I’ve wanted to kick off a series for a while now on technical interviewing. Let me begin with a story.

My first job interview for a full network engineering role was at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. I had been working for five years in IT, mostly doing desktop and end-user support. I then decided to get a master’s degree in telecommunications management, which didn’t help at all, followed by a CCNA certification, which got me the interview.

My first interview was with the man who would be my boss. Henry was a manager who had almost no technical knowledge about networking, but I didn’t know that at the time. “Do you know Foundry switches at all?” Henry asked.

“No.” I was already worried.

“I doubted you would. That’s ok because we want to replace them all with Cisco and you know Cisco.” He pulled out a network diagram and handed it to me. “If you look at this, do you see a problem?” he asked.

I had never worked on a network larger than a couple switches, and now I was staring at a convoluted diagram depicting the network of the largest newspaper in Northern California. I was looking at subnet masks, link speeds, and hostnames, trying to find something wrong.

“I’m not sure,” I had to reply meekly.

He pointed at the main core switch for the network. There was only one, with no redundancy.  “There’s a huge single point of failure,” he said. I felt stupid missing the forest for the trees.

Henry brought me upstairs to interview with Tom, who was an on-site project management contractor from Lucent. I was extremely nervous–Lucent (later Avaya) was a big name in the industry and this guy worked for them! Henry left me with Tom. Tom pulled out a copy of the same diagram Henry was showing me earlier.

“Do you notice anything wrong with this?” he asked.

“Wow, that’s a huge single point of failure,” I replied.

He nodded his head in approval. “That’s right–very good.” He asked me a technical question about supernetting. I answered nervously, although it quickly became clear I knew more than he did.

The door flew open and another guy named Vincent walked in. He was the desktop support contractor, but again I didn’t know that. “Ask Jeff a few technical questions,” Tom said.

“Question number one,” said Vincent. “If you were running a network this size, would you subnet it?”

Now the answer seemed obviously to be “yes”, but I was trying to figure out if this is a trick. “Yes,” I answered, deciding to play it safe.

“Good! Next question: Can you route NetBios?” My desktop years were almost exclusively dedicated to Macs and I didn’t even know what NetBios was. I figured it was a 50/50 shot, and the way he asked it seemed to suggest the answer.

“No,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“He’s good,” said Vincent.

Next, the door flew open again, and in walked Bing. Bing was carrying some sort of network device with her. She handed it to me. “Is this a switch or a hub?” she asked. There was no obvious labeling on it, and as I turned the device over and over again in my hands, I had a sinking feeling.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“Look at this,” Bing said. She pointed to a collision light. “Since there is one on each port, you can tell this is a switch.”

We don’t have collision lights on switches any more, but at the time we did and she had a valid point. Realizing this, I explained to her that a since a hub has a single collision domain, it would only have one collision light. I explained to her the concept of a collision domain, and how a switch worked versus a hub. It turns out she was a project manager for desktop support and she didn’t know any of that. Someone had just shown her the collision light thing and she thought it would be a good question.

“He’s good,” said Bing.

Tom had told me my next interview would be with a CCIE from Lucent. Now that was definitely intimidating. I knew of the reputation of CCIEs, and I didn’t expect to do well. The CCIE guy never showed up. As Tom was walking me to the elevator, however, we ran into him in the hallway. It turns out that Mike, who is still a friend of mine, and who later got three CCIE’s, had not passed the exam yet. We ended up talking about his home lab for a few minutes.

“He’s good,” said Mike. And a good thing too, as I’ve been in a couple of interviews with Mike and I’ve seen him grill people mercilessly.

I got a call with a job offer a few days later, and ended up working there five years.

For a while now I’ve had several posts in my drafts folder on the subject of technical interviewing. As you can see from the above story, interviews are often chaotic, disorganized, and conducted by unqualified people who have no plan. In the case of the San Francisco Chronicle, they made the right decision on me, and I don’t think anybody there would dispute that. I was thankful to begin my career in network engineering.

That said, I’ve had other interviews that didn’t go so well. Over the next few articles, I’d like to cover technical interviewing. Why do we interview people? How can we select good people from bad people? How worthwhile are the typical technical questions? Are gotchas worth throwing out “just to see how the candidate reacts”? Are interviews purely subjective or can we make them data-driven and objective?

I’ll throw out a few more anecdotes from my own experience to illustrate my points–feel free to comment with some of your own!