In pursuing new incident response roles, job candidates may find themselves fielding interview questions likely to challenge even highly experienced IT security practitioners. Hiring managers sometimes contrive stump-worthy questions to separate the most skilled candidates from the pack.
Preparation is key, as such questions are often challenging in ways that aren’t entirely intuitive. For example, they may include erroneous or misleading information, have multiple right answers or aim to test something other than the obvious.
With this in mind, below are 30 incident response interview questions one might encounter in the wild. Bear in mind, the goal of this list is not to serve as a complete catalog of every possible question. Rather, it is to maximize the likelihood of answering any given question clearly and successfully.
Common incident response interview questions
Note that most incident response interview questions fall into several broad categories. These include the following:
- Technical questions. Technical questions reveal how well candidates understand the technology landscape — tools, hosts, applications, etc. — they would encounter on the job at a given organization.
- Ethical questions. Ethics-based questions aim to assess how well someone’s moral compass aligns with the organization’s expectations.
- Culture-oriented questions. Culture-oriented questions try to elicit what type of people candidates are — i.e., their personalities — and how well they might complement the existing workplace culture.
- Brainteaser questions. Brainteaser questions evaluate a prospective employee’s ability to approach challenges with curiosity and creativity and solve problems on the fly.
By considering the type of question, an incident response candidate can better understand the interviewer’s goal in asking it and respond accordingly. Always answer honestly, of course, but be alert to what you can highlight along each of the following axes:
- Does your response show a full understanding of the technical space?
- Does your response demonstrate adherence to the ethical framework the organization expects?
- Does your response align with the culture the organization embraces?
You’ll notice some of the below incident response interview questions are generic in nature — that’s by design, as interviewers will likely put their own spin on them. Some may refer to branded incident response technology or products that are specific to organizations’ preferred incident response tool sets, IT environments, business contexts, etc.
While we’ve aimed to order these sample questions from easiest to hardest, where a given question falls on the difficulty spectrum is subjective. A straightforward, fact-based question is, of course, challenging if you don’t know the material. On the other hand, it has a single, definite answer, and what the interviewer wants is clear.
By contrast, a question such as, “If you were a Star Trek character, who would you be?” — a real question I’ve gotten in an interview — would appear later in this list because it does not have a clear right answer. Rather, the way you approach your response would matter as much as or more than the answer itself.
1. How does <some aspect of TCP/IP> work?
Among an incident responder’s most important tasks are examining the technology ecosystem’s components and their interactions and looking at traffic patterns to monitor for and resolve potential security-relevant events.
An understanding of network functionality is, therefore, foundational. If an interviewer asks any technical questions, assume at least one of them will be an in-depth question about the operation of a network protocol. The question might focus on any of the following levels of the networking stack:
- High — e.g., “How does the TLS handshake work in TLS 1.3?”
- Middle — e.g., “How does the TCP three-way handshake work?”
- Low — e.g., “What are the elements of an Ethernet frame?”
The only way to prepare for such questions is to know the material cold. If you don’t, now’s a good time to bone up. To refresh your memory, consider looking at some packet capture data, perhaps using a tool such as Wireshark, or reviewing a book such as Mark Sportack’s TCP/IP First-Step, which explains the topic in depth. As you prepare, quiz yourself, and practice explaining the material to someone else.
2. How would you break into <place, application, system>?
On its surface, this seems like a strange question. After all, why would incident responders, working on the defensive — i.e., blue team — side of the house, need to break into the IT environment?
In security, however, attack and defense are two sides of the same coin. The better that incident responders can anticipate the tradecraft — i.e., tools, techniques and procedures — of attackers, the better they can equip themselves to understand top security threats, likely attacks and — by extension — possible indicators of compromise. In short, to understand the blue team side, one has to understand the red team side.
Because of this, interviewers often ask how you would conduct an attack yourself. It’s a clever question because it asks you to simultaneously demonstrate the following:
- Your knowledge of adversary tradecraft and the mechanics of an attack kill chain — i.e., the chain of events necessary for an attacker to take action on their objectives.
- Your knowledge of defensive techniques, which you must try to avoid in your hypothetical attack.
Contrary to what many assume, most interviewers asking this question in incident response interviews don’t necessarily expect right answers. Rather, they’re looking for a candidate’s ability to do the following:
- Think creatively.
- Recognize potential weaknesses in the IT environment.
- Understand how technologies and components fit together.
