Why learning to network is key for sysadmins
It’s hard to take a decade of experience as a sysadmin and boil it down to a paragraph or two of career advice, but if I were to pick the single, biggest impact on my career, it would be this:
No, not switches and routers, but people.
When I was younger—in high school or college, or even in my first job—I was aware of the conventional wisdom: "Networking is important," or "It’s not what you know, it’s who you know." All those pearls of wisdom that I assumed were 1980s-era, business school fluff.
"I am smart," I thought to myself, "and I work hard. I just need to keep my head down and do my job and prove myself to my superiors to advance."
That’s how I spent the first half of a decade as a sysadmin: working hard, keeping my head down, and being modestly rewarded for my efforts.
In my sixth year as a sysadmin, I became interested in a new technology and started attending related meetings and meetups. I heard presentations from folks who did things differently than we did at work, and brought back some of those ideas. I met people who were interested in the same technology I was and was introduced to others who were, too.
Eventually, I was asked to give presentations about what I was doing. That’s scary for a "head down" kind of guy, let me tell you, but I did them anyway because I wanted to share my own experiences. Local meetup presentations and workshops lead to beta testing software for larger companies, and doing presentations in front of terrifyingly large crowds at conferences. As a side effect, though, I was attending more conferences and meetups, meeting more and more people, learning how others did things, and bringing those ideas back to work.
Implementing new ideas and technologies I learned from others outside of work impressed management and led to larger and more frequent promotions, more freedom to work on new things, and more opportunity to travel and meet new people. Speaking in front of groups made me better at speaking to rooms of colleagues and superiors. Eventually, I was contacted by folks I’d met at meetups and conferences, suggesting I apply for a particular job opening and recommending me to the hiring managers.
That’s how I got my current job, actually.
I went into my career thinking networking was a bad word—just a group of privileged people giving each other jobs because they knew the uncle of a congresswoman’s husband or something. In this field, though, and as a sysadmin, networking is the opportunity to learn and be exposed to new ideas. It is the ability to impress supervisors by bringing back new knowledge and improving practices that one might not otherwise be exposed while to working, head down, in your own cube. Networking is meeting people who recognize the skills you are gaining as you learn and grow, and remembering you for those skills when they learn of a new position.
For a system administrator, networking is a route to personal and professional growth, and my advice for career advancement. If you go about it in the way I describe, it doesn't even have to be dull.