IT Employment

Job snapshot: Systems Administrator

Have you ever thought about becoming a systems administrator? To get a reality check, here's some insight into the role from a working IT pro.

This is another installment of a series within the Career Management blog in which I feature a short survey of a tech pro in a particular specialty. It's not a comprehensive look, just a snapshot of what the person likes best and likes least about his or her chosen profession. I'm hoping it will give a little anecdotal direction to those of you who are just starting out in IT or are looking to change direction. (If anyone wants to talk about their job for the benefit of our readers, feel free to answer the three questions below and email them to toni.bowers@cbs.com)

This week's Job Snapshot is Systems Administrator, submitted by Rick Vanover, one of TechRepublic's regular bloggers:

What do you like best about your job?

The best part of the job is the satisfaction associated with a job well done. To be honest, administering a server isn't that exciting. Delivering top-notch IT services to either an internal or external customer that consistently exceeds expectations is a rewarding feeling. Simply put, delivering "customer delight" is the best way to go about system administration up and down the stack. There are benefits to this level of excellence, too. Your customers, peers and superiors will notice the extra effort and this will build both political capital as well as confidence when the system administration team needs to convince application owners of the importance of system-related topics. This includes conveying the importance of downtime for scheduled maintenance and the benefits associated with staying current on operating systems and service packs.

What do you dislike about it the most?

Like any other profession, when things go wrong. it becomes easy to be frustrated. Technology in any capacity can go awry. There are two main points that amplify the impact of technology problems. First, organizations have a higher reliance on IT services and secondarily, there is an increased resolution time expectation. Together, these two factors put system administrators in a pinch when problems happen. How we address these issues, however, is one of the cornerstones of our ongoing success.

What education/background qualified you for your job?

I have always felt that a successful IT professional is well-rounded in three key areas. These areas are formal education at the college level, on-the-job experience, and IT certifications. They are all important, though not equally important in some situations.

For me, experience landed me my first IT job. From there, formal education cemented an upward transition to another position. Another career opportunity was made available by an IT certification coupled with the experience in a hot technology topic, server virtualization.

System administration is unique in that many people (including myself) do not have formal education in technology, but wound up in the field. In one job I had, I (Business degree) worked alongside an archaeologist and chemist, both of whom had interests in Windows Server technologies, and we delivered outstanding infrastructure services.

The bottom line is that it depends on individual circumstances for every role, as well as how much of each category (formal education, experience, certification) is represented in a person's resume.

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About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

116 comments
santeewelding
santeewelding

In spite of your usual placidity, you had to be both colluding in this. You had to know beforehand what would become of it.

krefting.fred
krefting.fred

If you're doing a good job nobody thinks about you, which is good. You just need a good manager who tracks such things and can pass that along to upper management periodically. Fortunately, I work for such a manager. It's when the systems have problems that you get attention from the business areas. As far as experience: 1) Knowledge of the business needs so you can plan accordingly. 2) Programming: so you can write code to ease your work and understand what the programmers are going through. 3) Work well with people to earn their respect, even the difficult ones. Eventually most will come around.

kgunnIT
kgunnIT

I am relatively new to the SysAdmin with a college degree, but have not gotten around to getting any certs. yet. I have read mixed reviews on certificates and am not convinced that paying $100+ per certificate is worth the cost, as many have indicated here. Honestly, I have learned more from doing my job than I did in college, "preparing" me for an IT job. I strongly believe that the learning never stops when working in the IT field, and if your not learning, your not doing your job. I spend every minute of downtime to review old material, read up on new technology releases, and strengthen my skills. I also spend that downtime to test fail-over systems, verify integrity of backups, and make sure I haven't overlooked any open doors in our network. I guess my point is, as others have stated, it's not all about the paperwork. I don't have any paperwork to present with my resume, I have experience. I can pass tests, I did it throughout school. The skills I use most today didn't come from passing a test, but instead come from the knowledge and skills I have learned on my own, after college.

yattwood
yattwood

A SysAdmin is someone who can restore a server at 2 AM when someone else wiped the root directory out, can recover files from a month ago, heal the sick, raise the dead and kick locomotives off of tracks. All while never getting more than a "Meets the requirements" rating, on call 24x7, 365, unpaid overtime and no comp time.....

