Technically, you don’t need a college degree to land an entry-level role as a systems administrator (sysadmin). However, because a sysadmin plays a critical role in ensuring that an organization’s technology infrastructure runs smoothly and efficiently, most employers prefer to hire individuals who have one.
For example, sysadmins are responsible for installing software and hardware as well as monitoring, troubleshooting and resolving issues that compromise system performance. They may also be involved in identifying cybersecurity threats and devising ways to prevent intrusions. And in some companies, their responsibilities could also include user administration and technical support, data backup and disaster recovery in addition to managing cloud resources and storage infrastructure.
Given the complexity of the role, some 60 percent of sysadmins choose to start their careers by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science, business, computer information systems, IT, computer networking or computer engineering, according to Zippia.
The good news is new graduates don’t need experience with every type of system and software a company uses to land an entry-level position, noted Matt Butch, platform team manager at Fastmail and board member for the League of Professional Systems Administrators (LOPSA).
However, employers do expect you to perform the basic duties and responsibilities of the role—and that’s where you need to focus your learning efforts, he added.
To help to pick the best college and major, here’s a look at the knowledge you need to acquire to hit the ground running as a sysadmin.
Essential Skills: Basic to Advanced
At a minimum, you’ll need to learn how to manage and optimize system performance and troubleshoot issues to land your first job. You’ll also need experience installing and configuring hardware and networks and software in Windows or Linux.
Even though most information systems courses can teach you the basics, the experts we spoke with recommend going beyond the minimum knowledge requirements. For instance, acquiring a holistic view of the entire system by learning the fundamentals of systems architecture is a big plus because it can help you complete basic tasks more successfully, Butch said.
Knowing how to “peel back” an application to see where it is failing can make life a whole lot easier as a sysadmin and help you integrate quickly with your team, agreed Jackson Smith, operations engineer at Lincoln Investment and LOPSA board member.
Even though a degree in computer science or computer engineering may provide more in-depth technical knowledge than you need, it can help you tackle more advanced sysadmin tasks and decisions, such as which backup strategy and solution to use. Moreover, it will allow you to pursue careers in computer engineering, architecture or management down the road.
Don’t overlook community colleges for learning the basics. It’s quite possible to switch into computer science/computer engineering at a four-year university once you’ve mastered the fundamentals.
Ample Hands-On Experience
To become proficient with relevant hard skills, you need to work at least 30 hours per week performing real tasks that you will encounter on the job. In light of that, look for a program that offers ample opportunities to apply theoretical concepts to real world problems though internships, labs, project-based learning and even side jobs.
For example, having the opportunity to build and configure a network and an operating system from scratch and install services can reinforce what you’ve learned via lectures. Also, since the profession is moving toward automated configuration, you need the opportunity to automate system administration tasks using configuration management tools like Ansible, Puppet and Chef.
To become proficient at scripting and automating tasks, you need to understand an organization’s workflows and processes. Seize opportunities to learn how departments operate and make meaningful suggestions to their processes as you complete projects and internships.
Other skills and hands-on experiences that can give you a leg up in the market include configuring virtual machines, working with AWS servers and setting up WordPress. Most importantly, real work experience can help you develop the interpersonal and communication skills that are essential to your job search and on-the-job success.
Soft Skills for Success
What’s the most valuable college course for a budding sysadmin? Public speaking. And the most valuable part-time job? One that will help you cultivate top-notch customer service skills.
Gone are the days when sysadmins would sit in their cubes writing Perl script, Smith explained. Case in point, his calendar is peppered with vendor meetings, mentoring sessions and executive presentations. You need the ability to explain your initiatives and requests to engineers one way and risk-averse executives another way.
A sysadmin not only requires excellent technical skills but also superior communication skills, networking, collaboration skills and problem-solving skills. If you can’t communicate or win support and approval for your new ideas from your team members and leadership, you’re going to be unable to get things done and pretty frustrated as a sysadmin. (Mastering these skills can also unlock truly top-tier pay.)
To learn critical soft skills, students should gain practical experience by getting involved in extracurriculars, internships, volunteer activities, public speaking and yes, even service industry jobs.
Employers prefer well-rounded graduates with strong interpersonal skills, because if you have those, you can learn everything else on the job.