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5 tips to ace a sysadmin interview

Systems administrators are sought-after positions, and in order to get there, you’ll need to bring a solid combination of technical know-how and interview skills. Here are some tips for aspiring sysadmins to wow their interviewers.
two african american women sitting at interview table.

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There is nothing more important to your job search than being able to perform well in interviews. Interviews have essentially become speed dating between companies and professionals, and you want to be able to put your best foot forward with the time that you have. You will need a mix of industry know-how and "people skills" if you want to jump to the top of the potential candidate list. Here are five tips to help get you started! 

Do your research

Studying the job description probably seems like a given; however, you might be surprised at the number of folks who will skip this portion or only skim through it. Do not be one of those people. Read and understand what is being asked of the applicant and be able to speak intelligently about each topic listed. At the very least, you will want it to be evident that you actually read the information provided.

Where I think many people really miss the mark is by not researching the actual company they are applying to. I'm not talking about their financial record (although this is important to note); I am talking about getting to know the culture. Gather as much information as you can about your prospective team and leaders. Check LinkedIn and Glassdoor for employee reviews.

You want to be as informed as possible for a couple of reasons. First, it allows you to make the best decision for yourself. You don't want to end up going through the wringer with a company that doesn't seem to value its employees or who are infamous for micromanagement. You're doing yourself a favor by digging into the information available to you. Secondly, it allows the interviewer to see a candidate that is capable of real preparation. This is a powerful optic for a candidate to take advantage of and can be vital to starting off an interview in the right way.

Be human

Now that you have prepared let's look at how to nail down the human aspect of the equation. To me, this piece is the most crucial to understand. The technical details will speak for themselves and usually represent a very binary set of outcomes. Either you know it, or you don't.

But it's also important for you to figure out the vibe of the team and the company, and where you might fit in. Studying the culture help you understand that, but don't try to change who you are to suit them; you always want to be your authentic self. I know that some people would encourage you to be an overly polished, suit-and-tie version of yourself. I say throw that out and the window and be you. A hiring manager sees a lot of candidates. Seeing a real person and not a rehearsed suit may be just the thing they need to make a decision. You don't want to end up at a company that is expecting an unrealistic version of you, and you certainly don't want that to be your fault. They will expect of you what you show them to expect.

Fake it until you make it is not a long term strategy for success

I am sure that we have all heard the phrase at some point, and maybe even tried it ourselves. While I am not here to sit on a high horse, I have to recommend that you not employ this tactic in your professional career. It is certainly possible to get into a career by pretending to know more than you do. Some people even get away with claiming false experiences. But trust me, you will eventually be found out and passed up by colleagues and peers with real knowledge and experience.

The first time I ever heard the phrase, it came from a senior sailor on my submarine. This is all fun and games until that person is in charge of diving the ship. An evolution that is inherently dangerous and, if not executed to perfection, can cause 100+ people not to resurface.

I know this is an extreme example, but it can be the death of companies too. Imagine that you have someone who successfully "fakes" their way into a position of leadership. That person is then tasked with enforcing a standard that they themselves could never meet. People are usually quick to sense these types of situations, and if this issue is not resolved, then the turnover rate will climb until you have no long-term talent left. The takeaway here is that its okay to say that you don't know something. In fact, it's a sign of an emotionally mature professional to admit when they have gaps in their knowledge. I can't speak to all managers; however, in my experience, being honest about the things I don't understand and having a plan to pursue that knowledge has brought me nothing but success. Think about it: how do we ever address problems or deficiencies if we pretend to be great at everything? Which brings me to the next tip.

[  Instead of faking it, why not invest in professional sysadmin training? ]

Be confident

Be confident in yourself and your preparation. Be precise in what you say when answering questions. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to take an intentional pause before answering a question. Think about what you want to say and say it well. This shows that you think before you speak and are capable of articulation under pressure. These are essential skills for system administrators to demonstrate to hiring managers. This will also give you time to ask yourself, "do I know enough about the subject of this question to answer intelligently, or should I admit to the knowledge gap and move along to the next topic?"

Just be sure to avoid going beyond confidence in the territory of arrogance. This is an entirely subjective shift, but in general, relax and take it easy while you are interviewing.

Know your stuff

The previous four tips will only get you so far. You need to be knowledgeable in your field in order to be an attractive candidate. If you can pair professional knowledge with being an authentic, confident, yet humble, hard-working person, then you'll be sure to catch the hiring manager's attention. Be smart, be kind, be intentional in every word you speak. Know the necessary technical stuff well, and have a plan to learn the stuff that you don't. Be passionate about the work, but also about learning new things. I know that this is a long list of stuff to work on, but interviewing is half art and half science. It takes practice and repetition. You may get the job you want; you may not. What you will get is sharper as a person and a professional. It may benefit you now, but it will definitely benefit you in the future.

These tips are just my opinion based on my own personality and experience. Some people have had success playing hardball. Others have faked their way into positions and have the tenure to prove it. My hope is that you can take some of my experience and create an authentic and healthy experience of your own!

[ One great way to know your stuff is with a Red Hat Learning Subscription. ]

Topics:   Career  
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Tyler Carrigan

Tyler is the Sr. Community Manager at Enable Sysadmin, a submarine veteran, and an all-round tech enthusiast! He was first introduced to Red Hat in 2012 by way of a Red Hat Enterprise Linux-based combat system inside the USS Georgia Missile Control Center. More about me

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