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Tips to ace tough IT operations interview questions

Few things career-wise are as nerve-wracking as job interviews. Knowing what to expect going into that first meeting for a Web or app administrator role can quell some uneasiness.

Every enterprise uses a wide range of software to run the business. It's an IT operations administrator's job to keep Web and enterprise applications available and performing properly. Typically, IT admins handle the deployment, maintenance, upgrade, migration, backup, monitoring and troubleshooting of important software platforms and their underlying hardware systems. With such a large scope of responsibilities, landing an IT operations role can be tricky. We've compiled a list of topics to help prep for those tough IT operations interview questions.

Tell me about your IT administration and operations education and certifications.

Many IT ops roles focus more on practical experience or expertise in certain areas, instead of formal education. Highly qualified Web or application administrators should have as much as eight years of hands-on experience with Windows or Linux systems. A business' application use and business goals will strongly influence those requirements.

For example, an application administrator interviewing with the NASA Center for Climate Simulation might need to hold a bachelor's degree in a related technical field, such as computer science, plus at least five years of related experience in climate science, climate models and observational climate data sets.

There are many levels of application administrator jobs in the IT operations field. Look closely at the types of applications you will support in the role and be sure you understand why and how the business is using that software.

Tell me about your current role.

Most IT operations interview questions will not only gauge what you know, but also what you do from day to day. The conversation can be broad, but the depth of questions may vary depending on the complexity of the role.

Most entry-level to midlevel application administrators will discuss regular practices such as assessing software requirements and performance; provisioning systems and storage; software deployment practices; application configuration and testing; security processes; change management practices; and how you troubleshoot problems. Typical IT ops interview questions might also touch on how well the candidate understands and adheres to best practices.

The employer will likely try to understand your technical knowledge. For example, a question about application testing and deployment can help hiring managers evaluate your knowledge of virtualization platforms, load-balancing technologies, basic networking and TCP/IP know-how and your proficiency in Web technologies and HTTP protocols. It's not necessary to have knowledge in all these areas, but you should demonstrate a mastery of the core responsibilities.

What IT tools do you use?

IT Ops generally rely on a host of tools for configuration, deployment, monitoring and troubleshooting. The discussion of day-to-day tasks can easily dovetail into one on your use and knowledge of tools.

For example, IT ops interview questions might center around your familiarity with tools like Nagios for network monitoring, HP OpenView IT infrastructure monitoring, HP SiteScope application monitoring or Cacti network monitoring. Candidates might also need to know Windows PowerShell, Linux Bash or other scripting tools, as well as help desk tools like Spiceworks or open source alternatives like osTicket.

It's not critical to be an expert with all of the tools your prospective employer uses, but having hands-on experience with some can pay off.

Tell me about how you've worked with other business units -- in and out of IT.

With IT operations interview questions like this, the prospective employer is trying to get a sense of how well you can interact with end users and other business units within the company, respond to issues, resolve problems and keep all team members informed. Chances are you'll have to juggle multiple issues simultaneously while collaborating with several IT groups, including storage and networking, while adhering to established procedures and standards. Your ability to articulate this can have a profound effect on your impression during the interview.

What are your application security and disaster recovery practices?

Security and application availability are two different but equally important issues. So, don't be surprised if you're asked some IT ops interview questions about security methods and disaster recovery (DR) practices.

Questions on application security practices will likely cover system access or identity management tactics, monitoring and analytics and patch management, as well as policies and procedures relevant to those activities. An IT ops job seeker should also know how to use specific tools to implement a proper DR method, complete and validate backups, test backups and recovery, and update and maintain DR documentation for compliance.

How do you solve problems you encounter in the data center?

Will you crack under pressure? What happens when something goes wrong? IT ops interview questions about the biggest issues you've experienced in the data center aren't meant to call out your mistakes. It's likely the hiring manager wants to determine how you react when things don't go according to plan.

Whether streamlining a user's access, boosting application performance, applying the latest patches, fixing configuration errors, or handling problems with the underlying hardware, a Web or application administrator must be a consummate troubleshooter and problem solver.

A Web or application administrator candidate will need to demonstrate the ability to test and evaluate new product releases, identify potential integration or compatibility issues, and document suitable solutions or workarounds. Troubleshooting often involves using tools ranging from simple Windows performance counters to advanced log analytics platforms.

IT application administrators need to field help desk issues, resolve them according to established policies and procedures and understand the escalation process. IT ops team members must be proactive and monitor the application environment to anticipate potential bottlenecks or other performance issues -- and then fix those issues before they affect end users.

It's unlikely you'll have to take a formal test to prove your troubleshooting knowledge. But it's reasonable to expect an interviewer to throw a couple of questions your way specific to your troubleshooting process.

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