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How I became a Linux sysadmin

Every sysadmin has an origin story. Here's mine.
sysadmin at his computer

Hitesh Choudhary from Pexels

When you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, no one will say, "I want to be a sysadmin." So how did I end up becoming one?

Starting out

It was within the cold, white walls of the data center, hearing the humming sounds coming from the server cages, with the thick legacy Unix manuals lined up neatly in one of the control rooms, and in the distance, the sysadmins at their workstations working in shifts 24x7. This is how I vividly remember starting as a Linux sysadmin a good 15 years ago.

Yes! I was one of those in hooded jackets, sitting quietly at a desktop workstation with a vendor-proprietary Unix manual on one side and coffee on the other. Quiet nights at work are very conducive for studying shell scripting when all the systems are behaving as they should and there are no changes or activities to implement during your shift. This is how it all began for me.

Coming from a different background

Many of us ended up in an IT job without that original intent. I studied and got my degree and license in electronics and communications engineering, entered the telecom industry as a cadet engineer, and rotated to different teams. On the intelligent networks team, I was introduced to telco charging and billing apps running on proprietary Unix operating systems.

Many people starting their careers would probably wonder if is it worth shifting to the IT industry. They might think they're wasting some of the expertise and credentials they picked up from their academic studies. I'd say it depends on what drives you.

I feel lucky to have been given a chance to do it, ending up loving it and the perks it offers—pay grade, flexibility, more opportunities, and ultimately enjoying what I do. It also has its cons: being a sysadmin for mission-critical 24x7 systems, for example. It can come with extreme pressure and demands, but these challenging and stressful situations can help shape you for the bright career that lies ahead.

Progressing and moving forward

Back in the day, as a neophyte sysadmin in operations, I worked on mundane and repetitive tasks. In a work shift, there are routines and checklists to follow to ensure the systems are working correctly and in a good state. Most of them are manual, time-consuming, and tedious. I'd say it's what you make of the challenges in front of you that helps shape your direction in your career.

Instead of doing the same old things over and over, I started writing individual scripts to handle them with the support and collaboration of my teammates and seniors. These small automation steps become more valuable as they're assembled into a consolidated terminal user interface, adding logic, error protection, and event notifications.

[ Looking to move up? Learn 13 essential skills sysadmins need to make a career move into management. ]

While developing these simple forms of automation, I also learned more complex Unix commands, techniques, and a deeper knowledge of the systems I manage. These are win-win situations for my team and me. Things become more efficient and less stressful for those who need to run these tasks on a busy work shift with high-severity incidents and pressure on their shoulders. We learn to collaborate and develop deeper working relationships.

This attitude towards work helps you progress—whether you want to be a senior sysadmin or to lead and coach people to do the same. My career path has moved with more challenges across different-sized firms—new roles, new challenges, and new and exciting things to do.

Scoping the current landscape for sysadmins

Nowadays, the IT landscape has evolved, and there are no shortage of innovative tools available for us to be better sysadmins. Major open source projects and communities are freely accessible for everyone to try, use, and scale to the enterprise level. These help our organizations improve operational efficiency and help us improve our personal lives and advance our IT careers.

This is the same approach and wins I used 15 years ago. The main difference is that tools like Ansible make it a lot easier for sysadmins, even those with no development experience. There's a lot of prebaked automation that is ready to use. There is no need to reinvent the wheel—these tools help you accelerate your automation with a collaborative, easy-to-understand structure. I've seen many teams from network, database, application, and infrastructure that have benefited from their automation journey. Best of all, it helps transform the culture and mindset within an organization, where people start to share their code, collaborate, and innovate together while having fun!

Even for those wanting to shift jobs or fields, there are many free sysadmin learning opportunities, formal courses, and certifications that you can invest your time in. I know many people who successfully entered the IT industry and are now enjoying the perks and privileges of being sysadmins and beyond. We shared our real-life experiences and insights on a free eBook for sysadmins, Tales from the field: A system administrator's guide to IT automation. I highly recommend that you have a read to help inspire you with real-life stories from the ground and learn how you can advance your skills and career with automation.

[ Download this free eBook: Manage your Linux environment for success ]

Final words

Being a sysadmin today is fun, flexible, fulfilling, and rewarding. I am sure we all have stories to tell about how we started—whether you are a seasoned system administrator, beginning in a new role, advancing your career, or even thinking about making a shift.

Each of us will have an evolving sysadmin story, so make sure to make it interesting, exciting, and fruitful by making use of all the technology and resources at your fingertips.

Topics:   Career   Sysadmin culture  
Author’s photo

Joseph Tejal

Joseph is a Technical Account Manager at Red Hat based in Wellington, New Zealand. He currently supports and works with local government agencies and financial services institutions. More about me

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