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01.12.2017

Career Insights: What Does a System Administrator Do?


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 Adminstrator 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.

Technical skills

1. Scripts

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.

3. Security

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.

5. Cloud

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.

Soft Skills

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 to both the IT department and 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.

3. Flexibility

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, that 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.

Salaries / 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!

 
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