How Can You Expect This?! (from K.D.)

I was interviewing candidates for a Unix system administrator position. One of the "broad" questions I tended to ask was purely intended to get insight into the candidate's problem-solving abilities, but also a way to see what tools and techniques they might suggest (rather than the old "here's a list of tools, have you ever used them?" type of questions, since invariably every candidate would insist they had used them all).

This particular candidate happened to be one of those where I was strongly leaning towards a "no" decision at the onset but continued with the interview just to maintain decorum, due to the way the interview started. When he came into my office, he stood in the center, sized up the room very carefully, then picked up the chair I had indicated and spent several minutes carefully placing it precisely in the center of the seating area. Precisely. This required perhaps half a dozen adjustments to its position, and several circuits of the chair to view it from all perspectives and ensure that it was placed correctly. Once he was satisfied, he sat down... and I opened my mouth to speak, then paused as I watched him go through the same sort of several-minute adjustment process to ensure that his pant legs were perfectly straight on his leg and that the crease down the middle was lined up exactly right down the center of each leg.

Okay, I thought, we've established that he's a bit OCD. But maybe that could be a good thing? I'll continue with the interview.

I explained the current team structure -- at the time we had a rather small team and far too many servers to support. This was about 12 years ago, and the mid-range server administration area had just been formed, and things were, to say the least, chaotic. The servers could be practically any flavor of hardware and manufacturer, various operating systems, various versions, and a myriad of different applications running on them, sometimes installed by users and then dumped upon us to keep them running. Generally, every administrator could be called upon to respond to a problem on any machine. I had explained that we had started documenting the purpose and configuration of every server on an internal document server, some initial stabs at naming standards, etc., but that largely it was a free-for-all when a problem call came in. I believe in being up-front about the environment a person is applying to join.

I explained all this, and then opened up with my "wide-open" question. "So, Frank, let's say you receive a call from a user in the marketing area, and he says that their mailing is not going out. Walk me through some things you might do with this call, to determine the nature of the problem, and what things you might check to resolve the problem."

There are clearly no right answers, but some of the answers which have been provided by candidates in the past ranged from elementary housekeeping things like getting contact information and asking the user specifics about the problem, referring to the documentation to determine which server supported the marketing department, all the way through the candidate assuming that they can identify the machine in question and moving right into problem resolution, handily dropping references to checking various system logs, pinging routers, checking mail configurations, DNS settings, etc.

Not Frank. He sat for two minutes in total frozen silence. Then he burst forth with "what server is this? I don't even have an account on the servers in your company! How can you expect me to log on if I don't even know where the server is and no one has given me any accounts yet? If I had an account, I could log on. But I can't. You haven't given me an account yet. I don't have an account. I know I don't have an account on that server. I don't know what server that is. How can I log on? How can you expect this?"

I tried to calm him down, tried to explain the concept of a hypothetical question, but he just grew more agitated... but the crease in his pants legs remained perfectly aligned with the middle of his leg the entire time.


We Just Say That (from Anthony R)

Back in 2004, I saw an advertisement for a PHP web developer. After calling and setting up an interview, I anxiously awaited the next Monday to come around so I could strut my stuff. You see, I did not have job interviews often, and for some reason this one just felt promising.

It was pretty difficult to find their offices. The company did not list an address on their website, so I called up the receptionist to figure out how to get there. However, she gave me bad directions. And when I say bad directions, I mean she sent me to another office of a similar name on the other side of town. Apparently, she didn't know their address either, and just looked it up in the Yellow Pages. Obviously, they didn't advertise in the Yellow Pages.

Fortunately, I gave myself plenty of time and managed to arrived right on time. The interview was going smoothly at first: they asked me about myself, my previous experience, and so forth.

But then everything turned around.

"Do you know ColdFusion?", one of the two men interviewing me asked. I could tell he expected me to say yes.

"Not really," I responded, "but I do have a general understanding of how it works. I'm sure I'd be able to pick up enough of it to get by. Do you convert from ColdFusion to PHP?"

One of them replied, "Oh, PHP? Oh yeah, from the job ad. Actually, we just say that to attract people; we only do ColdFusion here."

The rest of the interview was downhill from this point. Within a few days, I had forgotten about the opportunity altogether and ended up picking up a real PHP job a couple weeks later. Oddly enough, one of the interviewers called me two months later to see if I was still interested in the position. When I told him no, he quickly retored "oh, well, we found someone else for the position, anyway!" Um, good for them?

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