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Prepare for these five Windows administrator interview questions

Windows administrator interview candidates need careful preparation to stand out among a crowded field of professionals.

A Windows administrator is an IT professional responsible for installing, managing and maintaining systems and...

servers based on Microsoft Windows' family of operating systems. Many IT professionals take on an administrator role at some point in their career, but actually landing the job can be harder than it seems. The daily duties of a Windows administrator are plentiful and diverse, often going far beyond operating system tasks and varying dramatically from one organization to another to include troubleshooting, hardware upgrades, basic programming, business application management and even regulatory compliance duties. Before you press your suit and head off for the interview, take time to review the scope of responsibilities that the role demands, and consider just a few of the questions that you might face during the interview process.

Q. Tell me about your experience. What will you bring to this role?

This line of questioning is usually where the "real" interview starts once the initial introductions and pleasantries are finished. There are lots of ways to ask this question and start the discussion. A popular variation on this theme might ask you to discuss your typical workday or workweek. But regardless of how a potential employer phrases this question, the purpose is always to gauge your scope of knowledge and expertise as it relates to the potential employer.

Avoid the temptation to simply recite your resume. Remember, if you're sitting in an interview, the employer has already read your resume and probably performed some due diligence to check some of your facts before ever inviting you to a meeting. The real purpose of this discussion is to learn what's not on your resume.

Know the job's requirements and focus on where you meet or exceed them. A typical Windows administrator position may require a formal two- or four-year technical degree and two to five years of experience in a recent Windows Server environment. When education is the topic, talk about your relevant certifications such as Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE), your favorite college IT classes or your most successful IT projects that align with the employer's business. For example, if the employer is a software developer, you might discuss your favorite Java programming classes and senior project developing a Java-based web application. Show the employer that you understand what the business is doing.

As the talk turns to employment history, go beyond the names and dates on your resume and discuss details that align with the employer's requirements. A typical Windows administrator usually performs a wide range of tasks including daily system monitoring, resource (server and storage) integrity checks, system process status, review system and application logs for errors or security alerts, install and configure software or services, and so on. Understand the scope of tasks that the employer is looking for and focus on those discussions.

For example, it probably won't help your case to talk about the drudgery of babysitting an error-ridden legacy business application that couldn't be virtualized. But, an employer using Windows Server 2012 R2 might like to know more about your involvement in past OS upgrades in your current data center, your move into Hyper-V and virtual machine management, your use of log analytics to research trends, your ongoing Active Directory management and countless other tasks that can be directly relevant to the employer and role. As another example, some roles require remote or off-site administrative work, so stress your expertise in remote systems management and support. Large data centers are often 24/7 operations, and it can be a huge plus to underscore your availability for flexible hours or on-call schedules.

Considering the diversity of many Windows administrator positions, chances are that your education and experience may not be an ideal match for every employer. Don't worry or apologize -- they wouldn't waste their time interviewing you if you weren't a potential candidate. Instead, offer up an alternative that shows relevant experience and potential for growth. For example, if an employer uses one management tool and you have used a different management tool, the real issue is that you have expertise using management tools in the first place, so talk up your understanding of management practices and the productive Windows management tactics -- learning the mechanics of a new tool isn't an issue.

Q. What business applications have you been responsible for?

By itself, a Windows operating system doesn't provide any business services, so businesses rely on an array of business applications to perform actual work. Business applications can include Exchange Server, SQL Server, Internet Information Services (IIS) and SharePoint along with various network services like dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) or domain name system (DNS) servers and so on. Since many of these applications reside on top of Windows, the task of installing, supporting and maintaining these applications usually falls to Windows administrators.

Virtualized enterprises may consider hypervisors like VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V in the application management category, but at least it's an important part of the discussion of applications, like Exchange Server are successfully running as virtual machines. Virtualization adds a layer of complexity to business application management, and it's well worth adding to the discussion -- especially if the employer is considering a move to virtualize those same applications.

This is another line of questioning where you need to do a bit of homework to learn about specific applications that the employer is using (Exchange Server 2010 SP3, for example) and be able to discuss your involvement with application support, patching, troubleshooting, upgrading and so on. It's usually not critical that you know every application or version, but be able to demonstrate that you're capable of extending yourself far beyond the operating system, to support the business and its employees or users, by keeping important applications running.

Here's a helpful hint: Operating system and application support are often split among the members of an IT team that collaborate and share skills. This is where a lot of skill cross-training is accomplished, and can be a great place to discuss your skills as a team player and even a team leader which can be far more valuable to a potential employer than knowing a certain version of Microsoft Office.

Q. How do you manage Windows? Do you use SCCM?

Whether deploying, upgrading or optimizing a server, Windows administrators must be consummate managers able to manage users, configure computing resources, monitor workload performance, report system inventories, gauge future computing capacity, check the functional status of systems and applications, and perform a myriad of other duties.

