How to become a system administrator

No one told me how to become a system administrator. I figured it out eventually, but made some mistakes along the way. So let me tell you what nobody ever told me, and hopefully you can avoid the mistakes I made.

I’ve been an IT professional for more than 20 years now. I was a system administrator for nine of those 20 years. You may find you can do better than being a system administrator forever. But I know system administrators who had long careers and enjoyed it. Regardless, becoming a system administrator is at the very least a great stepping stone to other things. So here’s how to become a system administrator.

Education to get to become a system administrator

how to become a system administrator
If you want to know how to become a system administrator, the keys are getting certification and education, putting together a killer resume, and then doing well on the interview. Here are some tricks to help you do that.

Some of the first questions my local school district asks on its annual career day is what education or training is necessary to get your job. I recommend getting at least an associates degree in something related to IT, or be working on one. Some companies will gladly hire talented people who are still working on their degrees. But many HR departments are too gun-shy to be willing to take a chance on someone they consider unproven.

Getting the degree proves at least two things that employers value. It proves you can finish something you started. It also proves, in their mind at least, that you have some book knowledge relevant to the job. Whether the second thing is actually true is debatable. Getting a job is a game in some ways, and I’m just telling you how to play the game. Having a college degree is important.

I can tell you from my own experience that in spite of having 20 years of experience in IT and having graduated college in the 1990s before modern IT had existed long enough to be able to teach it, not having some degree in IT has kept me from getting interviews. Had I gone back to school early in my career and gotten an associates degree in IT, even if it was from a crummy rocks-for-jocks school, my career would have turned out differently.

Get an internship

One advantage to getting a degree is it can put you in position to get an internship. The hands-on, real-world experience of being an intern can really position you to get a job once you graduate. The interns I’ve met who worked on projects, listened in on conversations and went out of their way to ask questions of the smartest people in the room got jobs quickly, and got better jobs than people who didn’t intern.

Certifications to get to become a system administrator

I resisted certifications for half my career, because my supervisors early in my career didn’t assign any value to them. Having certifications definitely helps you get through HR, and if you do it right, it helps you in the interview too. If you want to go beyond knowing how to become a system administrator and actually become one, certifications can jump start that process.

I really recommend A+ Certification, no matter what. The reason for it is because it teaches you the fundamentals of how a computer works. Without that fundamental understanding, you’ll lose the respect of your peers very quickly. You can learn those things on your own, of course. I don’t have A+, and I once served as a technical reviewer on a book on computer hardware from O’Reilly, a respected publisher. But it took me a lot longer than six months to get that knowledge. Getting A+ exposes you to that knowledge quickly and cheaply.

After A+, I would recommend going after Server+. Server+ is a vendor-neutral server certification that covers the fundamentals of administering servers.

I’ve heard people belittle CompTIA certifications like A+ and Server+, but I think they are misunderstanding them. Having those two certifications doesn’t make you an expert. But the training is cheap and so are the tests, and if you learn the material and apply it to what you see in the field, you become a competent generalist, capable of filling in for anyone on the team. That gets you in the door. You can become a superstar later.

If you want to progress beyond being your team’s utility player, go after a vendor-specific certification like Microsoft’s MCSA or MCSE, or Red Hat’s RHCE. But nothing beats real-world experience, and many people you’re competing with won’t have the entry-level certs from CompTIA, so get those first so you can get in the game.

Practice IT at home to become a system administrator

How do you get experience without the opportunity to get professional experience? Set up and run some stuff at home. Set up a home server. Stand up a web server.

A good job interviewer will ask about your home network. Don’t sell it short. I used to make that mistake because using consumer gear at work can cause outages. But having an above-average home network sets you apart from candidates who just come home from work and veg out. So what if your web server is running on a piece-o-junk Black Friday 2013 special you bought at a thrift store for $15? Talk about what it does, and what you’d run it on if you had a bigger budget to work with. You’re applying for an entry-level system administrator gig. No one expects you to have a basement full of enterprise hardware. If you’ve run up against the limitations of consumer-grade hardware, talk about how you reached that conclusion.

This is one of the best kept secrets behind how to become a system administrator.

How to become a system administrator: Move onward and upward

If you can’t land a job as a system administrator right out of the gate, get into IT somehow. Even if you have to work on someone’s help desk, you can get real-world IT experience while you pursue certifications and build a home network worth bragging about. Watch for opportunities. If jobs open within the company, apply for them. If nothing materializes inside the company, start looking for opportunities elsewhere after about a year. Stay in touch with colleagues who move on. IT tends to be a small world and I run into people I worked with years ago all the time. Who you know can make or break you.

Take the entry level job, be the best you can be, and approach every day looking for opportunities to rack up accomplishments that move you closer to your goal. They’ll come once a month if you’re lucky, but if you’re not looking, you can miss them.

Your resume

Polish up your resume. Your resume isn’t just a list of places you’ve worked and assigned job duties. The only things worth mentioning on a resume are the things you did at that job that prepared you for the job you’re applying for now, and what you did at your previous job that makes your ex-supervisors miss you. Everything else is a single bullet point: Other duties as assigned. If you need to save a line somewhere, leave that one off.

Remember one thing: HR is ruthless. Hiring managers are ruthless. If they see one thing on your resume they don’t like, they’ll toss it. If you want to know how to become a system administrator, getting past HR and past that first weed-out is key. Fortunately, it’s something you only have to get right once per job search.

What to do if you don’t get an offer

If you don’t get an offer, or can’t get an interview, learn what you can from it and keep trying. When I look back on the times I didn’t get an offer, the reasons vary. In 2005, I interviewed at a company and thought it went extremely well. What I didn’t know was that as I was standing in the parking lot talking to a former coworker who had landed there, the hiring manager was getting laid off. That’s an outlier. But the common thread in most of the other interviews I’ve had that didn’t result in an offer was that I didn’t work a good war story into it. Usually the interviewer was fishing for a war story and I didn’t bite. I have several, but here’s my favorite.

Find a time in your experience, whether it’s at work or at home, where you solved a problem that sets you apart from your peers. Practice telling that story. And the next time an interviewer asks you a question you don’t have a very good answer for, try to segue into one of your best war stories instead.

And that, in a nutshell, is how to become a system administrator.

Thinking beyond becoming a system administrator

Continuing education is important in IT. It helps you keep moving onward and upward. Certifications really help you get into your first system administrator role, and they’ll help you get into your next one. Here are my thoughts on the best certifications to get. You don’t need all of them.

Like I said, I was a system administrator for about nine years. I moved into a blended network engineer/security role in 2009 and into pure security in 2011. Security is a less crowded and faster growing field. But I recommend being a system administrator for a few years. Having real-world hands-on experience with the systems you’re securing makes you a much better security professional.

If moving into security appeals to you, here’s how to become a security professional.

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