Hiring for World Class Technical Support

hiring(Ping! Zine Issue 61) – Hiring can be a frustrating process, so is doing it well. A primary problem most companies notice right away is how niche of a role experienced Linux system administrators with hosting knowledge are. You’re going to need to approach the hiring process with the expectation of hiring individuals who have a good grasp of Linux administrator concepts, but may not have the extensive applied hosting industry knowledge that you desire. Many individuals can acquire that knowledge and experience over time, or through training, resulting in top-notch service.

There’s no way to cheat it; world class support requires a reasonable monetary investment. Steer clear of the attractive “pay per ticket” model, it blatantly encourages quantity over quality. You’ll end up paying for techs to churn the same tickets in the queue as opposed to spending the time and effort solving customers’ issues the first time around. You’ll want to hire at reasonable industry wages for the work you’ll be asking them to perform. Be wary of outsourcing support, I recommend seeking direct employees for customer satisfaction. Not only are they more likely to care for their support quality, you’ll be able to hold them to merits of their work through performance evaluations and merit based advancement.

While hiring locally is generally preferred, the niche nature of the role you’re hiring for will benefit significantly from widening your consideration to remote positions. The considerations you’ll likely want to put into practice for remote positions would be: a pay differential to incentivize local employment/eventual relocation, a stricter technical requirement, and a demonstration of self-sufficiency.

Your job postings should contain very specific criteria that applicants need to follow, or answer, beyond simply forwarding on their resume. If someone is willing to put a bit of effort into the application process, you stand to get a higher percentage of committed applicants, as opposed to those blanket applying across the board. A simple way to do this is to ask them to rate the technical skills that are important to you on a basic numbered scale. What’s their experience with cPanel® & WHM® software? How about CentOS/Red Hat experience? Do they know Apache or MySQL very well? Can they write custom scripts? Applicants are generally quite honest about their skill set when specifically asked to rate it; this allows a first set of criteria for comparison and some very specific topics you can follow up on in their interview.

I would recommend breaking up the interview process into at least two stages in order to efficiently assess applicants. The first stage of the process lends itself to a phone interview. Create a standardized list of questions that you will ask every applicant. It should take no longer than 20-30 minutes for an applicant to work through the questions. Ask a broad range of questions from basic job criteria, including their work availability for 24/7/365 quality support.

Inquire about their basic Linux knowledge: favorite commands and utilities that they use when troubleshooting. This can be very telling of their general experience with Linux, and whether it’s focused more on general system administrator, network administration, or even specific hosting industry experience. Take this opportunity to ask some questions that confirm their level of claimed knowledge if they rated themselves particularly high on the scale for a few topics.

Open ended questions are going to be one of your best tools here for identifying quality applicants. These would be questions that individuals are unlikely to get flat out incorrect, but are very telling of their experience based on how expansive their answer is. What are their configuration recommendations for some of the major services? Do they have a cursory understanding of SSL Certificates, or can they itemize the process of issuing a valid certificate and all of its parts? You might not reject an applicant solely based on their answers here, but it’s going to allow quality applicants to shine. If they get a second interview, set up an installation of CentOS, or RHEL, on a VPS for them to access (it will be easy to snapshot and roll back after the interview). Intentionally break a few aspects of the major services on the box. Since hosting experience is so niche, it’s best to keep the focus off of specialized software like cPanel & WHM and more focused on the services and features provided by the OS installation.

Set improper permissions on user files and claim a user’s cron job isn’t firing. Mangle part of Apache’s httpd.conf and state Apache won’t start. Break anything that is relatively simple but obscure enough to require some thought and investigation. The goal here is not just to see if the applicant can fix problems, but how they go about fixing them. The troubleshooting process used can be just as important, and telling, as their ability to fix the problem. You should plan on this process taking between 45 and 60 minutes: a fixed 30 minutes for the hands-on test and the remainder for follow-up questions from yourself and the applicant to help with considering whether or not they’re a good fit for the position.

It would be fantastic if you are able to hire a tech with existing hosting industry knowledge. However, the general expectation should be that you’ll be hiring applicants with a reasonable base in Linux administration, then teach them the nuances of the hosting industry. Between the phone interview, hands-on test, and remaining time for follow-up questions, you should hopefully be able to have a reasonable expectation of what that applicant is capable of, and whether they have a desire and capability to learn further.  You may also get a sense of whether the applicant’s personality will mesh with your organization’s culture, which, for local hires, can be just as important as their skill set.

Once you’ve brought a new hire onboard and have provided them with some initial training, it’s important to follow-up consistently through performance evaluations. I suggest at least two initial performance evaluations during their initial probationary period. These opportunities should be used to not only clarify and set expectations for substandard performance, but highlight the merits of a job well done. A scenario that’s void of communication is one of the most counter-productive situations you can put yourself and a new hire in.

This just scratches the surface of the high-level concepts inherit in hiring for a world class hosting company. Hopefully, it gives some insight to some of the tried and true methods used in achieving quality support.