Bearing the above in mind, a useful strategy for answering this question is to describe your thought process. Go into detail about different approaches you might take, their pros and cons, how and why you might be detected or thwarted, etc. It’s OK to mention a suboptimal strategy — for example, one that might be difficult to pull off in reality — as long as you do the following:
- Describe it clearly.
- Recognize and acknowledge its challenges.
- Note the resources required to carry out the attack.
- Indicate how incident responders might thwart your efforts.
3. How do you accomplish <task> using <tool>?
Interviewers often ask candidates how they would perform some common incident response task using a given tool set. Consider the following examples:
- How would you export syslog data to another system?
- How would you generate a list of running Docker containers?
- How would you view an endpoint’s software inventory in Spiceworks or another IT change management tool?
- How would you delete a malicious email flagged in the mail system?
This kind of question falls on the easier side of the easy-hard spectrum because it’s binary. Either you know the tool — and, therefore, the answer — or you don’t.
Realistically, though, it’s not feasible to be familiar with every tool in existence. The tool set you use in your current job likely differs from the one your potential employer uses for the same purpose. In that case, offer to explain how you would accomplish the objective with the tool you do know.
Savvy interviewers favor candidates who understand technical concepts over those who know which buttons to push on a particular tool. Competent incident responders can quickly pick up the minutiae of a given security product — i.e., how to use it — as long as they understand the purpose behind its functionality — i.e., why to use it.
4. What does this screen capture of <tool> tell you? What would you do next?
Certain categories of tools are fundamental to incident response, such as protocol analyzers, scanning and data gathering tools, and logging tools. It should come as no surprise then that they often show up in incident response interview questions.
Interviewers might, for example, show you a screenshot of output from a tool such as a network protocol analyzer — frequent choices include Wireshark, TShark and tcpdump. They would then ask you to identify the tool, explain the meaning of the output, decide whether it indicates a security issue and describe how you would approach remediation or further information gathering.
This kind of question can be, frankly, difficult to answer. Again, you can’t reasonably expect to have in-depth knowledge of every existing tool, which means you must be strategic about which ones you study and how you prepare. Bear in mind the following points:
- If you list a tool on your resume, it’s fair game for an interviewer to ask about it — and your proficiency should be such that you would recognize and understand a screen capture of its output.
- If you don’t list a given tool on your resume and the interviewer references it anyway, be honest that you don’t know the tool well. Clearly articulate where the boundaries of your knowledge begin and end, and speak to what tools, methods and processes you do know.
An additional note: Many interviews feature questions based on open source security testing tools and networking tools. So, if you have more time to prepare, you might build up at least a passing familiarity with some of the most popular ones, such as Wireshark, Nmap, ping and nslookup.
5. Write a script [or execute commands] to do <task> on <platform>.
This question is similar to the previous one, except it asks you to author commands or write a script to accomplish some task — usually on a platform such as PowerShell on Windows or Bash on Linux — rather than to demonstrate detailed knowledge of a particular product. This question is a little more challenging because multiple paths for accomplishing a goal with a script usually exist.
Questions such as this one test your ability to use the tools at your disposal — i.e., native tools built into given platforms — to gather data or effect remediation and recovery and to do so in an efficient, automated way. Play to your strengths by referencing the environment you know best. For example, maybe you’re not much of a whiz with Bash, sed or AWK, but you’re a cool hand with Python or Perl.
Also, don’t be shy about asking for clarifying details and additional data. And remember: Since this is typically a time-bound activity under pressure, interviewers usually — at least in places where you’d want to work — align their expectations accordingly. Even if your approach is not the most efficient or optimized, that’s OK; don’t freeze up if you can’t accomplish the task perfectly in 10 minutes. Just do what you can, and be prepared to articulate how and why you did it.
6. Where and how would you gather information about <topic>?
This question can take many forms. Interviewers might show you a screen capture from a given tool or describe a scenario with incomplete, partial or seemingly contradictory information. In either case, they would then ask you to describe the process you would use to research the issue at hand.
They might, for example, ask you to describe how you would go about looking into whether a given executable is malware, whether a particular site is trustworthy, whether a log entry is concerning, etc. Near-infinite versions of this question exist.
Much of incident response hinges on quick, effective and accurate research. The goal in answering this question is, therefore, to demonstrate critical thinking skills and the ability to understand and communicate which sources are reliable and which aren’t.