3_jeeps
3_jeeps

Hmmm from the article title, I expected something with a bit of 'meat' in it. First of all, "sys admin" is really an imprecise title - perhaps a list of tasks they actually perform would be useful, but that varies according to the size of the corp. Secondly, the insight from this article is so broad, you could substitute "accounting" "HR" or "Librarian" into the title. Which makes me want to ask why go through this exercise in the first place? Peoples' time is wasted reading fluf!

dcolbert
dcolbert

Answer to the Daily Digest email subject: "[TechRepublic] What does it take to be a systems admin?" Bad career planning and a lack of other viable options. :D Just kidding! I love being in an industry widely regarded as a cost-center, where corporate bean counters are constantly trying to figure out how to off-shore more staff, leaving reduced skeleton staff to respond 24x7x365 days a year to situations that can't be resolved from half-way around the world. I love deploying automation solutions that reduce head-count, and knowing that if I am *really* good at my job, I'll probably end up reducing my OWN head count, too. Deploying a server and then weeks later noting that an entire area of cubicles is now empty and barren is so personally fulfilling. Especially when you know your CEO earned $13.3 million dollars in 2005 (Yeah Craig Barrett, I'm lookin' at YOU...). It is exciting working in an environment where churn is constant, re-orgs are always looming, and every new CIO to come down the pike wants to take you 180 degrees from the direction you've been working for the last 18 months. Nothing is more rewarding than being hired for my technology expertise, and then constantly being second guessed by every non-technical person in the organization from the mail-room to the CEO because they "don't trust IT technobabble". One of the most satisfying parts of the job is being told that a particular solution must be provided, researching that solution, presenting that solution, and being denied based on budget, but being told that you still have to make the solution happen. When I McGyver a solution out of duct-tape and bailing wire to provide a kludge that breaks best practices for architecture and security simply to save money, I sleep well at night knowing I've delivered another job well done. Well, that isn't true - because I'm on-call 24x7, so when the kludge breaks at 3:30 AM during a blizzard, I generally have to get up and go in to fix it, for no extra pay. Sorry... that is my cup of bitter for the day. :) There are good parts to the job... I'm just having a bit of trouble thinking of them this morning.

tee_whun
tee_whun

One question: please explain how "experience" can get you your FIRST job in any profession. If you've never had a job like that before, how can you have any experience?~!

cwill
cwill

and one of the reasons I love my job is because of all the variety. I may not be an expert in all areas but I've certainly had experience in many things. In my situation, I am the only IT person within the organization so I'm expected to do it all. If it plugs into a wall I get called. Of course, one of the down sides is you typically only hear from people when there is a problem they need you to solve.. NOW! But, that's the job. I think it is almost impossible to define the job because expectations widely vary depending on the organization. You have to have the social skills to dumb down technology to some end users (without making them feel dumb) yet be tech savvy enough to get the job done.

patclem
patclem

When I used to do SA work, the exciting stuff was pleasing my end users. But, I used to enjoy the feeling when I learned something new, installed and went LIVE, and everything worked! There's a great deal of stress when a system goes down, and you get it all back up with great skill because you prepared. Getting into project work, things get bigger, understanding the business, solving business problems with technology. Careers advance. As a manager, you can't get the same kind of satisfaction from a Excel spreadsheet, employees griping about minutia, trying to keep your team busy and them and yourself employed, plus all the other stresses of managing, let me tell ya.

parkerkael
parkerkael

Hm, so this post till didn't tell me about what a systems administrator needs to know to do their job. An "I like my job because..." doesn't tell me a thing about what is concretely involved, nor what they concretely need to know.

