Getting your first or second sysadmin job is as much about fit and emotional intelligence as it is about “hard” skills. Questions and answers relating to technical knowledge requirements are easily found online, but employers often desire subtler qualities. With job interviewing in general, hiring managers put a lot of emphasis on how well a candidate can tell a story, and that’s certainly true when it comes to systems administrators. John Peluso, senior vice president of product strategy at AvePoint, a software vendor and manufacturer, thinks that candidates must arrive at an interview with a clear idea of their skill-set, and an ability to talk about what they’ve accomplished in specific situations. An employer may not be interested in what you intend to do in a new role; they want to know what you’ve already accomplished, and how that experience could prove useful. To find out if a candidate is a good fit for a sysadmin role, Peluso digs for those stories at the start of the meeting. “Telling me how you would handle something is not as effective as telling me about the time you handled an issue or were directly involved in a situation and what happened during the event,” he said. “And knowing those stories and being able to tell them fluently is critical.” You can even use stories to illustrate your answers to generalized questions. For example, “What do you feel are your greatest qualities?” could offer a jumping-off point for a tale about how you smoothed your current employer’s transition to the cloud.
Many interviewers also like to ask open-ended questions. According to Trevor Simm, founder of OpalStaff and Talos Solutions, such queries are essential when assessing potential sysadmin recruits. Instead of saying, “Have you worked with [X] technology?” he might ask: “Tell me how you’ve worked with [X] technology.” That adjustment to open-ended questioning “allows us to see how a candidate has worked with specific tools,” Simm said, “and how they have worked within specific environments.”
Oftentimes, candidates stepping into a sysadmin role are leaving a more support-based position. Given how sysadmin jobs are largely administrative in nature, that sort of transition demands a mindset change. You now must anticipate problems, not just react to them. As Peluso stresses, employers aren’t hiring you for your previous job; they're hiring you for your next job. And sysadmins are proactive. “It's not a break-fix mentality,” he said. “You have to be able to illustrate to your interviewer that you can predict an event and manage it appropriately, as well as be on the lookout for signs of problems.” Simm believes that, in today’s market, most sysadmins must have experience with both Microsoft and open-source systems. “More and more clients are finding themselves in a heterogeneous environment,” he noted, “and candidates who have only touched one side of the house seem to be at a disadvantage in nearly every case.” Your agility with different systems will be partially tested via behavioral questions. Peluso wants to know if you’re really a technologist, or just someone who’s found a reasonable career path. He’ll ask candidates about their phones and how often they upgrade them, what gadgets they have at home and what kinds of software they use. Simm also probes candidates’ awareness of new technologies. Both Peluso and Simm ask questions about candidates’ favored work environments. If you prefer slow and steady and like to have the space and time to think, they’ll know you’re not a fit for sysadmin. “We’ve found that those who succeed,” Simm said, “are those who are willing to pivot at a moment’s notice, willing to embrace new technologies, and confident enough to be the ‘go to’ person when the inevitable system failure or outage occurs.” Ultimately, your future employer needs to know that you’re a systems person and not an endpoint person. Instead of proving your worth as someone who can jump in and put out the fire that’s already happening, you have to know what centralized policies and management can be put in place so that none of your endpoints are affected by impending flames.