The United States Labor Department announced in October 1999 that unemployment was at a 25-year low. While this prosperity is great for the country, it makes the already tough job of filling open help desk positions even tougher.

Gone are the days when a hiring manager could flip through resumes and rule out candidates simply because they might not have the correct experience. Now, employers must interview virtually all reasonable applicants in hopes of finding diamonds in the rough, or at least a cubic zirconium. It’s difficult but not impossible.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to find a good help desk analyst is that this position requires wide-ranging skills. In addition to basic technical ability, help desk analysts must possess strong communication and problem-solving skills. Help desk managers also need analysts who like working with people and can adapt to very flexible work schedules.

Here are 10 questions that can help you pinpoint just those traits. Including these questions in your interview should add only about 20 minutes to your current routine and will tell you a great deal about each candidate.

1. Can you work this weekend?
This is a great question to ask early in the interview. Watch closely for an initial reaction. Obviously the candidate will be surprised. You haven’t even offered the job and now you want to know about this weekend. Since most help desk analysts have to work odd hours, you want the candidate’s first response to be a resounding yes. Something like “I’ve actually already promised to work at my current job for some of this weekend.” “When exactly do you think you need me?” is good, too. What you don’t want to hear are excuses that explain why the applicant isn’t available.

2. Tell me about your current job. What do you like about it? What do you dislike?
This is another good question for weeding out those applicants who just won’t want to deliver. While “heads down” programmers are great, the help desk needs analysts who enjoy talking to users. Avoid candidates whose favorites have more to do with the systems than the users. Good answers indicate that the applicant enjoys talking with users or investigating tough problems.

3. What kind of people are your current users? Do you like them?
This sounds like a dumb question. Who’s going to say they hate their current users because they’re terrible people? Actually, I’ve known that to happen. The applicant had little patience for needy users and didn’t mind telling people. Patience is a virtue desperately needed on a help desk.

4. What was your best subject in high school?
Don’t let cliché questions put you off. Just because people expect a question doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot from their answers. Obviously the applicant wants to impress you and may say something like “computer class.” That’s not a bad answer, but people who liked math should be quite good at problem solving even non-math problems. Also, applicants who admit to liking English will have the communications skills you seek.

5. What operating system do you prefer and why?
You probably don’t really care what operating system anyone prefers. However, you do care that anyone you hire knows about operating systems and is able to articulate why one or another is preferable.

6. What role do you think computer support analysts should play in the company?
There are a lot of good answers to this question. The important thing here is that the candidate mentions the needs of the users in his or her answer and not just the systems.

7. Assuming you have to work for a living and all jobs pay the same, describe the job you want (don’t say this job).
Question seven is similar to question two in that you’re looking for an answer that includes people. Support analysts must deal with users day in and day out. The job is a lot easier for someone who actually likes to work with people.

8. I would like to set up a second interview with our evening supervisor. Can you come back this evening at 7:00?
Once again, this is not about the evening supervisor. The answer should help you judge how flexible the candidate is and how well he or she handles less-than-ideal situations. Obviously, you should only ask this question if you are giving second interviews and you have someone available at 7:00.

9. Write a paragraph explaining how DHCP works.
This task is good for both experienced and inexperienced candidates. It seems like a test of knowledge, but actually it’s a test of communication skills. If the candidate admits no knowledge of DHCP, explain it to him or her and then request the paragraph. If the candidate returns a well-written explanation, this person could be a good support analyst.

10. Complete the following word problem.
At 7:00 A.M., a train leaves Palo Alto, CA, carrying 30 passengers with laptop computers and a lot of work to complete before they are due at their respective offices. At 7:15 A.M., the train arrives at the San Jose station (20 miles away). During that time, eight passengers completed their work. Of the remaining 22, 10 completed 40 percent, eight completed 50 percent, and four completed 80 percent. How much further must each group travel before they have enough time to complete the work they each have due?

And the answer is…

Not a lot of people are going to be able to answer question 10 correctly, but that’s not really important. The point is for the applicant to see the humor in being asked a train question on a job interview. Not being ruffled and giving the correct answers would be great as well, but not any more important. In case anyone needs to know, group one only completed 40 percent of its work and must travel 30 miles further. Group two completed 50 percent and must travel 20 more miles and group three completed 80 percent and have five miles to go.

Ask away
Obviously each manager is going to have his or her own interviewing technique that shouldn’t be replaced. These questions should be used in addition to those that you have developed over the years. The combination and a lot of patience should make the search for the newest member of your team a great success, and maybe even a little fun. To share your thoughts about this article, please post a comment below.

Pat Vickers is an MCSE who is currently with Sprint.