The origin of SRE
Google is the mother of SRE as a concept and as a role. Not too long ago (in 2003), an engineer named Benjamin Sloss realised that Google’s reliability needs were larger than usual. To boost the company’s user experience, they needed minimal downtime and latency.
That’s when Sloss thought - “hey we need a specialised team for this!”💡
This is how the world’s first SRE team was created. Now every single tech company recruits for this role. And startups are no exception to this.
“SRE is what happens when you ask a software engineer to design an operations team.”
- Benjamin Treynor Sloss, Vice President, Engineering, Google
Working as an SRE at a hypergrowth startup or a ‘soonicorn’ can be absolutely life-changing and lucrative. As you might know, startups are full of new technical challenges. If you are a die-hard problem-solver like me, you’ll be happy that you chose a startup to work at in order to strengthen your skill sets.
What this guide covers
In this guide, I am going to take you through an in-depth interview prep roadmap of the SRE role, that will give you valuable insights on:
- What is the role of SRE all about
- SRE interview process at top Indian startups
- Topics you must study
- A fool-proof interview prep strategy to follow
- Common mistakes to avoid
- Myths around SRE - busted
- A final piece of advice
By the way, I’m currently building interview preparation solutions for candidates such as yourself. If taking a mentorship-driven interview preparation approach sounds interesting to you, do look us up!
What does the role of a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) entail?
In the role of Site Reliability Engineer, the notion of reliability takes precedence. An SRE ensures that software, once deployed, is absolutely reliable. This person works on improving and automating the operations cycle.
SRE as a team defines operational processes.
And as rightly stated by Sloss,
“An SRE team must spend at least 50% of their time doing the actual development work.”
So, one would think, isn’t it just a fancier name for IT developers? No, it’s not. As an SRE, two things are the most crucial for you:
- Driving system
- Service reliability
Here are the top 5 responsibilities of an SRE:
- Software engineering: Building software to help DevOps and other support teams.
- Support escalation: Fixing support escalation issues and ensuring system reliability so that there are minimal critical incidents in production
- On-call processes: Improving collaboration and incorporating automation into on-call responder teams
- Knowledge documentation: Keeping information flowing among teams and documenting findings gained
- Reviewing incidents: Identifying the problem areas, auditing past incidents, documenting their data, and optimising the software development life cycle
So, as you might have guessed by now, an SRE is someone who is in demand in every company that has or is planning to have a fully functional development team.
Now let’s get to know how SREs get hired.
SRE interview process at top-tier startups
Top-tier startups have now adopted an interview process for SRE that is similar to that of FAANGs or any other tier 1 and 2 tech companies. The newly budding and soon-to-approach hypergrowth startups, however, still seem to have a less streamlined approach to interview processes.
Here’s the step-by-step SRE interview process that is usually followed at top-tier startups such as Flipkart, MobiKwik, Nykaa.com, Swiggy, etc.:
- Resume review round
- Initial HR discussion round
- Technical rounds (two or three): Online assessment
- Onsite interview
- Hiring committee/behavioural round
Clearing all these rounds might take around 6 to 8 weeks.
Some minicorns and soonicorns follow this interview process for SRE roles:
- Resume review round
- Initial HR/Manager/Team Head discussion round
- Technical rounds (two or three): Online Assessment - sometimes followed by a cultural fitment round
- Final discussion round
These interview rounds may wind up sooner than the unicorn startups, approximately within 4 to 6 weeks.
No matter what startup you’re applying at, you might want to take prompt follow-ups and feedback with HR or your interviewer through LinkedIn and email (or call if needed). This conveys your genuine interest in a company and the role you’re applying for.
Topics you must understand to apply for an SRE role
Here are the top 6 topics you should start brushing up on right away if you’re preparing for an SRE interview.
- Operating Systems
- Cloud Providers
I've given a detailed topic chart below for your reference.
Now, to the most important part - interview preparation strategy.
SRE interview preparation strategy that actually works
At Preplaced, a platform where we’ve helped 2,000+ candidates get placed in their dream companies, we follow a similar but personalised strategy for our SRE interview preparation program.
Let’s see what that winner strategy is.
Ideally, I would suggest giving your SRE interview preparation a 2-month timeline.
As the first and foremost step, I recommend that you get your basics right.
Step 1: This is basic
- Study the company, its values and the latest updates. REALLY read the job description and see if you fit the criteria. Check what department and team you’ll be working with - is it a product development team, operations team or you’d be required to work across different teams?
- Build a robust LinkedIn profile and resume. Trust me, A LOT depends on this. This is another obvious statement, but do check your interviewers’ profiles and their career history on LinkedIn. If the company you’re applying to is an early-stage startup, do reach out to the founder members or the CTO. I’ve personally benefitted a lot from being active on LinkedIn.
