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A Day in the Life of a Systems Administrator

A systems administrator installs computers and their operating systems, as well as the software that relates to the Internet, including Web servers-the heart of the system that delivers information to the Internet. There are lots of pieces of software that run in conjunction with Web servers that need to be installed, maintained, and configured to deliver different kinds of content to Web pages. There are Java applets, programs that run in conjunction with the Web server such as Cold Fusionª, a Netscape application server that connects to and searches databases, and advertising servers that deliver ads to Web pages-all of which demand the attention of the systems administrator. Even after all of these pieces are installed and running, the components require maintenance. There are maintenance issues, upgrade issues, and compatibility issues. The Internet was essentially invented by Unix professionals, and much of the Internet is run on Unix (an operating system like Windows. Versions of Unix are free (like Linux) or commercial (like Sun Microsystem, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and Silicon Graphics). Though there are Web sites running on other systems, a systems administrator generally utilizes a Unix-based system. It takes years to learn and master Unix. “I don’t know every nuance of the program. I know as much as I need to know to keep things running, and I learn all the time. Once you have a feel for Unix, you can make your way around other versions,” says one systems administrator. There’s a favorite saying among the Unix crowd: You can’t create Unix administrators, you have to grow them. “It’s really an organic process and you learn from doing. You can’t just teach someone a bunch of Unix commands. You have to be using it in an environment. You can go to Sun Microsystem’s training school and learn Unix that way, but you won’t actually know how to maintain a system.” Depending on the systems administrator job, an eight-hour day is fairly typical. The stress level varies, depending on the number of Web servers running. When one is down, revenue runs out the door, so the job can be stressful at times. If you’re interested in systems administration, get a really cheap computer, send away for a Linux disk or free Unix clone software like BSD, and install it. Get a manual and learn how to use it. “You’ll spend many frustrating hours banging your head against the wall, but if you’re the kind of person who likes to solve puzzles, you’ll like this job. It’s extremely rewarding when you figure out a problem and see how it all makes sense. This field is all about problem-solving. You need to be a tinkerer at heart,” says one systems administrator.

Paying Your Dues

If you’re constantly messing with your computer at home-fixing it, upgrading it, and reinstalling things on it-then systems administration might be a good career opportunity for you. You can get an interview simply because you fool around with your computer at home and are able speak intelligently about how to fix problems. A systems administration position is not a first step, it’s a second step, and without any training or knowledge of Unix, tech support is the best place to start. “At the beginning stage, a large part of desktop support is personality-people skills, being able to hand hold, patience, confidence, an avid interest in technology, and a willingness to learn are qualities that go a long way,” says one SA. Even before you learn the practical applications, it’s good to learn the theory. Go to a search engine, type TCP/IP, and start reading about how it works. “You’re gonna be knee-deep in the nitty-gritty, and it’s essential to understand how computers work and how networks talk to each other in order to de-bug problems,” recommends one systems administrator.

Present and Future

The Internet was started by the military in order to create a network of computers that could withstand a nuclear holocaust and still fire off missiles if the phone network went down. A set of networking protocols was developed to enable computers to talk to one another. Though most of the older ones are no longer used, they have led to what is the most common group of networking protocols on the Internet today: TCP/IP. Today “all businesses are focused on getting their legacy systems open to their Web sites. Programmers are leaning toward Ôsystems integration’-getting different computers to talk to each other, exchange data, and operate in tandem.”

Quality of Life


During your first two years, you might not do anything directly related to the smooth running of the system; you might be just reading up on new developments. Part of your job is to expand your knowledge base and figure out how to improve the system you’re working on. It’s a constant learning process; you build on your foundation of knowledge. “For the first year, you’re not going to know what you’re doing,” says one systems administrator. At this level, “Try to get into a company that is pre-IPO where you can get stock options,” recommends one tech professional. “People make millions that way and you can rack up some serious cash-even in a low-level position.”


Jobs are easy to find once you’re in the Internet environment. “I didn’t even look for my job. Recruiters were calling me fairly constantly,” says one professional, who notes that tech guys change jobs more often than people change underwear. Once you can say that you know Unix, you’ve configured a Netscape Web server, you’ve worked with Apache, and you understand Perl, every job you take will pay more money. Professionals earn about a 20 percent raise moving from one company to another. After five years of doing nothing but Unix, you can easily command a six-figure salary. At this level, there are many more jobs than there are people to fill them. “There are thousands of jobs out there for anyone with half a brain. If you have a whole brain, you can name your price,” says one professional who estimates that there are 100,000 unfilled systems administration jobs.


At this stage, you’re at the top of the Unix administration game, and you can move on to chief technical officer as the head of a group. These professionals earn big money. You can also consult and earn $125 per hour or more.