Bear in mind that the resources you use regularly might be unfamiliar or unavailable to an interviewer — maybe because it’s part of a commercial service they don’t subscribe to or because it’s bundled with a product they don’t use. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have a few equivalent, universally available resources in your back pocket.
For example, even if you typically use the malware testing sandbox that comes with your managed detection and response subscription, basic familiarity using VirusTotal for malware samples or the National Vulnerability Database for vulnerability details can demonstrate flexibility and a broad knowledge base. Regardless, be clear and direct about your approach. And, if you find a particularly valuable resource, highlight why it’s useful — if you can turn the interviewer onto a new tool, it will count as points in your favor.
7. Write a regular expression to find or do <something>.
While most incident responders hate sorting through log data, doing so is a part of the role — making the ability to use shortcuts to help you find what you’re looking for a must. As a result, creating — and, sometimes, reading and unpacking — regular expressions often comes up during the technical vetting portion of job interviews. It’s useful, therefore, to have at least a passing familiarity with how they work and how to write one.
Interviewers probably won’t expect you to demonstrate mastery of advanced constructions, but you should at least be able to do the following:
- Search through log information for specific patterns, both case-insensitive and case-sensitive.
- Search through log information for ranges of possible values.
- Work with positions using anchors — e.g., start of line, end of line.
- Account for white space, escape characters, etc.
Note that this question is not a given, so don’t overprepare if this isn’t one of your strengths. If it better suits your abilities, be ready to explain how you’d use some other tool to accomplish the same goal.
8. Will you walk us through how you handled the most recent incident in your current role?
On its surface, this question looks like a softball. But it can be a potential trap — even when the person asking it doesn’t intend it as such — for two reasons.
Firstly, you are often highly limited in how you can answer. Since the interviewers almost certainly have your resume, they know where any event you reference likely occurred. Ethically, however, you need to keep your current employer’s sensitive information private.
It is absolutely critical to remember this: Never give away proprietary information, divulge anything damaging or sensitive or otherwise provide any details your organization wouldn’t want you to share. It’s OK to talk about generic issues in the abstract, but always afford your current employer the same respect for privacy that this employer would expect from you.
Secondly, recognize that the incident response process at your current firm may not be universally optimal. While some organizations have reasons for doing things in certain ways, they may not align with incident response best practices, and the same processes could be inefficient or problematic elsewhere.
It’s, therefore, important to talk not just about how you worked a particular issue, but also about how and where you think it’s possible to improve or streamline existing processes. Again, don’t give away specific, proprietary or sensitive details, and never bad-mouth a past or current employer. Rather, use broad strokes to describe how — in a perfect world — you might do things differently or suggest improvements.
Depending on the type of issue and its sensitivity, you may need to punt on this question. If you need to do so, tell the interviewers why — e.g., confidentiality, ethical considerations, etc. — and offer to relate the details of another past incident that wasn’t quite as sensitive. Sensible employers should understand and recognize your discretion as valuable since it’s how they’d expect employees to treat them, too.
9. Demonstrate how to do <task> in our range, lab or learning environment.
In some respects, this question is a variant of question five — i.e., “Write a script [or execute commands] to do <task> on <platform>.” Because of its relative difficulty, however, we’ve elected to cover it separately and in detail here.
In this scenario, the potential employer gives you access to a test environment, such as a learning lab or cyber range, and challenges you to accomplish a particular task. For example, they could ask you to determine which of a set of VMs has a malware infection, based on its behavior. You may have access to some rudimentary tooling or the built-in capabilities of the tool set in the environment.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to prepare for this kind of interview question. Ideally, you might spend some time brushing up on your hands-on skills by practicing and watching how-to or instructional videos. If you do so, bear in mind that many ranges and virtualized environments tend to lean heavily on open source security tools for cost control reasons. So, focusing on open source investigation tools could prove advantageous — e.g., open source intrusion detection systems, such as Snort, Suricata and Zeek, security platforms, such as Security Onion and Kali Linux.
But, that being said, don’t overprepare. This type of question is relatively rare in an incident response job interview, and the universe of possible tools is so vast that you risk investing time in skills that won’t help you in the long term.
10. How do you resolve <ethical quandary>?
Counterintuitively, ethical questions can be among the most difficult to answer, as they can prove surprisingly nuanced and complex.
