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7 questions to ask an employer before taking a sysadmin job

I learned a lot about "The Interview" during my first career transition. Hopefully, you will find some of these takeaways helpful.
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Where you work and what you do is one of the most significant decisions that you will make in your lifetime. This decision will impact almost every facet of your daily life. It directly correlates to the resources you have, how you spend your time, and your general disposition. These decisions cannot be taken lightly and must be weighed out carefully. Much like a game of chess, you want to have good strategies to make the right move in order to succeed. During my transition from the military, I had a very eye-opening experience, and it is one that I want to be able to share with other young professionals; however, these experiences can benefit everyone if applied. Here are some of the most important things to learn about a position when exploring new career options.

How much does it pay? 

Let's get the obvious one out of the way. What does the compensation package look like? I am sure that I will catch some backlash for having this as a first question, but I find myself more and more frustrated with the way that companies and recruiters handle this piece of the equation. People always say that money shouldn't be your first concern, but I disagree. Let's talk facts: People go to work to make money. Period. Even people who love what they do would probably retire tomorrow if they hit the lottery.

The only thing more valuable than money is time, and working a job eats up a lot of this precious resource. So, to feel good about the time you spend doing a job, you want to be compensated appropriately. My point here is this: Either the money works for you or it doesn't. If it doesn't work, find out first and spend time looking into other positions that meet your needs. There is a caveat to this, though. If you are junior and looking for your first job out of school, or are brand new to the field, consider taking a position that gives you great experience. Even if there are things you don't like about a particular company, you can always look for a new position while having the security of a paycheck and building out your portfolio. 

What is a typical day in the position? 

This is a general question that most people ask; however, I think it is an important one for system administrators specifically. This is where you find out the general workflow for the day. What systems will you be responsible for? How large is the environment? How is my time distributed between meetings and actual sysadmin work? What teams will I collaborate with? This discussion can also lead you into additional questions about the work schedule, such as normal working hours, on-call expectations, night and weekend work, and the like. These facts are essential things to understand about a position as they will determine how your time will be spent.

What does success look like at six months? One year? 

This question came in from a friend of mine, Monica Albuerne, over at TEKsystems here in Raleigh, N.C. She is an account manager, helping several large tech companies solve business challenges by connecting them with the right IT professionals. I loved this question for a couple of reasons. First, it is incredibly beneficial to set goals for yourself when starting a new position. Doing this allows you to work toward specific marks, which, in my experience, can help keep you focused. Second, doing this enables you to see exactly what the company's management team expects from you during your initial weeks or months in the new position. Clearly laid out expectations are a fantastic way to grow your confidence as a new employee, especially when you know that you are meeting or exceeding these goals quickly.

How does the company support professional growth? 

This is another crucial thing to note. Ask for a specific example, maybe something that the company has done in the past. The answer will give you an idea of whether or not the organization wants to help you succeed professionally, or if you are just there to fill a role. This answer is especially important for junior admins. Things like certification training and industry conferences can be a fantastic way to sharpen your skills and resume, as well as network for future opportunities. If a company offers these benefits to employees, do yourself a favor and take advantage.

What is the turnover rate? 

This question is near and dear to me. Let me explain why. My first position post-military was a fantastic one. I had good pay, flexible hours, and an excellent supporting team. So imagine my confusion when, by the end of my first year, half of the original group was gone. Only one had been fired, and for good reason, but everyone else was leaving voluntarily. I was a senior tech in 18 months. This was partly because I have an affinity for learning new technology, but it was also partially because those other techs were leaving for greener pastures.

The more time I spent there, the more I saw the issues they were facing. The local team was great, and to this day was one of the best groups of people that I have worked with. However, the upper management for that particular product was very disconnected from the daily work going on, and the expectations grew while the resources we had at our disposal continued to dwindle. This situation was a major red flag and was eventually a part of my decision to leave. My point here is this: If the team you are joining has no one with more than three years of experience, you should most likely avoid that position.

What are the best and worst parts of the job? 

This is a fun one to ask during an interview. You can see the tension shift in the room, and now you get to be out of the hot seat for a bit. I would pay close attention to the answers to this question, as they will give you a bit of insight into the pros and cons from the perspective of a long term employee. Keep in mind that no job or company is perfect, and there will always be things you dislike. Just weigh the good and the bad and see if the good comes out on top.

Where is the company headed in the next five to ten years? 

I like to save this question until the end of an interview process. It only pays to ask where the company is going if you have a grasp of where they currently are. This is usually just useful information to have, but in some instances, the answer can factor into your decision.

I like to check a company's stock history before the interview so that I know whether or not the company is on the rise or fall. If they have been trending up and right, they are most likely good to go. This is also an excellent time to find out about potential mergers. These can profoundly affect a companies culture, which is a massive influencer in your daily operations.

Bonus tip

If you feel that things are going well at the end of the interview, ask if you can take a quick tour of the workspace. Pay close attention to the things you see. Do people seem happy? Are they engaged and collaborating? Or is everyone crammed elbow to elbow on 18-inch monitors? This quick walkthrough can tell you a lot about a company's culture and should play into your decision. Remember, those people are you. Happy and engaged or worked into the ground—this is what you are signing up for. Trust what you see.

Wrapping up

These questions are just some of the things that I took note of during my career transition, and I hope that you find wisdom here. The stress of leaving one position for another can weigh heavily on your mind, and you should do anything you can to make the most informed decision possible.

What are some of your favorite questions for a potential employer? What lessons have you learned that you could share with future applicants? Let us know by contacting us at enable-sysadmin@redhat.com.

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Topics:   Career  
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Tyler Carrigan

Tyler is a 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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