might like him better. Actually, they probably wouldn’t. But that’s another post…
  11. Be yourself. If you’re nervous, I don’t assume you’ll always be nervous. If you’re a little weird, I will probably actually like you more. If you don’t answer every question perfectly I’ll know you don’t dream of electric sheep. I enjoy interviewing and I almost always get people to warm up by the end.
  12. Turn off your phone. Or at least the ringer. Airplane mode is probably best. Unless it’s a phone interview. Then Airplane mode might not be the best idea. This goes doubly if you have any John Tesh ringtones!
  13. Mind the gatekeeper. The person who schedules, coordinates, lets you in the door, shows you to the office, brings water or whatever they do in whatever organization, these are the gatekeepers. Chances are, they’re not just scheduling interviews but an integral part of the workflow of the interviewer. Keep that in mind when you are about to snark at them and think twice about doing so. It’s like if I’m Matthew Stafford and I throw a 40 yard TD. In the press conference I’m gonna’ say it’s all about the line. Or Johnson, or whatever. They are more important than I am. Not that I’m anything like Stafford. Well, we did both go to Georgia. But other than that, nothing like him… But really, the gatekeeper is critical and if there’s someone that doesn’t work well with them, they’re likely not going to be on the team (e.g. Albert Haynesworth w/ the Patriots). Seriously, this is one of the few deal breakers for me. If you show up drunk and high, with John Tesh blaring on your iPhone, about 2 hours late and you’re wearing shorts with a special cutout in the back so we can see the entire tramp stamp you’re rocking you have a higher chance of getting hired than if you piss off the people that coordinate the interview. I’m not saying to bring them chocolates, but be nice to them.
  14. Have fun with it. Don’t go overboard, but smile. People like it when you smile. Unless you look evil when you smile (then do it anyways). If people usually get frightened when you smile, still do it. I used to want to punch my band teacher when he said smile when we were out marching in 100+ degree weather during a hot, humid Georgia day. But it makes everyone around you feel better, which is nice during a job interview.
  15. Don’t talk about religion or politics. This could be included under number 8, but it’s not. Remember that we live in a country split almost down the middle on these topics. If you talk about them during an interview you’re going to be screwing up about half the time. Funny enough, I don’t really care either way. I disagree with practically everyone on most topics when it comes to these two, but am always interested in hearing their position. Just not during a job interview…
  16. Do tell me why you want the job. This is a rarely asked question, but a very powerful one. Why do you want the job? If the interviewer doesn’t ask it then while it isn’t staying on point, answer it at some point during the interview. Assuming of course that you want the job. Just to throw this out there, the correct answer is not “I want money.”
  17. Do tell the interviewer what differentiates you from other candidates. Unless you know them. Don’t tell me that one of them was getting high on the drive in for the interview (if you do I will assume you were with them). Instead, what about you makes you the right fit for the gig. Again, even if you aren’t asked, this is great to put at the end of an answer to one of the interview questions. If it happens to be another question down the line then you’ve teed up the things you forgot to mention already (and hindsight is always 20-20).
  18. Don’t discuss sexual orientation, age, race or anything else that could remotely be considered discriminatory. I really don’t care about any of it. Actually, I might care if you discuss it. But I don’t care otherwise. You may think everyone cares a little, but I really don’t. I only care about your sysadmin orientation.
  19. Do ask questions. If you don’t look nervous and you have no questions to ask then I might think you don’t care. If you’re apathetic during an interview I can only imagine what an engaged employee you would be. The interviewer needs to find out if you’re going to be good at the job, but you need to find out if you’re going to like the job. If you don’t like what you are doing then chances are that you won’t be great at it. Try and keep the questions relevant. About the job. Not about whether I like my jagermeister warm or chilled…
  20. Do compliment yourself, don’t compliment me. An interview is about me learning about you and you learning about me. Tell me what makes you great. If you tell me you like my shirt (which has never happened during an interview, btw) then I will spend at least a minute in my head thinking “did this person say that so I would like them or is this shirt awesome? I mean, it is new, but my wife wasn’t too hot on it and I think it does make me look a little…” I know, I’m slow. But point is that staying on point is about eliminating those distractions. You need to learn if you’d like the job, for sure; but the interviewer needs to learn if they like you. I’m not saying to throw all humility to the wind though… Also feel free to mention what motivates you.
  21. And one from @rtrouton – bring documentation and/or code samples. I love this one. I had a guy bring a 3 ring binder one time with about 300 pages of stuff. It was a bit much, but impressive in its own right. I’m also happy with a page with some code samples. One of the few semi-social things that I think is valid to share is a github account. Great addition, Rich!
I am just one of many, many people that interview techs. I have the things I like, they have the things they like. I’d take what I say with a grain of salt (most do). There are tons of interviewing tips everywhere you look. You are you, be yourself. But at the same time, think about the lowest common denominator of what you hear about interviewing as those who interview may have a button that you don’t want to accidentally push. Take everything you hear, throw it in a blender and pull out something that works for you, in your industry, with your goals in mind. I’ve had great luck interviewing people. I am thoroughly impressed by many of the people I interview and I really wish I could hire almost all of them. When you apply for a job, feel free to stay in touch with the hiring manager. If they are like me and wish they could have hired someone then they may have you back in again!

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