Jun. 10th, 2008

deborah: the Library of Congress cataloging numbers for children's literature, technology, and library science (Default)
Library Garden posted on The New IT Librarian Application.
Librarian in Black responded with How to Test Applicants' Tech Skills.
Caveat Lector responded with Testing Your Techies.

Full disclosure: Before I went to library school, I spent ten years as a systems administrator in large corporate environments, and I was damn good at it. I still run my own small ISP. So I'm speaking here as a librarian/archivist but also as a sysadmin.

Library Garden's post is misguided: "If the person's resume and cover letter meet your standards, TEXT their cell phone to set up an interview. Unorthodox? Perhaps, but part of the IT personality is embracing modern technology. Texting is one of the most popular means of communication with our younger population and, if we want to stay current with our patrons, then we need make sure our IT people are familiar with it as well."

This is maybe good advice if you are trying to hire a Library 2.0 guru, but is it good advice to hire IT personnel? No, no, and no. Your IT people need to be able to make sure your servers are backed up. They need to make sure you have fast reliable networks. The need to make sure you have all of the rights you need to administer your data, and all the right tools at your fingertips. They need to make sure that your data are secure. They need to be on top of improvements in file systems, aware of security alerts, knowledgeable about server-class hardware. They probably need to be capable database administrators in a pinch. And if the library staff believes the best way to communicate with users includes setting up text notifications, then your IT people need to be able to set up a good infrastructure for sending text notifications.

Does that mean they need to take in text messages themselves? Maybe you think so. Maybe you think that nobody can set up a good infrastructure of a tool they don't themselves use. But I will tell you, there are plenty of fantastic sysadmins who are complete Luddites about personal technology. Are you really going to hire a sysadmin because she uses twitter? Or are you going to hire her because she writes Debian Linux kernel patches in her spare time? I will give you a hint: there is only one right answer to this question.

Librarian in Black hits it: "And testing an IT person's skills is a lot tricker, but it can be done...assuming you have someone on the other end who can verify the accuracy of the responses. I advocate for essay questions and actual problem-solving questions that present a real problem and ask for code,or a project plan, or a network diagram."

There are two hugely important points here: testing and having someone in-house who can verify the accuracy.

I have no idea how people do real interviews without doing skills tests. My favorite sysadmin test is to hand people this snippet:

crw-rw-rw- 1 root tty 3, 175 2008-06-07 23:43 ttyzf
prw-r----- 1 root adm 0 2008-06-10 10:04 xconsole
brw-rw---- 1 root disk 202, 2 2008-06-07 23:43 xvda2
drwxrwxrwt 7 root root 5120 2008-06-10 15:56 tmp
lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 4 2008-04-24 15:48 lib64 -> /lib
-rwxr-sr-x 1 root mail 395107 2008-06-09 10:07 elm
-rwx--x--x 1 root staff 15340 2008-06-09 10:07 mmencode

I ask them to talk about it. It's a great piece, because if you have any UNIX admin experience at all, you should be able to at least give a four-word description of that whole class of text. And there are lines in there of some fairly intense levels of complexity, which in many cases only an experienced administrator would be able to describe. It's not a Pass/Fail test, it's a Show Me What You Know test, which is a far better kind. Alternately, I would ask problem-solving questions: "User calls up yelling about [situation]. Fix it." This gives you the opportunity to watch both problem-solving skills and at least the job applicant's stated user-communication skills.

But the vitally important issue here is what Librarian in Black says: assuming you have someone on the other end. It's very, very difficult -- almost impossible -- for an entirely non-technical hiring committee to select a good technical applicant. You can select someone nice, and you can select someone who will fit in with your corporate culture, and you can select somebody who talks a good game. But without finding somebody else with a similar set of job skills to sit on your hiring committee? It's all luck. Trust me, no matter how smoothly the person comes off, no matter how competent he or she seems, you can't do an accurate assessment of technical skills without having the knowledge yourself. Technical people often sound extremely confident in their skill, oftentimes with no good reason. If it is at all possible for you to get an IT person from somewhere else in your organization to sit in on the hiring committee? Do so.
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