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Based on “Organizational issues” — sore spots of IT? I think it would be fair to say that system administrators need to determine if a place is worth working at. There is a similar well known test by Joel for programmers.

What are the 12 questions system administrators should ask at an interview in order to help them decide if it's a good place to work at?

Following Joel's rules:

  1. Questions should be platform and technology agnostic
  2. Questions should elicit a simple response such as yes or no

EDIT: Please post one question at a time so we can see what users are voting for.

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question - should we put each question in a separate answer so that we have a top 12 voted question/answers? –  Brian May 29 '09 at 17:11
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The Joel Test uses yes/no questions, so maybe we should stick to those types instead of "how" or "describe" questions. –  Doug Luxem May 30 '09 at 14:11
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True. But the questions can also be phrased in such a way that "any other answer other than x" would also suffice. Each organization does things differently, and while Joel has been nice enough to provide a template, it doesn't mean that /everyone/ will follow the same /kind/ of template. –  Avery Payne Jun 1 '09 at 17:04
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2. and 4. are very similar –  Nick Kavadias Jul 2 '10 at 5:38
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69 Answers

up vote 101 down vote accepted

Do you use an incident/ticket tracking system?

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And a corollary: does it support email and conversations? The system we use here would answer "yes" to your question, but is close to a net loss. Inevitably a report comes in, and helpdesk doesn't ask the right questions. So someone else goes in and does undocumented secondary information gathering, fixes the problem and makes no effort to document any of this. At least with a ad-hoc email thread, you wind up with a quoted conversation history. –  jldugger May 29 '09 at 18:35
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This can be good or bad really. Some ticket systems end up impeding almost all other work with help desks constantly escalating just to get the ticket out of their realm. –  sparks May 29 '09 at 18:36
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There is a difference between problems and incidents. One occurance is an incident. Once there is a pattern of incidents, it can become a problem. –  geoffc May 31 '09 at 2:54
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Do you perform system backups, and do test restores regularly?

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  • How many other people will be working along-side myself in day-to-day operations?

This affects your ability to perform in a very direct way. It also affects your ability to take an uninterrupted vacation...

  • Who is the first responder to problems?

This answer will vary, but it's a good indication of how the organization can actually "organize". Large setups should have a helpdesk and ticketing system; small setups should have at least the ticketing system, along with some kind of company-paid pager for help.

"Just you" is not an acceptable answer. This is a complete lack of organization, and should be followed up with a question of "How do you track requests from users?". This must be answered with something other than "you don't".

  • What is your ratio of existing systems to administrators?

This shouldn't be too high (above 50:1) or too low (below 5:1). Too high and your workload will be so severe you'll be treading water to stay afloat. Too low and you're either a one-person shop, or there are severe issues with the shop's ability to manage systems.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule; instances where 200+ systems can be imaged from a single source (think web head-ends), and instances where the business is very small (20 employees might only need 2 servers).

  • What is your ratio of end-users/customers to administrators?

This is a measure of expectation. These are your "customers". When there are issues, this will be the amount of "pressure" you will be under to resolve a situation. An organization of 5000 with just 2 admins can be a very, very stressful place if your systems are having trouble.

  • What is your ratio of end-users/customers to existing systems?

This is a measure of server workload. Very high ratios can be a sign of overutilization, or budgetary constraints that will tie your hands when it's time to expand. Underutilization can also be an issue when it's not called for (i.e. makes sense that HR has their own server, but a file server for only 5 "regular" users in an organization of 5,000 is a red flag); this might call for some "virtualization" to consolidate servers...

  • Is there an existing process for handling updates to existing systems, such as applying vendor patches or firmware updates?

This should be any other answer other than (a) "I don't know", or (b) "we don't update".

  • Say a server catches fire. In the event of a crisis or calamity, what timeframe is acceptable as downtime?

This should always be a reasonable question. If the interviewer gets bent out-of-shape at this question, then they don't understand the nature of your work, a vital clue about future prospects. If the expectation is 24/7 operation, that's fine - unless they don't have the infrastructure for it, which means you'll be babysitting machines a lot. Knowing what is and isn't acceptable helps to tip their cards to you about their true expectations.

  • Speaking of fire, do you have a fire suppression system in place for your equipment, and is it of the appropriate type?

Water sprinklers are not an acceptable answer. This does happen, and you will get organizations that think stuffing a rack into a broom closet with no ventilation and a fire sprinkler overhead is a great idea. If this is downplayed, ignored, or met with hostility, get up, thank the interviewer, and don't walk, run...

  • Describe your data backup process and the format of storage used.

This is another question that should be answered with anything other than "we don't" and "we don't have backup media".

  • Do you test your backups on a regular basis, and how often?

The follow-up to the above question. If you're not testing on a regular basis, you're just inviting trouble.

  • Is there a known budget and purchasing process for both capital outlays and minor purchases? Can you explain to me the process I would use to purchase something?

