The key hiring question

If I could ask one question in a hiring interview, it would be to prompt a real-world example of decision-making under pressure.

Esther Schindler asked recently, and this is a paraphrase because Twitter won’t show it to me today, what question you’d ask a candidate interviewing for a network administration job.

My idea was something like this: “Tell me about a time something broke, how you felt about it, how you tried to fix it, and what the result was.” You may recognize this as “behavioral interviewing,” which I learned a little bit about in my very first job after college.

Just between you and me, I’m not personally sure of how well this technique works to identify the best candidates or whether it gets a working relationship off to a good start. It’s not like I’ve done enough sustained interviewing and hiring to pick out a trend.

You totally want to read more about this, and you will, if you get onto my opt-in mailing list. You get a complete mailing about once a month, with articles and links and special offers that help you do your job, as well a quick note every week or so with something funny or interesting. Do you need more stress? No? Then this is for you.

But it makes sense to me. You ask a question like this because:

  • It forces the candidate to be specific. Instead of saying “I’m good under pressure,” she has to talk about what kind of pressure and what “good” meant in those circumstances.
  • Examples from real life are so much more compelling and detailed than things you might have done or think you might try.
  • It’s a reality check. As the link above states, “It is very difficult to make up behavioral stories.” Even if the candidate succeeds in snowing you on this account, at the very least she’s displayed some imagination and enough knowledge to simulate the claimed experience. Which is actually not a bad thing.
  • It especially gets at the candidate’s problem-solving ability, which is a high priority when hiring a network administrator. It’s the kind of job where adaptability trumps theory.
  • And have you ever known a really outstanding network admin who crumples under pressure? You want at least anecdotal proof of resilience.

So if I could ask a candidate just one question, that would be the one. How about you? What have been your favorite questions, from either side of the table? If a candidate, what questions do you wish you’ve been asked?

4 thoughts on “The key hiring question”

  1. A good question to ask in the same way is: “Tell me about how you handled a situation when something broke and the person on the other end of the line was angry and/or freaking out.”

    A good system admin has the technical skills/troubleshooting skills AND they can deal with users.


  2. Judy, I was having a conversation like this recently with The Least Jaded Person I Know. I realized that a large part of coping with freaked-out users and broken-down networks is knowing in your bones that it’s not about you. Universally applicable.

    Om shanti. Just saying.

  3. Another twist would be: “Tell me about a time your broke something major in production. Who was affected and what did you do to fix it? How did you communicate the root cause to your peers and your boss?”

    A different question would be: “Describe how you would approach making a major infrastructure change?” If they don’t mention a communication strategy, support a change management process, or suggest pre-testing, you might have a cowboy on your hands.

    1. e.l Posted on For one thing unless they’re psuhibled you mean writers’.Only you can decide when, as it needs to fit round you and your members’ schedules.

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