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System administration skills are key to data center jobs

There are many jobs within the scope of the data center: operators, operation managers, system administrators and system programmers. Robert Rosen gives advice on the best data center career paths.

There are many jobs within the scope of the data center: operators, operation managers, system administrators and system programmers (who are sometimes lumped in with the data center). So, if someone wants to get into a data center career, that's kind of a vague thing. Consider all the things that data center managers have to worry about: power usage, backup power, hardware, software, data center design, etc. Those are exciting things to do. The key is to find the best career path.

Data center operators overtaken by automation

Everyone used to come in as an operator, which was considered entry-level. But the need for operators has dropped so much that there really aren't a lot of those people around. In some of those big companies there's still a lot of manual labor associated with the operations, i.e. loading paper and things of that sort.

But even that has dropped off because of these large laser printers that use huge rolls of paper. No one manually loads tapes anymore because tape libraries have gotten so big. Automation has taken over most of what operators used to do.

Think about the workers on the assembly line. Robotics came in and the need for production people plummeted. The same thing is happening in operations. What everyone is trying to do is get rid of the manual labor. That's why everyone is talking about the lights-out data center.

System administrator and system programmers

If you have the aptitude, the best thing to do is get some training and become an entry-level system administrator and work your way up there. I think that's a much healthier career path. Once you've done that, it opens up other doors. You can sort of slide over to computer security if you like. You can take another step further and go into programming. 

I view system administration and programming as the stepping stone for any IT career.
Robert RosenContributor


There is always a demand for good system administrators and good system programmers. This is different than just saying that there's a demand for those jobs. It took six months or more for my company to find a good system administrator. He just started, so it remains to be seen if he is a good one. A lot of people out there think that they fit the bill, but being a good system programmer or administrator is much more involved than just the technology; it's knowing how to use it: the discipline of when to apply patches, when do you test patches and all these other things.

Staying ahead of automation

I view system administration and programming as the stepping stone for any IT career. It gives you a great background and opens up a lot of career choices. It will help you get to know the security -- which, by the way, is certainly is the hot button right now and doesn't seem to be getting any better -- and the operations arena so you can continue to move up.

But if you want to be a pure systems programmer, I think you're going to plateau, because the need for those will go down. For example, Unix system administrators used to be required to go through a whole list of steps to create an account. Now, a lot of those processes can be automated.

System programming and a system administration is also the stepping stone that gets you into account management and networking, for which there will always be a need. But keep in mind that although pure system administrator and system programmer positions continue to exist, they will eventually decrease as automation encroaches on those fields.

System security depends on quality admin training 

If I look back to my previous job, we didn't have a full-time systems security person. A couple of system programmers did it as a peripheral assignment as part of other duties. Now you've got people working at it full time. Mind you, that was 10 years ago, but it proves the point that only 10 years ago a field developed from a side task to a full-time industry. Furthermore, all of those people working in that field came out of system administration and system programming.

Building on knowledge is a necessary part of IT training. When I was teaching computer classes, I had to know one level below what I was teaching in terms of detail. Some of the best application programmers I ever knew used to be system programmers. They knew beyond what the language was doing; they were able to optimize and improve their programs because they knew what was going on at the lower levels.

Always keep in mind the power of career networking. Besides taking the Windows server, Unix or mainframe administration course, getting involved with professional groups is the most important step a person can take. If you're in the mainframe administration business, and even some of the Unix career paths, SHARE is a great place to meet people and network.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Rosen is the immediate past president of SHARE Inc. Currently, he serves as the CIO at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, US Department of Health and Human Services.

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