What's in a System Administrator

Having just come off of a job-hunt, I have a better idea of what the market thinks a 10-year System Administrator should have for skill-set. This keys into my earlier post on Defining System Administrator and IT Scale Out. Contrasted with these posts, the 10-year sysadmin has some or all of the following. At least according to the job-market:

  • A deep expert in at least one Operating System (100% of the time)
  • Conversant in another OS (70% of the time)
  • An advanced user in a second OS (20% of the time, a sub-set of the previous point)
  • If $OS="Linux", a deep expert in at least one web-app stack (LAMP, nginx, Java, Tomcat, Websphere, etc) (90% of the time)
  • Strong written communication skills (100% of the time, and almost those exact words)
  • Strong oral communication skills (80% of the time)
  • Project management experience involving large, expensive, or high visibility projects (70% of the time).
  • Router and Switch configuration (70% of the time)
  • Significant virtualization/cloud experience (80% of the time)
  • Significant Storage Area Networking experience (50% of the time, mostly NAS/iSCSI)
  • Significant scripting experience (70% of the time, even the Windows jobs)
"Strong oral/written communication skills" was on every single posting in some form or another. It is expected that the 10 year veteran has figured out how to talk to people and not just snarl grumpily at them. The 10 year veteran is also likely a multi-year veteran of budget battles, and that requires effective writing for a non-technical audience if not outright presentations-to-management.

The tricky part of the above is that if your job is with somewhere that is strongly siloed, the network admins are all across the hall and don't let you play with their toys and Project Managers are in their own division, getting the missing bits is nigh impossible. You can study all you want for project management, but employers want to know what projects you led and what their outcomes were. Networking is more tractable as there are certifications that can help convince employers you know what you're talking about; however, while certs may get you past the HR test, your actual experience will get you past the hiring manager.

Which is to say that it is entirely possible to be a 15 year veteran, but have a 7 year veteran's skillset as far as the job market is concerned.

An organization that is strongly siloed and desires decade-scale retention of their technical staff has a hard job. They'll need to either provide cross-training for their staff, or do something else to convince them that moving on is not in their interest. Government jobs are good at the later, since the retirement options are generally better to much better than their private-sector counterparts (though that may change after the great recession, time will tell). Of my five former co-workers, four of them are likely to be there until retirement. Allowing employee roles to shift dynamically as their skill-sets evolve is a great way to allow employees to change (since IT is change) without having to change jobs to do it.

And finally, this job hunt has proven the adage, "Linux is for web-apps, Windows is for internal-use web-apps and client-server." I found exactly one Linux job that didn't include massive web-app support, and it was for (really, really nifty) scientific computing.


Why would "strong oral communication skills" be mutually exclusive to snarling grumpily? I find that sometimes snarling is very effective at getting the message across.

Insightful post!
I don't know if you can rightly say that you saw "the" job market in its entirety. I believe you *can* rightly say you saw the job market in your particular field in your particular city. I saw this not to be unkind or querulous but as a veteran of a job hunt in two different areas of the country, the Southeast and the Northwest.

I found hiring managers and HR in both those regions to have very different ideas about what constitutes skill levels and also whether the job was in the public or private sectors.

That said, I do agree that with very few exceptions these days, an ability to communicate (especially being presentations-savvy) is a huge plus.

Very interesting post. I hope your change does not curtail the amount of details you divulge in your posts. Perhaps you might follow up in a few months and describe how different the startup-style is from academic computing?