When a company looks for new resources with skills in a specific focus area—especially in IT—the challenge is on. Why? Because only a few in the company, if any, have even a vague notion of how to verify the skills they are looking for. The work of a system administrator is a key function, and if it goes wrong, the very existence of the company is at stake (something I’ve been unfortunate to witness when called in on an emergency rescue effort).
Researching job descriptions
You can easily search the web to find specifics for a system administrator function and find results with reasonably well-described supporting details. The listed skills might require the applicant to:
- Be certified in X-Y-Z software.
- Install and configure Linux systems.
- Perform system maintenance.
- Create system backups.
- Monitor system performance.
- Provide technical support and guidance.
- Maintain system security.
This skill list is often followed by bullet points regarding capacity planning and budget restrictions. Then, the job listing generally states a set of company values that the candidate should feel comfortable with and preferably follow. However, the focus is inevitably on the technical skills, and technical questions are used to establish the "face behind the mask."
Determining technical foundations
While this article is about personality, it is worth mentioning some basics around technical skillset expectations. Take certifications, for example. The fact that a candidate is certified is proof that the foundational skills are present. The Red Hat Certified System Administrator (RHCSA) Exam (EX200) is a great start. If there are additional certificates, accreditations, or courses for target products like Red Hat Satellite with Red Hat Insights or Red Hat OpenShift administration, these also add to the picture.
However, the fact that a candidate is qualified on a technical level is just the foundation. To be honest, the certificate only represents around 20% of what you are looking for. Since a sysadmin is a pivotal role in an IT environment, there are additional skills (apart from being technical) that are essential, such as collaborating with others, a desire for continuous learning, and being well-organized.
Also, if the technical candidate was part of a team (or perhaps just in a supporting function), the real hands-on experience may not be there. Some candidates exaggerate their skills, which makes it even more important to find out if the "stripes have been earned and lessons learned." Soon we will explore how to establish what is real experience and what isn’t.
One way of assessing technical skills is to look at the candidate’s online activities. No, I’m not talking about Facebook. This process is about technical forums in relation to the intended sysadmin role. Ask which forums the candidate is active in and what call sign or name the candidate is using so you can look for articles, questions, and comments. This practice will tell you a lot about the person. Also, ask if the candidate is active on places like Enable Sysadmin, or perhaps they're active in or following The Linux Foundation.
Besides these options, there are many sysadmin communities, so stay open and explore their online hangouts to see if the candidate is a contributor. Engagement on GitHub or The Inside Playbook blog for Red Hat Ansible tower could also be good.
Identifying a personality fit
What makes up the personality of a system administrator, or indeed any colleague, is the building blocks that you will (or are forced to) interact with on a daily basis. Here are some areas you should pay attention to in order to profile a candidate. Use these points sensibly and they should help you get a good understanding of the candidate so you can make a well-informed decision.
One’s personality is unique, and luckily no two people are the same. However, there is a need for the candidate to fit into the company culture and ways of working. If the company structure is hierarchical, the personality should feel comfortable "inside the box" and be used to following clear guidelines. If, on the other hand, the company structure is dynamic and open, a personality that is more comfortable working "outside the box" would be a better match.
Also, finding a sysadmin that you are comfortable talking to and communicating with is of the essence. This fact does not mean that the person should agree to everything and become involved everywhere. Rather, they should just have a natural state of openness and in general, be easy to approach.
When it comes to the topic of "dedication," some of the most skilled sysadmins I know are 110% into technology and have complex environments in their homes or garages. Almost all of their leisure time is spent around technology in some form. Then again, there are those who are equally phenomenal but have a strict 5pm rule that when work ends, they spend their free time doing something completely different (and usually very non-IT, like diving, building, or rock-climbing).
I don’t think one character is better than the other. It’s just that we are all different.
Now, let us take a look at some of the other significant personality traits to watch for.
In today’s DevOps world, the classic sysadmins who live their professional lives in the close quarters of a data center or server room are no more. The need for collaboration is imperative in order for the company to progress, and for the organization to function. It is important to understand that niche skills (e.g., system administration) only come to fruition when they interact with other skillsets.
Working in a team and with other colleagues that have different skillsets and opinions means that it is important to understand what the "other side" is on about. If I get my wish, one important aspect is for the candidate is to be able to see things from a different angle. Developers and system administrators have in the past found themselves on opposite sides of the pond. This situation is no longer the case, and they need to collaborate in order for the organization to become (or remain) innovative and fast-moving.
Another key aspect is the ability to consume and digest information with the purpose of learning and evolving. The tech world moves fast, and anyone working within it must continuously learn new things. Have the candidate talk about their latest training courses or self-learning projects, and check out how regularly the candidate attends training. If there are big gaps in months (or even years) with no or few recorded training classes, ask why. There could be good reasons.
Another common challenge on this front is that when it comes to new technology, big companies do not evolve at the same pace. Few companies can stay on the bleeding technological edge by always installing the latest and coolest. The candidate must understand this balance and be able to challenge the company not to fall too far behind, and instead keep up a "reasonable" pace. Defining what this "reasonable" pace is must be up to the hiring company to decide.
An administrator should be structured by nature. At a previous employer, we used to have a saying: "Administration should be boring and that’s good." What we meant was that administrative work is not about flair and finesse, but rather about structure and repetition. A well-organized administrator’s personality is usually mirrored in a well-maintained and stable IT environment.
Identifying warning signs
There are things to look for, and there are things to look out for. Some of the warning signs are:
Always busy but few results: This issue can be a sign of being less of an expert or worrying about being exposed as an amateur. This type of person is often difficult to get hold of and is usually not very open in nature.
"No point in me explaining…": This patronizing attitude puts an end to any form of collaboration or discussion. The interesting thing is that this attitude has more than once proven to be a cover for lack of skills, or a thirst for more power (sometimes both). The sysadmin position can become that of ultimate power where everyone, including the business, is controlled—or rather blocked—by an unwilling system administrator at the wrong end of a change or business opportunity.
Overly ambitious or a "yes man": Constantly taking on more work and being a "high performer" might be one of the most challenging situations a system admin can end up in. As time progresses this attitude leads to stress, confusion, errors, and delay, simply because there is too much going on at the same time. The person is literally digging a hole from which it’s not possible to get out.
Secret security: There is a special type of system admin that focuses very much on security, but unfortunately got the T-shirt on backward. They tend to implement security features without documenting them in order to keep things safe. This type of person is often less prone to collaboration and openness.
So, what are the best admins?
We already established that the technical foundation needs to be there, and offered some hints on both how to verify that it is and how to spot weaknesses. Regarding the best system administrator personality, to put it simply: The best admins are structured and collaborative.