10 ways for system admins to remain relevant

​System administrators may become obsolete if they don't invest time to build new skills. Focus on these 10 priorities to stay competitive.

10 ways for system admins to remain relevant ​System administrators may become obsolete if they don't invest time to build new skills. Focus on these 10 priorities to stay competitive.

The IT field looks bountiful for system administrators (sysadmin), with plenty of on-site and remote opportunities available on Glassdoor.com and Ziprecruiter.com (It's worth noting the ZipRecruiter states the average pay for Linux sysadmins is $102K versus $76K for Windows sysadmins, so Linux skills are clearly leading the charge in terms of offering value to organizations.).

However, companies are always seeking ways to cut costs and simplify operations. Due to evolving technological processes such as machine learning and DevOps, system administrators may face an uphill climb to remain relevant.

SEE: Telephone interview cheat sheet: Field/systems technician (Tech Pro Research)

As long as priorities align between individual and organization, sysadmin jobs won't be endangered.

Future priorities

Not every system admin role is the same, but as one myself, here are the ten priorities I plan to focus on this year to hone my skills and maintain a forward-thinking mindset to help future-proof my career.

1. REST API calls

REST API (Application Programming Interface) calls involve a command line (e.g. scriptable) way to obtain or change information by accessing a remote set of resources or objects. For instance, this could mean firing off a command which will list virtual machines hosted on a resource, change user information, display or enact new parameter settings, and more.

In short, it's a way to simplify operations via repeatable processes, which can quickly achieve desired results without a lot of clumsy pointing and clicking.

There is a good Reddit thread, which covers the concept in greater detail from a sysadmin perspective. You can also find a basic tutorial guide here.

2. Automation

Doing the same tedious tasks over and over again is not only a soul-crushing waste of time, but it can lead to errors and lost productivity. Automation using tools such as Puppet, Chef, and Ansible helps reduce performing routine steps and frees up sysadmins for more meaningful and detail-oriented work.

A configuration management tool like Puppet can help you streamline server builds, for instance, by automatically installing software and creating user accounts.

However, these types of tools can do a lot more. They can apply certain settings, auto-generate SSL certificates, create files with specific permissions, for example. Whatever you can learn to configure with them you can automate, so this is a great opportunity to discover how to streamline your job and quit the "Groundhog Day" woes.

SEE: Research: Automation and the future of IT jobs (Tech Pro Research)

3. Simplification

The more complex your environment is, the more headaches you will have trying to automate processes and functions. That's why my pet peeve with some scripting languages is that you can spend more time troubleshooting problems than if you manually performed the functions its supposed to handle.

Let's say you have an environment with multiple "password islands" (places where you must authenticate using separate credentials). You're guaranteed a devil of a time dealing with setting up similar accounts, working with SSH keys for passwordless access, handling authentication failures, troubleshooting account lockouts, arranging password resets, etc. Instead, place all of those islands under one umbrella (such as within one unified Active Directory domain) before streamlining operations through automation. Your sense of patience—and sanity—will thank you.

And if you can't automate or simplify it?

4. Self-service

Some IT responsibilities involve fielding requests from the user community for new accounts, password resets, virtual machine snapshots, or new operating systems/ reimaging of existing operating systems, to name a few.

Where possible, look into ways to provide users with the ability to conduct these requests themselves (within reason; you don't want them awarding themselves inordinate resources such as 500 Gb of RAM).

For instance, it's possible to use VMWare's vRealize to allow users to self-provision virtual machines as needed. Microsoft Identity Manager can allow users to reset their own passwords as needed.

Regardless of the process or operation you turn over to the user community, a solution likely exists. A little (or even a lot) of research, planning, and execution can pay dividends for your productivity down the road.

And if all else fails...

SEE: IT leader's guide to Agile development (Tech Pro Research)

5. Delegation

No matter how adept your automation and simplification may be or how well you've implemented self-service solutions, some processes will invariably wind up in human hands if (or when) all else fails.

Take account lockouts and password resets, for example. No sysadmin over the age of 25 should waste their time dealing with user accounts issues or setting passwords. It's career-crippling.

Delegate such annoyances to the help desk, intern, or get creative and recruit someone interested in helping such as a receptionist or HR representative. The sooner you put the words "I forgot my password" in your rearview mirror, the faster you accelerate towards a productive and enriching career.

6. DevOps

DevOps is hard to pin down to a particular definition, but in general, it refers to tighter integration between operations and development referencing (and relying upon) the agile development method.

The Agile Admin states "there are three primary practice areas that are usually discussed in the context of DevOps:Infrastructure Automation - create your systems, OS configs, and app deployments as code.

Continuous Delivery - build, test, deploy your apps in a fast and automated manner.

Site Reliability Engineering - operate your systems; monitoring and orchestration, sure, but also designing for operability in the first place."

Whether DevOps is really a thing or just a way of repackaging standard approaches remains to be seen, but I intend to familiarize myself with it and see where it heads.

SEE: Research: DevOps adoption rates, associated hiring and retraining, and outcomes after implementation (Tech Pro Research)

7. Cybersecurity

This one is a no-brainer. If system administrator jobs do indeed start to become scarce I intend to transition over to cybersecurity and will look into training and manuals this year to evaluate how to make the switch, as well as how to lay down the foundation to become more involved with the topic this year.

8. Artificial Intelligence

When I say I'm going to focus on artificial intelligence (AI) that doesn't mean I'm investigating or building a Siri or Alexa-type solutions for my technology environment.

Instead, I plan to focus on the machine learning aspect of AI, whereby certain products or services can analyze massive amounts of data and spot trends an average human wouldn't necessarily spot. For example, with network monitoring, machine learning can improve the accuracy and detail of alerts to filter out noise and let humans direct their attention to actual problems.

9. Programming Languages

I'm convinced that the best way to understand how to implement successful IT operations is with e a rudimentary familiarity with the functions underneath; namely, the code running or interacting with these processes.

I plan to achieve a basic understanding of the elements behind Java/Javascript, C#, C++, Python, Perl, R, SQL, and Ruby on Rails. Even just being able to meaningfully discuss the terms and concepts with these building blocks will be useful to develop a more holistic approach to comprehending how things work.

SEE: Hiring kit: JavaScript developer (Tech Pro Research)

10. Concentration

I threw this one in because as a habitual multi-tasker (as are many who work in IT), I find it hard to focus on one thing at a time, particularly in a busy office environment. I plan my work out methodically and try to handle tasks in order based on priority, but IT usually involves plenty of unexpected chaos and firefighting. Concentrating on single-tasking where possible and budgeting sufficient time to do so is a priority for me.

I've also found that office distractions are becoming harder to surmount to remain focused. Coworker conversations, outside noise, telephone calls, even an obnoxiously loud stairwell door, which constantly opens and closes, make it more than necessary to concentrate. Working from home helps, but if you have family at home (e.g. loud kids) this can put you in the same fix.

I've benefited greatly from the Unreal Ocean Wave Noise Generator, which I discovered recently. That coupled with a good set of headphones improved my concentration immensely. I highly recommend this (or a similar option) to stay focused.

Also see

istock-912636646developer.jpg
Image: Gorodenkoff Productions OU, Getty Images/iStockphoto

By Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.