SMparky
SMparky

Coding experience is not needed by a systems administrator any more than you need to know mechanics to drive a bus. Too many people become sys admins and assume it's an offshoot of a computer programmer. It's not, even though we deal with a lot of software. If you want to be an applications administrator then coding is definitely needed, but a sys admin is a full time job without being a programmer. My background is in electronics. Similarly I could tell people you need to have electronics experience to work as a sys admin so you understand bus types, static electricity, microprocessors, etc. But I'd be wrong. That may be useful and having extra skills will definitely help, but being a programmer is no more required as a sys admin then great typing skills. (Or if it is required maybe I've been lucky in my 20+ years of non-coding since it's never been a requirement at all for any of my jobs). My last coding was assembly language and Fortran far too long ago to remember).

gechurch
gechurch

At it's most basic level a system administrator is someone who looks after servers. They keep them running, if they're lucky they get to set them up, and if they're really lucky they recommend what to get and how to implement it. I do the system admin work for companies that are big enough to need a server or two, but not big enough to justify having a part- or full-time administrator of their own. I spend my time jumping between about 7 different companies. For me, being a system administrator means (in vaguely this order): * Checking event logs and looking up errors codes. * Testing backups to ensure they can be restored * Document IPs, server names, software versions and product keys, passwords, server specs and other general 'bigger picture' items * Checking logs for anti-virus and anti-spam software. * Checking CPU and RAM usage, and disk space. * Liasing with 3rd-party software vendors when upgrades are needed or things go wrong * Communicating with clients, proposing upgrades, explaining technical stuff in 'human' format * Researching MS updates, restarting servers to apply them * Research licencing (you'd be surprised how much of a big deal this is) A lot of the above is done remotely, which I'm sure is common across all sys admins. Because I work for small companies, I do a fair amount of desktop support (installing software, fixing error messages on client software, adding printers, looking at the projector in the board room etc). I also don't have to do things that admins in larger companies do. I'm lucky that I don't often have to touch SQL, I can generally restart a server overnight without having to worry too much about consequences etc. It's true that you have to know a bit about a lot of areas (most IT jobs have this in common). In the last week I've written an IT disaster recovery plan, quoted for a new client to upgrade from a workgroup to a domain with two virtualised servers (this is a big topic at the moment), researched VoIP options here in Australia, and learnt more than I care to know about licencing (I'm still fairly new to the job so don't know all this stuff yet).

nathanl
nathanl

After 22 years in the private sector I now work for local government in a small shop where they actually listen to me. But your story triggered my PTSD from my previous life. In addition to what you said, I remember the third-party contractors brought in to question your judgement, only to drop them and leave you to fix their mess, but don't get me started.

TexasKAT
TexasKAT

Were you in my meeting yesterday? You nailed the McGyver down pat! Only, I am the female version ;). For me, add to that having no respect from the many men who don't like a girl telling them how to do things. The good parts of Systems Administration? I work in government and I can usually blame it on the network. :) Have a better day.

yattwood
yattwood

Tell the truth....and, one could walk on water, kick locomotives off of tracks, heal the sick, raise the dead, but let a server go down (even for a mechanical failure), and The Spanish Inquisition (waits for red-robed figures to appear :-)) begins: "why did you allow this to happen? how come you didn't see that the motherboard/service module/etc was going? how are you going to make sure this never happens again?" I've done SysAdmin and DBA, and it can be a very thankless job, but I do enjoy that New Server Smell, the little 'thunk' the styrofoam packing makes when you lift the server out of the box, the wading through the packing...however, in this Era Of Outsourcing Everything - it's been a long time since I've had the pleasure of installing a new server! And, I spent a very Geek Valentine's Day - I was at my desk, at 5 AM, Pacific Standard Time, because there was a planned Data Center Outage, and I had to shut Oracle down on several servers, clean up some filesystems, reorg and tune another database, etc, etc, etc - and I was there for seven hours (and being salaried exempt, naturallly I was not paid overtime nor given compensatory time off....ah, well)

