SysAdmin's Journey

Call for Comments: Help Advise an Aspiring SysAdmin

One of the things I love about blogging, and about the Internet in general, is that it makes the world much smaller. I’ve met so many people via my blog, it makes all the work pay off. A good example of a blog introducing two people just happened the other day. Andrew is an aspiring sysadmin who is moving soon, and wanted to ask me some questions regarding how to “break in” to a career in systems/network administration. In my response, I asked if he would mind if I quote our conversation and post it up on my blog, so that he could ask many of us the same questions at once. He agreed emphatically. So, click through, read Andrew’s questions, and comment away – what else are you doing on a Friday??? Andrew first sent me this email:

I’ve only newly discovered and came across your blog. I just read your About section and I loved it, as well as the other posts I’ve read from SAJ. I thought you’d be a good person to talk to about this. The purpose of this email is to ask for a bit of advice from someone having traveled down the same road I hope to. I first discovered Linux about late 2005 and played around with it, but never got around to seriously using it until about mid 2006. I’ve been a Debian (and Ubuntu) Linux user ever since (as well as casually seeing what’s new with OpenSolaris). Around the same time, I discovered a love for networking, despite not knowing much about it. Long story short, I’ve been wanting to start a career as a Linux/UNIX Network Administrator since then. I’ve come a long way since then, but I’ve still got a long way to go I’m sure. My girlfriend and I are moving out of Michigan to either Gainesville Florida, or Santa Rosa California. No matter where we move, I’m looking to break into the IT sector and actually starting my career. Thanks to an unfortunate niche I fall into with the US’s student Financial Aid system, I can’t really start attending college until next fall ‘10, so I’ve no college under my belt, and the bulk of my tech knowledge is self-taught. I’ll be taking my Network+ before we move, so that’s the only real credential I’ll have to put on my resume. My real question is, what advice would you give someone looking to get into this type of position? I’ve done my homework, and I’ve read a few books on both the technical and non-technical side of the job. I feel I know enough about what a SysAdmin actually does, and I haven’t been scared off by any of it. In fact, it sounds absolutely awesome. I figured I could get more by asking someone who does this for a living as opposed to some books and a ton of web-sites. I can’t seem to get my fill of learning and hearing about the job, so if you have anything to share, I encourage you to ramble.

I responded with this:

… Unfortunately, like many careers, “breaking in” to the market is often the hardest step. I might suggest trying to get a helpdesk/support job to start out with. Often times, finding a local ISP is a good place to start - that’s where I started. Since they are usually small, you can often get promoted quickly if you show potential. Most often, they are nix shops, and have a heavy focus on TCP/IP network troubleshooting. Unfortunately, the smaller mom and pop ISP’s are a dying breed since the cable and phone companies tend to buy them out. Usually, if you can find them, they are operating wireless ISP’s now. If you can’t find a suitable job there, look for anything as a junior sysadmin. In my opinion, the most important skill a sysadmin has is his ability to solve problems. Memorization can only get you so far - there’s too much information out there to memorize it all. Having the ability to troubleshoot a problem and quickly isolate it down to a specific subsystem is of the utmost importance. In my experience, something that often sets apart nix sysadmins from Windows sysadmins is their ability to build scripts to automate their jobs. If you haven’t already, pick up a book on shell scripting, and start learning how to write shell scripts if you haven’t already. To me, the most important personality traits are: 1) An insatiable thirst for knowledge, and 2) Patience. It sounds like you already have the first covered. Patience is required because computers are stubborn, and if you don’t want to burn out, you have to keep your cool. …

Andrew then wrote back:

… I really liked the tip about looking for smaller ISPs. When I was working for PC Club computers (not sure if you heard of them or not), the tech I replaced took a job for, a local ISP for the northern California area. Checking the Bay Area’s Craigslist, I see two job postings from Sonic looking for what seem to be basic Network tech skills (I should be a shoe-in if I pass my Network+). The Bay Area is also the only place out of Metro Detroit and Central Florida that have job offers looking for OSX server skills. A few are asking for ACSA certs. In either area, Helpdesk jobs are relatively easy to find and hopefully even easier to hire into. Actually now that I think about it, I remember all this buzz on CL about a MySQL developer job paying $11/hr in the Greater Detroit area. As far as skills go, purely for learning, I’ve been trying to setup an overkill home network to hone my skills using services like Apache, BIND, Postfix, MySQL, monitoring, etc. However, right now, my network consists of one machine; mine. A VirtualBox VM is my server, handling LDAP, DHCP, and DNS services. I’m trying to figure out ways to incorporate other popular services like MySQL, Postfix, and Apache, as well as monitoring. I know that shell scripting is a desired skill by many, but is there really a difference between knowing BASH scripts vs Python or Perl? I’ve never had much of an aptitude for programming. I tried reading a beginner’s type guide to C++, but I got lost after the introductory paragraph. I’ve always had an interest in Python and Java, but not for any particular reason. For a few years now, I’ve been checking out job listings and seeing what a lot of these employers are looking for. It seems that a lot of them want very specialized people, while some are looking for generalists. Generally, what I’ve seen is that you pretty much can’t go wrong with Microsoft, Cisco, and VMWare knowledge, as well as Blackberry Enterprise server experience. Not to mention Linux knowledge. I was studying for the CCNA exam, but too much material and not enough time before we move to really take it all in. The Network+ is much more general and easier. One of the ways I’ve been trying to hone my skills aside from making my own network to test things out on is writing. I’ve always been fairly good at writing reports and such for school, so this comes pretty easily to me. Over the last few years, I’ve found lots of great sources for Linux info, from what Linux is to how to more advanced topics. I have a blog on Wordpress that needs more attention from me, but I’ve basically gone back to square one and started writing how-to articles teaching people in my shoes (future SysAdmins looking for easy to read learning material) things like what UNIX is, Open Source licensing, what Linux is, and I’m currently going through a series of articles teaching people how to use the shell. After going through shell basics, I’m working on a series of networking tutorials that sit around the Network+ level. I’ve actually had my blog linked to on sites like and It’s not near where you guys on PlanetSysAdmin are at, but I hope to make it that grade of material some day. The site is …

There you have it! What was the wisest career choice you made? Conversely, what would you have done differently? Share your experiences by taking the time to write up a comment!