Ready to become a system administrator (or sysadmin for short)? First, the title is extremely broad, with many specialties underneath it. After we talk about the role in general, we’ll drill into sysadmin specialties such as cloud and DevOps.
At the most basic level, system administrators manage the IT in an organization, including how computers on the network connect with each other and the internet; what software they use, and what users are allowed to do on which machines. Additionally, sysadmins often have to double up as internal tech support. When the network goes down, it’s often a sysadmin’s job to figure out what’s wrong and to fix it. If a user can’t figure out their software, the sysadmin might need to step in with a quick tutorial.
Beyond that, there are many directions you can go. But let’s talk about how to learn the sysadmin foundations, first.
Learn the Operating Systems
First, learn the major operating systems: Windows, Linux, and Mac. As for Linux, learn how distros work, especially how many are based on other distros, all pointing to a few base distros such as Debian and Fedora (DistroWatch is a great site for such information.) Then learn the different desktops available for these distros, such as LXDE, Gnome, and Xfce. Learn the difference between a Window Manager (such as OpenBox) versus a desktop environment (such as LXDE).
Tip: You might be tempted to specialize at this point already. If you’re only interested in Linux and don’t want to work in a Windows shop, then you might feel the urge to skip learning Windows. However, tread carefully: whereas some companies might use Linux for all their servers and email and such, it’s still possible the employees are using Windows.
Learn how to Install, Configure, and Manage Software
All the major operating systems now have package managers for installing apps. Learn these, but also master the command-line versions. On Linux, the GUI application package managers are just wrappers around the command-line tools. On Mac, you’ll need to know how to use Homebrew, which is actually not part of MacOS but rather a third-party package manager; however, it’s one of the most popular for Mac.
On Linux, there are different package managers depending on the base distro. For Debian (and hence Ubuntu and Mint, for example), apt is the command-line package manager.
Although Windows has the Windows Store, there’s also a third-party open source package manager, chocolatey.
As you learn these tools, remember to practice configuring for different users and roles, as well as whether to install the software globally or for a single user.
Learn How to Manage Users
You will want to learn how to create users and roles. Roles (also called groups) are types of users with certain privileges. For example, you might have a role called Accounting and assign users in the Accounting department this role. These users can run the accounting software and see the financial data. Developers would have a different role, preventing them from running the accounting software or seeing the financial data.
And speaking of developers, be ready for pushback from them: developers often require administrator or root level privileges on their machines. This doesn’t mean they need such access across the whole network. If you give them lower rights on their own machines, they’re going to be frustrated because they won’t be able to run all their tools.
Learn How to Configure the Networking
This is a large topic, much more so than we can cover here, but system administrators are usually also responsible for setting up the networking. This includes both hardware and software. In terms of hardware, you’ll need to be proficient in setting up routers and other networking devices and troubleshooting them when things go wrong. You’ll also need to configure and troubleshoot networking software as well, including firewall software and VPN software.
In addition to networking the computers, you might be required to support networking of phones and tablets. This one is tricky. Even if you don't have a company app running on phones, people might still want their phones logged into the network. (With today’s 4G and 5G wireless, this doesn’t happen as much, but it can if there are areas inside the building where the wireless doesn’t reach. Users want their Facebook! Which brings us to the next section: Company Policies.)
Be Ready for Company Policies
Most likely your job won’t be to create company policy. That’s usually set by the higher-ups. But you’ll likely be asked for input and suggestions on the policy (personal phones on the network so people can use TikTok and Facebook are an example). Your job will be to set up the network to enforce such policies. This might include managing VPN software on the phones and tablets. Will you be tracking their Facebook and TikTok usage? Possibly. The higher-ups might want to know if people are spending their time swiping rather than working.
Learn as Much About Security as You Possibly Can
In order to master security, you need to pretty much work full time in security. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn as much as possible. In addition to setting up the users and user roles and privileges, you’ll also need to learn how to protect your servers and networks from any possible damage, including outside intrusion, inside damage (either unintentional or otherwise), phishing attempts, and so on.
Tip: Understand that because you won’t work in security, you are not a security expert. Learn as much as you can from internal and external cybersecurity experts, and accept that their specialization is security and yours is not.
Cloud and DevOps
First, understand that the cloud and DevOps are advanced topics and not things you can learn in just a few days. You’ll likely want to put these on a list to learn after you have the basics behind you and want to take your career to the next level.
Cloud can fit into the infrastructure by extending your network from the computers in your office to virtual servers such as on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. This requires learning how to set up virtual networks on these cloud providers, then connecting your own internal network to the cloud network, resulting in one large network that extends outside your organization. One way to learn this is to look into the different certifications offered by the cloud providers, along with training from third-party groups.
DevOps also encompasses a field where you work with developers on releasing their software continuously to the cloud. This is really a separate field with some overlap with system administrator.
System administration can be a rewarding career. One mistake people sometimes make is treating it as a stepping stone to other tech careers such as software development. In fact, it’s a completely separate career, with very little overlap with software development and other tech fields. Having said that, one great advantage of sysadmin is you can practice it at home; most of the software tools are open source.