In the days before personal computers, when room-sized computer systems were walled off from nontechnical users, system administrators (often called sysadmins) would rarely emerge from their secure, climate-controlled lairs. But with PCs and wireless devices operating in every nook of today's complex organizations -- and even on the road -- sysadmins are no longer isolated. On the contrary, they are now at the epicenter of a company's ability to function in an interconnected digital world.
"It used to be that sysadmins could be insulated from day-to-day interaction with the rest of the company, but now they're quite critical cogs in the machine," says technology guru Dave Taylor, author of SAMS Teach Yourself UNIX System Administration in 24 Hours.
Sysadmins are responsible for various components of an organization's computer systems, depending on their experience and department size, as well as the roles played by other tech professionals, such as network administrators, database administrators and technical support workers.
System administrators typically handle such tasks as troubleshooting, server configuration and managing security. A sysadmin may be fine-tuning a server for a Web-connected application one minute and the next fielding a call from a marketing manager who needs a new multimedia application installed.
The importance of the system administrator's job has grown with the expanding number of computer devices, software packages and users. "The greatest change is the increased level of complexity and responsibility that sysadmins face as the workplace becomes increasingly computerized," Taylor says. "Even the most simple PC- or IP-based telephone becomes mission-critical."
Education and Training
A bachelor's degree in computer science or a related area is not a necessity to work as a system administrator; many employers ask for either a degree or several years of equivalent experience. But given the competitive nature of the IT job market, a degree is an asset, especially for those trying to break in.
"More than knowing technologies, I think it is far more important to understand the concepts on which these technologies are built" in order to be able to troubleshoot problems, says Adnan Wasim, who writes a system administration blog.
Many employers look for certifications from Cisco, CompTIA and Microsoft, but experts warn against thinking these alone will be enough to break into the field.
System Administrator Success
The complexity of the job role and the diverse tasks sysadmins must handle require a wide range of IT skills. Those who excel have expert knowledge of:
- Managing complex, heterogeneous computing environments, combining diverse software platforms and devices.
- Scripting languages and other programming tools.
- The importance of security issues and technologies.
- Databases and Web technologies.
People skills are now central to the job. "The candidate must have excellent customer service communication skills," reads one job ad for a system administrator. "It is imperative that this individual be a team player, able to multitask, willing to back up coworkers when problems arise and to take on new challenges without hesitation."
As Taylor notes, system administrators must enjoy answering "the same question, again and again" and calming people down in pressure-cooker situations. "Accept that system administration is basically a negative feedback job -- that is, you rarely get someone calling you saying, 'Hey! My PC hasn't crashed in two weeks. Thanks!'"
System administrators should also have a real love of computers. Working with computers was a hobby for Wasim. Now it's a career. "The job is just a way for me to continue my hobby and earn a living at the same time."