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The Linux Interview: Technical and Practical Questions and Preparation

Posted on July 7, 2014 by TerryCoxTerryCox

Congratulations! You are here because you landed an interview where Linux is either a key part or the entire focus of your prospective position. In this article, we are going to cover both practical (general interview) and technical topics that you can use to help you be prepared for that discussion.
Interview Checklist
We won’t spend a lot of time on general interview preparation, but it won’t hurt to go over a quick list of items to consider, bring or have prepared:

  • Notepad and Pen – this servers a couple of purposes. It will give you something to do with your hands (we all get nervous) and it will help you focus on the conversation, you can write down key points, items you have questions on or want to circle back to as well as things that you need to follow up on later
  • Dress Appropriately – many technical jobs have a more casual dress standard, however, you don’t have the job yet. Particularly if you have not asked, shirt, slacks and tie are minimum, a suit (male or female) preferred.
  • Research – do a little research on the company. There is a wealth of material available on most company websites, be sure to look them up. At the end of the interview when you are asked if you have any questions for them (standard end question), you can have one or two prepared that let them know you took the time to learn about what they do.
  • Be Early – sometimes it is not enough to be on time. Many times an interview will start with you needing to complete a formal application when you arrive. Get there 20 minutes early so you can get paperwork out of the way and start the conversation on time. Being respectful of their time is a key indicator of how you will be as an employee.

Practical Preparation
Most interviews will not jump right into the technical portion of the discussion. In fact, depending on who is conducting the interview, it may not get technical at all. The initial conversation you have will help set the tone of the interview. You want to seem at ease, confident in yourself as a person.
This part of the process will often include a general discussion about what the company does, what the role you are being considered is for, the company culture and atmosphere as well as some history. If you have done your research on the company before hand, this is an opportunity for you to ask pertinent questions. You may be asked questions like:

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Do you prefer to work independently or as part of a group?
  • Do you work well independently?
  • Keep in mind that every manager or interviewer has their own style during this part of the process. These questions serve a couple of purposes. They will allow the interviewer to gauge your communication skill and style as well as get some insight into your personality. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, they will give them a feel for how you think on your feet.
    There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions (or similarly styled questions you may get). Answer them thoughtfully and honestly. Make eye contact, lean forward and most importantly smile. This is the easy part of the conversation, be at ease with it and you will come off as confident and well spoken.
    Technical Questions or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Grilling”
    Make no mistake, this is the part of the interview that will make or break your opportunity. No matter how smart, experienced or talented you are, if you cannot effectively communicate that in practical examples, you will not be offered the position.
    There are no easy formulas or “top XX questions” I can give you for that job interview because it depends on the focus of the position. Let’s talk a bit more generally about different categories and what things you need to be able to talk about in each.
    General Administration
    This one is both the easiest and hardest position to really prepare yourself for since the questions can come from any angle on almost any topic. In general, depending on the level of seniority you are interviewing for, you need to be prepared to talk and answer technical questions about topics (with specific examples) in the following categories:

    • User Provisioning and Management
    • Server Provisioning and Setup – Physical and Virtual
    • Service Management – System Daemons and Third Party Products
    • OS Storage Configuration and Backup
    • Server, System and Build Automation
    • OS Network Configuration and Routing

    As you can see, the topics are wide and deep and these aren’t all of them. This is a tough position to prepare for and thankfully, there are fewer and fewer “general sysadmin” positions. Specialization in one thing or another is far more common as technology complexity grows.
    Support Engineering
    This position is a bit more focused on supporting the underlying OS from an application or website perspective, so we will tailor our preparation in the following categories:

    • Enterprise Monitoring and Alerting
    • Automation – OS and Application Deployment
    • Scripting
    • Core Operating System Structure (Knowing “what” is “where”)
    • Troubleshooting and Repair

    Keep in mind that the specific questions asked in any of these categories will largely depend on what utilities and technologies the interviewing company uses. As an example, if you are being interviewed for a position with a hosting company that provides hosting services for various websites, you may get specific questions about Nagios monitoring, Puppet or Chef automation, Bash Scripting and performance troubleshooting. Relax though, this is information you will have before you go into the interview. Both the job description and the initial phone call or email you get to talk about the interview should give you the basics of what they need and then you can decide how best to explain how your experience meets those needs.
    Final Thoughts
    As much as really technical people do not like to hear it sometimes, the interview is equal parts art and science. You are judged almost as much on your confidence and personality as well as your knowledge. Fortunately, unlike many other fields, there is a counterbalance in that our technical ability is not overshadowed completely by those traits.
    Take the boy scout motto of “be prepared” to heart. Do your research, do your homework (tailor your internal monologue to reflect your experience toward their expectations and needs) and you will be successful. Drop a note in the comments below and share your experiences for all our readers!


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Online Interviews
3 years ago

Thank you for the beautiful instructions and information, these all points should be look while going before an interview, know about the company gives good impression to the interviewer, its the sign of that you up-to-date, thank you.

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