If the answer is "we (someone else) will buy it as we need it", that's a red flag. It means "we don't trust you to buy equipment when you really need it, so we'll have someone else do it instead". There should always be some kind of budget.

The process to purchase something should be easy enough to explain in less than 2 minutes. It should not involve more than 2 parties signing off (higher numbers indicate red tape), and it should have a turn-around measured in days or hours, not weeks (critical purchases will be held up if it's too long). There should always be some kind of process.

  • Do you have a plan to refresh and recycle old hardware, and how often does it occur?

I have actually seen companies running on 18-year-old minicomputers that are kept alive by support contracts and lots of spare parts from a support vendor. Of course, the original hardware vendor has long since departed...

Desktop units should never be refreshed faster than 3 years, or slower than 5. In businesses with tight budgets, stretching a desktop to 5 years is sometimes an appropriate answer.

The bit on recycling is a test to see if they have a "disposable" attitude towards old hardware. It's bad in the sense that you should properly dispose of it through a known recycler, but good in a sense that you can press-gang old hardware into temprorary duty should the need arise. It will also give you a sense of the size of their "boneyard" (the pile of old hardware that is kept around).

Related Questions:

How often does tech-refresh happen?

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Nice comprehensive response. The "refresh and recycle" is one that would be fun to ask of servers also; you don't want to be going into a shop where you're spending most of your time nursing ancient servers, do you? –  Jimmy Shelter May 31 '09 at 23:09
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Do you have a disaster recovery plan and does this include IT?

Follow-ups from the great comments: If so, does it include the entire organisation and not just IT? Does it include personnel and do you test it regularly?

Related Questions:

Disaster recovery plan development best practicies or resources?

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And are they aware that DR is not just an IT problem? A lot of places seriously think of DR in terms of IT alone, and don't have plans for their paper files. –  Jimmy Shelter May 29 '09 at 21:45
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The answer "yes, we are fully insured" is not a valid answer. –  Joseph May 31 '09 at 16:28
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Do you have a DR plan and does it include personnel? As in where will I be sitting if the building burns down... –  Jeffrey Hulten May 31 '09 at 21:54
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Do you test it regularly? –  romandas Aug 6 '09 at 20:40
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Is the current environment documented?

Are both the policies and procedures documented and consistent?

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Do internal accounting practices assess a value to the services IT provides to other departments, or is IT simply accounted as a cost center?

(This is very nearly the same question as Stick's "Is IT a priority in your organisation or is it a necessary evil?", but phrased so as to possibly elicit an honest answer instead of the blatantly telegraphed correct lie.)

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Yeah. I'm afraid you need the managementese to specify the precise question. Can't hack a Xeon in 68K machine language, can't hack a manager's brain in English. –  chaos May 29 '09 at 19:02
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One thing that I consider a must-have is a testing machine that has identical hardware specifications as the live server.

"How closely do your testing environments match Production?"

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In a similar vein, I'd say one of the questions should be "Do you have separate dev, stage, and production systems with a change control process?" –  gharper May 29 '09 at 17:06
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This should be part of the regular Joel test. I can't tell you how many times I've deployed to PROD, only to find a bug we didn't see because the Stress region is four times more powerful! –  tsilb Aug 7 '09 at 16:34
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I find it very interesting that many of the answers are worded "Do you have this?" or "are you doing this on a regular basis?" If I am going to be hired as a new sysadmin, I would expect to be able to implement these things if they were not already existing. Disaster Recovery and monitoring logs are not something that would make or break an interview. If they weren't doing these things, they will be after I was hired.

My main concern, as I mentioned earlier would be support from above. If I say we need to replace servers, I would like the benefit of the doubt. Or if I implement an annoying security policy, I don't want partners granting immunity to people who complain so they can look like nice caring bosses.

The system administrator is in a strange place in the hierarchy of corporate structure. Sometimes they are taking direction and setting their priorities based on the needs of the most entry-level personnel, and sometimes they are dictating policy to management. We are at the very bottom and the very top of the chain simultaneiously.

I am willing to play the part of the scapegoat and peon by being at the bottom, as long as management yields to my advice in those scenarios where I am at the top.

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"If they weren't doing these things, they will be after I was hired." If you have the skills to convince management that they should alter according to your needs, I'm impressed. –  tore- Aug 2 '10 at 13:31
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Do all new system/software/application purchases go through IT and does IT have the power to reject and suggest another system, perhaps one that is already in use at another department?

