How to Become a System Administrator:
The Importance of Soft Skills,
Education and Experience
When considering how to learn system administration, you will most probably find out that the position of a sys admin is deeply technical and, specifically, IT-driven. However, becoming an effective and professional system administrator requires more than “dry” tech knowledge and the ability to spend a lot of time behind the computer display.
In this post, we review the nuances and skills that can be overlooked despite their importance in the sys admin’s job. In particular, we cover the employer’s expectations, as well as the education and soft skills required to become a sysadmin or boost your career.
Who is a System Administrator and What Do They Do?
System administrators are tech experts who are responsible for the support of an organization’s IT infrastructure with multiple servers, workstations and other nodes. They ensure that the IT-based services and systems are available and functioning at the required performance level. The list of typical functions that systems administrators fulfill include:
- Server installation and maintenance
- Providing adequate and quick responses to service outages
- Hardware and software installation, configuration and maintenance on workstations
- Network communication establishment, access and security provision
Apart from key skills and responsibilities for system maintenance and monitoring, organizations may want experienced system administrators to find, test, introduce and support new technological solutions. The inner staff structure of an organization may include administrators for servers, computer domains, databases and data centers. Other organizations, mainly SMBs, prefer delegating the entire variety of such functions to one qualified employee.
An entry-level system administrator normally has a more experienced mentor, just like junior coders usually learn from senior supervisors. A qualified system administrator career path consists of non-stop learning and self-improvement along with the preparedness to react to IT industry changes in a timely manner.
How to Become a System Administrator: Education
Becoming a system administrator starts with getting the right education. Although the opinion stating that higher education is not necessary for IT anymore is popular, that’s more of a delusion especially when speaking of sys admins. To fill this staff position, employers mainly try to find candidates with a bachelor’s degree in any major that is related to IT. For example, those can be such majors as electronic engineering, computer science or computer engineering. Just like with other jobs, experience is not mandatory for entry-level system administrator positions but is strongly required for middle to senior specialists.
That bachelor’s degree means that you have the basic knowledge of the entire IT industry including hardware, several programming languages, basics of various OS and networking principles. Additionally, you become familiar with systems analysis and databases, infrastructure design, among other things. In case you are a graduate student trying to correlate your professional plans with sys admin requirements and profits, try to go in for internships that your school can offer. That is how you get your first professional connections and increase your attractiveness to potential employers after graduation.
Still, the development of IT has always been rapid and the situation isn’t going to change in the near future. Some learning materials can become outdated quicker than the officials exclude them from training programs, and surely quicker than the new textbooks can be printed. Therefore, to keep yourself qualified as a sysadmin, you need to devote enough time to self-education. It is you who should keep track of the industry developments, trends, and especially significant tech shifts. New challenges and solutions appear in IT daily, and if you are a devoted pro, you know how to have a lot of fun while updating your knowledge.
How to Become a Systems Administrator: Soft Skills
After you find out the systems administrator requirements in terms of education, you need to go over another aspect that is frequently overlooked despite its importance: soft skills. “Soft skills” mean work-related skills that are not technical but rather specify the way you do things. These skills cover your ability to interact with the team members and other colleagues, problem-solving, leadership and time management.
Self-Organization and Time Management
For system administrators, the ability to manage their working time while staying self-motivated and self-organized is a must-have skill. In many organizations, a sysadmin is a lone wolf working to support the functionality of IT nodes, servers, networks and staff workstations. There always are multiple things to do, thus consider having a to-do list (either a paper organizer or a smartphone application) that would help you track the current job tasks, as well as monitor their status, progress and priority at every moment. Just like the automation of workflows can increase the overall performance of IT infrastructures, self-organization and being methodic makes you more efficient as a system administrator.
Collaboration and Networking
Although system administrators spend a lot of time working with computers, they need to have professional networks and to be able to collaborate with colleagues effectively. First of all, networking helps you stay connected with the industry, follow updates and know who to ask for expert advice or help whenever necessary. Collaboration skills assist in building normal relationships with other departments and staff members in your organization, while breaking that purely mythical stereotype about sysadmins being introverted nerdy geeks.
Proactive and Not Reactive Thinking
Other staff members frequently notice sysadmins only after some hardware or software stops working as intended. Still, an effective system administrator tends to stay unnoticed for quite some time as they know how to prevent malfunctions or breakages before the impact becomes visible or critical. Proactive thinking, predicting possible issues and neutralizing inconveniences even before they occur are valued by organizations and characterize a sysadmin as a qualified pro.
Spoken and Written Communication
Effective communication helps people establish and support relationships with colleagues. Due to the abovementioned stereotype, such system administrator skills are treated as unimportant even though they can make your life and work much easier. Knowing how to express your thoughts in written and spoken forms means the ability to:
- explain IT-related things to a non-technical colleague;
- reveal why switching to a new solution would be an improvement;
- present a demo of a technology you are working with, among other things.
Summing up the point, the soft skill of communication can help you explain to people what you need and in turn give them what they want quickly and with less effort. That’s exactly what sysadmins are expected to do if you think about their responsibilities in the simplest way.
At any moment of working time, a sysadmin has problems to solve. Those problems can either be critical and require instant reaction or non-critical and can be postponed till later, but your organization needs you to solve them. Tech knowledge and experience may help you find a hypothetical solution, but it is your problem-solving skill that guides you through the solution’s implementation stages. The ability to solve problems is a skill that you can use to be a more effective specialist, boost your career and improve your personal life.
Mental and Physical Health
The day-to-day work of a sysadmin is normally filled with certain amounts of stress. The stress level may vary depending on the problems with the infrastructure and the overall load that an employee must carry, but some worries are always there. Sysadmins quickly get used to working overtime because nobody else knows how to fix an issue. Bearing that constant stress is possible only when your body and mind are healthy and you know how to support that state while working on IT issues.
The last but not least important thing to understand is that sometimes things don’t go as planned. Hardware breakages, software errors, critical data loss, the entire organization’s environment failure after a cyberattack, and many other emergencies can and will happen more than once throughout your sysadmin career. A large-scale problem normally means downtime resulting in profit losses for your organization. It is essential that sys admins learn how to work with data protection solutions such as a NAKIVO data backup tool to ensure the safety of their data.
You might be required to stay until the issues are fixed and systems are running as they should. On the other hand, there can be days when you need to get yourself busy after completing light everyday maintenance workflows. This variety of job conditions means that you should have a flexible mind to stay effective as a sysadmin.
How Much Can System Administrators Make?
The average salary for a systems administrator is $66,559 (late September 2023) according to payscale.com.
Becoming an efficient and well-paid system administrator most frequently requires a degree in a computer-related major, and a set of soft skills. The soft skills list for sysadmins includes:
- Self-organization and time management
- Spoken and written communication
- Physical and mental health
- Problem-solving skills
- Proactive thinking
Using those skills, a system administrator can build a prosperous career as an advanced and wanted IT specialist while reducing the risk of burnout.
About the Author
Alex Tray is a system administrator with 10 years of experience in the IT field. After getting his Bachelor's degree in computer science, he worked at a number of companies in Silicon Valley and helped start up a number of new businesses. Alex is a freelance writer and a cybersecurity consultant, who writes articles on data protection and data backup for NAKIVO Backup and Replication.