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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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  • 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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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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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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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...)

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In your experience, what has differentiated SysAds who were Great, versus ones that were merely "good" or "okay"?

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What sort of influence does the System Administrator position have over the direction, planning and purchasing of IT in the company?

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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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Would you consider yourself using the latest tehcnology available, if not, why?

The reason I would ask this is that if they use new technology all over the place, they may be willing to change fast and are willig to make changes often. Of course, this is a maybe.

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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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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".)

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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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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.

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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? :)

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  • does IT management exist solely to help the technical staff deliver?
  • are results rewarded?
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Where's your network map?

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

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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.

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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. ;)

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Will I have time and resources to work on projects to increase support, rather than merely implementing new systems, and fighting fires.

IMO, everything else is secondary to this one. If you've got time (and possibly money) to implement new support processes/software and the like, you can fix all of the "Do you have?" problems. If you've got them all, and you spend your life fighting fires, you'll still have a hellish time.

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Do you have a written definition for emergency?

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  • How scalable is the current architecture?
  • How responsive is the monitoring system?
  • Can sysadmins automate tasks by writing code?
  • How is managed the team's knowledge?
  • Is IT a strategic issue for the company's business?
  • Does current IT management/processes conform to best practices / ISO standards?
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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.

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How much do you pay? I will take care of rest.

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Exactly the wrong question. Pay varies according to experience, among other things, but you want to find out what the company is like, what their practices are, and how much buy-in you have from management. –  Kevin M Aug 7 '09 at 18:30
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  • 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?
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If the system administrator has a suggested infrastructure/process improvement, is there a way to get it heard by decision makers?

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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

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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
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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 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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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 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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