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13 essential skills sysadmins need to make a career move into management

Want to make a move from system administration into management? Acquire these 13 skills.
Red bridge with stairs

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Some of us have witnessed firsthand when a great technician turned into a manager as a reward from the company for faithful and fantastic work. It could be the aspiration of the technical person to turn manager. Still, other factors such as the salary headroom for a previous role have been reached—only manager roles get the desired perks of bonus, company car, better healthcare, etc.

However, by removing one of the sharpest tools in the shed, the company is running a considerable risk. The transformation from a great sysadmin to a good manager does not happen without support, requiring a lot of changes. If the transition does not go well, the company will have lost one of its best sysadmins and instead gained one of its worst managers. To avoid this situation for a sysadmin that aspires to become a manager, I have gathered some valuable tips that perhaps can guide you on your path to become a manager or to get comfortable in the manager role you just obtained.

Don’t panic - think

So, it's your first month as manager, and you've been given a whole new set of applications and procedures that you are supposed to follow and understand. New and unknown abbreviations show up in emails from people you've never met. Suddenly, you're invited to meetings with HR, Finance, Business, and whatnot. They all expect you're familiar with the bigger picture and can provide valuable "management" input to the conversations. 

Having been a technical subject matter expert, you're now a greenhorn, so it'll take some time to get a grip on this new world. But don't panic—your technical experience is something most other managers might not have, which means you can see technological consequences from business plans and other ideas. So, when upper management says, "let's go cloud," you can show support for the picture and then say that you can work out a plan—in steps, including consequences—on how to get to the cloud. This gives you, and everyone else around you, some time to think and better understand the consequences of such a decision. Speed without a proper plan will most likely end in trouble. 

Learn to let go

One of the first and most essential skills you need to acquire is learning to let go. Being a top sysadmin and moving to management means you have to hand over your sysadmin tasks to someone else that is perhaps not as skilled as you. Maybe a sysadmin team will jointly take over your tasks, and mistakes will most likely be made, but it is all part of the learning process. Just think back to the beginning of your sysadmin career—no errors, nothing learned. Of course, you can intervene when you see that things are about to go sideways, but that should only be on rare occasions and ONLY in the beginning. The key learning here is that if you don't let go of your sysadmin work, you'll not pick up on the manager skills you're missing. Your backpack is only so big and can only carry so much.

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Management essentials 101

Some are born leaders, but that does not automatically make them good managers. To explain what I mean—a leader is someone we like to follow, and a manager is a person that facilitates all the things necessary that enable us to follow the leader.

The leader can share a vision that is so compelling to everyone, but it is up to the manager to ensure that the team delivers the vision and that the team has the right mix of tools, skills, and personalities. The team members must have the right equipment, competitive salary, healthcare, vacation, an excellent work-life balance, etc.

Management training for you

Your company should facilitate management training for you to be familiar with all the tools and procedures used. You need to know how vacations get planned, how to onboard and off-board staff, what kind of reporting you must complete, and what scheduled discussions you should have with the team. There is probably a good portion of reading regarding general policies and procedures for you to digest.

Naturally, the Internet is full of training, tips, and tricks on becoming a splendid manager, and it could be time well spent to browse for ideas. Still, your company should provide the bulk of your management training, and it should start as soon as you begin your new role. 

Ask for help

To ask for help is a strength, not a weakness! Being a new manager is the start of a new journey. You can provide your peer managers with the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience as they guide you through the first period until you get more comfortable.

When it comes to vacation planning, ask your team for help. Let them sort out who covers for whom, so they share the responsibility. Be creative and use common sense when you ask for help but don't be afraid to do so. Asking for help is also your way of engaging other team members so you start to groom one or more for the role as manager—which means that when the time is ripe, you have someone who can take over, and you can move to the next opportunity, be it another management position or something else.

Know your team

Whatever you deliver in your new role as manager, you can't do it alone. You need your team, and you need the team to work together. Maybe you already know them as colleagues, but with you, as manager, the dynamics have changed. Some might like it, and some might not. Now you need to get to know them in their professional role, and that's different. Before you could do your thing and they did theirs—now you need to coordinate their activities and facilitate for them, so you need to get to know their skills' profile well. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and by being aware, you can make the most of it by creating different combinations depending on the team's current challenge.

Your team is the engine that drives, delivers, and makes all good things happen. We're all different, so once you know each of them in terms of strength, weaknesses, ability to collaborate, problem-solving skills, temperament, etc., you're well equipped to deal with challenges that lie ahead. Remember that the team's strength as a unit, to a large extent, depends on the fact that the team members are different.