Windows administrators rely on a suite of sophisticated tools such as Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and PowerShell to perform these tasks, and user management is closely coupled to Active Directory. It's almost certain that a prospective employer will want to discuss your familiarity with Windows or systems management tools, especially if you have hands-on experience with the same tools used by the employer.

There are often multiple layers or purposes to each question or topic of discussion, and so many talented IT professionals miss this opportunity to stand out during an interview. This question isn't just about listing tool "X, Y and Z" that you already know. Being able to use a particular management tool doesn't make you a good manager any more than knowing where a steering wheel is makes you a good driver. Go farther; show a prospective employer how you have used Windows or systems management tools to improve productivity, increase computing capacity, save money or otherwise benefit the business.

Management is also moving to embrace process standardization and automation. Applying processes helps to ensure that procedures are applied faster and more consistently. Automation techniques, such as writing and implementing PowerShell scripts for common administrative tasks, can reduce errors and improve IT response times for user queries or helpdesk tickets, saving the company money. Taken together, processes and automation can allow Windows administrators to work more proactively to spot potential issues and resolve them earlier before users ever notice.

These are just some of the ideas that make management important to the business and its constituent users, and your ability to articulate this can be the difference between simply using tools and being a capable Windows administrator.

Q. What kind of troubleshooting have you done? What kind of technical challenges have you faced?

Every data center has its share of faults and failures -- it's an inevitable risk when sophisticated technologies drive a modern business. But today's businesses are often 24/7 endeavors that measure uptime in terms of revenue and user satisfaction. This means Windows administrators and other IT professionals must also be expert technicians able to isolate and overcome a wide range of hardware faults and software issues to keep the business running.

It's not important for a prospective candidate to have the answer to every possible question or scenario during an interview, though some interviews may include a technical quiz. Instead, focus on the tools and practices that you use to troubleshoot defective hardware or identify software configuration problems. Employers want to see that you "can" troubleshoot and know how to take action when problems arise. Windows administrators provide first tier support, so talk about the approaches you take when handling help desk tickets from users or responding to alerts generated by monitoring tools.

Windows administrators typically don't troubleshoot alone. They routinely reach out to other members of the IT team and often work closely with vendors' engineering staff to locate and correct problems. This is an important opportunity to push the discussion beyond just troubleshooting and highlight your research, collaboration and leadership abilities working in a team environment.

Employers increasingly expect IT to be a partner in the business, and IT professionals have the unique advantage of seeing how technology, especially chronic technical problems, can be addressed to improve computing performance, add computing capacity, enhance system uptime and save the company money. An employer might take particular notice of recent troubleshooting efforts that led to investigative work and creative, cost-saving resolutions.

Q. What other expertise or competencies can you bring to this role?

Potential employers want to understand how well you can fit the available role. Windows administrators have some of the broadest and most diverse roles in the IT industry. Every role is certainly based on Windows operating systems and some Windows-based business applications such as Exchange or SQL Server, but the role can also extend in countless different directions depending on the particular employer and their technical or business needs. This type of question might sound simple enough on the surface, but any candidate that responds by simply rattling off a list of other certifications or reciting past experiences is really missing a chance to shine.

Instead, take time before the interview to really review the role's description and think about how your own experience and education maps to the employer's required and preferred list of qualifications. Employers don't just want someone that can install Windows or read error logs; they are often looking for versatile professionals that can help move IT and the business forward. It's a tall order, but a candidate that can understand the employer's unique needs and show the business value of their IT expertise is most likely to get the offer.

For example, expertise with virtualization deployment and management (such as Hyper-V) can be a huge attraction for potential employers that haven't virtualized yet or might be considering a new consolidation initiative. It can be especially meaningful if you can show how your efforts resulted in improved resource utilization, lower computing costs, enhanced flexibility or other tangible business benefits.

Some organizations may be governed by strict compliance regulations. For example, any publically traded corporation may want IT staff familiar with Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), hospitals, and other health providers may look for Windows administrators with a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) background, retailers may want IT professionals versed in Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) requirements and so on. Other businesses such as law firms or government entities might require a strong focus on backup and recovery, data protection, archiving and retention, legal discovery and related tasks.

Windows administrators are some of the most diverse and versatile IT professionals in the industry and this can be a blessing and a curse during an interview. The bottom line is simple: No two Windows data centers are the same, and no two Windows administrator roles are the same. This means bland, cookie-cutter responses to typical interview questions just won't cut it. Candidates must work a little harder to prepare for each Windows administrator interview and be ready to tailor their discussions to address the unique concerns of each potential employer. The extra preparation will make you stand out among a crowded field of other contenders and pay dividends in landing that next job. Good luck, and let me know how the interview goes.

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