Software Engineer working on a project to develop skills

In today’s fast-paced world, where every company is rapidly adopting all kinds of new technologies, systems administrators (also known as sysadmins) are more important than ever. Systems administrators must manage complex systems of PCs, networks, servers, and cloud-based services. It’s a demanding career—but also a rewarding one.

Systems administrators must master a basket of technical and “soft” skills. The latter includes communication and empathy; without the ability to convey information to stakeholders and understand end users’ needs, systems administrators simply can’t do their jobs.

Let’s break down what a systems administrator’s career path looks like!

Step One: Learn the Necessary Skills

According to Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), the following skills pop up frequently in systems administrator job postings:

  • Systems administration
  • Linux
  • Microsoft Active Directory
  • VMware
  • Technical support
  • Windows Server
  • Hardware and software installation

That’s in addition to industry-specific skills and a solid grasp of internal and external cybersecurity. Systems administrators who master all of this can expect a solid salary: According to the latest edition of the Dice Tech Salary Report, the average sysadmin salary is $85,037. While that might seem a bit low compared to other tech jobs, keep in mind that compensation can climb rapidly depending on a job candidate’s skills, experience, geographical location, their company’s size, and many other factors.

Getting Started in Helpdesk or IT Support

Ryan Sutton, Robert Half's executive director for the technology practice group, says the foundation to a career in systems administration begins with a bachelor's degree in computer science or information science, followed by internships and experience in a technology environment.

"Typically, you'll see people interning for IT managers and ultimately a network administrator," he says. "From that internship you keep working your way forward."

Niraj Shekhar, vice president of IT with Veeva Systems, points out many systems administrators start their careers in a help desk or IT support position. Support roles provide a good foundation of repeatable processes and tasks while offering insight into different systems.

"System administrators are expected to do more into their roles when compared to a few years ago," he says. "It’s no longer enough to focus on inbound tickets and timely resolution."

Today, system administrators may take on projects to eliminate technical debt, automate processes, and integrate disparate systems. They may also be involved in the planning and implementation of new systems and upgrades, working with management and other IT professionals to determine the best solutions for the organization. That’s in addition to creating and maintaining documentation such as user manuals and technical specifications.

Moving into Analyst, Development Roles

Shekhar says that, as a system administrator, one can move into business systems analyst or even development roles. “Typically, a move from system administrator to a business analyst role comes through the display of project work, taking initiative to improve the system, and working closely with the engineering team to solve issues at the root vs. repetitive ticket handling,” he says. “Solving issues at the root is a surefire way to noticed as a systems administrator.”

For those who want to stick with the systems administrator career path, the next stage is usually a senior systems administrator role for a larger company. “Sometimes they'll downshift or side-shift into more of a startup environment, which, even as a systems administrator, ultimately will require you to wear more hats,” he says. “You will see people also cross the aisle into IT management—it really comes down to what the person wants.”

Some systems administrators really want to stay on that technical side, expanding and evolving their skillset, while others want to take an IT manager path and ladder from there into senior IT management. “It really depends on the career goals and aspirations of the individual,” he says. “Development is really the soft skills, for example, communication skills.”

Many technology professionals hit a crossroads in their career, often making the choice to concentrate fully on the technology versus the user. “If you're the systems admin, the ability to communicate with the CFO, with the sales team, with operations, are the skills that really separate somebody from just being their technologist into being more of a of a leader and a manager,” he adds. “Those are ethe people who see growth career in that company as a technology leader.”

Robert Rohrman, CompTIA's senior vice president for IT infrastructure, says the career path options for a system admin are “unlimited,” with lots of potential for specialized focus. “It could be security, it could be networking,” he says. “If you become really good within the cloud environments, there are DevOps roles that can grow from that.”

Sysadmins inevitably find their careers tied up with their companies’ broader strategic aims. The ability to think both tactically and strategically becomes key, along with solid project management skills. Whatever your strengths as a sysadmin, you’re ultimately there to help a company achieve its goals, whether that’s selling products or offering services.

Attaining the Right Certifications

Rohrman says certifications for AWS and Microsoft Azure are helpful to have starting out, given companies’ widespread use of these public cloud platforms, along with Cisco's Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification. And don’t forget Google Cloud, which also has its fans among cloud architects and other tech professionals.

“There are entry level, intermediate and advanced certifications for all three of the main cloud providers,” he adds. “Those certifications are great for keeping up with your continuing education as a systems admin.”

Certifications also hinges on your company’s environment. “Then you get into Red Hat and CompTIA and other ones,” Sutton notes. “You're typically either a Microsoft environment or you're not. So, a Microsoft system administrator would need to get all the credentials for the Microsoft side.”

A sysadmin in a company that's more of an open environment (for example, a Google stack environment that relies on Gmail as opposed to Outlook) will want to progress on a different certification path than somebody in Microsoft environment.

Continued Education is a Critical Career Investment

For any sysadmin who wants to advance their career, Shekhar says it’s critical to focus on continued education, cautioning that he sees "far too many" sysadmins who refuse to take training, get new certifications, or get ahead of technology.  

"You have to carve out time to learn new things, take on more challenging projects, and work with other teams collaboratively," he says.

Sutton's advice for system administrators just starting out is to be mindful of the future, and make sure you align yourself to the likely trends impacting your career and your industry. “Open your mind in your eyes to the point where you evolve in line with the system admin role over the coming years,” he says. “That will set you up for success.”

Focus on People and the Business

Rohrman also has advice for those just starting out on a systems administrator career path: focus on the business and people.

“There's an assumption they have the technical skills. The focus on everything we do in IT should be geared towards the business,” he says. “When a new systems administrator starts to look through that prism, they're going to make themselves better and they're going to make the company better. That's very important.”

That mentality will also help systems administrators’ careers grow as they go from taking support tickets to designing a system that helps the company sell their products or present their products to the customer. “Align what you're doing with what the company needs to do and propose solutions,” Rohrman says. “I see this inefficiency—here's something that I suggest that we do to eliminate it. Become the person the company turns to for solutions. Do that, and your career is going to grow tremendously.”


Related Systems Administrator Jobs Resources:

How To Become a System Administrator

System Administrator Salary