If I was writing this article on how to learn the technical ropes to become a sysadmin 10 or 15 years ago, I would be writing a very different piece. If you have worked in technology for any reasonable amount of time, you know that technology changes quickly, requiring technical professionals to keep pace with the industry, which can place a lot of pressure on us to always be learning in order to stay relevant.
There is no traditional path to becoming a system administrator when it comes to acquiring the technical skills you need to be effective and high-performing. You ask five people how they got started as a sysadmin, you likely will hear three different answers, and maybe more. Some sysadmins have an associate or college degrees, and some don’t. Depending on when a sysadmin began their career, he or she might have a variety of technical certificates from Red Hat, Microsoft, Cisco, CompTIA, etc., or none at all.
Here in 2019 and beyond, I believe that there will be more technical professionals with a certification that augments their understanding of different areas of technology. Hiring managers and companies expect to see more than just a college degree on a resume. No one would deny that you have to prove you have the technical knowledge through theory, but you definitely have to be able to put that knowledge into application.
There are quite a few ways to gain the technical skills to become a sysadmin. So how do you learn these technical ropes?
The role of a sysadmin
Let’s just clarify what a typical sysadmin does. According to Wikipedia, a sysadmin is a person that is responsible for the upkeep, configuration, and reliable operation of computer systems; especially multi-user computers such as servers. Sysadmins ensure that the uptime, performance, resources, and security of these computer systems are managed daily to meet the needs of users while trying to keep costs low. Some sysadmins might work as a Linux or a Windows sysadmin, or they might support a hybrid environment that has both Windows and Linux servers.
Three learning paths for sysadmins
In no way does this article purports to cover all the ways that someone can learn the technical ropes to become a sysadmin, but it will provide a general path. Learning is continuous. As a technical professional, there will never come a day when you are not learning, so you need to make sure you are comfortable with always feeling that you have to learn more to keep pace and be successful.
Today, there are several common paths to acquiring your technical chops, and I’d like to explore these with you.
The first more traditional path is instructor-led courses. Colleges can offer you this type of education. For instance, you could start with an Associates program that focuses on network administration, but with that, you will also take courses in programming, Linux administration, server administration, security, database administration, and subnetting, along with traditional math courses.
These traditional IT programs will provide you with the theory, and also the practical learning, typically through lab simulations. You will get the hands-on learning that you will be required to execute when in the working world. In addition to this, these programs are typically aligned with testing vendors like Red Hat, Cisco, CompTIA, and Microsoft to give the student the ability to also test their knowledge and obtain the IT certifications along with their degree.
The result of taking this learning path is that you can graduate, and with the help of the career office, come out with a junior network technician position, a junior Linux sysadmin position, or even an internship or apprenticeship that can lead to a full-time position. You get a great deal of support with this path, so it is definitely a good route. This path is an opportunity to take learning seriously and gain foundational knowledge and practical skills through labs provided by that institution. Take advantage of all the resources the institution has available.
Another less traditional learning path is through online or virtual learning. Today, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of online learning programs that can provide you with both the theory and hands-online learning as well. These programs often provide you with sandboxes or labs as part of the monthly or yearly cost. Some well-known virtual learning platforms to acquire the technical skills you need to become a sysadmin are the Red Hat Learning Subscription, Linux Academy, CBT Nuggets, O’Reilly (formerly Safari Books), Udemy, PluralSight, and Linkedin Learning (used to be Lynda.com).
These virtual platforms can teach you how to set up a lab environment at home, as well as provide you with the lab environment you need to get critical hands-on experience. You have to be able to understand what’s under the hood of a Windows or Linux operating system. You have to learn how to handle creating users and groups, managing file systems, troubleshooting, analyzing logs, how to set up proper auditing, and beyond. There are thousands of courses on these platforms to get you started toward learning how to perform all the general functions of a sysadmin.
The cheapest option when it comes to learning the technical ropes to become a sysadmin is self-study. I would argue that this option can be the most challenging because it takes being able to manage your time and be disciplined. You have to make learning a priority. Part of that self-study can include using one of the virtual platforms mentioned previously.
The practice of dedicated, consistent self-study has been one of the greatest things for my overall personal development. I can tell you right now that I have learned a hell of a lot more outside of class than I ever learned sitting in one.
With self-study, you need to set goals about what IT skills you want to learn. If you want to become a Linux sysadmin, you have to learn Linux to become one. You could start by reading a book on Linux for beginners, for instance. You can install the Linux operating system on an old laptop in order to practice the commands that you are learning in the book.
Or, you might decide to get Linux+ certified, or self-study for the Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) or Red Hat Certified Engineer (RHCE) certifications in order to demonstrate the technical knowledge and skills that you are able to perform. Have a comfortable and quiet space for learning—a quiet nook in your house or apartment, or a favorite place at your local library. This should be the place you always go to. Make it easy for yourself, so you don’t have to think much about it. Just get there and start learning.
Books and podcasts
If you want to become a sysadmin, you should also have at least a small library of resources that you can refer to. This library can be physical books or e-books. You won’t ever know everything, and it’s important as a professional to be able to find the answers you need on your own, so having a collection of resources is very important. Don’t take it for granted. Also, there are podcasts that you can listen to regularly to learn the tricks of the trade from more experienced IT professionals.
Some good resources to have as a sysadmin include:
- The Accidental SysAdmin Handbook: A Primer for Early Level IT Professionals, Second Edition, by Eric Kralicek
- The Linux Philosophy for SysAdmins: And Everyone Who Wants To Be One, by David Both
- Unix and Linux System Administration Handbook, Fifth Edition, by Evi Nemeth, Ben Whaley, Garth Snyder, Dan Mackin, and Trent R. Hein
- The Practice of Cloud System Administration: Designing and Operating Large Distributed Systems, by Thomas Limoncelli, Strata Chalup, and Christina Hogan
There are some great podcasts as well, such as the below just to name a few:
Lab practice every day
If you learn nothing else from this article, if you want to not only become a sysadmin but you want to be successful beyond sheer grit and determination, you need to always be learning. You need to work in your lab every day, or almost every day. This is where having a great lab environment at home comes in handy.
Working in the IT field can be fun and amazing, and a total geekfest, but it can also be pressure-filled and demanding. I believe the more you learn and make it a point to learn how to learn, you relieve some of the pressure, and it gets easier to attack a particular technology subject or stack and set yourself apart from those who don’t put in the time and the work.
You have to get comfortable with continuous learning and adapting to constant changes. You can’t become complacent. Whether it is 30 minutes a day or four hours a night, you need to keep learning, growing, and setting yourself apart.
Not just technical skills
It’s very important to note in this article, that yes, you have to learn the technical ropes to become a sysadmin, but it can’t be forgotten or dismissed that you have to also learn the soft skills. You can only go so far without learning skills like communication, doing presentations, writing, adaptability, salesmanship, critical thinking, project management, problem-solving, attention to detail, time management, organizational skills, and analytical skills.
These skills can be learned, but you have to make them a priority, or you might find yourself stuck and unable to progress. Soft skills are just as critical as learning the technical ropes. Remember this!
"Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune." — Jim Rohn