Interview question of the week: a user has no Internet access.

On the front lines of the help desk, you’ll frequently be called upon to troubleshoot connectivity issues, which makes this question one you should fully prepare for.

Pro tip: you can press space bar when you see this error message for a quick game featuring that little dinosaur.

If you’re interviewing for a help desk or IT support job, I’d be highly surprised if you didn’t get asked this question by your interviewer. I’ve asked it for every IT Support Interview I’ve ever conducted. The way I ask it is:

A user tells you that their computer is not able to connect to the Internet. How would you handle this?

This is an awesome question for an interviewer to quickly assess your troubleshooting skills. How awesome, you ask? Let me count the ways!

  1. You’ve probably already troubleshot your own connectivity issues at home at some point, so this question is valid for an interviewer to ask you even if you have no experience.
  2. While the problem is basic, you can demonstrate how deep (or shallow) your knowledge of troubleshooting is by how deep you go into fixing this issue.
  3. You can use your answer to show that you know the proper troubleshooting order. For example, you’ll check that the Ethernet cable is plugged in prior to re-installing the network driver.
  4. This question will give you the chance to differentiate yourself from 95% of all other interviewees because you’ll ask clarifying questions before jumping right in.

That last point is the most important part, in my humble opinion, so let’s start with that.

Imagine that you bring in your car to a mechanic with what you think may be a dead battery. The mechanic takes your car, changes the battery, and charges you $100. When you get back into your car, you find that it still won’t start. Irritated, you head back into the shop and he shrugs. “You told me the problem was with your battery, so that’s what I fixed.”

At this point, you’d probably (rightfully) think to yourself that this was a pretty crappy mechanic, right? True, you thought the issue might be with the battery, but the mechanic’s the professional. Why did he/she assume you had accurately diagnosed the issue instead of asking clarifying questions?

When you troubleshoot any computer issue, don’t be like this mechanic. Before you take any troubleshooting steps, make sure you’ve accurately diagnosed the issue. When you’re in front of the interviewer and you’re told that the user can’t connect to the Internet, don’t just blindly accept that. If your grandmother Tilly told you the Internet was broken, you’d probably ask a few questions first, right? (The snark in me would ask: “Grandma, is the power out at your house?”)

So, let’s look at a sample interaction between you and the interviewer:

Interviewer: A user tells you that their computer is not able to connect to the Internet. How would you handle this?

You: Is the user in front of me or are they calling in?

(I forgot to mention that you can also ask the interviewer clarifying questions. Do so!)

Interviewer: They’re in front of you.

You: Great, I ask the user to show me the steps they’re taking before seeing the issue.

(This is called “duplicating the issue.” It’s a very important troubleshooting tool that you should know about and use. Basically, you’re asking the person reporting the issue to show you how they hit the error. A lot of times, the error isn’t occurring with the computer, it’s occurring between the computer and the chair. In other words, it’s something the user’s doing wrong. Duplicating the issue allows you to spot if that’s what’s going on.)

Interviewer: They type in the URL for Facebook and hit enter. After a few moments, they get an error message.

(Notice the interviewer didn’t tell you what the error message was. Not clarifying some more would be a big mistake here.)

You: What does the error message say?

Interviewer: It says: “Your IT department has blocked this site.

You: Ok, in that case, I try to type in a known good site. Does your company have a webmail portal? Or, for the sake of this question, could I assume that I know of at least one website that would definitely not be blocked?

Interviewer: Sure, we have a webmail portal online.

You: Perfect. I try navigating to that.

Interviewer: It works.

You: I explain to the user that Facebook is blocked, but that the Internet appears to be working just fine for other sites.

Look at that – it wasn’t a connectivity issue at all! Imagine if you had spent valuable time troubleshooting the wrong problem here? It’d be a waste of everyone’s time.

There’s really no way to tell which direction this question will go ahead of time without knowing what solution the interviewer has in mind. In the above case, I used a very realistic example – a user fails to read an error message that tells them exactly what the problem is and then proceeds to assume that they know what the problem is. However, in most cases, an interviewer will want to see your troubleshooting skills, so let’s run through another example that leads down a different path.

Interviewer: A user tells you that their computer is not able to connect to the Internet. How would you handle this?

You: Is the user in front of me or are they calling in?

Interviewer: They’re in front of you.

