SRE interview questions and job descriptions

This article is specifically intended for engineering managers and leaders working with Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) teams. We begin with an example SRE job description that you can copy, paste, and edit for your specific location and needs. The description includes a sample list of desired skills based on Gremlin’s experience working across multiple companies across varied industries to help you assess a candidate’s skill level.

We complete the piece with a set of SRE interview questions that include information about how to evaluate and think about candidate answers. You can also adapt and enhance these for your specific needs. You may also want to peruse the listings in the #jobs channel of the Gremlin-sponsored Chaos Engineering Slack, which has participants from across the industry well beyond Gremlin.

We realize that SRE candidates are also likely to read this article. Good. We want people to be prepared and ready. However, we are not providing a candidate cheat sheet, but rather a resource for those doing the hiring. Candidates would be better served focusing on our article, How to Become a Top-Notch Site Reliability Engineer. If you have the experience and the skills, answering the questions will be easy. This article is about figuring out how to write an intriguing job description and how to ask the right interview questions to help companies find the perfect match for their SRE team needs.


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Sample Site Reliability Engineer Job Description

Do you enjoy working with a highly motivated and talented team to deliver mission critical software? [company name] is growing our Site Reliability Engineering team to help deploy, manage, troubleshoot, and enhance our complex cloud-based services for a wide variety of customers.

As a Site Reliability Engineer you will design and implement web applications and REST API services using a microservice-based infrastructure to replace our current monolith implementation. The new technology stack includes [Amazon Web Services (AWS)/Google Cloud/etc.], [Docker/Kubernetes/other], [relational database], [NoSQL/NewSQL database], and [monitoring tool]. Your focus will be on maximizing system uptime. Team members all participate in an on-call rotation.

You will build innovative automated solutions and tools to help debug and resolve problems in production and prevent them from recurring. Further, you will proactively seek out system weaknesses and find ways to fix them before they cause production issues using monitoring data, watching trends, and using Chaos Engineering.

Responsibilities

  • Keeping your assigned site or service up and running or getting it back up and running quickly when failure occurs
  • Working closely with internal partners and teams to ensure that we ship software that meets security, SLA, and performance requirements
  • Writing, updating, and using documentation, including runbooks/playbooks
  • Automating work including infrastructure needs, testing, failover solutions, failure mitigation, and much more
  • Debugging complex problems across an entire stack and creating solid solutions
  • Developing CI/CD processes to improve cadence
  • Using Chaos Engineering to test what you build under real-world conditions

Key Skills and Attributes

Required

  • 7 years experience with software engineering, software development, or system operations
  • Excellent communication skills, both verbal and written
  • Knows their way around a Unix/Linux shell, can write shell scripts, and understands Linux internals
  • Experience debugging complex problems
  • Experience designing, building, and operating large-scale production systems
  • Knows Python, Java, Go, Rust, or similar
  • Understands networking and messaging, especially between services
  • Has hands-on experience using source control (Git, GitHub) and feature branching strategies
  • Has experience with a variety of open-source databases (MySQL, Postgres, Redis, Cassandra, etc.)

Preferred

  • Experience with DevOps engineering or SRE
  • Experience with containers, such as with Docker or Kubernetes
  • Experience with monitoring and observability such as with Datadog, Sensu, New Relic, and Nagios
  • Experience automating infrastructure, testing, and deployments using tools like Ansible, Chef, or Terraform and can explain the Infrastructure as Code paradigm
  • Experience with configuration management, such as with Puppet
  • Understands the idea behind Chaos Engineering, even if they haven’t yet implemented it themself

It’s not expected that any single candidate would have expertise across all of these areas - we’re looking for candidates that are particularly strong in a few areas, and have some interest and capabilities in others.

At [company name] our mission is to [insert company mission]. Our products help software companies [do something awesome] - thereby empowering businesses and individuals to [save time and money]. Our customers include [name], [name], [name], and [name]. [company] is a unique place to work and offers competitive compensation packages that include medical, dental, and vision benefits with flexible PTO and a 401k with company-matched contributions [up to X%].

