How Rackspace hires admins: Textbook questions vs. break-fix challenges

Former Rackspace employees form online testing startup, which the company now uses as an initial candidate screen

Luke Owen liked working at Rackspace, but he really appreciated the camaraderie he had with some of his fellow employees. They had some ideas about creating a business.

Owen left Rackspace last year with three of his co-workers. They, along with another former Rackspace employee, formed a company that provides way of assessing job candidates.

The company they created, TrueAbility, is now being used by their former employer, Rackspace, to test technical job candidates. This start-up provides live server environments that challenge the test taker with configuration and break-fix issues. It is being used, initially, for Linux system administration and DevOps in cloud environments.

The company this year received seed funding of $750,000 from Rackspace. Rackspace has since become its biggest client, said Owen, TrueAbility's CIO.

Owen was part of the leadership team at Rackspace that hired over 1,100 IT professionals in his time there. He gleaned a lot of experience in hiring with his fellow cofounders, Marcus Robertson, Frederick Mendler, and Dustry Jones, and they put it to use.

A concept behind TrueAbility is a belief that a technical white board examine may measure a candidate's theoretical knowledge, but "once you put them in front of a server, a lot of them didn't have the skills for the job," said Owen.

Cyndi Walsh, a technical hiring manager at Rackspace, is using TrueAbility to help fill Linux system administrator jobs. The company hires about 10 to 12 admins per month.

The testing is used in the prequalifying stage to help determine whether candidates should get further technical reviews. The online test helps save time, and allows the recruiters to spend more time on other issues, said Walsh.

Previously, a candidate would have a 20 to 30 minute technical phone interview with one of Rackspace's recruiters. In the TrueAbility test, candidates log onto a server and have to troubleshoot it within a specified period of time.

"It gives candidates an opportunity to showcase their skills and how they would actually work in the real world," said Walsh.

But Walsh said if a candidate doesn't get a strong score on the online test, that doesn't necessarily exclude them from a job. An interview may reveal that a candidate who didn't do well on the test, is "a really solid systems administrator at a pretty high level," said Walsh.

The online testing is a starting point, and Walsh, who said she doesn't know if a tool can ever fully replace the "soft skills conversations that we have, or those real-life scenarios" that they challenge candidates with in subsequent interviews.

"We need people who can easily talk through situations with customers, as well as log-in and actually do the work," said Walsh.

A follow-up to the online tests may include a review of the results with a candidate. For the person who ran out of time, they may ask them what happened, said Walsh.

The TrueAbility test "is not a gatekeeper, per se, it's more of a guide," said Walsh. "We don't want to lose out on good talent," she said.

Owen said they have about 20 customers, and are working to broaden skills that the server environments can test for. He said the service can also be used to hold contests, and draw in people, who, if they do well on the test, may get a call from an interested employer.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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