Thanksgiving Top Ten: MSP Interview Questions
Have you ever bought a big turkey, cooked it, and then noticed that it shrunk in the oven? That’s a lot like the experience of hiring a new employee. How many times have you ever hired someone that oversold themselves in an interview? Perhaps they sounded amazingly qualified on paper yet, in practice, proved to be a less than stellar employee. When you’re a smaller business, you need people that you can rely on. People that aren’t going to bog your company down. People that are… well… competent. The kind of employees you would be thankful for.
Résumés are great places to start; however, they are frequently falsified, and some estimates say that up to 40% of all resumes contain false or misleading information. While it can be incredibly useful to know the work history of a potential employee, the information they provide can be limited, biased, or may not reflect the person so much as their previous employer or the job market as a whole.
To offset that lack of insight, I’ve developed something to help smooth out the hiring process. Here is a list of the top ten interview questions and challenges you can pose to an interviewee at your technologically inclined business. Whether you’re an MSP, SMB, or even a rural IT shop, these questions will help you come out on top of the hiring process. Then, the next time you’re giving thanks, you can be thankful for the high-quality people you have employed.
Number 1. Ask them about themselves.
This is an easy task. Ask them to tell you about anything about themselves. Depending on what they start with, you can see what things they think of the most. Some people start by talking about their education, others start with their families, and many more start with completely other topics. This will give you an idea about what they value, and often provides conversation topic which will allow you to get to know them better.
Number 2. Throw them off balance.
Now that they think they’ve begun the standard interview , it’s time to throw them off balance. Provide them with a computer and tell them to figure out why it won’t turn on. Depending on how capable they need to be with hardware the troubleshooting for this step can be made more or less complex.
If they’re not going to be doing any work with physical hardware, this could be as simple as disconnecting a cable, or providing a surge protector that doesn’t work.
If they are going to be providing hardware support, then you can get creative. Consider turning off the power supply, disconnecting some of the power cables, or even disconnecting the cable between the power button and the motherboard.
This lets you see how they approach a technical issue. Whether or not they complete the task isn’t too important, because their reaction to failure is also important. Watch and see if they ask for assistance or permission to perform certain steps. You can also have them document the steps they took, this will allow you to see what their attention to detail is like.
Number 3. Continue with the basics.
This next task is to see how they handle themselves with a standard software issue. Before the interview you will want to install a common piece of software on the system, like Java, and corrupt some of its files. After the system has been “repaired” by the previous step, tell the interviewee that the user of this system has been having problems running a program. Depending on how software capable you need them to be you could make finding the source of the error as easy as being displayed in an error pop-up, or as hard as having to look up the dependencies of that program and finding the problematic component. This way you can see how they handle break-fix software issues as they arise.
Number 4. Another abrupt change in direction.
Once they’ve sorted out the software issue, you’ll want to immediately ask them another technical question to make it seem time critical. The thing is, the question should actually require some consideration beforehand. Ask them something like “If you were walking by and saw a switch with an Ethernet cable unplugged, what would you do?” The immediacy of the question simulates how they would address these situations were they to encounter them on the job.
After they provide their answer, ask them to explain why they did what they did. If they plugged it back in, ask them whether they should have asked someone to ensure it wasn’t intentionally disconnected. If they didn’t, ask them why not and postulate that someone might have accidentally unplugged it. This tests their ability to assess risks and prioritize tasks. A basic understanding of risk assessment strategies is always valuable in an employee.
Number 5. Another hypothetical situation.
Now that you’ve seen how they respond to risks, see how they respond to not knowing something. Make up some fictional stop error code and ask them how they would fix it. This will allow you to see whether they have the initiative and ability to solve atypical problems without requiring guidance.
A good answer could be: I’d Google the error code and confirm what it means and how to resolve it. Another acceptable response could involve power cycling the system first to see if that helps.
Number 6. The logic test.
Now that you’ve given their mental drives the ability to spin up to speed, it’s time to see how capable they are at resolving logical conundrums. My favorite way of doing this is involves the use of deceptively simple brain-teasers.
You are given two pieces of string and a lighter. Each string burns at uneven rates as some sections are thicker or thinner than others; however, both strings will take 30 seconds to burn once lit. How can you use these strings to measure 45 seconds?
