Defining "System Administrator"

It's bloody hard. When asked what I do for a living by people who I don't suspect are terribly computer literate my answer is usually, "I work with computers at Western." The crux of the problem is that what a System Administrator does varies hugely across the spectrum. Take the one-gun-sysadmin:
They do everything.They may not even know that what they're doing is everything in quite this way, but they're it. Desktops, laptops, wireless access-points, firewalls, software installs, windows deployments, script-writing, web-page authoring, hardware orders of all stripes. The consummate jack-of-all-trades.

Contrast this to the IT department of an example very large corporation.
With discrete silos for each area of responsibility. The System Administrator group has nothing, at all, to do with configuring and maintaining the network hardware. Or the firewalls. Or the desktops. They do servers. They probably do a LOT of servers, enough that automatic deployment and provisioning of servers becomes a key skill.

What do these two system-administrators have in common? Um... they both work with computers...

This is the hard part. They both keep the enterprise logic core running. They both work with servers. They have frequent contact with, if not directly manage, such infrastructure things like the datacenter network and security policy implementation. These are details that are hard to explain to people.

One side-effect of this disparity in duties is that if the mega-corp SA gets laid off for some reason, they'll have trouble getting a job at a one-gun shop for the simple reason that they won't have enough enough of the job-requirements on their resumé to seem like they'd do it well. At the same time, the one-gun looking for a new situation would be hard pressed to work at the mega-corp because their scale-out skills don't exist on paper.

Me? I'm somewhere in the middle.
Most of 'security' is in Telecom, but that may be changing soon. I kiss on networking because Storage-Area-Networking is my thing and I now am the proud owner of a completely isolated iSCSI LAN! Development is... way over there. I've been doing a fair amount of desktop lately, but that's an exceptional circumstance, not a usual one. Siloed enough I'll have a hard time doing one-gun-IT, but not quite scaled enough to go to the mega-corp. In between.

The three of us would still find plenty to talk about though. Not the least of which is how we describe what we do to other people.


Ha! Actually, as a "Lone Ranger" sysadmin, it's easier to describe what I do. I do EVERYTHING computer related. Simple. Servers to workstations to security to backups to actual networking, I do it all. Or, as I like to tell people, I *am* IT.

Of course, I do try to avoid telling people what I do these days, because it's like being a doctor or a lawyer or a mechanic at a party. People find out what you do and start asking questions about their machine or why "the Internet is so slow" or any of a number of questions. Because, you know, when I'm not at work, I like to do my job for free, just like they do. *ahem*

Don't forget Facilities. I don't know how many times I've been called because of power problems, lights not working, or the door squeaks... Not only do we sysadmins have to do everything ON the computer, we also have to deal with everything connected to the computer.

I really enjoy this article. So many times I feel like I cannot explain to the people around me the MASSIVE differences in doing IT administration. The IT world is kind of ambiguous because we have these titles that span across so many job positions.
I am currently a one gun IT guy for a company of about 150 ppl. It's an interesting world doing IT. I love the blog, its always fascinating to look at how other people in IT are thinking and doing things.

Very good observation. One thing I've found in a more "siloed" role now is that I gain more expertise in certain areas than I ever had before -- but at the expense perhaps of the more broad and general set of knowledge I had when I was a do-it-all SysAdmin.

Much improved are such skills as SAN administration, clustering, etc... but now rusty are my Cisco skills as well as most desktop-oriented skills (good riddance I say to that one!).

Would be interesting to try and bring that sorta thing out somehow in your diagrams.

Ray - I think that the 'general set of knowledge' thing is arguably a specialisation in its own right. Both in terms of the "small business sysadmin" who does **everything** and who has a different skillset to the big business sysadmin who needs to know which firmware revisions for their routers and switches are the good ones and which ones are the bad, or the exact difference between exchange 2010 patch kb000001 and kb000001a.

Also I think that there's another kind of "general specialisation" in big business IT, for the person who has to make all these wildly disparate systems talk to one another - the person who can go to the switch/router specialist and say "the exchange specialist needs you to open the following ports..." and understand both sides of the resulting discussion.