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How to earn a promotion as a sysadmin

Promotions are great, but blindly taking just any promotion can lead to misery. Here's how to get one, especially one that suits you.
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There’s plenty of general advice when it comes to career advancement, such as, “Work hard and you’ll get ahead.”

General advice can start to feel a little pat—too simplistic to put into action, or too difficult to measure. Surely, it’s not as simple as, “Work hard and watch the promotions roll in.” Not to mention, how would you know if it’s the right promotion. Is it one that matches your goals?

This question becomes particularly important in IT. What if you’re a sysadmin who’s not particularly interested in managing a team of people? Do you grin and bear it while others move up the food chain?

Not necessarily. Rather, it’s important to become more intentional about what the next steps in your career might look like, even if you’re perfectly satisfied in your current role. We asked a range of experts to share their top advice for system administrators looking to earn a promotion—and to make sure it actually suits them, too. Here’s what they had to say.

Know what you want

“I want a promotion” is a fine goal, but if you don’t know why you want a promotion, you’ll find that goal harder to achieve. Or, you might find that a promotion is not what you actually want. (Not knowing why might also make it harder to discuss a promotion productively with your boss, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.)

“First and foremost, it is very important to know yourself, and understand whether your goal is to advance your career in a specialist direction, or a managerial direction,” says Ceren Güvenç, HR director at AnyDesk.

Indeed, that’s a particular fork in the road that sysadmins—along with other IT career paths—will likely encounter at some point. A management or executive role almost inevitability requires a conscious development of people and business skills to get ahead, for example. In IT, this path sometimes means becoming less hands-on with technology tools on a day-to-day basis, too.

“Both options have a great deal of potential, but each requires the development of different skill sets,” Güvenç says. “Once you are confident of the direction you want your career to take, then you can begin to focus on developing the skills and contacts most useful for your specific career path.”

Weigh the role of job titles in your long-term plans

Job titles are inherently subjective. The same title (think system administrator or software engineer as good IT examples) might generally represent some common characteristics or responsibilities, but the actual job description could vary considerably from company to company.

When it comes to career advancement, you’ll want to map what you want to potential titles, but don’t get carried away: A title is ultimately just a title.

“It’s always useful to ask yourself whether you need a particular title to reach your full potential. Titles might change from company to company, but your potential does not,” Güvenç says. “Look at the content of the position rather than its title: Does it offer you new challenges and opportunities? Will it represent a genuine broadening of your professional horizons?”

If you’re looking to expand your experience with on-premises infrastructure into cloud platforms and services, for example, working toward a more cloud-centric title might make sense. Ian McClarty, CEO and president at phoenixNAP Global IT Services, points to increasingly common titles like cloud engineer or cloud architect as possible steps up for someone seeking to pivot into a cloud job. He also notes the systems engineer and systems architect titles as possible steps up. (Again, pay attention to the job description to ensure it offers a higher ceiling or otherwise matches your goals.)

Titles are especially important to think about for sysadmins who are intent on remaining hands-on technologists as their careers grow. This gets back to knowing what you want.

“If you want to stay hands-on, then stick to the ‘administrator’ title,” says Jamie Cambell, cybersecurity consultant and founder at GoBestVPN. “Otherwise, your experience and skillset will naturally transition to management roles like team lead, manager, director, officer, etc. Not everyone likes this transition. Numerous sysadmins I’ve spoken to like to stay as a ‘programmer’ [rather than become] a ‘manager.’ They like tackling tech issues but not human/management-related ones.”

A common tactic for formalizing a move into a mid- or senior-level—but still hands-on—sysadmin role is to simply add a word like “senior” to the existing title. You may also decide that the system administrator title (or related roles like network administrator) suits you just fine so long as your responsibilities—and compensation—increase as part of a promotion. (Titles themselves don’t pay the rent, after all.)

Keep building in-demand technology skills

IT pros have long been told to keep their skills fresh to ensure their ongoing marketability; if you don’t adapt and evolve with the technology landscape, you risk left getting behind. Sysadmins aren’t usually an exception to this conventional wisdom. Moreover, mapping your professional development to wider industry trends might give you a broader range of options for your next move.

Count McClarty among those who see the system administrator position—even when the title remains unchanged—increasingly intersecting with cloud and DevOps.

“Faster and better ways to deploy new applications and code are the norm. If the code will be public cloud-focused, then the system administrator needs to look at ways of automating and scaling out the specific third-party cloud,” McClarty says. “The reality though is most companies are going hybrid today, [with] multiple cloud vendors and on-prem [infrastructure]. A system administrator that can understand all of the environments and how they work together will be future-proof.”

Uladzimir Stsiapura, HR director at ScienсeSoft, concurs that adding new technical skills is a smart strategy for a sysadmin who wants to build a strong case for a promotion. On the DevOps front, Stsiapura recommends a particular entry point for professional development.

“A system administrator can start a DevOps dive with learning [Continuous Integration, Continuous Delivery (CI/CD)] practices and tools for automating the development process,” Stsiapura says.

