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Seven (more) things I wish I'd known before becoming a sysadmin

These seven things are given to you on a need-to-know basis, and you need to know.
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7 more things I wish I'd known before becoming a sysadmin

Let me start with a brief background to give my stories some context. I worked in desktop support for a couple of years before becoming a technical trainer on various platforms (Windows Server, different Linux distributions, Cisco, etc.). Eventually, some former students approached me to work as the network/systems administrator for their small organization (about 65 users). I worked there for a couple of years—an experience that inflated my already robust sense of cynicism. I freely admit that many of my observations are based on very small organizations (fewer than 100 users) and companies whose cultures did not easily embrace technology. I later returned to the training industry, though I did various consulting projects on the side. From those years come these anecdotes.

Note: This article was inspired by Ken Hess's recent post, "Five things I wish I'd known before becoming a sysadmin." I challenge you to submit an article to Enable Sysadmin with the things you wish you'd known.

[ You might also enjoy reading: The ever-evolving IT job role: system administrator ]

Slightly knowledgable users are the worst

This story comes from the late 1990s, when I supported Windows 95 desktops in a Novell NetWare environment. One of the users fancied himself to be knowledgeable about computers (he was wrong). He'd found something online that explained how to ignore the Control Panel in Windows and simply make user interface changes directly in the Registry by using regedit. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at the process. I distinctly remember one support incident: "I was using the Registry to change my desktop wallpaper, and now my computer won't start. Can you fix it before my meeting in 10 minutes?"

I bet many of you sysadmins have run into these sorts of scenarios, too. Honestly, I do appreciate the users who are not afraid of their computers and attempt to fix things themselves. They are often far more understanding and tolerant of errant computer behavior. They are also teachable, which means that if the solution is within their non-administrative rights, you can show them how to accomplish a task and never have to answer a support ticket for them on that subject again. Empowering them (within their limits) frees you.

Takeaway: Be thankful for the modern tools that remove the ability for users to experiment and generate support calls, and be equally thankful for the users who fix it themselves (within their security contexts).

Training is product specific, but the real world isn't

I'm very complimentary of training tracks such as those provided by Red Hat, Cisco, and Microsoft. These tracks do a great job of preparing you to work with that vendor's products. What I found in the real world, however, is that most business networks are a conglomeration of products from various vendors, multiple versions, and in-house dev teams that all somehow must integrate together. While training can do a great job of showing you how to work with specific products, getting those products to work together is a different story. And whatever the vendors might hope, the reality is that few organizations are truly single-vendor or single-product environments.

Takeaway: You gotta learn to integrate on your own.

If it plugs into the wall, IT owns it

One of the first surprises I had when I accepted a job as a sysadmin was when my phone rang and one of the senior managers said, "Hey, the copier in the sales area isn't working. Can you take a look?" I politely told him I was the IT administrator, and his response was, "Yeah, but it plugs into the wall, so it's IT's problem." Such scenarios gave me the opportunity to become a jack-of-(some)-trades beyond my sysadmin skills. It can be handy to know the basics about various non-computer devices.

Takeaway: Multiple Red Hat, CompTIA, Microsoft, and Cisco certifications taught me nothing about copiers.

IT is a budgetary black hole

Some organizations simply don't embrace technology well. I think the number of such companies is rapidly dwindling because technology is a cornerstone to success in business these days. However, there are holdouts, and they are often led by senior executives that establish a culture of skepticism and frustration. When I experienced this myself, it was based on an annual budget proposal for our IT department. As the proposal was reviewed, I was challenged on various components. Finally, the executive director threw his hands up in the air and said, "We'll just have to approve this, watch the money go into the IT black hole, and hope we get some benefit from it." Granted, some of this attitude results from the IT department not clearly articulating benefits, but some of it is also a lack of understanding on the part of leadership. I found that this gave me a sense of how important communication is between IT and the rest of the organization.

Takeaway: Some decision-makers see IT as a budgetary black hole.

Project management is essential

Project management skills are a critical part of a sysadmin's job. Ironically, one of the great frustrations of my sysadmin career occurred after I'd left my sysadmin job and returned to the training industry. I was preparing for an ITIL certification exam that covered topics such as IT practices, service management, and how to align IT services to business goals. The first time I read through the book, the recurring thought that popped up in my head page after page was, "I wish I'd known this." Such service and project management skills would have made my life as a sysadmin far easier and my delivery of IT services to the company far more effective.

Takeaway: Not all IT skills are technical—invest in project and service management knowledge. I'm actively pursuing a project management certification myself right now.

Users don't see security as their problem

While the cybersecurity world has continued to try to convince end users that they are both the target of attacks and the critical component to mitigating threats, most employees still do not seem to believe that they are the most important cog in the security machine. They still write down passwords. They still expose personal information on social media. They still click on email attachments from unknown senders. They still prop open secured perimeter doors. They still leave devices unattended. My own IT manager once left her laptop at airport security—and she'd configured it for auto-login so she didn't have to bother with that pesky password!

We'll continue to pass the message along to users that they must take security seriously, and in my opinion, that begins with convincing the users that they are actual targets. More and more users understand this, but it is an ongoing conversation.

Takeaway: We must continue to convince users that they are a critical part of security.

Winning the IT battle is a cultural thing, not a technical thing

You might notice that the previous observations—budget frustrations, project management, security perspectives—are all non-technical. Those observations might be summed up by this idea: Understanding the value of IT is based on the company's culture and not on the technical aspects of the service. If the senior leadership and respected power users don't buy into the benefits of technology, neither will anyone else. One of the key parts to this is that the IT department must be able to clearly articulate benefits, agility, and business wins that occur with new technologies and services.

Takeaway: Culture is at least as important as technology.

Bonus: IT still hates Macs

Yeah. Still.

[ A free course for you: Virtualization and Infrastructure Migration Technical Overview. ] 

Wrap up

These are a few of the observations that have stuck with me in my 25-ish years of working in IT. I suspect many of you have similar (or identical) stories and frustrations. I encourage all of you to consider some of these anecdotes and find ways to mitigate them. Think about project management as your next training initiative, or perhaps brainstorm about how your organization conceives of technology from a cultural perspective.

I'd be happy to hear your stories and observations in the comments below. And I hope you'll consider contributing to Enable Sysadmin.

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Damon Garn

Damon Garn runs Cogspinner Coaction, LLC, a technical writing and IT project company based in Colorado Springs, CO. He has been a technical instructor for nearly 20 years, with a focus on Windows Server, Linux, and security. More about me

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