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I have been working as a systems engineer in an source control management team for 3 years since graduating. I've had a few interviews (with some competitive bay area companies) in this time, mainly to test out the waters, for systems eng positions.

I felt I did well on the programming portions but bombed the systems engineering questions. They asked questions like "what is a 3 way handshake", "what's the difference between kill signals 9, 15 and what kill signal is the default?, "how do you find packet loss, and where it's located?, "how does a load balancer work?". I know zilch about these things!

Perhaps I should be using these skills at my current job, but I simply am not. Neither did I learn any of this this in college as I was not a CS major.

Assuming that these facts about my experience and knowledge are clearly communicated on my resume, so that the interviewing company had fair chance to understand my background, should I be concerned about these kinds of questions? The concerns is two-fold:

  1. I want to make sure a position is a good fit for me, matches my skill set, and offers me the chance to succeed. If the interviewer is asking some questions that are related to my background and many that are not, should I interpret this as a sign that the position is not right for me?

  2. Should I invest time trying to learn skills just because they seem prevalent in interview questions? I don't particularly want to have these skills nor use them in the job itself, but it seems that I can't even get a job without the skills if for no other reason than to succeed in the interview.

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    Those are system/network admin questions... Hmmm... – Lester Nubla Feb 14 '14 at 6:12
  • I made some edits to hopefully make the question more applicable to people in all lines of work, but I still left some of the software examples because they provide some context and make the point more clearly. – ely Feb 19 '14 at 15:50
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    It sounds as though you are a release engineer or source control manager, not a systems engineer or systems administrator - despite your official title. Make sure you're interviewing for the right positions and that your resume is not misleading people. – Telastyn Feb 19 '14 at 18:49
  • At my company systems engineering contains release engineering. But the point about systems eng. vs administration remains. – CareerQuestions Feb 20 '14 at 2:10
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    @CareerQuestions It sounds to me like your company is not representative of the rest of the world with regards to what constitutes systems engineering. At least everywhere I've seen, and everywhere I've been, systems administration and system engineering overlap very heavily, often to the point that "systems administrator" and "systems engineer" are treated somewhat synonymously, or in a hierarchical fashion. (Systems administrator often being just a "junior" systems engineer.) I have to agree with Telastyn that you might not be applying for the right positions. – HopelessN00b Feb 21 '14 at 7:44
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Reading subtext from interview questions

Companies are free to use whatever kinds of knowledge and skill filters they would like to asses people before hiring them. An investment bank could ask you to sing a Michael Jackson song in your interview if that's what they really felt would tell them what they needed to know about you. So on one hand, there's not much use in trying to read too much into it.

If you present yourself honestly and clearly state the limits of your experience and knowledge, then the company can evaluate whether you'll be a good fit. In your example, perhaps it is the case that the position required a lot of network programming expertise from the very first day on the job. In that case, the company needs to know if you can answer those sorts of questions on the spot. If not, then it's likely that neither you nor the company feel it is a good fit.

On the other hand, interviews are also about detecting limitations in an future employee. No one knows everything, so sometimes an interviewer will intentionally make the questions very hard, or will find increasingly obscure topics, until they finally find things that a candidate cannot answer. This is not an attempt to embarrass or criticize the candidate -- it's merely important to know the limitations of people you hire just the same as it is important to know the areas in which they excel.

As a result, sometimes you will get lots of questions that seem to come from nowhere and which you cannot answer very well. This may not always imply that the job requires you to know that material -- it might just be a way for the hiring manager to know exactly what role you could fit into on the team.

Given all of this, the best course of action is to ask questions yourself. If you speak with a recruiter or an HR contact about a job prior to a technical assessment, try to ask lots of questions about the responsibilities of the role. If you have very specific preferences about the kinds of work that you will or will not accept, just politely describe them. You'll save yourself a lot of time this way. Most technical interviewers will be happy to describe the technical needs for the position and help explain why the particular interview questions they have asked are useful.

Learn a skill just for an interview

This is more of an opinion-focused question. My advice: if it doesn't cost you much (time, money, stress) to learn a new skill, then do it. The fact that it is showing up in lots of interviews means that it is likely to be valuable. Don't pay too much attention to your very specific preferences for what you "desire" to learn. In the future, who knows whether you will have wanted that skill or not. And learning at least a little bit about it now could pay big dividends later.

Obviously you must make trade-offs. You can't learn every skill, some skills are costly to learn, some skills have more questionable value than others, and you have to budget your time for other activities besides skill acquisition. No one can tell you how to value the different choice options in that context, but my opinion is that you should err more on the side of learning as many skills as you can. And sometimes picking a skill that represents every thing you think you would hate doing for a job and then forcing yourself to become good at it -- that can be a very enlightening experience.

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I want to make sure a position is a good fit for me, matches my skill set, and offers me the chance to succeed. If the interviewer is asking some questions that are related to my background and many that are not, should I interpret this as a sign that the position is not right for me?

Given the other info here, I'd say you are applying for the wrong jobs. You aren't a real Systems Engineer so you should do a bit of research to find out what your title should be and use that.

Should I invest time trying to learn skills just because they seem prevalent in interview questions? I don't particularly want to have these skills nor use them in the job itself, but it seems that I can't even get a job without the skills if for no other reason than to succeed in the interview.

A big part of an interview is a test to determine your suitability for the job. If you don't have those skills, then that's not the job for you. If you acquire the skills only so that you can succeed in the interview, then you aren't going to like the job and your quality of life will suffer.

Which leads to the final answer: Figure out what your title should be and locate that line of work, everyone will be happier as a result.

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