Hiring System Administrators

Hiring someone for a technical post is a task that should never be tackled half-heartedly. Matt Simmons provides some general advice on the subject, illustrated by a recent experience of hiring an IT administrator to help share the load. It opened his eyes to the real state of the economy.

It may seem that nowadays, when unemployment is high, and we’re in a worldwide recession where millions of people are out of work and things may get bleaker before they improve, it may seem the wrong time to talk about hiring staff. Although many sectors are being hit hard, there are markets which have remained relatively unscathed, and some are even growing.

I believe that hiring should take place over three discrete, independent steps. Planning, Execution and Evaluation.


Tom Limoncelli, author of “The Practice of System and Network Administration” suggests that there are two types of job openings. One is for the position, the other the person. If you need someone to do a specific task, then you would hire someone who has the required skills. Other skills and experience that are possessed by that  person are less relevant, because you need someone to perform the specified tasks, and it is essential to success that they are done well .

On the other hand, you may need someone to run a department, or to perform an array of less-well defined tasks. In that case, you would do better to hire a person who is capable of the flexibility that is required by such a role.  Finding a qualified candidate is going to be less clear-cut and will require more finesse from the hiring team. There is a good chance that the process will take longer as well, because it takes time to vet a candidate carefully. Your pool of applicants is likely to be smaller but more competitive, and salary requirements for this type of opening are generally higher.

Whichever sort of opening it is, one must define the position’s parameters. Be specific about variables such as skill level, and ensure that you have explicitly listed the achievements and qualifications that you require from the candidates. This includes certifications, degrees, experience in a similar position, and even experience in an organization of a certain size if that is important to you. If these are outlined and decided upon early, the next step becomes much easier. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming that any position seeking an inexperienced person is unimportant. Every position is vital, and should be treated as such.

In my own experience, pre-defining the range that you’re willing to pay is a two sided affair, particularly if you are upfront about the range when you create the job posting. I consider it preferable to post the salary range, with the caveat “commensurate with experience”. Unfortunately, being forthright in this manner has the drawback that individuals with more advanced skills may overlook your posting when they might be otherwise tempted to apply. While your budget is likely to be fixed, skilled candidates may be lured by other benefits: At the same time, it helps to prevent disappointment from  overqualified prospects who apply if you dictate the range early in the process.

Determine who will participate in the hiring process and at what stages. There should be a defined interview team who remains somewhat constant throughout the process. This is essential to ensure that you compare apples to apples. Changing this team in the middle off the process may do a disservice to the candidates, who are almost certainly going to be viewed differently by different people. The number of people on this team, and the departments they represent, will vary according to your organization, but for positions that affect the company as a whole (and there are few who don’t), buy-in from stake holders is essential.


Work with your hiring team to develop a job description that will be distributed to the various job boards and websites. In my case, the description simply consisted of the required skills and the responsibilities that the successful candidate would assume when hired. Many organizations use far more complex documents. Your Human Resources representative will be the best person to contact for more information.

Once you’ve got a completed description for the position, you can submit it to the job sites. but you need to make sure that you use the appropriate sites. The technical skill level of the ideal candidate should be taken into account. While an entry level candidate could be found easily enough on Monster.com or even Craigslist, a more precise search would improve the signal to noise ratio for highly specialized technical appointments. In the past, I’ve recommended the job boards on various professional organizations (IEEE, USENIX/SAGE, LOPSA) as well as high profile commercial sites. The serverfault.com job boards in particular attract very intelligent people, for the most part.

Once you commit your posting, applicants will begin to pour in immediately. Even in the best of times, it’s possible to get deluged with applications, but with a large segment of the workforce displaced, the onslaught can be especially overwhelming. I would recommend that you stick to your guns and use the requirements you put together in the previous step (as well as any personnel you have at your disposal) to filter through the applications. How many are you likely to receive? Of course, it depends on your local area and the available position itself..

After the filtering has been completed, you presumably have a pool of candidates to select from, and chances are very good that you’ve got more candidates than you could reasonably interview in a short span.

