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How to write a sysadmin job description

Writing a job description can be overwhelming. Here are some solid suggestions on how to target the right candidates instead of putting yourself in a position of drowning in candidates without the right skillsets.
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Job descriptions exist for just about every occupation and industry. An early step in recruiting and hiring for most employment positions is summarizing what the individual is expected to do.

This process sounds simple, yet if you spend time reading job descriptions—especially for roles represented by common titles, like "marketing coordinator"—you might think otherwise. Some job descriptions make it harder than it should be to figure out what the employer is really looking for. Others may include phrasing that’s inherently generic or overused. (What does it really mean to be a "self-starter," for instance? Doesn’t applying for a job in the first place qualify you as one, at least at some minimum level?)

All of the above applies to the system administrator role in IT, including the "common title" problem—it’s an industry stalwart. But while there’s some core DNA to the sysadmin role, the day-to-day job requires different things in different organizations, especially in today’s evolving IT environments. So if you’re hiring, it’s important to get the job description right.

Here’s what to keep in mind as you write and revise.

Start with the job title

The particular title you choose matters, especially these days. Labeling anyone and everyone who touches infrastructure as a system administrator is too general of an approach. If the person will work solely with cloud services or platforms, for example, you might consider "cloud administrator." There can be other distinctions worth considering, such as the traditional "network administrator" title, or emerging roles like "Kubernetes administrator." And, of course, not every job relevant to the sysadmin role needs the word "administrator" in the title.

"It sounds obvious, but begin by creating the job title," advises Corey Roseleip, principal, technical talent procurement, at 2nd Watch. "From there, define the specific problems you are trying to solve and outline the performance expectations. Then, describe your preferred candidate."

Extra attention to the job title is worth it. If you don’t put much thought into the title, you may do the same with the description itself. Moreover, the title is actually part of the description.

Speaking of which, Roseleip just gave you a great general framework to work from, so adapt it to your own needs. This framework is also a good reminder that a job description isn’t the same as a list of required and preferred skills.

State specifically what you’re looking for

If there’s an absolute must in any good sysadmin job description, it’s a clear-cut description of the technologies this person will work with, and the corresponding skills required to do so.

"Be specific about the ideal candidate’s technology background, preferred certifications, and necessary soft skills," Roseleip says. (We’ll get back to those "soft" skills in a minute.)

In the IT job descriptions section of its 2019 Technology & IT Salary Guide, Robert Half Technology notes that a sysadmin’s typical duties are:

  • Installing operating system software, patches, and upgrades.
  • Analyzing, troubleshooting, and resolving system hardware, software, and networking issues.
  • Configuring, optimizing, fine-tuning, and monitoring operating system software and servers.
  • Performing system backups and recovery.
  • Conducting server builds.

Indeed, those tasks might sound typical, but Robert Half also notes this about sysadmin jobs: "Employer requirements vary depending on system complexity, the types of operating and network systems being supported, and the size of the organization."

Those duties are really just the basics, too. As a result, the recruiting firm points out that different employers list different requirements for what is, by title, the same job. Robert Half notes that some employers might require a bachelor’s degree for their sysadmin positions, while others only look for an associate’s degree or technical training certificate. Same goes for preferred certifications, and other things an employer might seek in potential sysadmins.

The bullet points above generalize the role. Your actual job description should be much more specific to your organization and team. Roseleip from 2nd Watch shares this real-world example:

"In our cloud operations architect role, which is similar to a sysadmin position, we look for people who are experts in cloud infrastructure and related technologies, Windows as well as Linux platforms, web services and APIs, load balancing, and the design, development, implementation and support of mission-critical solutions in large-scale environments," Roseleip says. "We also prefer candidates who have a solid understanding of technologies including TCP/IP, VPN, Layer 3 routing, Tomcat, and LAMP."

Your job description should focus on similar specifics about the job duties, and the tools and technologies the eventual candidate will work with on a regular basis. Don’t just say "cloud," for example. Specify what types of cloud infrastructure and services you require, and which platforms. Ditto for terms like "hardware" and "software"—be more specific.

Include details about the person

You’re hiring a person, not a machine. So describe the non-technical abilities you’re looking for in your sysadmin, too, even if you list them after the technical chops. This aspect is what Roseleip focuses on in that cloud operations architect position.

"In terms of soft skills, the ideal candidate has a strong sense of ownership, initiative, and the ability to accept and mitigate risk," Roseleip says. "This person would also have excellent verbal and written communication skills as it pertains to working with a wide range of audiences, including business and technical stakeholders."

Avoid "TMI" and other pitfalls

Specificity is good. Too much information can sink a job description. The same goes for setting the bar higher than the position requires.

"Too often companies overstate the skills needed to be successful in these roles," Roseleip says. "They also provide too much information, which can be confusing to candidates. And finally, many companies make the mistake of not being precise in terms of expectations. One or more of these mistakes can derail potentially valuable candidates.

There’s another reason to avoid including too much information (TMI). Long-winded job descriptions can net fewer applicants than relatively brief job descriptions, according to job site Indeed.com.

"The key to writing effective job descriptions is to find the perfect balance between providing enough detail so candidates understand the role and your company while keeping your description concise," the company says on its website. "We’ve found that job descriptions between 700 and 2,000 characters get up to 30% more applications."

To underline this point: In the last three sections of my article Top 5 job markets for sysadmins, 7 different ways, you can see that your listing has plenty of competition—thousands of open positions in some cities, and hundreds in others—on sites like Indeed.

Get input from others

A good sysadmin job description also depends upon adequate feedback (and any necessary revisions) from key stakeholders, before you send it out into the world. Roseleip recommends including some mix of the following in the feedback loop:

  • The hiring manager(s)
  • Team members performing this role now
  • Team members who will work with this individual once they’re on board
  • HR

Don’t overlook "team members who will work with this individual." They may have a valuable perspective on what matters most in your particular sysadmin position, and "what matters most" should be your job description writing mantra.

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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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