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3 essential sysadmin soft skills you need to learn right now

There's no time like the present to learn some new sysadmin skills. Soft skills, that is.
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3 essential soft skills for sysadmins
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In order to get the job you want, or keep the job you like, much focus is often around what experience, certificates, and accreditations you have picked up as a sysadmin. However, once you have the job you want, it isn't just the hard skills that make you enjoy it. There are also some soft skills that, when applied correctly, can turn your working situation from stressful and uncomfortable to challenging and inspiring. In this article, I focus on the three top soft skills that I believe are most useful for a sysadmin to bring along on the journey towards a great working environment.

It is not all about the company

Looking at the company as an entity there are various unpleasant behaviors that are more or less tolerated depending on the management and the culture in which it operates. The company environment could allow for undesired behaviors such as patronizing, bullying, concealed threats, and so on. In which case it is a good thing to either speak up or plan your exit. However, if you find yourself in a reasonably good company, much is up to you on how you perceive the situation and how you behave. So you need to be aware that just because you interpret a situation in one way doesn't mean that everyone else shares the same view. Problems can always be found if you look hard enough, but if you do that you might miss good things and great opportunities.

[ You might also like: 5 career guides for sysadmins ]

Your colleagues are not ready

When you find yourself in a new company, it's a bit like three people in a car that drive off to lunch and then give a lift to a fourth colleague when returning. Depending on where this fourth person chooses to sit in the car, this will affect where the others sit. It’s the same car but the inside dynamics have changed.

The same thing happens in a company when you enter. There is a shift in dynamics. It takes a while before your skills and your personality have settled into the new environment, but that's a good thing. Change is great and it has the benefit of bringing energy to something that might be operating on low power. Of course, you don’t know what it was like before you entered the company but that's also a bit irrelevant because this new situation provides an opportunity to use your energy to get stuff done which helps everyone come out smiling on the other side of the change.

Soft skill #1: Ask for help

Of course, you are highly skilled and can do most, if not all, things within your realm. Yes, there are some that can do bits and pieces of what you can, but it takes more time to involve them which makes it easier to do things yourself. This is true, however; you are building a mountain in front of yourself that will actually prevent you and your colleagues from growing and moving to a new position when the time is ripe. Instead, by doing everything yourself, you are making yourself "indispensable" in a particular position and this prevents you, and others from moving to new opportunities. Things inevitably become stale and you are forced to resolve all kinds of unwanted incidents all by yourself. The managers see how important you are which means you are locked in in your position and your colleagues are subsequently locked out. Perhaps this is what you want, but there is an easy way to change all that.

One of the most powerful and simplest things you can do is to ask someone for help with something that you perhaps could do yourself, but some help would provide you with an opportunity to do something else meanwhile. Yes, the first few times everything is difficult but the persons that have been involved, thanks to you asking for help, feel more confident and over time they are able to offload you from some work and perhaps you even contribute with new things. You are now enabling your colleagues and yourself at the same time.

This way of working ensures you are not always overloaded and alone but instead have time to pick up new skills and apply them. Doing the same thing faster is not as interesting for the company as when you bring in new things, keeping up with the ever-changing technical landscape, which fuels the company’s success. All this can happen simply because you have chosen to ask for help.

Soft skill #2: Learn when to say "No"

To perform at your optimum, you need to have a healthy balance between work and life. Working on a regular basis until midnight to resolve incidents or "tweak" the server landscape is not the way to go. Even if you get the occasional "thanks" from management or can impress colleagues with what you have done, this way of working will consume you and leave you stressed and tired with almost no possibility to look at the bigger picture or to take active decisions about your present and future situation, in or outside the company.

Just because you can do something does not mean you should do it, nor does it mean that you have to do it. This seems a common challenge for many sysadmins when there is a project or challenge where you have the skills to get the job done, and the talk from the managers goes something like "We really need to get this very important, difficult, and a possibly very time-consuming thing done," and then focus turns to you and some manager asks "Can you do it?." You can do it if the circumstances are well-balanced. You must review your work situation to ensure that you won't get overloaded and that you aren't alone in this big quest.

If you can offload some of your regular tasks to someone else, then you can turn your attention to this big quest and your situation remains balanced—but if the expectations from management are that you can take on anything and always deliver beyond expectations, then it is time to say "No." Surely Harry Potter could pull it off, but he's a fictional character and even he had help from his friends.