Step 2: Start preparing for the technical rounds
- Now try to understand what the technical rounds at your target company/s would evaluate. It’s pretty simple. It’s everything you’ve already learned in your previous roles. If there is any theory or practical skills involved that you might be unsure of, get in touch with someone who has a good number of years working as an SRE and seek guidance.
- Feel free to download the topic chart above and start studying the topics one by one. Please remember that consistency is very important here. Treat your interview preparation like a project. Give yourself weekly tasks and goals. You can even use tools like Trello to track your progress.
- One of my favourite interview preparation resources is Github. You can go through these SRE interview questions on Github that come with explanations submitted by SRE experts. Finding trustworthy resources can be tricky, so it’s always better to have someone by your side to help you by sharing a specific list of reliable resources that suits your current skill set.
Step 3: Practise, practise and practise + Mock interviews
- Solve problems, as many as you can. There are diverse test platforms available online such as LeetCode, HackerRank, Coderbyte, GeeksforGeeks, etc. Gauge what real-life challenges you could encounter as an SRE and how you see yourself overcoming those.
- Practise SRE interview questions with a mentor or a peer. Practising only technical rounds is not enough. So, make sure you’re practising speaking and answering in interviews. To be able to optimise and automate processes, you need more than just a technical skill set. It’s a combination of tech and soft skills. Also, sometimes, you can have all the technical knowledge in the world, but what if you fail to present it effectively? Solution: Practising through mock interviews. Practising your answers beforehand can give you immense confidence. You can learn from your mistakes and perform much better in the actual interviews.
Step 4: Evaluate yourself
- It is crucial to find a way to evaluate your current interview and problem-solving performance. So, keep a note of all the boo-boos you’ve been making, especially the recurring ones. Try to learn from those and avoid repetition of errors.
Speaking of boo-boos, here are some of the common mistakes I’ve seen a lot of candidates make. You definitely want to steer clear of those.
Common mistakes to avoid
- Not paying enough attention to communication skills: SRE is a culture, not just a role. Applicants often forget that this is not your run-of-the-mill software development role. Filling the shoes of an SRE requires streamlining communication, verbal and written (in the document format).
- Restricting yourself to only certain tools and technologies: Technology platforms are things you can easily teach yourself or someone else who’s an expert in those platforms can guide you. So, do not limit yourself to a specific set of tools you might have used in your previous companies. Have a wide knowledge base that’ll prove to be sustainable in the long run.
- Preparing for interviews alone: I don’t recommend being a lone wolf when it comes to interview preparation. Preparation requires attention to detail, proper guidance, expert feedback and evaluation. The best way to prepare for interviews is to have someone who gives you some constructive criticism on your skills. A mentor can help you in numerous different ways right from resume-building tips and ways to frame your answers to transitioning into a new role.
Some myths around SRE - BUSTED
- SRE and DevOps are the same thing.
Not at all. DevOps teams focus on core development that supports speed, quality, and control. A DevOps engineer is constantly thinking of development, whereas, an SRE is busy working on improving the development cycle.
- Every SRE should be a DSA expert.
Not necessarily. Being a DSA expert is not mandatory. Having basic or moderate-level knowledge of DSA is enough.
- You can’t transition from a developer to an SRE role.
Not true. In an SRE role, there are 50% of development and 50% of reliability functions involved. So, if you want to transition from DevOps to SRE, that’s the most ideal. However, if you’re currently working as a developer, you can still apply for an SRE role.
- SRE involves a lot of operational work.
The role of an SRE combines architectural, development-related, and operational duties. It is never just operational. DevOps roles surely have more operational duties to fulfil than an SRE.
One final piece of advice from your fellow SRE
Interview preparation for this role is not paid much heed, but that’s where we’re going wrong. Being methodical in your approach and investing time in consistent efforts can actually get you placed in your dream company.
The role of SRE is an ever-evolving one. The way you, as a candidate are unique and come with your own distinct skill sets, every startup has its own different needs when it comes to hiring for an SRE role. So, try to understand the reliability needs of your target companies in detail.
Build rapport with the interviewers from day one. Connect with as many like-minded techies as you can. The power of networking and communication is potent.
And lastly, don’t shy away from asking for help when you’re preparing. If you’re feeling stuck in your interview preparation journey, you can always connect with our mentors and seek consultation. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn if you want. I’d be happy to help you out.
If you liked this interview preparation guide, I’m pretty sure you’ll like my YouTube video where I discuss this strategy and some SRE interview preparation tips in depth. Do check it out here.