On Becoming a System Administrator

There are some things for you to keep in mind when you?EUR(TM)re looking for a career in System Administration

Published Date
21 - Dec - 2013
| Last Updated
21 - Dec - 2013
 
On Becoming a System Administrator

If there’s one thing Digit readers are familiar with, it’s getting calls from friends and relatives to fix their PCs. Being geeks, we’ve all often been the go-to guys for everyone: from uncles and aunties to neighbours and neighbours’ uncles and aunties and occasionally the cute chick from college. Well maybe not so much the cute chick, but one can always dream.

If you’re nodding your head right now, perhaps it’s time to consider putting all that tech gyan to some good use. Can you actually make a career out of the troubleshooting knowledge you’ve acquired over the years? Will people actually pay you for your tech wizardry? (and no, we don’t mean a squishy 5-Star offered as reward with a dentured grin).

Jokes aside, you need to ask yourself if your interest actually lies in IT and Support. If the answer is ‘yes’, then you know where to go from here. Get going!


A career awaits...
Just as you’re the go-to guy for all PC problems in your neighbourhood, there’s usually a person in large corporations who does essentially the same thing. Of course this usually underappreciated fellow does much more than just fix PC problems. A system administrator (usually referred to as ‘SysAdmin’) is responsible for the upkeep, configuration and smooth and trustworthy operation of computer systems in the professional industry. System Admins are usually placed in charge of multi-computer setups or servers. Their job is to ensure that the uptime, performance, resources, and security of the computers they manage meet the needs of the users on the server. A system administrator is given the freedom to upgrade computer components and software. He takes on the role of a technical advisor by automating routine tasks and (as and when required) writing computer programs. He’s the all-round troubleshooter with a hierarchy that involves supervising a staff of Junior Administrators to provide technical support to users as and when needed.


The path of the System Administrator
Ever asked yourself ‘Where do system administrators come from?’

No, no storks involved. A passion for computers and technology, and a drive to make a living off that passion. A degree in IT or CS (Engineering) is recommended, of course. Or even a degree in Computer Engineering with a natural affinity towards software and software design. Based on people we spoke to, your academic credentials should simply go on to show your interest in the field of technology and possibly management. Simply put, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist, but ‘What’s a keystroke?’ shouldn’t be a question on your mind, either.

To find out more, Team Digit spoke to some system admins to tell us more about their jobs.



Syed Ibrahim,
Network Engineer/ Manager,
Alpsoft Technologies,
Singapore.


Syed Ibrahim is a network administrator at Alpsoft Technologies Pte Ltd., Singapore. Alpsoft is a company that deals with technology solutions for several companies, worldwide. Ibrahim did his Masters in Information Technology, and specialised in Computer Networking from the James Cook University, Australia. He went on to be a system engineer at Mercury Software Technologies in Chennai, and continued with the profile at Xchanging, Singapore before his current posting at Alpsoft Technologies. He was kind enough to answer some questions about being a system administrator and how he got where he is.



Balaji Ramarao,
Senior Manager - IT
Advanced Business & Healthcare Solutions India Pvt Ltd.
Bangalore.


Balaji Ramarao is our senior consultant for this article. He spent close to 22 years in this field. Educated in Madurai, he’s done his graduation with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Systems Development from NIIT. He’s also done his training in Madurai, Chennai, Egypt and Bangalore. He has several certifications, including that of an ethical hacker. In the past decade, he was in charge of System Administration & Problem Management at Aditya Birla Minacs Worldwide Limited for over 14 years. He is currently employed as the Senior Manager of IT at Advanced Business & Healthcare Solutions India Pvt Ltd. Even though he started his career as a programmer, his vast experience as a system admin in this field gives us invaluable insight into System Administration.

A three-step guide to SysAdmin 101
“Yes, I wanted to be a system administrator”, said Ibrahim when asked whether it was always his choice of a vocation. “The steps that I took were along the course of my life.” He went on to suggest that those who intended to take the same route should cultivate a passion for computers and have an innate desire of keeping a ear to the ground when it comes to learning new things about technology. This is important when it comes to a career in any field. Practice makes perfect. One way to get there is by having a go at learning how to handle and repair your own computer. You will make mistakes, obviously, but it’s all part of the learning process. The third step towards becoming a System Administrator is to learn about servers. Subjects such as Windows Active Directory, Mail Servers and FSMO roles are good topics to get a headstart on. A good way to pick up on the basics of System Administration is by doing an MCSA certification, at least.


Getting into System Administration
Syed admitted that experience was more important than anything else you could do to get a job in System Administration. Then come the certificates. Certifications seem to be a lot more important when getting a job as a system administrator. Even more important than a college degree. When asked about this anomaly Syed said, “A degree has some weightage, but the certifications help the manager to gauge your skills better.”
Balaji Ramarao seems to agree with this statement. He says that three years of certification is more than enough to impress the company. One or two years of work experience would also go a long way. However, even though book knowledge and certification help, to a certain level, a budding SysAdmin should have 2-3 years of on-the-job training, initially.

