Any career has peaks and valleys, but system administration is practically a mountain range. Before you start stockpiling climbing gear, you may want a clearer idea of the path ahead. We’ve surveyed seasoned sysadmins about the challenges they’ve faced, the highlights they’ve enjoyed, and what they wish they’d known before entering the field. Learn from their experience to make sure your career stays on course.
The vast majority of sysadmins must overcome the same handful of hurdles.
Technology changes at a breakneck pace, so system administration follows suit. While a constantly changing field is inherently exciting, staying on top of the latest developments can also be taxing.
“Technology changes rapidly, and there is a need to keep up with educating yourself.”
To make matters worse, companies often expect their sysadmins to be experts in everything related to technology. Maintaining current knowledge across diverse technology fields would be more than a full-time job, so it might feel like you’re doomed to disappoint.
Sysadmins are no strangers to heroic acts that save the day (and sometimes, the company). But if you like recognition, system administration may not be the career for you. In fact, a lot of people outside of information technology won’t have any clue what your department actually does.
“Nobody realizes that IT encompasses literally everything in their organization. The workstations, network, public websites, databases, security systems, VoIP phones, etc. Without IT, there's no money in or out.”
While it may be worth trying to explain your role in the company, it usually requires simplification to ensure less tech-savvy employees understand.
“I always try to equate "IT" as a whole to that of a football team. You have offense, defense and special teams. Each player has a unique role and skillset. People usually relate to that easier than trying to explain every single silo...” - A_Parq
Perhaps as a result of this general lack of awareness of the important role IT plays, most users don’t show appreciation for a job well done. However, they’re often quick to place the blame should they experience a problem with technology (even if they’re the ones who caused it).
Like so many people outside of IT, management doesn’t always understand what your team does. This can cause the department to feel like its own little island.
“You will typically be seen as a high cost drain on the business without acknowledging IT saves the company from hiring enormous amounts of bean counters and file managers. That 20 TB database would require a pretty sizable warehouse on paper.” - HeyThereDumbDumb
Many sysadmins are overworked enough as it is, but poor management can also contribute to unrealistic expectations and create extra work. For instance, purchases made without consulting IT can increase the workload exponentially.
Naturally, a lot of people go into system administration because of their love of technology. It may then come as a surprise when the job winds up requiring extensive customer service skills.
“...a massive part of the job is actually customer service, so if you're getting into it as a nerd with no people skills you are in for a terrible shock.”
Not surprisingly, working with users can be one of the hardest parts of the job. They may provide inadequate information, fail to respond after submitting a ticket, refuse to learn new things, or outright lie. Even more agreeable users can present their own distinct challenges since they may not understand basic information.
“You need to be able to, in almost-but-not-too-insultingly simplistic terms, explain complicated I.T. concepts inside of 20 seconds so that you communicate your message without losing their attention.”
Working during off-hours is just part of the job. Whether it’s to deploy updates or troubleshoot a problem, chances are you may have to go to the office when you’d rather be sleeping — or at the very least, you may have to log in from home when you’d rather be sneaking a midnight snack.
"Users will call you day and night." - Ionuț
With long hours and high expectations, it’s only natural that some sysadmins experience burnout. Even if you love the job, its demands can take a toll. Toxic workplaces, sexism, and gatekeeping can add to the already high stress levels.
“The bad days can be REALLY BAD.”
Despite the potential drawbacks of a career in system administration, many sysadmins love their jobs. This is often due to two main factors.
Though it’s difficult, finding solutions is also one of the most rewarding aspects of a sysadmin role. Sysadmins report facing a wide variety of challenges and enjoying figuring out what to do. And while their efforts often go unrecognized, acclaim for solving those problems can be tremendously satisfying.
“[The best part of the job is] occasionally being someone's hero for a simple-to-you fix.” - Jeff
Sysadmins also love learning the latest technology. Not only do they get to familiarize themselves with the latest tools, but they get to make practical use of them to help their companies thrive. And if you ask us, that’s pretty darn thrilling.
“[My favorite part of the job is] using technology to achieve things and amaze people who don't understand it.”
You can spend your entire career developing your own wisdom, or you could just take a shortcut and borrow ideas from people who’ve been there and done that. We’re all about saving time, so we recommend the latter. Here’s your sysadmin smarts starter pack:
Users and management put pressure on you, but the pressure you put on yourself can make life that much more challenging. You don’t need to be perfect, you don’t need to know everything, and you don’t need to give it 100% all the time.
“You’re putting more pressure on yourself to get everything done quickly than the users are.”
Once you have skills, knowledge, and experience, it can be tempting to rest on your laurels, but don’t be complacent. Connecting with other professionals is critical for career growth. Whether it’s at conferences, the PDQ subreddit, or the PDQ community, allying with other sysadmins can set you up for success.
“Networking unfortunately is important. And here I'm not talking about 0 or 1s, but the chitchat with actual people.”
While sysadmins are not unanimous on what knowledge is most valuable, they agree that knowing about a broad array of topics is helpful. Coding, automation, virtualization, cloud computing, PowerShell, database design, cybersecurity, psychology, and accounting all get some love. Rather than honing all these skills alone, try to find an employer that supports your continuing education.
“Keep training! Find an employer that embraces, encourages, and pays for training AND gives you adequate time to do the training.”
Choosing your employer carefully can make a big difference. Seizing opportunities with other companies may be critical to your career progression, especially if your current workplace isn’t the right fit. That said, be careful not to leave a good situation.
“Don't stress out and don't worry about being too loyal to the company if the environment is toxic.”
“If you are in a good job, keep it and don't lose it. Grass isn't always greener.”
While this approach has not yet been universally embraced, winning over users might make your work life a little bit easier. You can creative in your efforts, but treats never hurt.
“Whenever we had to visit someone...we offered them candy that we bought for our department. I kid you not people become a lot more pleasant when you give them candy and tend to just mellow out enough to let you do what you need to.” - Aggressive_Wasabi_87
Staring at your screen slack-jawed? Suddenly developing an eye twitch? That’s perfectly normal. But never fear! PDQ Deploy and Inventory are here to make your job easier. With just a few clicks, you can install applications, deploy updates, schedule deployments ahead of time, execute scripts, and more. The PDQ blog and YouTube channel are also here to help with news, advice, and camaraderie throughout your career as a systems administrator.
Part writer, part sysadmin fangirl, Meredith gets her kicks diving into the depths of IT lore. When she's not spending quality time behind a computer screen, she's probably curled up under a blanket, silently contemplating the efficacy of napping.