You: Great, I ask the user to show me the steps they’re taking before seeing the issue.

Interviewer: The user types in the address to our webmail portal. After a few moments, they see an error that shows a little dinosaur and says: “No Internet.”

You: Do users here normally connect with WIFI, ethernet, or both?

(You need to know what to troubleshoot, right? Make sure you ask this, as not every company uses WIFI due to security concerns.)

Interviewer: We have WIFI available, but company resources are available only on the wired network.

You: I check to see if I have connectivity. If I do, I plug in their computer into my port and then try a known good URL. I’ll also pay attention to the connectivity icon in the system tray to see if there is an exclamation mark or anything else showing a connection issue.

(It’s really important to be able to rule out physical issues when troubleshooting. That’s why you’re using your own Ethernet port here – after verifying that it works for you. If it’s working for you and doesn’t work for the user, you know the problem is isolated to their laptop. If your port’s not working, there’s no sense working on the user’s laptop any further. Your company is having connectivity issues!)

Interviewer: Your port works just fine for you. However, when you plug them into it, you see a yellow triangle with an exclamation mark. You still get the same error message when you try to go to the webmail site.

You: I unplug their computer and switch to WIFI. Do I still see the yellow icon?

(Here, you’re trying to isolate the issue by switching to another connection method.)

Interviewer: No, the icon looks normal.

You: I try a few sites that I know should work. Do they work?

Interviewer: Yes, you can hit a few sites.

You: Ok, I’ll stay connected using WIFI. I press start and type in “device manager.” I delete the network driver and reinstall it. I then plug back into the ethernet cable. Does it work now?

(Staying connected to the Internet using WIFI will let you reinstall the physical network driver by downloading it from the Internet. If you’re not familiar with the process of re-installing a driver, you should walk through that a few times to be familiar with it prior to your first interview.)

Interviewer: Yes, that did the trick.

You: Great, I let the user know that the driver had become faulty and had to be re-installed.

(That last part is important. It’s always nice to let the user know what went wrong. It shows the interviewer that you not only possess technical skills, you also possess soft skills too. Soft skills are things like knowing how to speak using terms that are easily understood, knowing how to work with difficult people, and other non-technical skills. Sadly, soft skills are sometimes lacking in the IT field. If you have them, you’re ahead of the game. If you don’t have them, get them!)

There are other possible issues that could be causing connectivity problems, and covering them all here would make this post entirely too long. However, I do want to briefly cover some miscellaneous items that are useful to know (both in general and for this interview question specifically.)

  • Re-installing Windows is not an acceptable way to troubleshoot this problem. Never offer that up as a solution! Doing so shows that you’re not able to troubleshoot effectively.
  • Saying you would notify the Network Administrator without having taken extensive troubleshooting steps looks extremely bad here. The network admin has more important things to do than troubleshooting basic issues! They should only be notified if you’re sure that the network is having issues.
  • Loss of connectivity is sometimes due to a physical issue. For example, the NIC card (Network Interface Card) may go bad. NIC cards can be switched out of desktop computers easily, but you should know that they’re soldered on to the motherboard in laptops. So, if it turns out that this is the issue while you’re answering this interview question, you could show that you’re aware of this and offer a cheaper alternative to the company. For example, you could say: “It looks like this may be a physical issue with the NIC. Unfortunately, that would involve replacing the motherboard since it’s soldered on. Since this is expensive, I’d first see if there’s a retired laptop chassis that I can use. I’d make sure it’s the same model as the user’s laptops so all the drivers work correctly. Assuming there’s one available, I could switch the user’s hard drive into the other chassis to leverage the working NIC in that laptop.” This is a great answer because it shows off your in-depth knowledge while also showing that you’re a good steward of the company’s money. Win!

Spend time researching all the various methods of diagnosing and troubleshooting connectivity issues and make sure that you’re 100% comfortable answering this interview question. As with any other interview question, I’d advise you to create a note card for it and jot down all possible fixes as bullet points. Start with the easiest fixes (EG “check that the cable is plugged in”) and go all the way down to the most invasive fix, such as switching chassis. You should study all your note cards every day while job hunting so that the answers you want to give because second nature.

Now get out there and ace that interview!

With each post, I cover a new topic to help you get your start (or keep progressing) in your IT career. If it’s your first time visiting this blog, start here. Or, see all my posts about interview questions you should definitely be prepared for.