There are several certifications which are recognised when applying for a job in System Administration:

MCSA (Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate) for System Admin/System Engineer

MCITP (Microsoft Certified IT Professional) for System Admin/System Engineer

CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) for Network Admin/Network Engineer

CCNP (Cisco Certified Networking Professional) for Network Admin/Network Engineer

Other than these, there’s also LPIC (Linux Professional Institute Certification 1, 2 and 3), RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer), HPASE, HPCSE (HP Accredited Systems Engineer and Certified Systems Engineer), OCP and OCA (Oracle Certified Professional and Oracle System Administrator). Most of these courses, as you can see, are Operating System-specific, which inherently implies that though the job of System Admins may be the same, their specialisation is the lynchpin to their job (i.e. depending on the system that the company’s server is built on).


Specialisations


Every System admin has their own specialization


Other than specialisation of the operating systems that run servers, system administrators also specialise in four main fields:
Architects: System Architects lay out the system of a company from scratch – deciding the foundational operating system that everything would run on and the material required to ensure that things are set up smoothly and making sure that everything is ready before giving the go-ahead.
Designers: System Designers work hand-in-hand with the System Architects. They help set up and design the system – right from the server to the individual PCs. They implement the ideas laid forth by the Architect.
Engineers: The most well-known of System Admins. They’re the people who’re on hand whenever and wherever things need to be kept top notch, wherever any kind of updates are required. They’re the keepers of peace between user and interface. From the point when the system is set up, they work to keep the machine well-oiled and running.
Consultants: The druids of this little Gaulish village, the System Consultants are referred to whenever any of the others hit a wall in the process. They smoothen out the wrinkles and advise as and when required. They’re the troubleshooters to the troubleshooters. Usually, consultants are people who have several years (if not decades) of experience in the field of system management. Occasionally, consultants are trained to be exactly that. These consultants are usually the best and brightest of their generation.


Role of the System Administrator
As mentioned in the beginning, the role of the System Administrator is to ensure fluidity in the functioning of the network in the company in question. It’s their job to anticipate potential issues and come up with contingencies for the same.
On being questioned whether the profile changes from company to company, Syed says. “Yes, the role of the system administrator can change depending on the structure and size of the company. In case of small and medium scale companies, the complete network meaning the servers, network devices such as routers and switches, and their configuration will also be managed by the system administrators.“
“The role of the System Administrator changes with enterprise, mid-range & small companies. There is a specific job in System Admin at the enterprise Level. This is mainly because of volume of the business and the number of employees,” Ramarao added, when asked the same question.
This being said, we should also point out that there has always been a confusion between the job descriptions of system administrators and network administrators. The truth is there isn’t any tangible difference between the two jobs.
A system administrator’s job is usually broader and not as specialised as that of a network admin; though, admittedly, ‘SysAdmin’ usually refers to the person who manages the servers. Smaller companies tend to have just system administrators.
A network administrator, on the other hand, usually deals with switches, hubs and routers on a network. Sometimes they also have to deal with VPNs and firewalls. Larger companies usually split off these duties from a system administrator to a network administrator.

Functions of a System Admin, in brief:

●    User administration (setup and maintaining account)
●    Maintaining the system
●    Verify that peripherals are working properly
●    Quickly arrange to repair hardware in occasion of hardware failure
●    Monitor system performance
●    Create file systems
●    Install software
●    Create a backup and recovery policy
●    Monitor network communication
●    Update system as soon as new version of OS and application software comes out
●    Implement the policies for the use of the computer system and network
●    Setup security policies for users. A system admin must have a strong grasp of computer security (e.g. firewalls and intrusion detection systems).

The first paycheck

Obviously, like in any other field, fresher salaries are never fixed. But based on our own research, a fresher in this field would earn a salary of around Rs.95,000-1,20,000 per annum. If you’re good at your job, however, the rise up the ladder is quite fast.
 



Title: Career Path of a System Administrator (from lowest to highest):
Asst System Admin || Sys. Admin || Senior Sysadmin ||

(This is where the hierarchy ends for those only interested in the technical part of System Administration. If you wish to go further into the Management part of the hierarchy, read on)

Team Leader || Asst.Manager || Manager-IT || Sr.Manager || Assistant General Manager-IT || General Manager-IT || Assistant Vice President-IT || Vice President-IT || Chief Information Officer ||



The future of System Administration

When asked about the future of this career, Ramarao responded saying, “There is a start and there is a end for all. New Technology will come and this will die soon.” Syed also admitted that most of the companies are moving towards Virtualisation and even network devices such as routers and switches are moving towards it through SDN (Software-Defined Networking).
So it seems that like everything else in the job market, System Administration is also (somewhat ironically) feeling the effects of the advent of technological advancement. With telecommunication becoming more and more popular, the job of a system administrator may just become a little more redundant. But there’s something to be said about having a person hands-on, taking care of setting up your system and maintaining it.

Srikhant Subramaniam (name changed), an employee of a big media agency commented on how system administrators were slowly becoming defunct in larger corporations. Not the job in itself, per say; but the term ‘System Administrator’ is now slowly being replaced by ‘Infrastructure Manager’. Personally, it may sound more corporate, but doesn’t have the same feel as ‘System Admin’. But the times,
they are a-changing. And one must keep moving..