I have several interviewing guidelines, but no real instructions on how to interview a candidate, because I feel like it’s a very individual sort of endeavor. Your company’s culture and your team will dictate the particulars of the interviewing process, just as mine did, but if I can pass along a few general tips, the first and most important would be to listen more than you talk. Ask open ended questions and see where the candidate goes with it. Don’t interrupt unless they’re floundering.

A great bit of advice I got from “Hiring Smart”, by Dr. Pierre Mornell, was that a few minutes before the end of the interview, give the candidate a warning that their time is almost up. This gives them a chance to air anything that has been nagging at them, and can sometimes be very enlightening. Dr. Mornell related a tale of one applicant who waited until the five minute warning to let the interviewer know that he was unable to take the job! As late as that is, it’s certainly better to find out before the offer letter phase.

After the interviews have been completed, meet with the hiring team to discuss and decide upon a candidate. Review your interview notes, as well as the requirements you laid out in the planning phase. Once you’ve decided on a candidate, call them to congratulate them, and while you’re on the phone, verify their physical mailing address to ensure that the offer-letter reaches them.

An Experience in Hiring .

In part because of the state of the financial services sector and in part because of the organic growth of the company, I recently found myself in the position of needing to hire another IT administrator to help share the load. The hiring process opened my eyes to the real state of the economy

I explicitly stated that this was an entry-level position, and that I was looking for candidates who didn’t necessarily have administration experience. In spite of that, I had someone apply who had spent 20 years at their previous company. Many people spent over 5 years as senior administrators at their last company. That’s the sort of thing that happens in this economy.

In my case, I knew that I was looking for a certain type of person. My budget dictated that whomever I hired had to be inexperienced. This made the selection process more difficult, as “systems administrator” would be a new role to most of my candidates.

I received several hundred applications in the span of only a week or two. It started only 5 minutes after the posting went live and didn’t stop until a week after the posting expired

I selected individuals having experience supporting technology in some measure and I sought out people who had experience using platforms similar to those my critical systems are built on. Most importantly, I selected those people who demonstrated a thirst for knowledge and for trying new things. It was from a pool such as this that I selected the junior systems administrator

I emailed each of the potential candidates and scheduled a telephone interview with them. It wasn’t a long, detailed interview; ten minutes was sufficient to tell me whether I wanted to bring a person in to interview them in person.

I was thankful that I took the time to conduct the telephone interview. There were a few cases where I talked to people who had impressive resumes, but upon questioning admitted things, such as, “well, no, actually I didn’t implement that VPN connection, but I was there when someone from the vendor came and did it”. These are things it’s good to know before you waste several hours interviewing someone in person.

My interviews took, on average, two and a half hours. This seems like a long time, but it took about a half an hour before the candidates really relaxed and their personalities showed. At the same time, I wanted to extract a large sampling of their knowledge, and more importantly, introduce subjects new to them, to observe their learning process. Existing knowledge wasn’t as important as the ability to acquire more of it, for my position.

I was upfront in the job posting with the salary range that we were prepared to pay for the candidates. When I performed the phone interview, I made sure to discuss pay with the candidates, and to get their thoughts on where in the posted range they fell. I was really surprised to hear that most of the candidates I talked to evaluated themselves very honestly, and for the most part, they suggested pay rates which were close to my mental target. During the interview, I openly discussed the question of pay with the candidates, because I wanted the major negotiation to happen in person. Your organization may have different customs and policies, so again, make sure to discuss your plans with Human Resources beforehand.


The hiring process does not end when someone is hired. It doesn’t really end until the person’s first annual review. All of the processes that we take part in can stand to be reviewed, and hiring is no exception.

Although this length of time hasn’t passed for me yet with the IT Administrator, I intend to review the hiring process with my interviewing team after the new admin has been with us for a quarter. I want the emphasis to be on the process, and whether or not we succeeded in our goals, and what we could have done better. These sorts of occasional self-evaluations can lead to increased performance the next time I, or one of my teammates, is in the position to hire another employee.

Time will tell, but from what I’ve seen, everything is going to be great.