In a sysadmin job interview, I was asked to describe a time when I used my verbal or written communication skills in an effective way. I don't know how to approach this question. It's very open-ended and I don't understand what the interviewer was looking for. This shook me up, and I don't think I went very well.

In an interview, how could you describe a time when you communicated well?

  • 2
    Never let it shake you up if you don't know what the interviewer is looking for (sometimes we are looking to see if we can shake you up!). In reality you don't know what they are looking for on any question. Even technical ones. Sometimes they don't know the correct answer to a technical question and answering correctly will filter you out. All you can do is be yourself and answer to the best of your ability. Let them decide if you fit their needs or not.
    – HLGEM
    Feb 7, 2013 at 17:05

3 Answers 3

  • Have you ever written a long, explanatory email to clear up some confusion amongst your coworkers?
  • Have you ever had to explain technical concepts to non-technical people, like management or customers?
  • Have you ever needed clarification on something which prompted you to approach someone and have a discussion to clear things up so you could move forward?
  • Have you ever given a sysadmin-related presentation?
  • Have you ever had to write a specification for anything?
  • When someone who you support comes to you with a supposed problem, what kinds of questions do you ask them to determine what the REAL problem is?

You could have explained how you effectively used written or verbal communication to any of the above scenarios, and the interviewer would have likely gotten the information they were looking for. The important thing for you at this point is to learn from this and be prepared for these types of questions next time. This is a very common interview question, and there are others. Use the internet to research common interview questions and have an answer prepared for each one. This will make a world of difference in your next interview.

  • 3
    I have in all honesty used my ServerFault profile for exactly this question, and allows interviewers to look at what I've been writing. We all do more writing than we think we do. Writing documentation is an effective form of communication, so is explaining difficult concepts to a peer through email. Feb 7, 2013 at 21:39

Effective communication in a sysadmin context is about the usual things, but some areas are more important:

  • Communicating technical concepts to technical peers and non-technical staff.
  • Providing a pleasant desk-side manner in the case of troubleshooting (that may be the job of the helpdesk most days, but we get called out every so often anyway).
  • Ability to talk to both project-management and line-management in ways that are beneficial to both.
  • Able to write documentation that is useful to more than just the writer.

But your question was how to address this item in an interview. Personally, I've used my ServerFault profile and a few articles I've managed to get published to help address this very question. If you have anything like that out there on the Internet, even if it was just a casual forum somewhere where you went deeply technical and it helped, that kind of thing is valuable: it allows the Interviewer to see a sample of your work.

If you don't have enough of an online presence to field this question completely, keep in mind that we all do communication every day. And these days, most of it is recorded. If you've ever had to shepherd a very expensive project-proposal through a budget process, you've effectively communicated and can put that on a resume. If you've received praise on the quality of the documentation you produced, that's resume fodder as well.

When I'm looking for a sysadmin, the communication-skills I'm looking for are:

  • Not likely to turn into the snarly kind of sysadmin people don't like to talk to (an unapproachable sysadmin is foregoing the human layer of the monitoring framework).
  • Shows some proficiency with writing down technical concepts for later re-use (also known as "documentation").
  • Ability to explain highly technical concepts to less highly technical people.
  • If the position demands it, ability to explain why a potentially big change is a good idea and we should do it.

Some of this can be assessed by an interviewer through just watching the interviewee react to the whole process. Body language, word choices, who they pick to talk to, are all useful details. For the rest, I'd like to see examples if possible, but failing that I want stories. Stories of budget battles won. Stories of post-mortem sessions after a big failure of some kind. Stories of Big Problems being troubleshot through and how the interviewee handled status updates. Stories of unclued coworkers becoming clued through the interviewee's actions.

All of these are useful and highlight different facets of the communications skills I'm looking for. They're also, not surprisingly, the kind of stories we tell each other over beverages at conferences. Focus less on the technical issues and more on the communications aspects, and you'll have a good stock of answers for these questions.

  • 2
    Wow, OP was lucky enough to get a great answer straight from a fellow sysadmin!
    – Jefferson
    Feb 8, 2013 at 12:22

Jefferson has a good answer. Let me expand a bit on what I might be looking for if I asked such a question.

I might be looking to see if your preferred method of communication is similar to the organzational norm. There is no right or wrong here, but It might be an email kind of place or one where they prefer you to interact in person. I might want to see that you you use both verbal and written communications to solve a problem.

I might be using this as a way to find out your approach to problem solving.

I might be trying to see if you are dictatorial or tend to seek the inputs of others and then develop a policy.

I might be trying to see if you communicate at all with people outside your specialty.

I might be trying to see if you quantify and measure results. Even if I am not specifically looking for that, it would impress me if you talked about how only 10% of the work requests were coming through the help desk ticketing system and after discussing with people why that was happening and then fixing a problem with the ticketing system that made it hard to use and sending out better directions on how to use the ticketing system and then sending out reminders that no work would happen unless there was a ticket, that you now had 99% compliance. So know I would know that you not only solved the problem by using several modes of communication but that you measured your problem before and after the change to be able to tell that you had in fact made an improvement.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .