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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
I think that's probably the best way to work it. – Nick Kavadias May 29 '09 at 17:22
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
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
2. and 4. are very similar – Nick Kavadias Jul 2 '10 at 5:38

69 Answers 69

Do you measure service availability and are the required thresholds for each service agreed on from a management level?

Just some additional meat for this one - Q: how do you know you've improved anything if you don't measure it? A: You don't, so start measuring ^^ – Oskar Duveborn Jun 17 '09 at 7:35

How do you know when something that requires attention has happened?

  • Is there money allocated in the budget for training and/or attending conferences?

  • Will I be required to work on-call?

  • Do you use open source or proprietary software? Why or why not?

  • Why did the previous person in this position leave?

  • If I take a vacation will someone cover my responsibilities?

I don't see that the open source vs proprietary question matters. The important thing is "do you use the right software that does what you want, how you want?"; whether that be open source or not is irrelevant. – Le Comte du Merde-fou May 29 '09 at 22:24
I asked this question at my last job interview. For me, it was important how the interviewers answered the question...not necessarily that they used FOSS or not. It gave me an idea for how clued in the technical group was to issues surrounding the tools they used, or even allowed to use. Another reason I think it's a relevant question is that the answer often reflects the culture of an IT group. How flexible and open to new ideas are they? Do they encourage home-grown or off-the-shelf solutions, or a mix of the two? – dvoita May 29 '09 at 22:42
Yes, that makes more sense to me. The obvious correct answer would then be "depends on the software"; whereas a rigid dogmatic answer in support of either to the exclusion of the other would be a warning sign. – Le Comte du Merde-fou May 29 '09 at 23:07

Do I have the authority to disable a system account for a user who violates policy? This would tell you if they have a policy for computer use and who, if anyone, is responsible for enforcing the policy.


Do you have free coffee/tea?

I know this is not exactly technical not having some goodies is a strong hint for a environment where I probably don't want to work no matter how much rocket science they technically have.

My employer has three Starbucks on campus. Looking back, choosing between free crap coffee and Starbucks, I'll take the latter. We also have Seattle's best or some other house brew in the four cafeterias. – Luke has no name Jul 2 '10 at 0:33

Do you have a written definition for emergency?


Where's your network map?

(If they don't have one, this indicates many other things are not documented)


Do you know what to do when a disaster scenario happens ?


Do you have an inventory system for the infrastructure, and is it designed in such a way that it will be kept up-to-date?


What's the oldest system you're using that you rely on?

We've had that creaky old FreeBSD box from 2002 in the corner, but it's so vital to the day to day use of the organisation that no-one has risked updating it. As a result it's fallen more and more out of date. Which makes it more and more of a pain to do anything with,


Are the servers virtualized? If not, do you have a plan doing so?

I am OK with "No" to the first question but not if such a plan is non-existent.

Cheers, Kent

I can think of a couple of reasons not to virtualize servers. The second questions should rather by the reasoning not the implication that it's a bad desicision. – Server Horror Jun 8 '09 at 9:27
There are reasons where dedicated servers are appropriate, for example from a cost perspective, it could be cheaper to get more less power boxes than fewer more powerful boxes when the workload is easily distributed across many systems. – Mircea Chirea Oct 3 '10 at 17:42

Last question: Since you failed in one or more ways to be the ideal working environment with a ticketing system, config management, tested backup with offsite and bare iron restore, scheduled preventive maintenance, comfortable working arrangements and docile politics, how many of these things will I be authorized to fix?

After all, almost no organization will pass ALL these great questions. If they did, they wouldn't provide much of a challenge to a new SysAdmin.


Unless I've already decided that I'm not going to work there, I ask for a tour of the facilities, especially the server room.

If the chairs look like the $50 Staples special, and the keyboards are yellow with age (bonus points for looking like their older than the employee using it), then it's a "no". If the end-user computing equipment looks more than a couple years old, it could be a pass. (Ask about the hardware refresh cycle...)

If there are CRT monitors on the end-users' desks (some leniency for server-room consoles), especially if they're in obviously bad shape, it's probably a "no."

If the server room's racks are filled with white faceplates (or no racks!), you may want to pass. If there aren't more than two alike, it's probably a pass.

If you hear a modem fire up, it's probably a pass, too. Especially if it's more than once...

(Yep, these are all lessons from a single previous employer...)


Let's say I need a new keyboard on my workstation. What would it take for me to get one?

In my current job, the answer is: open a ticket in the crappy IT support system, get a quote from the person in charge of that buying, three days later when you receive it get the quote approved by my boss, wait a week for delivery, get yelled at for instead buying it myself with my own money in the mean time.


