Editor's Note This new segment, the Sudoer Sit-Down, will pose questions to small groups of industry pros. You will get real answers and opinions from real people—users, operators, admins, developers, etc.—each offering a varied and valuable perspective to questions surrounding the IT industry and system administration specifically.
Imagine you are an aspiring sysadmin. You know what you want to do, and you have a basic plan for how to do it. You need to gather knowledge, sharpen your skills, and focus on your goal. Alas, the world of system administration is vague, and the required skills cover a vast array of technologies. Since you are most likely intellectually average (like myself and the vast majority of others), you cannot possibly hope to learn everything. Therefore, you need to pick up a few things to learn first to make the path a little smoother moving forward.
We asked several professional system administrators what technologies would've helped them when they were starting their careers. From time management tools to automation utilities (which, coincidently, are a type of time management tool), here is what they had to say.
Nate Lager (Technical Account Manager, Red Hat):
This may sound silly coming from someone who's been a Linux admin as long as I have, but I wish I had spent more time learning about scripting, especially in Bash (and at the time, Perl, but now Python). I was well into my career before I realized the power of bash when coupled with command-line parsing tools like sed and awk. Admittedly, the roles I'd had before that were not Linux-centric. I learned from another admin when I landed my first Linux administration job how much time I could really save by learning to script repetitive tasks. The power of a for loop at a bash command line, or parsing command line output with sed and awk… Once I learned those skills, it opened a new world to me. The same can be said today about automation with tools like Ansible.
Anthony Critelli (Sr. Systems Engineer, Datto Inc.):
For me, the answer is definitely Ansible. I remember rebuilding my personal web server about 7 years ago, and I wrote this long and complex bash script to create users, install and configure software, and prepare everything to "go into production." As I showed my work to a friend, he said "Cool, but why didn't you just use Ansible?" My first reaction was "Well, this is just a simple web server. Who needs a complex configuration management tool?" Then I decided to run through some basic Ansible tutorials, and my approach to systems administration was changed forever. Ansible's power is in its flexibility; it has the ability to orchestrate across multiple systems, perform configuration management, and even execute one-off tasks. I think everyone should at least run through some Ansible tutorials early in their career to get a feel for the power of simple configuration management.
Joerg Kastning (System Administrator, Bielefeld University):
After I read your question at first I thought about big things like Linux in general or learning shell scripting. But while these are important technologies it felt somewhat unspecific. Now, I'm sure to say that I wish I had heard about the command-line tool 'timewarrior' way earlier.
At work, I track how much time I spend on different projects or topics. Before I knew timewarrior I used text files, spreadsheets, HTML forms with databases, or simple paper to do so. And each time I had to leave my terminal to do so.
Timewarrior changed my way of tracking time per project. Now it's quick and easy and happens in my working space—the terminal.
Well, I guess it's time to write an article to introduce this great tool.
Also, as Anthony said before, Ansible, is for sure a tool each sysadmin should at least have looked at once. Deploying my blog with Ansible was one of the first things I did to get familiar with some of the concepts and modules.
After having heard from the experts, what are your thoughts? Can you see the potential value in these technologies? Do you have a different technology that you would recommend? If the answer to either of these questions is "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do." then we would love to hear from you. Send a draft over to the team at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can walk you through what it takes to have your thoughts in our next segment.
[ Free cheat sheet: IT job interview tips. ]