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Sysadmin skills: What junior sysadmins need to know

It's not about being a tech whiz. Junior sysadmins need the foundational skills that help them grow.
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Along with the guidance of a good mentor, there are certain skills that are required for any junior sysadmin. It is not knowing how to restart a web server, or how Linux manages memory. It is not whether they can answer the classic interview question, "Can you explain what happens when you request a webpage in your browser?" With the exception of perhaps a bit of familiarity with the command line, there are only really three things a junior admin needs to know.

How to research

A junior sysadmin will be told over and over to "read the man pages" (usually by less-than-effective mentors), and while they should still do that reading, it is unlikely that they will have the context to fully understand it—at least at first.

Knowing how to research on your own is vital to not just surviving but growing in the junior admin role. Read the help output of the command. If that does not help, read the man pages. If that does not help, search the internet; help forums, tutorials, and even enthusiast blogs will at least provide some context. You can usually bet that someone has already had the same issue and written up a solution. Being able to research how something works is the first step in learning complex technologies and building technical skills and experience.

How to test

Knowing how to test is key for a junior systems administrator. You'll get points out of the gate for even knowing to test in the first place, and you can learn to get good at it over time. However, knowing the basics of how to test changes is crucial. Regardless of the technology being used—whether you're writing a script, configuring a web server, or troubleshooting a storage problem—effective testing has the same core elements:

  • Trial and error: It is important to read through the documentation or man pages of whatever technology they are working with, but frequently, the documentation is lacking. Even when it is not, absorbing knowledge will come easier with trial and error. Testing leads to better understanding.
  • One test at a time: With complex systems, the final result may not be attainable without multiple changes, but for effective testing, only one change can be made at a time. Making multiple changes at the same makes it harder to know what change has what effect.
  • Observe and record: There is more to testing than making a change, checking if the problem is resolved, and trying again. Follow what actually happens—watch logs, observe behavior, and take notes. Understanding comes from seeing not just if but how a change impacts function. Recording results is just as critical. After dozens of changes, it is hard to pinpoint what did what without good notes. The worst tests are the ones that have to be repeated because the results were lost.

Conducting these tests over time will cement how things work into a junior admin's brain, and there will be copious notes to reference for any concepts that don't quite make it. Best of all, it will be in their own words, and easier to cross-reference in the future.

How to ask for help

As important as research and testing on their own is, just as important to a junior admin is knowing to ask for help when they do become stuck. A good mentor will not expect a junior admin to have all the answers, or indeed even the context to get started sometimes. While it is important for them to first try to figure out an issue on their own, spending too much time on a single problem to the exclusion of other work, or struggling so much that they become frustrated and distracted is counterproductive. They should take a crack at the issue, research it and work through it, but know when to call it and ask for help.

A great way to learn through that process (and keep the additional workload put on the mentor to a minimum) is to ask for guidance on clearing the specific hurdle rather than having a mentor show them how to fix the entire problem all at once.

There is nothing especially out of reach about being a systems administrator. There is no knowledge that couldn't be learned by anyone and no technical skills required of a junior admin just starting out in the role. Far more important are the "soft skills" like knowing how to learn, how to test, and how and when to ask for help. Junior administrators who possess these skills will have no trouble picking up technical skills, and more importantly, no trouble being useful and contributing members of their teams.

[ Want to test your sysadmin skills? Take a skills assessment today. ]

Topics:   Career  
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Chris Collins

Chris Collins is an SRE at Red Hat and a Community Moderator for He is a container and container orchestration, DevOps, and automation evangelist, and will talk with anyone interested in those topics for far too long and with much enthusiasm. More about me

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