If you've ever looked at job descriptions for system administrators, you begin to wonder what exactly the required skills and knowledge are for that particular job. It seems that every system administrator job outlines different skills, knowledge, and experience levels. There are no standards with which one may compare themselves to. In this article, my goal is to offer guidelines for the basic skills, knowledge, and experience levels needed for each job level, beginning with entry-level and ending with subject matter expert (SME).
These levels are generalities, and the lines are gray because people learn at different rates, job experiences vary widely, and time on the job doesn't always imply a specific level of competence in knowledge or skill level.
Entry-level/Novice/Newbie (0 to 2 years experience)
An entry-level person is one who has no track record or verifiable work experience in system administration. This person might be a hobbyist, a student, or someone who recently changed careers. The typical entry points are internships, help desk associate positions, desktop support, and other similar level-one support roles. Expected entry-level knowledge largely depends on the hiring manager and the other team members performing the interview.
Entry-level folks often have significant experience from their own studies, formal classwork, student work-study, or even volunteer work that helps them get that first opportunity in the IT field. Often, they have industry-recognized certifications that they feel will help their cases in getting their first jobs.
First responsibilities for entry-level system administrators focus on repetitive or scripted tasks such as user maintenance, backups, assisting with hardware maintenance, and supervised end-user support calls. Workers at this level should learn as much as they can about every job there is in IT: Gain exposure to a wide range of software, hardware, networking, and general computing, but focus on Linux commands, filesystem navigation, and services.
The highest hurdle is getting that first job for an entry-level person. Companies want people with experience, but few are willing to give that experience. My recommendations for entry-level folks:
- Learn on your own and then demonstrate your knowledge in the interview.
- The best way to get an interview is to network by joining local user groups.
- Use virtual machines to practice using and navigating Linux systems.
- Study and obtain certification.
Junior (2 to 4 years experience)
Junior-level administrators have had some on the job experience and possibly some formal training. This person's responsibilities might include performing and verifying backups, restoring files, managing user accounts, onboarding users, offboarding users, on-call rotation, limited client interface, and system maintenance activities.
A person at this level should possess the following knowledge and skills:
- Good knowledge of the Linux filesystem.
- General command usage and syntax.
- Use of sudo and handling limited root user tasks.
- Basic knowledge of networks and troubleshooting network problems.
- Basic hardware knowledge.
- Knowledge of backup, restore, and recovery procedures.
- Good understanding of permissions and user management.
Interviewing for a junior-level position can be interesting. Interviewers will often test the interviewee's level of knowledge until the interviewee responds multiple times with "I don't know." Interview questions are generally technical and might cover scenario-based situations, such as, "What would you do if X happened?"
Junior-level system administration can be a stressful but rewarding time in your career. The stress is from having too many tasks to perform within a normal workday, which, when combined with on-call rotation and late-night maintenance windows, can cause early career burnout. Check out these articles to avoid this problem:
Intermediate (5 to 7 years experience)
If you can survive those junior-level years, then your career starts moving in the right direction. You'll take on more responsibility by mentoring entry-level and junior-level administrators. You'll graduate into second- or third-level support, which means fewer phone calls directly to your desk, and a lot less stress from end-user support. Don't expect the late nights to go away, though, because those less experienced system administrators will call on you without hesitation.
An intermediate-level system administrator should be able to:
- Mentor and train less experienced system administrators.
- Have expertise sufficient to handle second and third-level problems.
- Work efficiently at the command line.
- Advise management on capacity and performance planning.
- Sufficiently secure a system.
- Script or program automated tasks.
- Troubleshoot hardware, software, and network problems.
- Discuss infrastructure needs with management.
- Interface with other teams to solve problems.
- Travel to remote sites and work independently.
- Research and recommend new technical solutions.
- Build a knowledge base.
- Create and document standards.
Not every company has an intermediate-level system administrator designation—at least not a formal one. Some companies jump from junior-level administrator titles to senior-level with no step in between. If that is the case with the job you're considering, then add the list above to the next section, which is senior-level administration.
Senior (7 years and above experience)
Senior-level Linux administrators have experience with a broad range of hardware and software, multiple Linux versions, security, networking, and technical leadership. This is the group that all other administrators rely on for advice, advanced troubleshooting, standards creation, training, management interface, and some business end handling such as budgeting, maintenance scheduling, documentation, and presentations.
It's not all trivia and advice at this level, though. Senior-level administrators handle advanced, detailed work such as:
- Researching new technologies.
- Building automated systems.
- Creating "golden" system images.
- Establishing security standards.
- Establishing hardware and software standards.
- Architecting solutions.
Senior-level administrators are also expected to have developed so-called "soft" skills over the years. System administrators gain soft skills by networking with other professionals at conferences, interfacing with management, leading team members, learning the business, and becoming concerned with how the team's work directly affects productivity and profits.
The senior-level system administrator is often the technical team's spokesperson on root cause analysis and post-mortem calls, in discussions with management, and as the team's voice when making technology recommendations. Those who sharpen their soft skills are often recruited into management.
Subject matter expert (SME)
Subject matter experts are those who have gained specialized expertise with a single technology or in a limited scope area. SMEs are often called gurus, ninjas, sages, fellows, or masters in a particular field. These folks have in-depth knowledge of technology that places them in a realm all their own.
SMEs generally work for large, multi-national companies, and architect solutions on a large scale. They travel extensively and are often called upon to speak at conferences or to teach about their area(s) of expertise. SMEs have many years of experience in the technology trenches and are highly respected by vendors, system administrators, and C-level executives.
It's more difficult to pinpoint where an SME falls in the hierarchy of system administrators because they are generally outside of it. They fall somewhere in between management and technical workers. They are advisors, standards creators, and solutions architects.
Focus but prepare for the future
My best advice, being at the senior level myself, is to focus on your current role but have an ultimate goal in mind. If you want to enter management, get involved, join groups, learn to speak to other people, learn the business side of your company, and become the go-to person in your group. If you're satisfied with a technical role, take deep dives into areas of technology that interest you and work toward becoming an expert in them. Being a generalist has never hurt anyone's career, but focusing on a small number of areas or technologies makes you very employable and promotable as well.
You have to manage your career. The only way to do that is to not simply seek a bigger paycheck, but to take on more responsibility, stand out with excellence in your work, sharpen your skills, and work on those all-important soft skills.