[company] has a [industry] startup culture that emphasizes transparency, collaboration and career growth, with the ability to work on small, nimble teams. Employees are able to create change at scale and have an opportunity to truly disrupt and shape [industry].

[company] is an equal opportunity employer. Qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender perception or identity, national origin, age, marital status, protected veteran status, or disability status.

Learn more at [company URL].

Sample Site Reliability Engineer Interview Questions

Our sample questions do not form a complete set and we do not recommend that anyone use them without first looking at the hiring company and team needs. Modify the questions to help find someone who is a great fit for the role the team needs filled. Many would work well as DevOps interview questions as well. The big thing is to see how the questions may fit well into your interview process. Most of our sample questions are focused on the technical interview.

The goal of these questions is to help gauge a candidate’s knowledge, experience, and ability to interact with the interviewer while answering with technical competence and clarity. We wouldn’t expect any but the top candidates for senior-level positions to answer all of these, but how a candidate handles not knowing the answer with transparency and discusses how they would approach solutions is one of the most valuable indicators to look for in a job interview.

What is an SLO?

A service-level objective (SLO) defines the target availability (uptime) we want for a system or service. We define reliability as meeting our SLOs.

Follow up: What is an SLA? An SLI?

A service-level agreement (SLA) is the uptime promise that we make to a customer. These are often legally-defined with penalties for missing the target availability. For this reason, SLAs are generally set using figures that are easier to meet than SLOs.

A service-level indicator (SLI) is something you can measure with precision to help you think about, define, and determine whether you are meeting SLOs and SLAs. They are generally reported as the ratio between the number of good events divided by the total number of events. A simple example would be the number of successful HTTP requests / total HTTP requests. SLIs are frequently reported as a percentage with 0% meaning everything is broken and 100% meaning everything is working perfectly.

What is a linked list?

It’s a data structure where each data element is a separate element in a list. Elements are connected (linked) using pointers. The list starts with a head, which is a reference to the first node in the list. The head is followed by nodes, which include a data element and a reference to the next data element. The final node, the tail, includes the data element and a reference to null, indicating the end of the list.

Name some other data structures.

Queue, stack, heap, hash table, binary tree, etc.

Depending on your needs, this could be followed up with a question about data algorithms.

What is DNS?

This is a BIG question and it will be interesting how the candidate answers. Ultimately, you aren’t looking necessarily for comprehensive knowledge, but rather whether they can name the main points of interest and do so with clear definitions.

The domain name system (DNS) is a decentralized naming system for resources connected to the internet or a private network. These resources are assigned internet protocol (IP) addresses, which are defined strings of unique identifying numbers that follow a precise format. However, humans cannot feasibly remember IP addresses, so DNS allows the assigning of a human-readable name, such as google.com, to use in place of the IP address.

They may also talk about IPv4 versus IPv6, DNS records and the fields involved and how to create one, nameservers and decentralization and the existence of a set of canonical root nameservers, queries, caching, primary versus secondary DNS settings, reverse DNS lookups, DNS zones, and security concerns. All of these are important, but you are really looking at whether the candidate understands the big picture and how they communicate it to you.

Name three types of databases and an example of each. Name some you have used.

They must name relational databases as one of the types, like MySQL, Postgres, Oracle and so on.

After that, we are looking for what sorts of other databases they may know of or have familiarity working with. The candidate should be able to describe the difference between each type they name. Here are some examples:

Key/value stores: BerkeleyDB, Cassandra, etcd, Memcached and MemcacheDB, Redis, Riak

Document stores: CouchDB, MongoDB

Wide column stores: BigTable, HBase

Graph stores: FlockDB, Neo4j, OrientDB

What is an inode?

An inode is a data structure in Unix/Linux that contains metadata about a file. Some of the items contained in an inode are:

  • mode
  • owner (UID, GID)
  • size
  • atime, ctime, mtime
  • acl’s
  • a blocks list of where the data is

The filename is present in the parent directory’s inode structure.

What’s the difference between RAID 0 and RAID 5 and when would you choose one over the other?

RAID 0 uses striping, which splits the data across two or more disks. RAID 5 is striping with parity, which provides some error detection. RAID 0 strictly emphasizes performance while RAID 5 introduces fault tolerance at the expense of somewhat lower performance.

