Recruiting ops engineers

In an earlier post I talked about the high calibre operations team we have assembled at It’s fair to say that we interviewed a few ‘less suitable’ candidates along the way. We started off with an unstructured interview process that was time consuming and inefficient. The process made it difficult to compare one candidate to another, time consuming with multiple interviews to get all the necessary people involved and candidates getting through to the final stage before we identified major deficiencies in technical skills. After wasting many hours we went back to the drawing board and worked out a simple, efficient process that has been extremely successful. Here are some of the highlights:

Know what you’re looking for – Sounds basic I know but you really need to understand the minimum requirements for the role. Define the technologies the role will support, the level of expertise needed, and the kind of experience you are looking for. Prioritise the most important attributes of the role to ensure you measure all candidates against the same yardstick.

Make the most of your network – leverage your existing team by encouraging referrals. Some of our best hires have been through referrals, while having a financial reward system for referrals helps, your staff are more likely to be motivated by bringing in great people rather than making extra cash. Advertise all your roles internally and get the word out via internal communication channels, twitter, linked in, facebook etc

Make it a team decision – involve your team all the way through the process from reviewing CV’s to telephone and face to face interviews. You want your team to accept new hires and the best way to achieve this is to involve them in the process

Getting the best out of recruitment agencies – if you are using a recruitment agency you can’t expect them to get the technical assessment correct every time. The agency will have to rely on what they are told and this often means you end up wasting your time interviewing someone who lacks the tech skills for the role. Try conducting a brief technical screening over the phone before a face to face interview. We pick some of our key technologies and have the candidate rate themselves, we then ask a few probing questions to validate their answer. The process takes between 15 and 30 minutes and will help you ascertain if they have the technical chops required to continue through the process. If you do select them for a face to face interview the screening will help determine the technical areas to focus on plus it will also give you an indication of their personality and cultural fit – e.g if they spend the entire call telling you how awesome they are at everything alarm bells will be ringing!

Invest time in making sure the recruitment agency understands the cultural fit you are looking for with tangible examples. There’s no point saying we want someone who is passionate about technology – ask a candidate if they are passionate they’ll say yes. Find other ways to assess passion; who do they follow on twitter and why? do they participate in the open source community? do they attend hack days, dev ops meetups, etc. Getting the cultural fit right is where the recruitment agency should earn their keep so if you spend time explaining what kind of person you are looking for and they keep sending you candidates who don’t match ditch the agency.

The face to face interview – You want to make a decision after one interview so make sure you have the right attendees (senior technical staff to gauge tech skills and cultural fit, HR if required). Use the results from the telephone screening to drive the technical assessment, prepare some specific problems for them to solve and set the difficulty based on their self rating.  If you want them to walk through complex problems choose a meeting room with a whiteboard and encourage them to use it. Don’t just focus on the areas they rated themselves high, you may find some candidates are more modest and rate themselves lower than they really are. Try to make the candidate feel comfortable; offer them a glass of water, encourage some small talk. There’s nothing to be gained from stressing them out.

Don’t burn all your time on the tech side – allow plenty of time to find out what they are like outside of work. What do they do when they’re not a sys admin? Are they going to spark with the team and energise their peers?

Act fast – If you like them make an offer on the same day subject to references. It’s a great feeling to get a call back when you’re still on your way home saying ‘we want you!’ This comes back to making sure you have all your ducks lined up so get the decision makers in the interview. I don’t understand why a second interview is ever needed – it smacks of red tape.

Other resources – I came across this list of questions for webops engineer candidates on John Allspaw’s blog These are a great starting point when drawing up your technical questions



  1. I would like OPS to consider the way of the example set. You simply present a bunch of situations to the candidate and ask him to play Sherlock Holmes. I like the idea of a telephone interview before a face to face one, but in my opinion, nothing beats watching a candidate in action in front of you responding to situations.

    Throw her/him a graph and see what they see. Throw them a hex version of a encrypted password file to decrypt or a broken system to restore.

    Anything that makes them demonstrate, not say their knowledge in front of you!

  2. Having attended at least 20 interviews recently (not for technical roles, though), I am appalled at the poor techniques of each and every interviewer. I spend more time interviewing them than the other way around — which is not a good thing (and probably why I’m still going to interviews) — and I’m left feeling that they really haven’t gotten the right indication of me, my expertise, and my abilities in order for them make proper comparisons.

    Interview technique is extremely important, as recruitment constitutes a critical opportunity a manager has to make a significant positive (or negative) result on the performance of their team.

  3. I agree giving them real problems to solve to see if a) they can fix it and b) understand their thought process. That’s why I’m a big fan of case study interviews for managers and problem solving interviews for tech candidates. We describe a specific issue e.g performance problem with an apache server and get the candidate to walk through how they would diagnose and fix the issue. The steps they suggest will often open the door for additional questions to further verify their skills.

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