Make a plan

The next important thing for you—as a manager—is to have a plan. Now, your manager or some management team likely has some ambitions in terms of vision and mission. But this might come to you in a rather fluffy PowerPoint presentation about initiatives like "providing top service" or "being the market leader in terms of efficient IT systems," etc. None of this will tell you exactly what to do, which system parameters to implement, how you should configure the server clusters, etc. 

Enter: Your Plan. You need to interpret the vision in terms of what your team should actually do. Your plan needs to cover at least one year to start with, but you should try to extend it to cover several years to avoid "twitch-and-go planning," which happens if you only do short-term plans. I know that in a fast-moving IT world, the thought of plans exceeding one year might sound overly ambitious. But it is not only about the servers—it is much more about the people, how they evolve, what training they need, and if the workload is increasing, then you might need to hire more people or implement more automation, and all of this requires good planning.


Your plan must not only be clear to your team, but your manager must also understand it. The plan needs to be clear so that your manager can explain it to their manager and others that perhaps hold investments, budgets, or other resources that you might need. 

It's helpful if you think about the requirements of time, money, and people. There has to be a clear focus on the value your plan brings for the company—if you do X, Y, or Z, then... Try to document what you need to spend and what value it gets for the company, or what problem it solves. Keep in mind things like training, new equipment, licenses, and how you intend to support your team members in their careers, and the always-so-difficult work-life balance. 

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

Plan B

If you only have one plan and it does not work out, you'll regret that you did not create an alternate plan. Hopefully, plan B remains in your drawer and does not have to be activated, but it should be right there in case you need it. Having a plan B also means you can take some bits and pieces of it and add to plan A, which might be the very thing to keep plan A moving forward. I have a sign in my office that says, "if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail," which I use to remind me to always plan for alternate scenarios.

Be persistent

Working on technical problems is something you have done many times, and that skill helps get your head in gear and stay on target until you have solved the problem. Similarly, in a different way, when it comes to implementing your plan, you need to focus and stay on the target, but now we are talking about weeks and months instead of minutes and hours. If you give up, things will fall apart, so you need to stay on target. Prepare yourself for challenges to appear from nowhere and take them as they come. Adapt your plans according to circumstances but don't lose sight of where you are heading. 

Machines are binary; people are not

Managing people means you have to pick up on new signals. There is no text-based log file to read to discover potential problems a crew member might be having. You can watch behavior and be open in your conversations, and perhaps have to talk about what we might typically regard as sensitive or private topics. 

We all go through rough patches in our lives, and you need to be open and adjust activities when you see that one of your crew members has hit such a patch. To provide someone with a bit of emotional support, share understanding, and cut them some slack by having other team members pick up the load that temporarily becomes too much for that employee—this means more than you could imagine. Not only do you support that suffering team member through a rough period in life, but you also show the rest of the team that everyone comes out stronger by working together and supporting each other. Everyone now knows what to expect from you, should they hit a similarly tough time. 

Listen and Communicate

Previously, you kept track of technology, but now you have to keep track of conversations—listen, learn, gather information, make decisions, and communicate clearly. Don't be shy to repeat a message or a decision. This has to do with being persistent, and by reiterating the same story or decision in different forums, you build up an acceptance and hopefully get support for your work. If others know what you want to do, it is easier to support you and align their plans with your work. Be open, be transparent, and be ready also to align your work with others. It's a two-way street.

Losing your wings

Working as a manager, you'll see that your skills as a sysadmin have to take the back seat. You'll not be working on the cutting edge, reading up on the latest patches, trying out the new beta version, or setting up a cluster for the nth time. If you do, it means you miss your sysadmin work to the point that you should consider going back. Remember, there is nothing wrong with trying something new and then going back. It is a sign of health and forward-thinking, which means you know yourself and make active decisions about your present and future career steps.
The worst thing would be that if you want to go back to being a sysadmin but chose to cling on to your management role for whatever reason. Then the company has lost a great sysadmin and gained a miserable manager. Don't let that happen to yourself or your employer. Ensure you take active decisions about your career and which role you are comfortable in—that is a win-win situation for both you and your employer.

[ Free cheat sheet: IT job interview tips

Wrapping up

A new position means new skills, and to some extent, letting go of old ones. To be a manager is much about having a plan and facilitating for your team members. Vision and mission statements will not tell you precisely what to do. It is your job as a manager to figure out the details, which means you should create a plan, involve your team, ask for help, and stay open-minded if there are changes over time. Make sure you have a backup plan if your initial plan ends up in trouble but don't lose sight of the target.

Your team needs the tools and skills to deliver, but they also need things like vacation, parental leave, training, etc. You're the facilitator of so many practical things, so make sure your company provides the management training for you and explains all the tools and abbreviations in use. The company must share their expectations down to what reports, discussions, budgets, staffing, etc., you should deliver. 

Enjoy your new position, and even if you don't, always train your replacement so you keep options open for new opportunities during your career. 

Topics:   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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