A day in the life of a system administrator is never boring. The role is well suited to those who thrive on challenges, continuous learning, and managing shifting priorities. If you’re in an entry-level IT support position and you’re seeking to advance your career, the move to a system administrator (sysadmin) role is a logical next step in your career progression.
System administrators are required in any enterprise where tech support is offered, including software development companies, manufacturing businesses, and e-commerce/commercial companies, as well as in health and education. Given the wide range of businesses that sysadmins support, and range of sizes of those businesses, there is a lot of variation in the sysadmin role. Broadly, a system administrator is required to:
- Install and configure hardware and software related to a company’s computer networks and servers;
- Prioritize and respond to tickets;
- Triage and respond to emails;
- Complete projects; and
- Maintain servers.
It’s easy to see that system administrators have a critical role in troubleshooting issues and ensuring that a business has the tech support it needs to run smoothly. It’s also easy to see that a sysadmin needs to be ready to switch gears on a moment’s notice and prioritize effectively, negating any hope of a structured work schedule.
What Is A System Administrator?
The short answer is that a system administrator supports, troubleshoots, and maintains computer servers and networks. In smaller organizations, a sysadmin may provide desktop support as well. But, strictly speaking, a system administrator is responsible for a company’s server, both hardware and software.
In an excellent piece at SearchNetworking, Katie Terrell Hanna explains that system administrators are responsible for, “ensuring the uptime of their companies’ computers, servers and internet – basically ‘keeping the lights on’ to limit work disruptions. This includes system maintenance and configuration, such as installing and troubleshooting hardware and software and assessing new technologies for their companies.”
Depending on the scope of their position, a sysadmin might oversee everything from the installation of office computers to cybersecurity systems. A piece at Indeed lists these possible duties:
- Install laptops, desktops, servers, intranets, and cybersecurity software;
- develop local-area networks (LANs) and wide-area networks (WANs);
- Install modems, routers, and firewalls;
- Manage directory administration and new account set-up;
- Track server performance;
- Develop designs for computer systems; and
- Run reports on system performance.
In smaller companies, a sysadmin might do all of the above and possibly even more, combining duties from other roles too, like developer and IT manager. But, in larger companies, sysadmins might take on specialized roles as:
- Database administrators, responsible for the integrity of data and all aspects of database maintenance and performance;
- Network administrators, responsible for network infrastructure and performance;
- Security administrators, responsible for individual computer and overall network security;
- Web administrators, responsible for web server services, both internal and external;
- Computer administrators, responsible for routine maintenance and upkeep of computer hardware; and
- Telecommunications administrators, responsible for all aspects of voice communication systems, which can include telephone and voicemail systems as well as video conferencing.
The role is clearly complex and can require a broad understanding of information technology systems. While some companies require that candidates have a bachelor’s degree and related experience, it’s possible to become a sysadmin with a combination of the skills and knowledge picked up while working in a more junior desktop support role along with certifications. It’s rare for an IT professional to start their career as a system administrator.
Qualifications For The System Administrator Role
The sysadmin role is not an entry-level position. Generally, employers ask for a combination of at least 3-5 years’ related work experience plus either a bachelor’s degree or certifications. Employers will look for degrees in computer science, information technology, electrical engineering, or computer engineering. If you don’t have a degree, pursuing certifications while you hone your skills in an entry-level position can give you a definite edge when you apply for sysadmin roles. The most common certifications for system administrators are:
- Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert (MCSE)
- CompTIA Server+;
- Cisco Certified Network Associate
- Red Hat Certified System Administrator; and
- VMware Certified Professional.
You should also consider taking courses that will diversify your skill set, such as those that teach networking, database administration, IT security, Linux, and scripting. As we’ve outlined on our website, sysadmins should have the skills and experience needed to offer support with the following technologies:
- Microsoft Server and Linux;
- Virtualization with VMware;
- Active Directory;
- Password administration;
- LAN/WAN networks;
- Office 365;
- Azure; and
While degrees and certifications speak to your competencies, there’s no replacement for practical hands-on experience. Being able to speak intelligently about fixing computer problems goes far in demonstrating your knowledge and skill set.
In addition to formal education and experience, and demonstrable hard skills, sysadmins need strong soft skills since much of their work involves multitasking, prioritizing, and assisting people in solving problems. Red Hat lists the following as the Top 5 essential soft skills for the system administration role:
- Organization and prioritization;
- Collaboration and networking;
- Oral and written communication;
- Problem-solving skills; and
- Good mental and physical health with the ability to handle long hours and stressful situations.
Remember that sysadmins often deal with vendors in addition to the staff that they support, and thus need to be able to create effective working relationships with external stakeholders.
A Day In The Life Of A System Administrator
In an insightful subreddit about the day in the life of a system administrator, “beyondwork” sums up their typical day as, quote unquote:
- Coffee !
- check emails
- Coffee !
- check monitoring
- Coffee !
- fix stuff call vendors
- 11:45 pm call ISP due to network outage…..
- 2 am get to sleep….
Most blog posts and subreddits on this topic indicate a daily structure that more or less follows beyondwork’s outline (sometimes – though not always – skipping the coffee).
A blog post at INAP fleshes out beyondwork’s post by explaining that their day begins by taking the baton from the overnight team and diving straight into any outstanding tickets. Like beyondwork, they continue to monitor the ticket queue, prioritizing problems and being prepared to address any and all issues on the fly.
If the ticket queue allows, time might be spent on projects and planning and, of course, in the inevitable meetings. In a blog piece at Wavelength International, sysadmin Jerremy Windeyer estimates that they spend about 70% of their time on support work and 30% on project work.
Windeyer also points out that work hours can be erratic: “Some days I get to sleep in a bit and other days I’m woken up by an early phone call asking for support. Every now and then, I work a graveyard shift and work back to run system updates.” In larger companies, the baton is passed at the end of each shift; in smaller companies, sysadmins may need to be on call 24/7 and willing to jump in to fix highly problematic issues, such as security breaches and server failures.
If you prefer the flexibility of contract work over a full-time, permanent role, there is a high demand for contract sysadmins.