If you are currently a system administrator (sysadmin) and you are looking to grow your career, you typically have two paths—to move into IT management, or, especially in larger organizations, move into an architecture role. I know in my career this was a decision point—I moved from being a database administrator to being an architect at a Fortune 100 telecommunications company.
In this article, I will focus on the choice of becoming an IT architect and the tips I have if you are looking to do the same.
My story: from database administrator to IT architect
Just to give you a background on my career and perspective, I have mostly worked with data and databases my entire career. During my university internship and my first job after college, I worked on Oracle and SQL Server databases in large public utility companies. I really only worked on those two databases for the first few years of my career. I then moved to work for a manufacturing plant for a large global pharmaceutical firm. We had a small IT staff, and I had to wear a lot of hats—I learned more about networking and storage infrastructure. I was also the only person there who knew Linux and UNIX so I had to handle all aspects of system administration. I looked for opportunities internally, and I ended up overseeing databases for five plants in the US and Puerto Rico.
After that, I worked in a medical device company where I had a similar role—my main role was database administration, but I had other responsibilities and learned a lot more about storage area networks. At the same time, I became really active in my IT communities, specifically Oracle and SQL Server. It may seem counterintuitive but joining and speaking at user groups in my main technologies forced me to broaden my skills. Finally, I took a role in the same firm managing the infrastructure for a large scale SAP project. The project was a nightmare, but I had to procure hardware and services and worked directly with the business to set up budgets. My next step was landing the architect role.
Now that you know a bit about me and my career, let’s talk about the steps you should take to move from sysadmin to architect.
Tip #1: Automate all the things
If you are constantly trying to put out fires or manage tickets, you are not going to have time to learn additional skills that will elevate you into an architect role. Beyond making your job less hectic, automation, including the process of automating, are exactly the kinds of skills you will need as an architect. Learning tools to automate like shell and Python scripting, declarative cloud deployments, and various DevOps tooling like Ansible that lets you widely provision and manage resources with code levels up your value while reducing your daily task list. Learning concepts like error handling, source and version control, and impact to downstream systems prepares you to think through architectural decisions in a meaningful way. The combination of knowledge you get from pursuing automation will set you on a track toward automation architect or other types of IT architect roles.
Tip #2: Move out of your comfort zone
My opinion may be biased, but I have always thought that DBAs have an easier transition to architecture because of the number of areas they are involved in. A database administrator works with the business application team since they consume the data. In addition, we deal with all layers of infrastructure (servers, storage, and networking). While this is the nature of databases and their touchpoints, sysadmins and network administrators can expand beyond their normal areas to learn other skills. DevOps and Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) roles do cross over into different technology stacks, but it can be easy to be on one of those teams and still get stuck in your specific functional area. Volunteer for projects that leverage your knowledge but stretch your expertise outside of single domain expertise.
Tip #3: Go wide and deep
When we talk about expertise, we often talk about going "deep" into a single domain or going "wide" to learn broad/general knowledge. A sysadmin can level up to architect expertise by pursuing both. This is especially important if you are looking to change jobs, but not companies. To be an architect, you need to have a pretty broad knowledge of technology stacks. At a minimum, I would consider networking, security, storage, and data to be essential. On the bright side, it’s helpful to continue to have a key expertise others can rely on you for. In building an architecture team, many times, the architects will be the subject matter experts for a specific domain in the company, so positioning yourself to be an expert is a good way to get there. In my teams, we had the SMEs for storage, database platforms, and system administration.
As I mentioned, this works well when you are staying at the same company. Hiring organizations often look for existing expertise rather than your potential to grow into a role. Inside a company, you can find more room to expand your skills since they already value your domain expertise and tribal knowledge. That said, even if you are planning on switching companies, having a deep knowledge of a specific technology stack can make it easier to learn other similar technologies.
Finally, in 2020, it is important that you have a good understanding of cloud computing and the options when it comes to public cloud and hybrid cloud architectures.
Tip #4: Learn to write and present
Beyond having good technical skills, one of the most important elements of being a successful architect is being able to articulate your thoughts both verbally and in writing. These core skills can help bolster your career as well as get you noticed by like-minded professionals. While blogging has changed compared to its peak in the early 2010s, it is still a good way to practice writing and explaining technical concepts to a broader audience. And publications like this one and many others offer expert coaching and editing to improve your craft quickly.
Likewise, while public speaking can be uncomfortable, it’s a crucial skill to grow influence as an architect. Giving a talk at a local user group or a webinar is an effective way to get the hang of it without much pressure. Continuing to practice will shift it from discomfort to an activity you look forward to doing.
It takes time and practice to develop both of these skills, but having them will make you a much more effective architect.
Tip #5: Build relationships
Even the best architect cannot implement everything they want to do on their own. The teams that work with the architects have some level of independence, and building bridges is one of your main job tasks. It is important to listen to and have empathy for other teams, especially when you are recommending major changes, like moving from on-premises to the cloud, or moving from virtual machines to Kubernetes. The skills you need here are to be able to understand everyone’s perspective, which allows you to mitigate concerns before they come up, and have your talking points prepared for that.
The nonlinear path from sysadmin to architect
To be clear, staying a sysadmin is a great career option. It is ideal if you prefer hands-on, low-level details of operations. There will always be a need for these skills.
Being an architect means you are less focused on the day-to-day operations of the organization (though you might get pulled into them from time to time) and more focused on how technologies work together. You become a trusted senior resource, providing guidance to both IT and business technology teams.
In all the advice, you might have noticed I didn’t include any business domain knowledge here—it is important to understand what your business is and how that impacts IT investments, but most architecture is not specific to any industry. Being a good architect is about having the technical skills and core skills that allow you to make good technical decisions and communicate them effectively, all while building buy-in amongst other teams in your organization. The core skills are equally, if not more, important than the technology-oriented ones.
Keep these tips in mind and, if you’re looking for the practice, share your story of becoming an architect with readers of this publication.