By saying "Yes" to too many tasks you become overloaded and the quality of your work inevitably deteriorates. You might even generate incidents as well as cause delays to others by having too much on your plate. To be super-busy is not a sign of being very important, but rather a sign of being overly optimistic and constantly underestimating required efforts and task complexity. It actually means that you're not able to manage your own time very well. All of this has a negative effect for yourself, your colleagues, and your company.

Saying "No," is an acquired skill that is—unfortunately—easily lost, so you have to practice a lot and repeatedly review your working situation to see if there's something that can be transferred to a coworker thanks to Soft Skill #1.

Soft skill #3: Use your manager

Working as a sysadmin can sometimes be easy going and you can go about your daily routines responding to various incidents, improving systems, decommissioning servers, setting up new ones, and joining in on some project meetings as a subject matter expert. However, every now and then chaos ensues, and you have a major business-critical incident on your hands. All alarm bells go off, users call, managers come swooping in from every direction and ask for status reports, and the governance board demands continuous updates on the situation. The emergency task force is set up, the chat is going hot, and suggestions on how to resolve the situation make you feel like you are in a hailstorm. Opinions and advice are never scarce during these trying moments.

This situation is something for which you should have prepared your manager and worked out a plan of action. In case you haven’t, then it’s the perfect opportunity to apply Soft Skill #1 (Ask for help). Your manager is your best defense against the storm from other users and other managers so that you and your team can focus on the tasks at hand. Your manager also feels empowered by being the lead contact for the organization when it comes to updates on incident resolution progress.

Panic is your enemy and structure is your friend. Your manager becomes the single point of contact, the buffer, the gatekeeper, the information emitter, and the requirements collector. Your manager is the person you talk to so that decisions and plans of action get worked out and processed in an orderly manner. The manager should filter information in both directions and share information at pre-defined checkpoints. Your manager becomes the one super-important person that allows you, and your colleagues, to get the job done. You just need to ensure that your manager is up to speed with information on what you're doing, in order to handle the onslaught. This is teamwork at its best.

And, while we're on the topic of information and opinion overload, if some bright-eyed person should suggest that while the systems are down and need to be restarted, "We should use this opportunity and patch, upgrade, or whatever at the same time," the answer should immediately be "No." See Soft Skill #2. Never mix a change with an incident—no matter how tempting it seems—because you can rapidly find yourself in much deeper water than you ever could imagine. Stay away from the dark side.

Your manager should gather priorities from upper management and then filter them to you. In turn, you can provide feedback as to which order you can get the systems back online. Then later, when the storm has subsided, and the incident is resolved, you can provide structured feedback to your manager regarding damage assessment and future risk mitigation. Do your documentation in such a way that your manager can present the material to other managers in an easy and understandable way, with little room for questions. Of course, there will be questions.

This way your manager maintains the lead position and, at the same time, protects you from ending up in loads of meetings where you try to explain technical things for non-techie managers. This only results in what I call "unwanted exposure" which might lead to other managers (and users) making direct contact with you and skipping proper chain-of-command, thus consuming even more of your valuable time and preventing you from doing your job.

[ New research from HBR Analytic Services - IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era

Wrapping up

There are many soft skills that are useful but these three skills will definitely help you, your colleagues, and the company making tomorrow a better day. These soft skills also provide you with a healthy work-life balance and open up new opportunities for you and your colleagues. Remember that the first and most important soft skill is to ask for help, even if you know how to do something, there are many benefits to involving more colleagues in your tasks. And, next time they might ask you for help and you get to try something else.

Learning to say "No" is an acquired skill and has to be applied when the situation threatens to give you too much work. Find the balance and try to offload some work before taking on more.

With the first two skills, you should also learn how to make good use of your manager as a filter and gateway between you and the rest of the organization during high-profile incidents. Empower and inform your manager to provide that barrier so that you can focus on the challenges at hand. These three soft skills all require training and you need to pay constant attention to them, ensuring that you don’t get overloaded and end up as indispensable with a skewed work-life balance. Your training begins now.

Check out these related articles on Enable Sysadmin

Topics:   Linux Administration   Career   Soft Skills  
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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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