Fill the tech expertise void in your organization

If you’re working in a technology company (or an organization that’s otherwise rich with tech expertise), this tip may be less immediately useful. But just about every business depends upon technology these days, and yet their IT skills are often in short supply.

That’s how Chris Goodnow rose to effectively become the CTO of his former law firm. Goodnow, who is now a partner in his own law practice, Goodnow McKay, saw a sizable gap between the prior firm’s technology needs and its in-house tech abilities.

“Many law firms have need for sysadmins, especially because we deal with local and cloud-based systems that have to store sensitive data, comply with federal HIPAA regulations, and also employ quick data sharing between devices while maintaining high-level encryption,” Goodnow says. The problem? “Most law firms are stuck in the stone age. This is part of how I was able to advance from a sysadmin to having large input in administrative functions of a company. You can proactively advance your career by becoming more valuable. Value will, of course, depend on the industry you are in. But if you as a sysadmin are able to identify issues or weaknesses or make things more efficient, it will allow advancement.”

Another way to think about this is to connect your technology skills with business value. What problems can you solve for the bosses—or organization at large—with your technical chops? How can you get rid of a team’s painful manual process, or cut costs, or reveal new opportunities for the company?

“I also think it is important to speak with those in charge about what goals they wish to accomplish and figure out a way, proactively, to make them happen—even if it is not exactly how they think those goals should be accomplished,” Goodnow says. “Coming up with something that creates a great end goal and user experience for those in charge will show those in charge you are valuable.”

Build dialogues and relationships

Relationships matter, perhaps especially if you’re seeking an internal promotion. If you just sit there hoping someone will tap you on the shoulder and shout “promoted!” you might be waiting for a while.

“My best advice for sysadmins looking to advance their career is to focus on building strong relationships with those in the supporting and hiring roles of the position you’re hoping to land,” says business coach Stacy Caprio. “This [practice] will be easier for you if you’re moving up inside a company you already work for, since you can be building relationships with those above you every day in the office.”

This doesn’t mean being a sycophant; rather, it means being a good team member and contributor, and ensuring that the work you’re doing is appropriately visible. Document the value you’re delivering, new skills you’re developing, and so forth.

“The best way to open a conversation with your manager about a promotion or raise is to show them the advancements you have made,” McClarty says. (If you’ve built valuable skills on your own time, make that clear, too.) “Displaying not just an understanding of the technology but also an understanding of the business and how this will either make the organization money or save money are critical elements in talking about ways to move up.”

Caprio advises not waiting until your formal review to bring up your future for the first time.

“Bring it up a few months before you have your official performance review, so it can be something you are working toward with your manager’s knowledge,” Caprio says. “If you wait until your performance review to mention it you’re already putting yourself a few steps behind.”

If you’re asking directly for a promotion, be ready to make your case why you deserve one. “Well, I’ve been here a while” and “I want more money” aren’t necessarily the most persuasive arguments.

“Do you want a promotion simply because you want the pay rise that accompanies it? This is unlikely to be sufficient cause for promotion!” Güvenç says. “Alternatively, are you already working beyond the scope of your existing job description and believe that this should be formally recognized? Or do you have ideas about how you could expand your role in the future, and want to bring these possibilities to your manager’s attention? It is crucial to understand your own role and ambitions and be able to explain how these could bring even greater benefit to the company as a whole is encouraged.”

This may not be a romantic notion, but remember that decisions about promotions almost always have a financial component. So while “I want more money” is not usually the best opening line, that subtext is there. Make clear why you’re worth it.

“When it comes time to speak with a manager about a promotion or a raise I believe it is important to have a catalog of all the work you have done since your last raise and focus on the projects you have initiated or thought up that have benefitted the company,” Goodnow says. “Hiring people and giving people raises is a money game. If you are able to show you bring something to the table that is irreplaceable or financially difficult to replace—i.e. you do the job of five people and cost less—then it should be a no-brainer.”

And remember that it’s OK to ask for feedback and guidance. (If it’s not, you’ve got a bad boss.)

“Ask them directly: What steps should you take, what are some goals or metrics you need to be hitting, and what else is possible in the organization?” Cambell says. “Then a good manager will set you along on a path to the goals you’ve discussed.”

Know when it’s time to look elsewhere

Sometimes securing the promotion you deserve may require looking outside of your current employer. Goodnow notes that raises, in particular, are often most significant when you change companies. He notes that it doesn’t make much sense from a talent retention standpoint, but remains a reality in many organizations.

The good news is that the work you’ve done to build new skills, create value, and other preparatory steps toward a promotion don’t have to be for naught.

“Often times being proactive and taking on new responsibilities may not even lead to advancement within the same company—but it will help your resume when you apply to outside companies,” Goodnow says. “The resume will show special or impressive projects that set you apart from all other sysadmins and create more demand and a higher level of compensation. It is the sysadmin’s job to ensure they show the company their worth. If the company will not listen it is time to apply to another job.”

Topics:   Career  
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Kevin Casey

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?"  More about me

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