If a filesystem is full, and you see a large file that is taking up a lot of space, how do you make space on the filesystem?

There are several options. We want at least one or something just as good. Perhaps follow up with a question about when/why their answer might be suitable and when a different option would be better.

  • If no process has the filehandle open, you can delete the file.
  • If a process has the filehandle open, it is better if you do not delete the file, instead you can cp /dev/null on the file, which will reduce it’s size to 0.
  • A filesystem has a reserve, you can reduce the size of this reserve to create more space using tunefs.

What are the most commonly used signals with the Linux kill command? What does each do? What is the default? When is each appropriate?

  • kill -15 sends a TERM signal, which attempts to gracefully stop a process. It is the default.
  • kill -1 sends a HUP signal, which reloads a process.
  • kill -9 sends a KILL signal, which kills a process.

You can follow this up nicely with a discussion of important system calls.

Give a definition of virtualization, containers, and Kubernetes and tell how the three relate to and differ from each other.

Bonus points if they start by talking about a bare metal server.

Virtualization installs a control layer on top of a set of bare metal servers to create a pool of resources from the combination of the physical resources of those servers. It then allows you to create “virtual machines” that have a varied combination of memory, storage, and processor resources according to need, each machine with its own operating system. Virtual machines can be created and destroyed quickly and easily.

Containers are similar, except they do not contain the base layer operating system. Instead the control layer provides the operating system access while also keeping the containers and their processes isolated from one another. Containers include software such as a microservice along with all of the software dependencies required to run that software. This provides isolation and flexibility.

Kubernetes adds an orchestration layer to containers, making the management of them, especially large systems, easier.

What is cloud computing?

Common answers are “using someone else’s computer” or running services on equipment in someone else’s data center. Follow up with a question about why companies use any of the various cloud platforms (save money, offload maintenance, etc.).

Please describe a problem you had to troubleshoot, how you went about finding it, and how you fixed it.

You are looking for their thinking process, their organization, and how methodical they are in finding problem sources. You are also looking for how creative they can be in solving them.

What are some common architecture bottlenecks and some possible ways to mitigate against problems?

Every architecture is different, so you are looking for them to mention networking problems, resource allocation, unusual service interactions, and so on.

What steps would you take to secure a container image?

Do the candidate’s steps match with your company’s? Close? Is the candidate open to suggestions or do they act like they have the definitive answer (like a know-it-all)?

How do you prefer to interact with team members? Describe your ideal team. Describe the best team you have worked with. Describe a time when you had a problem with a coworker and what you did to make the relationship work.

You want to learn about how the candidate thinks about interacting with coworkers to gauge how those thoughts fit with your company’s current culture as well as the culture you want in the future.

Guide Chapters

A primer on SRE for engineering leaders

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is the outcome of combining IT operations responsibilities with software development. With SRE there is an inherent expectation of responsibility for meeting the service-level objectives (SLOs) set for the service they manage and the service-level agreements (SLAs) we promise in our contracts.

SRE vs DevOps: Can they coexist or do they compete?

DevOps. Site Reliability Engineering (SRE). Are they different or just different names for the same thing? This article explores that question in depth by delving into each and then comparing them.

The role and responsibilities of SREs in software engineering

What do Site Reliability Engineers do and what exactly are they responsible for within an engineering organization? While the specifics will depend on your company, there are some general trends for how SRE teams tend to organize themselves. This article focuses on how SRE teams share responsibilities across members while at the same time recognizing the strengths each member brings to the team as they work towards a common reliability goal.

How to become a top notch SRE

You have some experience with programming or systems administration, development or operations, and now that you have heard about Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) you think this sounds like something you would like to do as your next step. This article will help you learn in greater detail what you need to know to not only be successful, but one of the best SREs.

How much money do SREs make?

Wondering about the average Site Reliability Engineer salary? Or how much top-notch SREs at best-in-class organizations are compensated? We did some research and are sharing our findings here.

Avoid downtime. Use Gremlin to turn failure into resilience.

Gremlin empowers you to proactively root out failure before it causes downtime. See how you can harness chaos to build resilient systems by requesting a demo of Gremlin.

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