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Career Roadmap: Systems admin role isn’t dead

Sharon Florentine | Dec. 13, 2016
Despite dire predictions, the role of the system administrator is far from obsolete. Nick Bush is a prime example of how the role continues to evolve and change while remaining critical to IT.

He was quickly hired by Meadowbrook Insurance Group, where he now holds the title of systems administrator, level 2. The company is headquartered in Southfield, Michigan, and currently operates about thirty offices nationwide; Bush works out of the Columbus, Ohio, office, where he supports around 200 users and manages many of the 80 physical and more than 200 virtual servers.

Focus on experience

That emphasis on skills and experience rather than formal education isn't unique to sysadmins or the IT industry, says Jason Hand, DevOps evangelist and incident and alerting specialist with collaborative incident management software company VictorOps. As sysadmin roles evolve, the education system hasn't kept pace, and so having that real-world experience is even more critical to a candidate's success, he says.

"In my experience, even nowadays, having that formal education, even having certifications doesn't help you as much as it used to, because so much of the success in the role can go back to cultural fit and experience. If we hire you, we'll send you to training and make sure you know what tools we're using, but what we're looking for is whether or not you have a growth mindset; do you know agile, Lean, DevOps? Are you focused on continuous improvement, and delivering great service? Do you have great communication skills? These are much more valuable than knowing you spent six months mastering one topic," Hand says.

Like Bush, a significant number of sysadmins have no formal training, according to a survey from IT infrastructure monitoring software company Paessler, which asked 650 sysadmins from 49 countries about their education, responsibilities and their everyday work, and a significant number have no formal training but instead have learned on the job. According to the survey, approximately 41 percent of respondents have an academic degree, while approximately 36 percent have vocational training and approximately 24 percent learned on the job.

"Even with formal training, learning on the job is a critical part of being a sysadmin. University training generally doesn't cover sysadmin tasks; vocational training would, but it would also be out-of-date quickly. So, in the end, all sysadmins are learning on the job, regardless of the training they had before. IT changes so fast that formal training of any kind becomes out of date quickly, so vendor training and vendor certifications fill the gap," says Kimberley Parsons Trommler, product evangelist, Paessler AG.

If you are going to get a formal degree with the intention of becoming a sysadmin or similar role, the best bet is to focus on the same areas of study as someone in DevOps would, since that's how sysadmin roles are evolving, says VictorOps' Jason Hand.


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