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In the company I'm working for, we need to get system administrators. However, we are a programming development company and it turns out that we have no idea how to tell a good system administrator from a bad one*. We just needed someone to set up the server, plan the layout of the LAN cables and to set up policies on the security of the Wi-Fi.

We didn't realize that we have a problem with our hiring until we found out that the two administrators we hired didn't do the job properly. We found out we have problems two months later when:

  • we started getting static on the phone and we traced it to the cabling.
  • a visitor told us that the network security is ineffective and demonstrated this.
  • we have to replace the server they recommended since the old one was inefficient for our company.

Is there any standard way of recognizing a good system administrator?

Are there any interview tests that we can give to weed out the poorly skilled ones?

* You would think computer programmers would tell the good technical staff from the bad ones but programming and system administration are two different fields.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Here are some ways to recognise a good system administrator.

  • They are able to talk about previous systems they have administered in a way that makes sense to you, a technically-capable non-sysadmin. A good sysadmin needs to be able to communicate with other network users and see the big picture at the same time as being fully aware of all the details. If they can't explain in a structured and clear way what they did and why in a previous job, then they won't be able to explain to you their decision-making rationale when working for you. Basically, they should be able to talk all day about a specific system without ever losing their audience.

  • They are obsessed with avoiding single points of failure. At any point when they are describing a system they administer(ed), stop them and ask "What could have gone wrong with this part of the system and how did you mitigate that risk?" Their answer should be detailed and show that they had thought it through carefully already. They should also be enthusiastic about answering that question, because good sysadmins love thinking about ways to avoid catastrophic failure.

  • They have a healthy scepticism of the new, the cool and the untested. They are also hugely keen to trial new solutions and are always doing so. However, their standard toolbox is staid, safe and involves plenty of testing.

  • They can remember times their systems have failed and answer five whys without having to think. Every sysadmin has made mistakes that led to downtime; the good ones have thought about both technical and systemic reasons why it happened.

  • They document their systems with the same level of obsessiveness that a teenage diary writer documents her crushes. If possible, ask to look at their documentation for previous systems they have administered.

  • I've no idea how to test this at interview, but they are calm in a crisis. Perhaps you could wait till they visit the lavatory, then jam the door and set off the fire alarm.

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Adam para "el win"! Best answer, in my opinion, at it addresses how to recognize a good sysadmin. –  username May 15 '09 at 7:28
3  
I can find very little fault with any of this, except for the the second last point: any sysadmin who would be willing to share documentation from a previous job is someone who may very well share documentation about your environment in the future. By necessity, a business places a great deal of trust in their systems administration staff, and while I agree it's a good question, I think it's good for a completely different reason. –  esm May 15 '09 at 13:53
    
Agreed, esm, and that's why I added the proviso 'if possible'. There are situations (educational insitutions, for instance) where documentation about the set-up is not regarded as confidential. –  Adam May 15 '09 at 14:14
    
And they never ever lie to your face. Anybody ever heard this one? "I don't know. Try it now." –  Bob Cross May 15 '09 at 19:53

It's hard for programmers to recognize good programmers; e.g. it takes companies like Microsoft and Google a day's worth of interviews to satisfy themselves, even after initial screening. Similarly, it's hard for system administrators to recognize good system administrators.

On that basis, I claim that it's extremely hard for programmers to recognize good system administrators.

That doesn't mean you should give up, however. But why not enlist the help of a system administrator to help you in the interviews?

It may sound like this creates a circular dependency (because how do you know who to ask to help you?), but I think it should be relatively easy to find a friendly sysadmin from among your professional contacts who might be willing to help out with something like this. You probably wouldn't want them to make the choice for you, but they should be able to give an informed assessment of their technical and other relevant abilities.

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Characteristics that I look for in a System Administrator, although a bit *nix in nature

  • Obsessively organized
    • Lists of things to do
    • P-Touch labels everything
    • Everything has it's place and it upset if said thing is out of place
    • Very, very punctual
  • Minimal coding abilities
    • Can whip up a simple bash script (variables, if/then/else)
    • Can modify a complex bash script
    • Can compile httpd from source
  • Certifications
    • They mean more for System Administrators (than for us coders)
  • Attitudes towards programmers
    • Cautious, if not downright suspicious
    • Intrigued by new requirements, willing to negotiate
    • Will not give coders root, no matter what
  • Has strong opions about monitoring systems
    • Prefers something SNMP-based. (And it is not "What's Up? Gold")
    • Needs access from home and mobile phone/PDA/netbook/etc so the system can be monitored while on holiday
  • Comfortable with CLI, if not preferred over a GUI
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4  
I think I know what you are trying to say with "Minial coding abilities". But it does sound like a good system admin should only have minimal coding abilities. –  innaM May 15 '09 at 9:32
    
I would call that a good, universal list. Not *nix-centric at all. –  Kara Marfia May 15 '09 at 13:19
    
Agreed with Manni: I might rephrase that as "at least minimal coding abilities". Development skills are invaluable in a system administrator. –  esm May 15 '09 at 13:54
    
I think that requirements list would also lead to a Sys-Admin that definitely is going to burn out from time to time. Not saying its a bad list, just that I've seen people that obsessive break down. I'd also disagree with Manni on "a good system admin should only have minimal coding abilities." I've known quite a few good Sys-admins who came from development and were highly affective programmers. –  sparks May 15 '09 at 14:39
    
Duh! There you go. –  innaM May 17 '09 at 19:55

I consider myself a good system administrator, and one of the reasons I am now is because I have made all the mistakes you've listed. I won't ever make them again because I learned from every one of them.

If you want a good system administrator, find one that has already made all the mistakes and learned from them. If they don't like learning from their mistakes, they aren't good sysadmins. If they say they've never made a mistake, they are either lying or not a good sysadmin.

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A more effective question might be: how do you hire someone without possessing superior skills with which to evaluate them?

You can either groom an IT leader by getting someone with some business savvy to manage the department in the interim (one of my most successful mentors in this respect had zero IT background), or you can seek out someone with strong skills in managing an IT department (this will cost). If they're coming from a larger organization, they're going to tend to be more specialized, with big gaps in general knowledge.

In addition to the skills mentioned by others, you need someone who can:

  • Stand up to management in making IT calls they don't want to hear (was the cabling shoddy because they weren't allowed to bring in cabling professionals? was the server inadequate because the budget was too small and they didn't fight for what was necessary?)

  • Manage vendors, e.g knowledge of typical SLAs and expected stages (was the cabling shoddy because they didn't demand 100% testing, or do their own testing?) This is an underrated skill, and has a huge effect in terms of initial costs and lengthy contracts.

  • Unapologetically make unpopular decisions - and know when to dig in so that security and performance aren't compromised.

  • Ideally, enough diplomacy to pull all of the above off without alienating the rest of the company.

The ubergeek hermit is great for getting things done from a technological standpoint. But IT needs a leader, just like every other critical business function.

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I think it's just like any other field, you have to get someone who is deeply interested and deeply cares about what they do. You can ask questions like:

  • What sites, forums, blogs, etc do you enjoy reading to hear about the newest technologies
  • What is a recent technology that you've heard about that you'd like to get you're hands on and play with
  • What's one example of something neat or interesting or simpyl that you're proud of that you've been able to setup at a previous employer (or academic role) that's saved everyone time or frustration

You should be able to easily get good detailed respones to these questions.

These are just examples, but just like hiring a programmer, if you can't get the person to be adament about the technology or interests in the field, they won't be worth anything to you.

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