This isn’t a trick question, the task is actually quite feasible. You simply tie one end of one string to both ends of the other, then light the remaining untied end.
The thing about this question is, regardless of their answer, you can find out a lot about them. If they ask whether or not they have a watch or phone, then you may have someone who aims for practical, or easy solutions. If they contemplate it for some time then think of the right answer, then they’re good at problem solving through raw effort. If they take their time considering it and are unable to answer or answer incorrectly, then they may not be as good at problem solving, yet are still willing to put in the effort to try to resolve issues. If they immediately know the answer, then they either are extremely good at solving these sort of problems, or they may have heard that brain teaser before.
(And, as always, googling it is an acceptable answer.)
Number 7. The order of things.
Task the interviewee with making a paper airplane and writing down the steps they took to do so. Only supply them with a single piece of paper and a pencil. If they write down the steps on the paper and then fold them into a plane, then they’re the kind of person who plans ahead and follows it accordingly. If they fold the plane then write the steps on the plane, then they’re the kind of person who would act first and document later. If they fold the plane and write down the steps on it as they go, then they’re procedural. If they tear the paper in half, fold one half into a plane, and document their steps on the other, then you’ve got a creative problem solver. Depending on what you would need from an employee, these archetypes allow you to judge whether they would be a good fit for the role.
Number 8. Getting personal.
Now that you’ve gotten this far, your potential employee should be feeling pretty comfortable in their situation. That means it’s time to ask them some questions about their past. Ask them if they worked on any group projects in the past that went poorly. If they did, ask them how they responded to the situation. If they didn’t ask them how they would respond if it had happened.
This can tell you a lot about their professionalism and willingness to own a project. If everything was other people’s fault, ask how they dealt with the situation. If they accept the fault, ask what they would have done differently knowing what they know now. This gives you an idea of what working on a team with the interviewee would be like. If they’re willing to put in extra effort to compensate for the shortcomings of others, then you’ve got someone who’s reliable in negative situations. If they put the blame on others and deny ownership of the issue, then you’ve got someone who likely works better on their own. If teamwork is crucial to your business, then you may be better off with the person who puts in extra effort. If you would need the employee to work on their own most of the time, then both would be reasonable choices.
Number 9. Get inside their head.
Time for another hypothetical question. Ask them a question along the lines of: “How would you find out the number of pumpkin pies that exist in the state of Missouri?”
These sort of questions push the critical thinking skills of the interviewee, they also provide insight into what mindset they have towards these sort of questions.
Some people might start by considering the number of pumpkin pies sold over a period of time in the region, and work into finer details such as the average shelf life of a pie, and whether or not that region manufactures, imports, or exports a noteworthy number of pies.
Others may start with statistical information, multiplying the population by an approximated ratio of pies per person.
Some might even begin by attempting to define what constitutes a pie. Are those gas-station pastries actually pies, or are they just some other sort of baked good, and what about pizza, some people call them pizza pies. The way they approach the question and the time they take to formulate a response provide you some great insights into how they think, and how quickly they can improvise.
Number 10. The live fire test.
This one will take some planning. What you will need to do is set up a situation where they can show their ability to do the job they’re applying for. This could be as easy as leaving the interviewee briefly and having a receptionist or a nearby employee encounter an issue that the interviewee would be dealing with should they get the job.
Bear in mind that in many locations it’s not okay to have an interviewee try out for their job without pay; however, should they volunteer, there generally is no issue.
See if they attempt to help with the issue and, if they do, watch how they do it. Many people who work in IT do so because they legitimately enjoy helping people with these sort of issues. If you have one of those people, then make note of that when you’re deciding who to hire. If they don’t help, casually ask them why. Whether they help or don’t help is largely irrelevant, because both responses are completely legitimate and justifiable. They could as easily respect your IT staffs autonomy, as they could want to prove themselves. What is important though, is their attitude towards the whole process.
Finally, for those of you who read the entirety of this post, I’m going to make one final suggestion. Have some of the people that would be working with the new employee come in and meet him. If they get along, then you have nothing to worry about, but if any of the team has concerns then you should find out why! There’s strength in numbers, and 10 eyes are better than two.
Hopefully these questions will make your hiring process more effective than ever before. Then you can be thankful for all of your employees every day of the year.