3_jeeps
3_jeeps

Troubleshooting a obscure problem with a network or server with absolutely no insight from a vendor and user feedback is useless. Only to be asked by some upper level manager who biggest contribution to the org is trying to do more with less (people), "why did it take 'so long'".....

mconley
mconley

Man you made me laugh....Yes there are other people in this world that enjoy the same punishment. Overall after 14 years ...I wouldn't have it any other way...

christianshiflet
christianshiflet

That's funny...I don't remember writing this but it sure sounds like me. Weird. What am I thinking right now?

eeastman1
eeastman1

Sorry I just have to say that is so close to what a sole sysadmin is in any given corporate environment. I feel yer pain. :)

mlouie
mlouie

It is hard to get into any profession without experience. When I tried to get a job in biology after graduating with a biology degree in 1980, I could not even get a temporary job because I had no experience. The way I got enough experience to break into IT was by working for myself. I did PC consulting/training and I just had to be one step ahead of my customers, to be able to help them. And I can figure out technical things on my own, which many computer users can't do. Then I took some network admin courses at the local community college to expand into computer networking. After finishing the courses and having 5 years experience computer consulting, I managed to land an entry level network admin/PC support position for a small company. The hiring manager was willing to take a chance on me, after I'd been turned down for numerous positions due to lack of experience. The first 6 weeks I was absolutely floundering because I'd studied Novell Netware in school and now was running Windows NT 3.5 servers instead. This was 1995, before the Internet existed, so I got technical help on CompuServe forums. Fortunately, my manager had an attitude that "if you're not making mistakes, you're not learning". The company had tuition reimbursement so I went to graduate school for a masters in Telecomm (which allowed me to take lots of networking courses, without having to become a computer programmer). I also obtained an MCSE in NT 4. I was laid off from that company a year and a half later but that gave me my break into the profession so that I was able to get subsequent jobs without too much difficulty. In my current job, which I have held for 9 years, I work for a small company (60 users) and do both sys admin and PC support, a combination I like, because I enjoy the user interaction and the users are very appreciative. We (the IT dept) not only support anything that plugs into the wall (as someone posted here), but assemble furniture and handle facilities issues (like contacting bldg management if someone's office is too cold). It never gets boring! I really enjoy working for small companies--though there is not enough budget for everything that is needed, it seems like management is very appreciative of the efforts of IT folks and there is a lot of variety in the job.

tfox97
tfox97

If you think you can only get experience by being hired for a job, you are not the kind of person I was looking for back when I was hiring. I looked for someone who had enough passion to have done things on their own - as a hobby, volunteered with a non-profit, etc. Success stories from some prior job or educational project were great, but I wanted someone who had a sparkle in their eye when they described something they had done - just for the joy and challenge of it.

cwill
cwill

Expierience is desired but because you might not have much you will come cheap. They often will train you and pay for your certs. Plus, it is a huge crash course in technology!

