Top 5 skills for systems admins to learn

If you're a sysadmin, there are some skills you can learn to improve your job performance. They can also help you grow in your career or take on a new one.

Gears and Skill Mechanism

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As a systems administrator, there's always a glut of work to be done. Depending on the workload, a never-ending stream of problems, issues, and concerns seemingly birth themselves from all angles. Because they have so much to do, SAs can fall into the repetitive cycle of jumping from one work order to the next, day after day, without carving out time to stay current with their skills or even growing them.

Having well-honed skills can help sysadmins keep current with tasks while becoming more in-demand when it comes time to change jobs.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The skills listed below represent trends that have been growing steadily and show no signs of a downturn anytime soon. With a number of resources available online and through instructor-led courses, SAs can obtain certifications to validate newly gained skills.

Virtualization

Virtualization has grown immensely and has been adopted by organizations of all sizes looking to shrink their existing infrastructure's footprint, increase operational efficiency, and shore up security. This has led to a number of advancements for multiple facets of IT, from networking to hardware management to containerizing applications and services that power organizations and their employees.

Virtualization technologies, such as those from Microsoft, VMware, Citrix, or KVM for Linux, offer a number of options that encompass virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), Type-I hypervisors for hosting multiple nodes from bare metal servers, and network functions virtualization (NFV) for advanced network management over virtualized instances. Additionally, applications like Docker and Kubernetes allow containerized apps to be quickly deployed, managed, and orchestrated.

SEE: Kubernetes security guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Certification paths to consider: VMware Certified Professional (VCP), VMware Certified Advanced Professional–Network Virtualization (VCAP-NV), Citrix Certified Professional–Virtualization (CCP-V), Citrix XenServer Certified (CC-XenServer), Docker Certified Associate (DCA), and Certified Kubernetes Administrator (CKA).

Linux

The open-source operating system is used for countless applications in organizations and commercial solutions worldwide—from hosting web sites and databases to powering network services, like DNS and LDAP—due to Linux's strong security, small footprint, and powerful, enterprise-class services. Since so many industries come to rely on Linux to power their services, including financial, banking, and e-commerce, there is a strong need for admins who can efficiently manage these systems. 

SEE: How to choose between Windows, macOS, and Linux (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Conversely, there is something of a dearth of Linux administrators, which only increases the demand for users with advanced Linux skills and knowledge. This makes a great choice for sysadmins looking to pivot careers, and potentially earn higher salaries by growing their knowledge base and extending their skill sets to include a few flavors of Linux. After all, once the core foundation of understanding is established, the differences between distributions will be easier to comprehend, requiring less of a learning curve.

Certification paths to consider: CompTIA Linux+, Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE), GIAC Certified Unix Security Administrator (GCUX), Linux Professional Institute Certification-2/3 (LPIC-2/3).

Programming and development

Software development has risen in popularity in recent years for several reasons, chief among them being the ability for anyone with a computer to access software development tools and instructional materials to begin learning a programming language and use it to develop their first application, web site, or solution. With the consistent growth of apps in the mobile device space, it is not unheard of for teams of developers to cobble together the next revolutionary app.

SEE: Learn Python: Online training courses for beginning developers and coding experts (TechRepublic)

Programming skills are and will always be needed by organizations to manage the workload required to ensure that websites remain secure and full-featured. Additionally, there is always a need for customized, proprietary software solutions for businesses of all sizes, including those familiar with systems administration, to implement automation and artificial intelligence (AI)-based coding.

Certification paths to consider: Certified Professional in Python Programming I Certification (PCPPI-32-Ixx), Amazon Web Services Certified Developer–Associate (AWS Certified Developer–Associate), Certified Chef Developer (CCD), Puppet Certified Professional, Ruby Association Certified Ruby Programmer Silver/Gold version 2.1, and Amazon Web Services Certified DevOps–Professional (AWS Certified DevOps–Professional).

Cloud

Cloud computing is to information technology as the final frontier is to Star Trek. The cloud is where organizations are migrating their apps, infrastructure, and services to maximize uptime, accessibility, and scalability. Though the cloud does not come without its inherent risks, for most, the trade-off between potential risks vs. benefits to the enterprise make the latter the clear choice.

SEE: Top IT skills for post-pandemic success (TechRepublic)

That said, cloud engineers and architects are highly sought-after and make for a nearly seamless transition for SAs with experience and knowledge in supporting traditionally locally hosted services, such as Active Directory, email, or storage solutions. Increasingly, other facets of IT are finding a home in the cloud, such as virtualization of devices and applications through the use of Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, or other popular choices. 

Certification paths to consider: Google Certified Professional Cloud Architect, Amazon Web Services Certified Solutions Architect–Professional (AWS Certified Solutions Architect–Professional), Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect Expert), and CompTIA Cloud+.

Security

Though it's last on this list it is likely the one with the greatest potential for growth because it can be applied to all tenets of information technology. With its own varying levels of complexity and difficulty, the security track touches every aspect of IT, making changing job roles easy, regardless of the initial starting role. Simply put, every device, application, service, function, and role in IT requires security—now more than ever.

SEE: Only 31% of Americans concerned with data security, despite 400% rise in cyberattacks (TechRepublic)

Security personnel are needed everywhere to keep systems safe. This means there is a great deal of flexibility when it comes to choosing roles in the security field that highlight your strengths and desire for career growth, including defensive and offensive security positions. Offensive cybersecurity professionals work to find weaknesses in software, exploit vulnerabilities, and even attack networks to assess security posture and readiness to defend against attacks.

Certification paths to consider: CompTIA Security+ (Sec+), CompTIA CyberSecurity Analyst (CySa+), CompTIA Certified Advanced Security Practitioner (CASP), Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP), and Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP).

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