What’s a valid question for a DBA interview?

There's been an interesting discussion on SQLServerCentral about whether this question is valid for a DBA interview: what's the name of the executable that runs SQL Server?

My view is that it's a perfectly valid question, based on the cliched premise that the more you know, the further you go. I've conducted hundreds of interviews for positions at DEC and Microsoft and I've always been more impressed with people that knew more stuff (and why that stuff was useful to know – rather than just knowing weird facts by rote) than people who said they could look it up. To me, if someone knows things like the name of the SQL Server executable, it says to me that they've had more experience dealing with interesting situations (like having to start the server in single-user mode, or divide up resources on a multi-instance server using WSRM). And for that, they'd go higher up my 'hire' list than someone who would have to look it up. Of course, that's just one out of a large number of traits and characteristics that I'd be looking for.

So, my question to you is, do you think that's a good interview question (coupled with something to weed out those who don't know why it would be useful)? Vote in the survey below, and reply with any questions you think really are invalid for a DBA interview.


PS And don't worry, it's not all going to be surveys from now on – I'm just having fun with a new toy. Some good internals posts coming up next week! 

4 thoughts on “What’s a valid question for a DBA interview?

  1. My counter-view comes from sitting in an interview back when I was a junior SQL Developer/junior web developer and been asked to virtually recite parts of Books Online to the interviewer. The last question, before he let me know that I was not up to standard asked for all of the parameters and options to DBCC ShowContig.

    I just find too many interviews (ones I’ve been in, ones I’ve heard about) where the interviewer askes more and more obscure trivia questions, looking for the one the candidate can’t answer. Kinda like an episode of "Who wants to be a millionaire?", without the "Phone a friend" option or the money.

    My preference when I’m the interviewer is for questions that show understanding or demonstrate that they can find info that they don’t know. If they know odd bits of trivia, bonus. If they don’t it won’t eliminate them as a potential candidate.

  2. I’ve only interviewed for a few DBA positions (and didn’t get hired for any of them) but I was never asked a question I thought was unreasonable (or irrational). 50% of the interview, anyway, is designed to answer the question "can I work with this bozo?".

    In one interview I’m pretty sure I didn’t get hired because I had forgotten how to write a JOIN statement. I had just always used the GUI, although I had learned the TSQL too. I just didn’t have any practice doing it, so my mind blanked when the question came up. Since then, I’ve taken pains to write all my joins manually ;-) I went on to become an IT consultant and not a full time DBA, so it worked out better for me in the long run.

    The most abstract interview questions I’ve heard are of the same flavor I’ve heard from guys like Joel Spolsky (http://www.joelonsoftware.com) where he assesses the problem-solving skills of an interviewee with questions like "How many gas stations are there in the Los Angeles bowl?" People really don’t have any way of knowing this, so it’s interesting to see if they respond by guessing, or performing a series of estimates, or asking for access to Google, etc. These are all indicators of what kind of problem-solver the candidate would be.

  3. I have recently been employed as a MS SQL DBA and had the 1 hour interview after making the 3 shortlisted. The job stipulated that a MSDBA and or tertiary Computer qualification was required. I have none of these, but have had exposure to SQL 7, 2000 and 2005 for about 10 years although not as a DBA. Anyway, the questions asked by the DBA at the interview were a mixture, and in my opinion not particularly hard. What are the purposes for the databases msdb, tempdb, model and master. My answer was very general being the system databases that hold information about the user databases. There was a question on what is replication, mirroring, log shipping etc. I gave a bumbling answer that included I had not setup any of those but could find it easily enough in BOL.

    Anyway cutting a long story short. After I got the job I asked about the 2 candidates that didn’t get the job. They were "younger" with no employment history in SQL but had computer degrees and MSDBA qualifications. However, they both failed to answer the system DB and replication questions!!!! I was also told if I hadn’t taken the job they would have readvertised.


    PS The company is providing funds for SQL DBA course and will reimburse exams that are passed.

  4. Asking such a question would never even cross my mind. Even if I got something useful out of the candidate’s answer, this question runs the risk of having the candidate think that I’m the one who is incompetent. I generally avoid asking any questions to which there isn’t at least some opportunity for a quick yet intelligent discussion. There are plenty of others to choose from.

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