Geek Gurl
Geek Gurl

I work for an SMB and I also have to know a little bit about everything. If it has batteries or plugs into a wall, it eventually finds it way to IT. There are two of us in IT. The IT Director takes the strategic planning, SQL servers/databases and financial issues, where I do more of the actual system/network administration and support, especially with our remote locations. I'm also the company trainer. I haven't been in IT as a career for as long as most of you; however, I worked for many years as a Field Service Engineer for a major corporation and spent another 10 years in the Financial industry. In the beginning, I only tinkered in IT because I loved it and found it fascinating. I took some classes in IT, but I've learned more from my Director (whose been in IT since the days of frame relay and beyond). We still have some very old technology here that you can no longer learn in a class, but must be learned from someone who actually worked with it when it was the latest and greatest technology. He hired me as a trainer and part time user support, but I've taken on more of the actual SysAdmin duties as I gained knowledge of our environment. This has freed him up in order to do what he should be doing as a Director, strategic planning and phasing out our old technology in order to secure the future of the business. He recently told me that my ability to think and work logically through a problem to its conclusion makes me more valuable than all the credentialed SysAdmins that can't resolve their way out of a paper bag if it's not in a book. He also told me that a really good SysAdmin knows something about everything rather than being a specialist, especially in an SMB. Real world experience is just that. You can't learn it from a textbook or classroom. When's the last time a class room had a server running MAS90 and ArcServe 4.x along side a box running the latest version of MS Server or ZenServer/VMWare as well as a couple running Win98, Win 2k or Win NT, AND 3 versions of SQL Server, all in the same data center? School only teaches you the latest and greatest. There is still a lot of the old boxes and OSs out there, especially in an SMB and this economy. If you are fortunate, like I am, to work for someone who's been in the business since the days of punch card prgramming and frame relay, you'll still be able to learn this "old" technology that is still very much in use in the real world. Thank you to all of you punch card programmers and frame relay engineers still willing to share your knowledge with those of us who do not have the same number of years as you but are willing and eager to learn, even if our parents couldn't send us to learn how to party for four years. :)

Mike
Mike

Come on Parker get real! Sys Admin is a position that requires true knowledge i.e. experience. Data ( facts from books, etc.) helps but is just the beginning. I would say that it would be next to impossible in such a small space asnwer your question. Why not try inviting your company's Sys Admin out for coffee or lunch or how about "mentor" with him or her for a short while. That should do it.

Rolland St-Onge
Rolland St-Onge

Basically, to be the sysadmin in a smb, you have to have a very good understanding of network technologies, applications configurations and management, security and hardware management. You also have to be a baby sitter for all those users who don't know how to do any other thing but use the same interface every day. You also have to know a good deal about other technologies according to the area of business of your company. (Retail, in my case, require knowledge of P.O.S, integrated scale system, telephone and paging system.) So basically, you have to be able to pickup a book, study the new trend, understand it and be able to evaluate if it's something that could benefit the company and it's users. Ironically, you also have to be able to do the same thing when the president comes up with a newspaper clipping about the "new technological gadget" and ask if it would be a "cool thing" for the business. (i.e: the new IPAD!!!) Oh yeah, all this as to be done with a minimal budget, of course!

Imprecator
Imprecator

A sysadmin doesn't NECESSARILY need to know how to code. But it can help a lot. To automate tasks and to provide the "glue" needed to have two apps talk to each other. SO any good sysadmin should at least know a decent scripting language. Just ask Microsoft, took them close to 10 years, but they finally figured out that a SERVER Admin needs a scripting language to get things done.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Outside Consultants. "We've done a careful study, and this is everything that is wrong with your organization. Here is our fat bill, get your IT staff to correct these issues"... Except, they're the same things your IT staff has been *telling* you need to be fixed - but that you denied the budget to fix. So how can you justify paying a consultant 3 times an hour what you pay your average IT staff, to tell you the same thing? "Well, it sounded much better when someone that EXPENSIVE told us that it was a problem". Corporate America frequently baffles me.

tricia.hicks
tricia.hicks

I deal with the same issues being a female in the industry. I tell em' "Don't let the high heels fool you". Honestly I've been in IT for 12+ years and I usually only notice the lack of respect coming from newbies to the industry.

