What Your Server OS Says About You?

I’ve been interviewing a lot of people recently for a position on our team. One of the questions we typically ask is…​

What operating system(s) does your server at home run?

HINT: For a systems engineer position, we’re hoping you’ll say something about a server you have at home (duh).

The point of this question is simple. A good engineer is more than learned technical skills. The best engineers have the mindset to constantly learn more; to venture outside their known world. They’re curious, driven, and know they don’t hold the keys to the universe. They want to explore other ways to do things. This teaches them the "how", the "why", and the "why not".

I don’t want to undersell schooling, but some of the brightest Linux engineers I’ve worked with were self-taught (one had a degree in jewelry, believe it or not). Schooling has immense value in condensing best practice into a single-path program. It just doesn’t usually teach all the alternatives and why we do or do not use them. Experimentation teaches this, which is probably why graduate-level programs require a thesis project.

All that said, I’ve heard a lot of answers to this question, each of which tells me something about the person.

Note
Please keep in mind, this is written from my opinion. Don’t get hurt if you don’t agree. You are entitled to your opinion as much as I am mine.

Answers

I don’t have a server at home

We’ll start off with just about the worst answer, though not necessarily bad.

This is a red flag to me. I do understand that most people have lives (which often includes family, children, and non-technical hobbies). However, the really good engineers typically experiment as a hobby because it is fun. These are the folks who have "the knack". While no server at home isn’t an immediate writeoff, it makes me a bit skeptical. Usually, I’ll ask about your hobbies if you give me this answer (some folks prefer to learn about cars, woodworking, gardening, cooking, etc in their spare time).

Windows

You don’t experiment much (at least not where we are interested), or you are more of a Microsoft person (which is fine, we’re just looking for Unix/Linux folks).

Red Hat

You probably use this at home because it is what most companies use. Not very curious, but driven to be better. I find these folks either currently work for RedHat, did work for RedHat, or are very book-oriented; typically more interested in a defined path than forging their own. There are of course exceptions, this has just been my experience so far.

Suse/OpenSuse

Perhaps a little more adventurous than the run-of-the-mill RedHat person. Still, not super curious, but still driven to be better at what they do. Again, there are of course exceptions (one of the best people I’ve worked with used almost nothing but OpenSuse).

FreeBSD

While this isn’t running the Linux kernel, it still uses mostly the GNU tools, with some differences. Anyone who knows why they like FreeBSD is okay in my book, even if we might not completely be on the same page.

Arch

Good answer. This used to be a really amazing answer before Arch made it to the top 10 of DistroWatch. Nowadays a casual Arch user might just be looking for a popular but technical distro; or they’re really amazing at Linux. It used to say "bleeding edge, fearless, plenty of spare time, cat person". Regardless, still a good answer. Arch is just different enough that this answer shows creativity, curiosity, drive, persistence, and aptitude.

Arch + Custom Kernel

Getting warmer (same as "Arch", but +10 points for being extra nerdy)

Source-based Distro (Slackware, Gentoo, Crux, etc)

Better answer. This is a particularly great answer because it tells me you don’t scare easily [from technical challenges at least]. It also tells me that you don’t mind forging your own path to learn or have a better system. I find these people to be the most learning-oriented of these groups. When asked how to learn how a command works, they typically answer "man" before "Google".

On a more practical note, this answer also tells me that you’ve been deep enough in the bowels of Linux that you could likely learn any distro we have at our company (which is two, but still…​). If you have this and minimal to no RedHat/CentOS/Suse/Debian, I won’t mind. It also says that you know most of the tools to troubleshoot just about everything, from runtime issues in binaries, to kernel parameter tweaking.

Note
I’m a bit biased on this one as I run a source-based distro. Pretty much anyone I’ve interviewed with this though (I’ve only interviewed 4 or so I think) lives up to the description I just gave.

Obscure-Distro-We’ve-Barely-Heard-of

While a good answer, it does throw up a little yellow flag for me. Some people are distro-junkies (this used to be me) and like to jump around because it’s fun and/or they have commitment issues. While this is a good trait (jumping around, not commitment issues) in many cases, it hints to me you might make tech decisions because they are cool, new, or just different - hence the yellow flag. Making long-term decisions because something is shinier than the other thing is often a foolish mistake.

LFS

You’re hired

Depends on what day you ask me

Also a great answer, but with the caveat of the obscure distro. I don’t want finicky people making long-term decisions for the team (does anyone here have that guy at work that pushes for Oracle databases inside of Docker containers because "Docker"?).

Summary

All of what I just wrote should be taken with a grain of salt. Every single one of those answers would not make me write a person off, but the right answer might give them extra points.

All that said, if I ever interview you and you give me a "good answer" from this blog post, keep in mind that my followup question is "so what do you do with that server at home?". I won’t write a blog post that gives away the right answers to that one. :)

Last edited: 2018-11-04 00:01:00 UTC