“How does the internet work”?

I spent the day interviewing a mixture of students who had applied for our industrial placement role, and graduates (or soon-to-be graduates) who are looking for their first professional job after university.

All were studying for or had studied Computer Science or a similar degree course.

One of the questions I often ask is along the lines of how you might help a user to debug a problem accessing certain online content. I’m testing their ability to think through a system in a logical order, considering the steps along the way, as well as their general understanding of what the internet is and how it gets to your house.

I’ve used a similar question for several years now, and only recently has it been the case that many candidates don’t really know where to start with the answer. I always start to give hints and suggestions if someone doesn’t get the answer straight off, but today I faced some really vague responses like “I don’t think they have taught us that” or “dunno, do they have satellites maybe” in response to a question about how data travels between your router in your house and “the internet”.

Maybe I’m getting old, or maybe it is the case that the generation that has grown up with always-on internet access, which generally works well, are more likely to take it for granted and never stopped to ask “how does it work”. Or, for that matter it seems, have never noticed overhead phone cables or a green cabinet at the end of the street (sometimes with a man sat outside frowning at some wires) or wondered what the “fibre” in “fibre broadband” really is.

If you want to go far in engineering, you need a curious mind – take a look at the world around you and ask “what’s that?”, “why is it there?”, “how does it work?”. And “why?”. Always ask why.