For example, imagine the interviewer at a managed security service provider (MSSP) asks the following: “What you would do if you discovered your company accidentally put a client at risk, due to a failure or oversight relating to a service or tool the MSSP supplies? Would you tell the customer? If so, how would you do it? And, if not, how would you proceed?” Such questions directly pit the business interests of the organization against the most ethically appropriate path.
The culture of the organization matters here, in addition to your own worldview. For example, when I worked for a large MSSP — where we asked a similar question to the above during job interviews — the right answer was to alert your manager and inform the customer. I’m sure some employers would consider failing to inform the customer to be the better answer, although, frankly, I wouldn’t want to work there.
Ultimately, there’s no easy way to prepare for these types of incident response interview questions, as each one is different. The trick is to fully flesh out the parameters of the question by asking for additional data about the incident and responding honestly about how you would approach it.
11. Are you the type of person who [xyz]?
This question aims to solicit who you are as a person to see if you would fit in culturally with the organization. It’s difficult to predict the specifics of these questions in advance since culture varies so much from organization to organization.
To successfully answer culture-oriented questions, learn as much as possible about a potential employer before the interview. Research the organization itself and, if possible, the interviewers. A quick glance over the company’s website and the interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles can offer solid insight into what they likely value, enabling you to highlight ways you would be a good fit.
An additional note: Intimidating as these culture-oriented questions might be, keep in mind that, as an incident responder, you are a buyer in a buyer’s market. Because of the skills gap and the hiring challenges employers face, candidates can often afford to be a little choosy when it comes to the jobs they accept. Consequently, the interview process is as much about potential employers trying to impress candidates as vice versa.
Pay careful attention to what cultural questions interviewers ask because they can tell you a lot about an organization and what it’s like to work there. Be critical and objective, and remember that it’s much better to find out an organization isn’t a good fit for you before accepting a job there.
General interview questions
In addition to the incident response-specific interview questions above, candidates should also prepare to answer standard, cross-field queries. In answering these, you ideally offer personal examples or anecdotes to illustrate your points, giving the interviewers greater insight into who you are, how you think and what you value.
Common interview questions include the following:
- Tell us about yourself.
- Why did you decide to become an incident responder?
- What are your responsibilities in your current role?
- Why are you looking to leave your current employer?
- Why do you want to work for our company?
- What do you like best about incident response?
- What is your greatest professional strength?
- What is your greatest professional weakness?
- Tell us about a time you made a mistake at work and how you recovered.
- What would you do if you faced a technical problem you didn’t know how to solve?
- How would you handle conflict with a co-worker?
- How do you handle stress?
- Do you work best as part of a team or independently?
- Of which professional achievements are you proudest?
- How would your peers and managers describe your communication skills?
- What are your career goals?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- What are your interests outside of work?
- What questions do you have for us?
Additional tips for answering incident response interview questions
In preparing for incident responder job interviews, consider the following additional tips.
Study incident response frameworks
Brush up on incident response frameworks from information security standards organizations such as NIST, ISACA and ISO. The ability to reference these in passing — even if interviewers don’t ask direct questions about them — demonstrates an understanding of the broader discipline of cybersecurity and where and how tasks such as incident response fit into the bigger picture.
Ask for more information
Remember that you can always ask for clarification before responding to a question. In fact, doing so is a near-must in answering many brainteaser-type questions.
Consider, for example, a question such as, “Why are maintenance hole covers round?” The best response depends on whether the interviewer is approaching the query from a manufacturing perspective, i.e., minimization of deviance during manufacturing; a safety perspective, i.e., minimization of the chance for the cover falling through the open aperture; an engineering perspective, i.e., minimization of warping or misalignment in cold temperatures; or some other perspective entirely. Without clarification, you could waste 15 minutes expounding on the metallurgical and materials science properties of maintenance hole cover manufacturing when the interviewer wanted to discuss safety considerations.
Lastly and crucially, always be honest. If you don’t know the answer to a technical question, say so — and then follow up by sharing what you do know about the topic. Explain clearly where the boundaries of your knowledge end, and be clear about which part of your answer you know unambiguously and what is speculative. You might also highlight your ability to quickly learn new skills.
Trying to bluff your way through a technical question is one of the worst things you can do in an incident response interview. If a potential employer catches you — and someone eventually will — it’s usually a deal breaker.
Stating frankly that you don’t know something, on the other hand, can sometimes even work to your advantage. It establishes you as the kind of person who assesses your own limits objectively and communicates honestly and effectively. These are rare attributes and ones that people — especially those on the best collaborative technical teams — respect.