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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

69 Answers 69

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

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
  • 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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Do you perform system backups, and do test restores regularly?

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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

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

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

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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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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
  • 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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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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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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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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Is the current environment documented?

Are both the policies and procedures documented and consistent?

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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. –  Darth Satan 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

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

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

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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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

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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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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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

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. –  Mei Jun 8 '09 at 16:16

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.

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With great responsibility must come great power. –  TokenMacGuy May 30 '09 at 2:02

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

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

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The backup is finished after testing if recovering works?

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

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