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What are the top skills for systems administrators?

Do you have the skills to compete in the systems administrator job market? What are the top technical and nontechnical skills you need to get hired?

Do you know what it takes to compete in today's systems administrator job market?

A system administrator requires many skills, not just technical ones. And these days, technical skills are not necessarily the driving factor in choosing which person to hire. So just what does it take to get the kind of position you really want?

Customer service skills. A system administrator (or system admin) constantly interacts with people, responding to their problems (and resolving them), and attempting to keep the customer happy. Make no mistake -- these are your customers, even if they are in the same company.

Ability to work under pressure. A system administrator's job can be a pressure cooker at times. When the system goes down, it may be that 3,000 people have their work affected and the president of the company starts looking over your shoulder, asking when it will be up. The company may also lose drastic amounts of revenue as long as the system is down. It may be that the company is asking for everything even as they are unwilling to pay for it. Can you handle the pressure?

Writing skills. Being able to write clearly translates into writing IT documentation that can be used and understood easily. This directly affects the bottom line when the pressure is on and the documentation needs to be understood quickly.

Disaster planning. Murphy's Law states that "Anything that can go wrong, will." And Murphy's Corollary states that "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the least convenient time, and in the most inconvenient way." An admin has to have thought out all of these possibilities -- and what might happen -- and be prepared for it. This requires the ability to think through all possibilities and to plan for them.

Person-to-person networking. This means the skill of being able to make and keep contacts everywhere. As a system admin, your network can be a set of people who can help troubleshoot problems. Also, the possibility exists that one may be laid off or let go, and a network of contacts will assist in getting a new position.

Troubleshooting skills. Given a problem, how do you come to the resolution? Some problems are tenacious and can challenge your technical skills. Normal problems in your IT infrastructure call upon your abilities to troubleshoot and to fix the problem in a speedy manner, so keep your abilities top notch.

Learning skills. Are you able to learn new things rapidly and without guidance? This career requires both. You will sometimes be called upon to do something that you haven't yet learned, whether it's installing a new product or troubleshooting a new product.

Technical skills. Are your skills up to date, current, and in demand? These skills are called upon daily for a system administrator, and should be current.

When choosing a career in system administration, there is also the area of specialty and whether the skills are in demand. Windows system administrators are in demand, but they are also everywhere, so competition among new hires will be fierce. Certified Netware Engineers (CNEs), who were in great demand 20 years ago, are nowhere to be found today, and Netware is being phased out. Unix administrators (and positions) are fewer and harder to find than Windows administrators. Of course, pay scales reflect all of this as well.

Tips to be the best system administrator

  1. Learn a popular operating system that companies use. Windows Server is in this category, but so are Oracle [formerly Sun] Solaris and Red Hat Enterprise Linux.
  2. Learn a system that a few (but not an insignificant number of) companies use. OpenVMS falls into this category, as perhaps does SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and MacOS X Server.
  3. Learn the system in-depth. Don't just learn how to install the Linux kernel; learn how to write your own modules. Don't just learn how to use OpenVMS's DCL; learn how to write programs in it and use all of its features.
  4. Read the manual cover to cover. This ties in with the previous item -- reading the manual will help to teach you all the tips and tricks.
  5. Learn the shell inside and out, frontward and backward. This is true for Windows, but also for UNIX as well.
  6. Learn from the experts. Experts can be coworkers, classmates or posters on Usenet.

Examine your skills and the emerging market before deciding on a system administrator career, and you will be better able to compete for those positions.

About the author:
David Douthitt (RHCE, LPIC1, SCSA, Linux+, CNA) is a UNIX Systems Administrator for a major healthcare software company. His blog is Unix Administratosphere, where he continues to write on UNIX, Linux and OpenVMS. He has also written two books on system administration. He still has his copy of Red Hat 2.0 and 4.4BSD.

This was last published in March 2008

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