Group Theory

Creating Technical Tests for IT Interviews

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I am back to work after my vacation to Colorado; except for the close to 16 hours of driving with a crying newborn baby, it was very relaxing and enjoyable. Being away from work can be stressful anticipating the many issues that can arise over a week, but I was pleased to see only a few tickets that needed my attention this morning. Let’s hope this day continues to stay calm!

Today, I wanted to share some thoughts on the hiring process for IT, focusing solely on the technical tests that are becoming more popular as of late. While reviewing one’s resume and asking questions can give you an excellent view of somebody’s experience and relative skill, a properly-built technical test can guarantee that the applicant has real-world knowledge, adequate problem-solving skills, as well as being able to work under pressure.

The technical test will differ depending on the job title, but the overall design will be relatively the same. More often than not, I see tests that merely try to prove how intelligent someone is by only asking questions which can be answered by memorizing your notes. Instead of asking cookie-cutter questions, opt for open-ended problems that test how the candidate logically works through issues. For example, how many balloons would fit in this room? While the question might not be entirely solvable, the applicant needs to be able to show you how they would get to the answer: consider all of the variables (what are they filled with, the average size of the balloon, size/temperature of the room, etc.) Instead of guessing, one could come up with the simple equation, estimating the room to be 10 x 10 x 10 and a fully-filled up balloon to 1 cubic foot, they would be able to fit about 1000 filled balloons. The amount of information and steps the applicant provides to find the answer should directly correlate to your interest in the individual.

Google is known for thought-inspiring questions, such as ‘why are manhole covers round? This question has several answers, ranging from round shapes are easier to manufacture, the best shape to resist the Earth’s compression, can be rolled instead of carried, easier to install, and prevents the cover from falling into the hole (round manhole openings have an inner lip which is smaller in diameter than the actual cover). Having made it through two phases of Google interviews and failing horribly on the third, I can attest to how difficult they can be, especially for jobs in IT. While these types of questions may seem to not relate to your job listing, you would be surprised at how often they are asked, as well being able to filter out the ‘book-smart only’ from the ‘find your own answer’ people.

Aside from asking brain-teasing questions, you will want to add some real-world problems they will face in their position. For a help-desk role, pull a couple of difficult tickets from your system and see how they react to them. Additionally, throw in some simple tickets to see how they process complicated vs. basic questions, all while applying the OSI model. Buzzwords and acronyms are also an excellent method to test somebody’s skill level; what is DNS? How is it used? How have you used it? What do you think can be improved with it? Remember not to be focused on the applicant knowing what DNS stands for, and instead, if they don’t remember, merely ask them to explain everything they know about it (remembering acronyms can be irritating, and knowing them, compared to knowing about them, doesn’t really do much for your career).

For a sysadmin role, focus on questions concerning group policies and the typical duties of a system administrator, but also throw in a few questions from their resume to help corroborate things they have already told you. For example, if the position doesn’t require any SQL skills, however, they have indicated that they are an expert at it on their resume, throw in a question that will show if they are actually being truthful or not. Those who lie on their resumes tend to only study or memorize material based on the listed job duties, and nothing else.

While many jobs in IT don’t rely on social skills, it is critical to know how applicants communicate with both coworkers and clients. Ask about their work and project history, as well as any hobbies they have. Being interested in their career outside of the workplace says a lot about their work ethic and future potential. My favorite question has to be, “what was the biggest screwup you have personally caused?” if the applicant states that they have not had one, move on to another individual. Everyone messes up; learning from your mistakes is what separates a good IT professional from the great.

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