Re: [Upside] Lessons in survival

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From: Strata Rose Chalup (
Date: Mon Jun 12 2000 - 18:57:05 PDT

This is sweet. I don't know who this "Stephen James" guy is, but he has
a great sense of humor or a total lack of experience in high-tech. Or
he is just trying to thin the ranks of potential competitors, by telling
just about everything they can do to avoid hiring experienced people who
real value to a company.

I like Linda's advice, though, and may add that to my interview

Obligatory Useful Bits:

These are all things I learned through trial and error, interviewing
folks over the years for junior, senior, and team lead sysadmin
positions. Some of these things might not hold water for non-technical
interviewing. They are in no particular order, just stream of
consciousness. (I really ought to be doing lots of other things, but

        a) Relax the candidate a bit. Especially important for technical
positions. Many folks who are very competent are better at typing than
talking, or don't deal with humans as well as with solving problems.
Warn him or her about any "tricks" you do in advance, which makes it
more understandable and more of a game than a challenge.
Example: "I just want to let you know that some of the questions I'll
be asking you have one right answer, some have multiple right answers,
and some are open problems in the field that may not have an answer at
all. I want to know how your mind works as much as what things you
already know, since a lot of this position involves dealing with things
that nobody really has working yet!"
        b) When interviewing someone, make sure you ask a combination of detail
questions and process questions. For some jobs, one is more important
than the
other, but generally you want both. Whichever they give you, accept it
and encouragingly, and promptly ask for the other one.
Example Question: "I sit you in front of a web browser and when you try
to load a page, you are getting a "host not found" error. Tell me the
kinds of things you'd look for to find out why that was happening."
Sample process answer: I'd check to see if the machine was set up to
resolve hostnames properly.
Sample detail answer: I'd check the /etc/resolv.conf file to see if it
was present. If it existed, I'd use nslookup to try some name
resolution by hand.
        c) Make up a list of questions beforehand, and use the same list for
every candidate you are interviewing for this particular position. It
will give you a much better set of points of comparison than if you
"wing it" with each person.
        d) Insist that other interviewers do a question list as well, and share
them with each other. Don't wait until the "decision meeting" to find
out that several folks asked questions about the same area of expertise,
and no one asked about other issues.
        e) Take notes during the interview. Mention to the candidate that you
do this for all candidates, so that he or she won't think you are taking
unfavorable notes.
        f) Bring your notes to the "decision meeting". Duh, but you'd be
surprised how many people come empty-handed and then can't remember when
they're asked if Candidate A or Candidate B seemed to know more about
some subject.
        g) Line up meetings before the interviews, meet and talk about exactly
what you are looking for as a group (you & mgr, you & team, whatever).
Decide what is more important, existing knowledge or easy learning,
etc. Talk about what constitutes team fit here.
        h) Bring person's resume to interview, as well as to meetings. Duh, as
        i) Ask "what's the thing you're proudest of that you've pulled off" and
"what situation has happened that you wish you'd handled differently,
and how would you have handled it instead" questions.
        j) Make sure the person can draw & understand technical diagrams! They
don't have to use VISIO, but make sure they can look at something on a
whiteboard and understand it.
        k) If you're looking for a coder, at least ask to design a program
right there in the office; do it in pseudo-code, but just do it.
        l) Line up timeslots for consecutive interviewing with your team before
the HR person calls the first candidate! People are hard to get ahold
of, your people and the prospective candidates. You don't want to lose
someone good just because one of your key teammates is on vacation, or
is swamped and can't meet with the candidate.
        m) Be up front but not discouraging about any limitations of the job--
on-call pager, tight deadline coming up, etc. People nowadays will walk
unashamedly after a few weeks of a bad job fit, so you want to prevent
that if you can. Don't scare folks away, but be up-front about it.
Make it clear that what you are talking about is the truth, NOT the tip
of some evil iceberg. If you can't do this well, have the hiring
manager do it, since he/she is usually expected to be "the heavy" in the
interview process anyway.
        n) Make it clear that you are interested in the person's total
contribution to the team, both technical and team fit/social. Yes, you
want the skills, but let's face it, most people who are truly competent
already can write their own tickets. It's up to you to show them why
they want to work with you and your fellow interviewers. I'm not
talking bribes or happy hour fridays, just making it clear in the
interview process that you and the candidate will BOTH be able to learn
a lot from working together. If not, what's the point?
        o) Ask the person what kind of status and reporting practices they have
used in the past, and about their preferences. If you are a "weekly
status meeting plus drop a note in email to the group when you do
something big" you are not going to be a great fit for someone used to
getting a set of specs and coding in the dark for a month, or vice
versa. Let them ask you the same-- a seasoned candidate usually will,

OK, I really have to scoot. Hey, thanks for starting this thread. I
think I just wrote most of an article I really, really owe somebody
while replying to this. :-) I'll be back to read the rest of the
replies later tonight!


Linda wrote:
> [Some tips for those currently hiring for their start-up company ;)
> As an aside, I've conducted hundreds of interviews since I've done the majority of
> hiring for our medical center. At the end I usually like to ask if there is
> anything he/she would like to add which might influence my decision in any way.
> The most memorable response to date: "Well, I'm presently in the process of
> suing my last employer..."
> --Linda]
> Lessons in survival
> June 08, 2000
> by Stephen James
> [...lots of bad advice, IMHO _Strata]

Strata Rose Chalup [KF6NBZ]            
VirtualNet Consulting                  
SAGE Level III/IV Unix Admin, commercial-scale Internet services

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