Do you have a map of your network? Is it up-to-date and kept in a revision control system?

  • Do you have a security policy for all systems (not just the "important" ones)?
  • Do you have an SLA defining, in case of a disaster, what recovery windows exist?
  • Do you have defined maintenance windows for your production (and possibly test) systems?
  • What is your on-call policy?

I don't want to flame or be outside of the rules, but when I am interviewing at a place I absolutely ask platform specific questions. Not only to judge whether my own skills will be relevant and used satisfactorily at the place but whether or not I fundamentally agree with their design decisions or am going to get stuck supporting a poorly designed platform.

I.e if someone is running their server farm on Windows I wouldn't want to work there. So "Do you guys predominantly run Windows?" Is a very valid question. For a windows admin the opposite question may be relevant. ;)


Ask to take a look at the place that will be your office. Look at the:

  • number of people and noise in the room
  • quality of the chairs
  • size and shape of the desks
  • size and number of the monitors
  • proper light and ventilation

This is not about comfort, it's about health. Health comes first, don't you think? :)


What are your policies regarding or how do you enforce documentation of IT systems? (This will have a direct impact on how quickly you get up to speed vs. time spent wallowing in an undocumented morass before you can begin to "make a difference".)


If the setup is a mess, will you have the authority to get in there and do something about it? This is very very important - if it's going to be your responsibility, they had better give you full authority. Even if the setup is perfect, and they provide all the right answers to every other question, if you don't have that authority you are better off not taking the job.

With great responsibility must come great power. – SingleNegationElimination May 30 '09 at 2:02
What do you mean by having the authority? Is root access enough? Do you mean that if the users are upset they can't get you in trouble for doing your job? Do you mean, "no one can veto me when I say we need to buy x and y to fix the problem"? – Clinton Blackmore May 30 '09 at 3:35

Do you (the owner) have long range plans? Let's say your vendor of choice is either: 1) Discontinuing or deemphasing or deprecating an important tool/OS/package you use 2) Revising an important tool/OS/package, even upwards (XP to 7, for example) 3) You don't care what your vendors do, it's all IT right?

What does your boss say?

Your prospective boss's answer will go a long way to determine what kind of future you may have or even if you (should) have a future with them.

(If you and the boss, OTOH, end up spending an hour talking strategy pros and cons and trading war stories, you may have found yourself a prize! Sign that contract! :) )

  • What compensation is offered for after-hours pager duty?

  • What does the career path for IT personnel look like here?

  • Are we restricted in any ways, as far as what tools we can use?

  • How would you say IT is viewed by senior management? Strategic business tool or unfortunately necessary overhead?

  • What is your change-management process?

  • What is your backup policy?

  • What's your unscheduled downtime look like so far, for the year? Is this more or less than usual?

  • Where would you say we needed the largest improvement?

  • Does the team trust each other?

  • Does the team engage in any team-building or after-hours activities?

  • Why did my predecessor leave?


Do systems administrators have quiet working conditions?


Do you have IDS (Intrusion Detection System)?


Is IT its own department, or is it under the direction of another department (and which one)?

I've seen too many companies where all major IT decisions (including infrastructure upgrades, internal security policies, etc.) must be approved by Marketing or Public Relations.


If the system administrator has a suggested infrastructure/process improvement, is there a way to get it heard by decision makers?


Do you have an "on call" support team?

Asking whether or not you will be living with a pager/phone/notification device. And whether or not you need to adjust your fermented beverage consumption schedule.


For a lot of these questions so far you have to take into consideration that the person you are asking needs to look like they know what the answer is - but in reality might not give you the real answer. Some examples:

Q: do you have change control?

A: yes, we use RT

Real answer: we have RT and only the previous administrator used it and and we haven't touched it in 3 months.

Q: do you have daily backups? A: yes, we use HP Data Protector.

Real answer: Since all our users storage is on a SAN and have snapshots we use previous versions to do day-to-day restores. We HOPE our daily backups actually run and if they miss something we'd never know until we start asking you where the backups are for superimportantfile.txt.

I think that the most important things you can do are:

  1. Ask to meet your peers/subordinates. Not in an interview room but can you go see where they work and spend some time seeing what the day-to-day is like.

  2. Ask what the company expects and provides for professional development.

  3. Ask the interview and the peers/subordinate how often the company updates/upgrades/introduces new technology. The differences in answers can be enlightening.


The backup is finished after testing if recovering works?


Is there an established and detailed SLA for the services the IT department provides?


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