dcolbert
dcolbert

LOL... I evidently hit a nerve. At an employer that will go nameless, I saw a bunch of guys outside with hardhats and a backhoe, getting ready to dig a new ditch near the business park where our offices were located. I casually mentioned, "Well, this'll end up in a fiber cut". When it actually happened 15 minutes or so later, I literally got the inquisition. "If you *knew* it was going to happen, why didn't you DO anything to stop it". *sigh*... Trying to make them understand that backhoes near office parks inevitably equal fiber cuts, was just beyond their ability to grasp. "Listen, let's say we KNEW for a fact, that our network lines went out to the East of the building, and they were digging to the WEST of us... ok?" "Yes..." "Ok, well, what would happen, is that the trunk line, despite us being certain it was on the East side of the office, would now BE on the West, and they would dig through it." "That is impossible". "I know, but that doesn't stop it from being true". "I hate IT guys... You never make sense". "I know. Next time bring your kid, and I'll chain them to something immovable in front of the backhoe. That might buy us some time". "Are you being facetious with me?!?" :)

eric.weis
eric.weis

The dirty but true side of a SysAdmin job! Wizard of all Master of none...I have 26 yrs in ITS, six and half years of College courses, uncountable one or two week 'boot camp" unfathomable one or two day seminar and not one Degree or Cert to hang, often called upon to explain vaporware, everyone?s emergency contact (higher the management the more often it is a person and not company issue) and one of the first to have their budget cut.

pmolina
pmolina

Building around the whole chicken or the egg discussion of how do you get experience: a great interview question I got while trying to get my first job was: how many computers do you own. They made me stop enumerating at 8. Got the job, now I have experience.

Matt_P
Matt_P

I'm glad see that someone else shares this same view. The people who sit back and wait for things to come to them are just not suited for a job in IT... (good or bad, it is just the way I see it)

rhino777
rhino777

Excellent post! I did want to mention though that Frame Relay is still in use (especially in rural areas) and I was using Frame Relay as recently as 2005 at a previous position...it's definitely outlasted the punch card...hehe.

efehling57
efehling57

Couldn't have said it any better.

IronCanadian
IronCanadian

That it also had to be done yesterday. =)

Imprecator
Imprecator

Well, it's a cycle (actually an infinite loop), the thing is most people who are in it don't see it :) Just like when a machine doesn't know when it's stuck in infinite loop if you catch my drift..... ;)

dcolbert
dcolbert

I thought that part was implicit. :)

Imprecator
Imprecator

management will quickly and efficiently transmit the "get your IT staff to correct these issues" but will NOT approve the budget for it. So the thing continues till the next fat consultant shows up and makes his/her report......

mlouie
mlouie

I am a female in the IT industry as well, for 20 years now, and the only time I encountered lack of respect was with a college intern who worked for me one summer. Everyone else has treated me with respect, in fact, it seems like the guys are thrilled to have a woman around in such a male-dominated field.

TexasKAT
TexasKAT

At least the heels come in handy for kicking a bit of respect into the complacent ones. ;)

tricia.hicks
tricia.hicks

I wish everyone felt the way you did. Unfortunately that isn't the case. There are simple minded people in this world that believe their perception is reality.

Imprecator
Imprecator

Perception is for Marketing. When push comes to shove the only things that matter in this side of the business are: Reliability, Availability and Scalability. And those things care little if you carry heels or not ;)

Imprecator
Imprecator

I have been sent to that kind of nonsense in the last 10 years so many times I've lost count. Guess I am too primitive to transcend the fact that no matter how matter how much silk a monkey wears IT'S STILL A MONKEY.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Our book club read about swallowing frogs (biggest, ugliest frogs first) and going to the top of the mountain with an old man and coming back way, way too happy. I had dreams that I am absolutely sure qualify as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome for a couple of years after I left Intel. The thing that makes it funny is that I'm not kidding. :)

Imprecator
Imprecator

Keep that up, and they'll make read Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence" 10 times in a row. And after you're done with it, you'll have to read "Who moved my Cheese" 20 times in row. :)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The routers in my stores are all old Bay/Nortel units and every one of them runs in frame relay. Reliable as h3ll, too. In five years, I've only had 2 calls where the router itself was at fault, and one of those just needed a good cleaning, inside and out.