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...and software (or simply system) standardization ^^ –  Oskar Duveborn May 31 '09 at 16:38
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This is an interesting one, because it could be either negative or positive - an IT department that is more interested in IT department power than supporting the business can be quite a negative environment. –  Whisk Jun 1 '09 at 14:41
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True as well, I kinda rely in IT selecting the BEST system for the task - but I've seen way too many examples where three different offices (SAME department) tries to purchase different systems for say sales/customer support or electronic keys - just because there's a small price advantage from each respective local dealer... ...what they don't realize is the cost for centrally running and be responsible for all these different systems for the IT operations is humongous compared with actually running the same god damn system for everyone AND getting the synergy effects of people mastering it. –  Oskar Duveborn Jun 1 '09 at 17:29
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It's not about a power trip, it's about having a manageable hardware standard. This one is definitely not optional. –  Kara Marfia Jun 8 '09 at 13:48
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Are you willing to spend money for proper monitoring/logging tools?

-or, from the original Joel Test question:

Do you use the best tools money can buy?

Related Questions:

Server health monitoring software

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I would suggest not phrasing it as "willing to spend money" but put it as "Do you use (or promote the use of) proper monitoring logging tools" Since with monitoring some of the best ones are free. Nagios, MRTG, cacti, etc. –  Brian May 29 '09 at 17:20
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Maybe even something as simple as "Do you know if a server has had an outage?" –  Nick Kavadias May 29 '09 at 17:21
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Some of the best ones are not free at all though - depending on the environment being monitored... –  Oskar Duveborn May 29 '09 at 17:28
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I would leave it as "willing to spend money" as the "free" ones like nagios are usually alot more expensive than an out of the box solutions and instead of capitol spends admin time instead- which eqates to money (hopefully). "Commit resources to" might be mangement saying "we're certainly willing to commit your time to fix our monitoring problems as well as you being our sysadmin" –  Jim B May 29 '09 at 17:49
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O think the way Joel phrased this similar concept was "Do you use the best tools money can buy?" which suits me fine for almost any conceivable profession. –  TokenMacGuy May 30 '09 at 1:57
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May I speak with your previous sysadmin?

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Do you log on using the generic Administrator/root account?

It's always fun to throw a "no" answer in the middle of a bunch of "yeses".

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Does IT have it's own budget?

Mine does not and we are reliant on other departments funds for everything we need. Sucks big time.

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Do you store a copy of your backups off-site?

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May I have an allowance to continue my training and education and will you allow me to puchase materials to keep up to date on security issues?

Will you support my decisions to staff with regards to policies and procedures no matter how unpopular?

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Questions like these to an interviewer would suggest that you are not interested in contributing to a company, but only in what you can get out of it. They also act like red flags: the interviewer might wonder what kind of controversy you got into that would lead you to ask a question like the latter one. –  David Jun 8 '09 at 16:16
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I'd note that, for those of us that enjoy working for startups or early-stage companies, the answer for most of these may very well be "nope, but...". What follows that statement is often quite informative.

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  • Do you have configuration change control?
  • Do you have data recovery policies?
  • Do you perform daily backups?
  • Do you have an issues database?

Update

  • Do you have built-in redundancy?
  • Do you have the best hardware money can buy?
  • Can you setup a new laptop or desktop in one step?
  • Do you have a policy in place for patching on a regular basis?
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Is IT a priority in your organisation or is it a necessary evil?

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In most of companies, I think that IT is view as an expense and not as value. –  Luc M Jul 2 '10 at 0:53
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Where's the coffee machine?

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Do you use version control? What do you put under version control?

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Can your system administrators write code?

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Might be better stated as "do you administrators have allocated time to automate routine activities?" –  Richard Jun 4 '09 at 16:24
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Do you have centralized logging? Does anyone read them?

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Do you have response time policies/thresholds in place for critical systems? (or what's a better way to say, "Are you already familiar with the concept of what should and shouldn't get me out of bed at 3 a.m.?")

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Can you add new user(s) in one step?

Homage to: Can you make a build in one step?

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Am I the only system administrator? It can be fine to be the only system administrator - in fact it can be fun, but only if the business understands the implications which brings us to:

Do you have SLAs?

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If the answer to the first is "yes", the followup question is "who would fill in for me during vacation/illness?" - and then you want to meet that person before making a decision. If there isn't anybody, run for the hills. –  Kara Marfia May 29 '09 at 17:36
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Ask them if, when they say System Administrator, do they actually mean SA and DBA and Net Admin and Apache/IIS Admin and Email Admin and AD Admin and desktop troubleshooter.

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Do you use a configuration management system like Puppet or Chef?

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Can you tell which patches are missing for which systems at any given time?

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Do you use patch/change management ?

Do you perform monthly/yearly disaster recovery test ?

Is IT accountable and measured by system uptime and tickets ?

Do you use centralized ticket management for all IT departments ?

Can employees interrupt IT staff at their desks ?

Does your IT staff have input into creating solution for the business line or do they just follow directions from upper management ?

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Do you keep your critical hardware and software platforms licensed and under support, even when approaching end-of-life?

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If it's important enough to occupy space in the building, then its important enough to receive full vendor tech support. –  TokenMacGuy May 30 '09 at 1:58
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