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Becoming a Linux system administrator: From sales to sysadmin

A look back at my journey to becoming a sysadmin—from sales to consulting to developer to sysadmin.
Becoming a Linux system administrator

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In the early 80s, I was working as a salesman in the construction industry. Roofing and insulation had me traveling across Sweden presenting solutions and promoting various materials. Being out on the road was great, and no two days were alike. When I passed a construction site where our crew was working, they would always invite me, and I could pick up tips on new customers or just relax and chat and have a cup of coffee. I was young, free, and endlessly curious.

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The company decided to invest in the younger generation, so it sent me to evening classes to become a marketing engineer specialized in the industry. Two years went by, and for the first time in my life, I really enjoyed learning. We worked in teams, and I graduated at the top of my class. I was as proud as I could be and hungry for something new.

Through one of my classmates, I was recruited to an IT company that was selling computers. This was the beginning of a very bumpy ride that would last almost ten years: Managers that were bullies or even psychopaths, companies that promised gold but went bankrupt, friendly colleagues that turned out to be thieves, customers that were abandoned, and sales figures that felt like a whip across my back. There were many hard lessons, but looking back, there are only a few that I really could have done without.

The salesman

Networking and workstations were the thing, and I learned a lot about IBM Token Ring, Novell networks, LAN Manager, Norton Security, Lotus Notes, Microsoft mail, and various mainframe emulators. I was a reasonably good salesman, but I was constantly frustrated at not being able to work in a more long-term engagement with the customers because as soon as a deal was done, I had to move on.

Then, while working at a small but very agile and aggressive computer reseller, I decided to step into the big unknown and start my own consulting company. Having again studied evenings and weekends, I felt as ready as I could be, so I opened a new chapter, and it did not take long before I was knee deep in trouble.

Growing up

Working under my own banner felt great, and I could only blame myself when things went wrong. I could follow my curiosity and use my common sense to avoid some pitfalls while still being young enough to walk straight into others. I loved every minute of it, and when I landed my first few contracts as a Lotus Notes developer, I managed to find a lot of limitations in the application, which kept me both challenged and motivated.

I tried expanding my business and hired some staff. At the peak, I had six employees. However, I was too young and inexperienced at managing staff. They looked to me for guidance, but I had my head buried in development and the early days system administration. With my company on the brink of disaster, I realized I was not ready to be a manager and had to let everyone go. This was a very humbling experience, and I felt like dirt, but we all got through it with several lessons learned.

The one-man-band company was back in the game, but I had run into issues because my applications were not performing as expected, and workflows were interrupted. I realized that my code was good, but the servers were poorly administered. Curiosity had me caught once again, so I started to learn server administration.

Junior sysadmin

Working for an international company, I managed multiple servers in Sweden but had repeated issues with connectivity. Not being much of a network guy, I struggled in the conversations and frequently came up short, so I realized I had to learn networking. After six hundred pages on TCP/IP and a lot of training courses with plenty of experimenting while working with (for me) new network tools, I had my skillset on track to improve.

Development was no longer on the top of my agenda because I had found much more satisfying work in the area of network administration—especially now that I was taking care of a global network. I had fantastic colleagues around the world, and I related to the servers just like teenage children: In general good but sometimes a bit naughty or just plain silly.

The Demolition Team

I had many roles, including: Migrating, merging, splitting, expanding, and reducing the networks and servers, as well as blocking network attacks, cleaning up after intrusions, training admins, writing guidelines, setting policies, giving feedback to the software providers, attending training, and pushing for new features to be incorporated in the next release. I was part of a great team, and together we did amazing things and had loads of fun. I designed a t-shirt logo for us using the most fantastic collaboration tool called Microsoft Paintbrush, and with the crudest of a free hand in different colors, I wrote "Demolition Team," where the pirate skull and bones replaced the first "o." Naturally, I still have the t-shirt, and it always brings back good memories.

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I was working in this position for several years, and then one day, it struck me that I had, on my own accord, changed from a salesman to a sysadmin and what a journey it had been. Still curious, I wonder what my next step will be, and I think I might be on to something already—but that's another story.

Wrapping up

Previously I wrote an article about the value of mentorship where I stated that my very first mentor was curiosity - and it still is. This story, from sales to sysadmin, reflects that curiosity, and it has been a trusted companion every step of the way. However, I have to admit that in the darker moments of my career, I had to be persistent and patient, in order to get through some rough patches.

I have not had a grand master plan for how my career should pan out. Instead, I have been led by curiosity and a fair bit of passion. Learning has not been a straight forward path to master a new skill. On the contrary, it has been a twisty road with many surprises and occasional failures before finally emerging in a new field of expertise. Each new vantage point has allowed me to discover something new, and I hope that will go on. Humble thanks to all those that have supported me on my journey. I am now blessed with providing guidance and support to the next generation, and marvel at their achievements.

If you match curiosity with passion, you will have accessed a strong force that will drive both you and your surroundings, even if it means going out on a limb. Don’t be afraid, now it’s your turn.

Topics:   Linux   Linux administration   Career  
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Joachim Haller

Member of the Red Hat Accelerators and Red Hat Chapter Lead at Capgemini. More about me

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