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Friday, October 28, 2011

Beware the "home network" interview question

A recent discussion on reddit regarding how to interview sysadmins got me thinking about some questions which were presented as examples. One person said that you should ask them about their home network. They indicated that a stock answer of "modem, router, client PCs" was boring, and that you should look for someone who really goes on and on about what they run. They further asserted that such an individual would "do cool [things] at work".

I'd call this unreliable at best. Here's why.

There are people who live for twiddling and fiddling with things. They just sit there and play with the knobs on all of the equipment they can get their hands on. If there's an adjustment, they mess with it. Even if there is no earthly reason to change that setting or even bother exposing it, they will spend loads of time doing it.

This is not what you want in an employee unless you are a fellow "fiddler" who is looking for birds of a feather in order to seem more "normal". The reason is simple: these people will blow inordinate amounts of time doing nothing productive while looking rather busy the whole time!

I once witnessed this before I really knew about this particular type of broken person. One of the "network engineers" I worked with took it upon himself to alter nearly every DHCP option he could find in the Windows NT DHCP server. I'm talking about the kind of stuff like "time to live" here.

My first indication that anything was wrong was that he pronounced it with a long "i" -- like "live TV". He also couldn't explain why he was changing it or what it did. It was just "time to live". At that point in my life I already knew what the IP TTL field did but I just bit my tongue because "he's the network engineer, so he must know better". Yeah, right.

I later found out that Windows 95 ignores nearly all of those DHCP options. Its IP stack is going to do whatever it wants with things like the initial TTL no matter what you try to tell it through those settings.

He was doing all of that to look busy and important, but a little research proved that he was just a twit.

To bring this topic back around full circle, I would recommend caution when assessing a candidate's description of a home network. Maybe you have some old-timer who just wants things to work and doesn't feel like recompiling kernels every day and a half.

Just because they don't want to suffer the woes of technology at home doesn't mean they're any less capable. They may even be better candidates than your average gearhead, since they know how to tame technology and use it without having it use them.