Welcome once again to “Career Insights”, the article series where we take an in-depth look at some of the best and most interesting fields a freelancer can work in. This week, we have another IT job that has quickly become a cornerstone of virtually every tech department – the system administrator. We’ll talk about what they do, which skills they need (spoilers – it’s quite a few) and what salary average you can expect.
What does a System Administrator do?
A system administrator, often abbreviated as sysadmin or simply admin, is responsible for keeping the network of computers in check. You likely won’t be expected to fix desktops of multiple end-users, but you will be the person ensuring that everything works, in the bigger picture.
You’re going to be responsible for the security of the network, for managing the traffic, making sure there is a secure way to revert to a backup if something terrible happens and much more.
As a system administrator, you will probably still interact with end-users quite often. After all, you are the person who sets up the “system” – that includes personal accounts, rights on those accounts and making sure nobody is able to mess up too much without an admin account. That means that there are also a lot of soft skills a good sysadmin needs to have.
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First and foremost, as there is a lot of work going into monitoring and maintaining a computer system, administrators absolutely need to be able to use scripts and script frameworks. Having the right scripts in place will let you automate things like looking for bugs, reporting or testing new additions to the IT system. This saves a lot of time and money, making it an essential skill for any company. If you are using Windows, PowerShell is the thing you’ll be using, but you might also want to look into Perl or other frameworks.
2. Traffic Management
Traffic management can mean a lot of things. First and foremost, IT systems need to utilize firewalls to forward certain types of traffic to specific servers and block other types of traffic. A simple example would be companies that have a policy against using Facebook on your work desktops.
That’s the old kind of traffic management. And while it’s still very important, another dimension has been recently added to that term. As more and more applications start running in the cloud, properly allocating bandwidth is becoming an increasing challenge for sysadmins. Learning how to manage internet traffic as a resource is something that is definitely going to be important in the future.
Being responsible for the security of the entire IT infrastructure is a huge task – in fact, there are sysadmins and teams whose only focus is security. In smaller companies, however, this is a skill you will definitely need. Security, like most huge tasks, entails quite a lot of things. You will be responsible for internal security – e.g. making sure nobody inside the company is infecting the computers with viruses or even taking home data they’re not supposed to.
Additionally, you will have to keep the company safe from external attacks – that means making sure your IT system has a minimal amount of vulnerabilities. Knowing how to deal with both internal and external issues of security is key skill for a good system administrator.
4. Backup and recovery
Backing up and recovering big amounts of data is quite challenging, but essential for any company. Unforeseen things happen – computers can suddenly stop working, servers crash, data gets deleted by accident. Being prepared for those kinds of disasters and managing to revert everything back to normal in a sensible time is irreplaceable for businesses, as it can save unimaginable amounts of money and trouble.
Cloud services have taken the IT world by storm and have done so pretty fast. This means two things – one, understanding and being able to work with the cloud is in the highest demand it has ever been. Secondly, because it’s a new skill, it’s also still quite scarce. Explaining cloud computing is a bit tough in just a couple of sentences, so go have a look at the well-written cloud tutorial here.
1. Effective communication
Learning to listen and explain things in a simple manner will be essential to your position as a system administrator. As we said in the introduction, you will likely have direct contact with both the IT department and the end-users. Learning how to interact with those groups and considering their different levels of understanding of IT can be challenging, but incredibly worth it.
2. Think proactively rather than reactively
Many people think of sysadmins as soon as something breaks. But a really good system admin has set up things in a way that doesn’t allow much to break in the first place. Most of the work is done behind the scenes – making sure you have a well-maintained IT infrastructure by thinking ahead is what separates the good sysadmins from the great.
Finally, there will be those times when things break. And unfortunately, that might be on a Friday evening. If you are the system administrator and the company is losing dollars every second the system is down, which means staying to work late. Similarly, there might be days where you feel there’s not really that much to do. This is why being flexible is going to be important to a sysadmin job.
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Salary / Hourly rates
As you’ve seen, there is a lot that goes into being a system administrator, even more so into being a good one. According to Payscale, the median yearly pay is about 60,000 USD, but that can go up a lot, depending on the size of the company and responsibilities. Check out Glassdoor as well to get a better feel of what the pay is in your country!
According to our freelancermap freelance rate index (August 2021), system administrators working on a freelance basis are getting an average hourly rate of $89/h.
Real Insights from an IT System Administrator
That’s all the theory, but how is it really to be a System Administrator? We asked one of our community members for his real experience and background! Ahmed Hussien started out as a web developer, moved to technical support and ended up as a database and system administrator, a role that he has been doing since 2012. Without further ado, here is what he told us.
How did you become a System Administrator?
While most employers prefer that you have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or any related subject to be qualified for a system administrator role, I find that is not necessary. Many system administrators come from different backgrounds. Actually one of my colleagues does not hold a bachelor’s degree, although he works as a system administrator.
If you do not hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science, you have to prove your knowledge in system administration in another way such as professional certificates credentials offered by different technology vendors like Red Hat, Amazon, etc.
What does a regular working day look like? What are your responsibilities as a system administrator?
As a system administrator, your typical daily routine will include monitoring, deployment, and troubleshooting. Monitoring means that you should have your list of all systems under your responsibility to check their availability, performance, backup… etc. Many available tools are available for this purpose both commercial and free tools.
Deployment is when you respond to a business need or to a request from other departments within your organization to deploy a new system. Finally, troubleshooting, this is your response to emergencies once they happen. Remember, as a system administrator your core responsibility is to keep your organization’s business up and running by making sure that your systems are available upon your organization’s rules.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
For me, I have been always interested in controlling things, working as a system administrator allows me to enjoin the control. But this comes with the price of responsibility, so you need to be careful.
What are the tools a system administrator can’t do without?
The answer to this question depends on the system you are administrating. Tools used on Linux are different from those used for Windows. However, they have the same objective. In short words, as a system administrator, you need tools for monitoring performance, processes, network availability, and other system activities. Also, you need tools for provisioning and disk management. Tools for remote connection also required to ease your life as a system administrator. A very wide variety of system administration tools are available out there that you would need a separate blog article.
Why did you become a system administrator? What advice would you give to those aspiring to be one?
A: Working as a system administrator allows you to be up-to-date with new technologies. Also, in most cases, working as a system administrator has its advantages like flexible working hours. If you are enthusiastic and aspiring to be a system administrator I suggest you be eager to learn. The very fast rapid changes in this area are a force to be reckoned with, and you’ve got to catch up.
Would you say System Administration is a great niche for freelancers?
As I mentioned, working as a system administrator has its advantages, two of them flexibility and remote working. In most cases and with the trend to move from on-premises infrastructure to cloud-based infrastructure, the role of a system administrator is perfectly suitable for the freelancing market.