"Technology breaks. Software breaks. Hardware breaks. You need someone to fix those things. That someone is a system administrator. As long as we have things that break, we will need system administrators." Wise words by enterprise sysadmin Ken Hess.
Because I work closely with IT architects, I'm more familiar with the implementation side of technology than the maintenance and data management side of things. When you think about acceleration to the cloud and how quickly organizations adopt cloud technologies, you might minimize sysadmins' critical role in maintaining and coordinating cloud services, environments, and the value their efforts add to the broader IT infrastructure. But there would be no systems to transform without the solid foundation set by sysadmins.
Here are a few ways sysadmins can continue to help drive digital transformation and why the role is boundless like water—always ready for the next twist, turn, or bend.
Don't fear the move to the cloud; use it as an opportunity for growth
As organizations begin deploying more of their applications and services across hybrid and public clouds, sysadmins need to learn to adapt to different cloud environments. If your organization chooses the private cloud route, you still need network and system administrators to maintain internal hardware. Things get tricky when you're talking about platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) environments. When using a public cloud, the vendor provides the hardware and the necessary hardware skills, so you don't have to maintain them. However, building your knowledge of application containerization in IaaS is a step in the right direction.
[ Many companies moving workloads to the cloud encounter issues with legacy processes and organizational structures. Learn how to deal with the issues by downloading O'Reilly: Accelerating cloud adoption. ]
While PaaS is great for developers because it cuts down on the amount of code they have to write, it leaves sysadmins in an interesting spot because they're no longer responsible for in-house application servers. However, many PaaS offerings (including AWS Elastic Beanstalk, Heroku, and Red Hat OpenShift) are cloud ports of existing in-house systems. This means sysadmins can use these changes in the environment as a catalyst for acquiring skills necessary to monitor these types of platforms. Even when it comes to software as a service (SaaS), where the cloud service provider pretty much handles the entire stack, you still need sysadmins for high-level configuration and other critical tasks.
Always err on the side of collaboration
So many tech terms are thrown around these days, it can be difficult to keep up with them all (and why you should even bother to understand them). The truth is that things like hybrid cloud, multi-cloud, and on-premises security and networking are essential in today's IT landscape. Yes, a fully cloud-integrated organization can significantly reduce costs by paying for what it needs and only what it needs. Still, this means nothing if you don't have someone to troubleshoot desktops and local servers (for hybrid cloud companies). That "someone" is you.
Another one of those terms you hear a lot is DevOps, a widely adopted collaborative practice that has become an essential part of software development. Developers want to push new versions to production quicker to keep apps up to date. Sysadmins keep everything up and running; they are the Ops in DevOps. But breaking down the wall between the two processes starts with an open frame of mind and acknowledging DevOps as a set of practices, not a role, says Taz Brown, a senior technical scrum master, agile expert, and Opensource.com Correspondent.
In The case for making the transition from sysadmin to DevOps engineer, Taz writes, "[DevOps] practices lead to cohesion, breaking down silos, mitigating mistakes and bugs, more frequent and timely software lifecycles, better communication between Dev and Ops, and constant testing and retesting for not only the code but the whole CI/CD process."
In other words, sysadmins can demonstrate their value by merging their talents with in-demand practices like DevOps. "Sysadmins have had to evolve their state of mind over the years and think more strategically, considering the business in unison with their day-to-day responsibilities,” Taz continues. One way she suggests staying ahead of the game is by learning a programming language such as Python. This enables sysadmins to work more easily with their developer colleagues, clients, and consultants.
Another way sysadmins sustain and support their IT infrastructures is by engaging closely with their security teams. As organizations move further into the cloud and automate more processes, regulation and compliance become more critical.
Another team to collaborate with are IT architects. While they are the gatekeepers of enterprise service, hardware, and software design, sysadmins decide how the network is handled and have the technical abilities to monitor who gets in and what they can see, even across departments and outside the company.
Sysadmin: A role with many names
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics is projecting 5% growth in the employment of network and computer administrators, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Even so, the agency expects about 24,900 openings for sysadmins due to workers moving to different roles or retiring from the workforce.
It is equally important to note that although this growth rate is lower than average, the bureau is targeting its projection at the traditional sysadmin role. No technology role is immutable enough to remain "traditional" forever. The sysadmin role has to adapt as business needs change. A cloud systems administrator is a perfect example of a new form of sysadmin role. This role manages cloud infrastructure services and multiple cloud servers or sets up and manages private cloud systems. IT consultancy is also a great way to take charge of your skills and learn as you go, as it offers greater flexibility and the ability to hone in on a specific area of expertise by engaging in projects that add value to you personally and career-wise.
The moral of the story is: Keep learning and be open to change. Your work is valued. Your work is important. Digital transformation is changing the way we work, but business IT will always need you.