Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Well Tempered Sysadmin

There is no single path to becoming a good sysadmin, this process takes time, talent, and dedication. There is no easy place to begin this discussion, and there's an amazing amount of controversy around this subject. So let me begin with what I know about myself. I will tell you two different stories of my life; I promise to lie only once.

The First Story:

I've been a professional sysadmin for almost 7 years. In that time, I have worked in many different countries, working alone or with teams of other sysadmins. I have built global networks, been personally responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment, and debugged mission critical infrastructure. I also teach night classes at a local University. I've done all this without a High School Diploma.

The Second Story:

I have attended 4+ years of college learning about Information Systems and Computer Security. Last week I was awarded a dual Masters degree in Information Assurance and IT Management. I have two certifications, and will be studying for more now that I've reached a major milestone in my formal education. I cannot imagine my life without the benefit of education and the wealth of knowledge that it has brought me.

My lie is one of omission. Each story is true, but each story only represents part of the truth. My life, in fact, is a combination of both.

The Truth:

I've been a professional sysadmin for almost 7 years. In that time, I have worked in many different countries, received a few certifications , and attended 4+ years of college. I have built global networks, debugged mission critical infrastructure, and managed millions in equipment, all while finishing a dual Masters degree. I also currently teach night classes at a local University. I've done all of this without a High School Diploma, but I cannot imagine my life without the benefit of a formal education and the wealth of knowledge that it has brought me.

What did I learn in the past 7 years? Education and experience must work together, or they will only be incomplete halves of a story.

Mine is not an example to follow, working full time and attending college full time is mentally and physically challenging, and not for the faint of heart. This works for me because I have a passion for my work (and a very supportive wife). But I would try to leave you with a little practical advice:

  1. Find something that you are passionate about (networks, operating systems, enterprise architecture, whatever). If you're like me, and like a little of everything, find something that is convenient or important to your current work.

  2. Find a certification track or school that offers what you want to learn. Then jump in, rip apart the coursework, and make it your own.

  3. Find a mentor that can help you when you are stuck or motivate you when you are slacking. I've had many different mentors (some didn't even know the roll they played), each one brought something different to my life, and I value all of their contributions.

  4. Once you have reached an understanding and an internal level of mastery, you must complete the training. You must study for the test, or complete your degree. The time you spent following your passion can now be converted into better leverage during the hiring process. Here is the true alchemy to a happy life: turning passion into profit.

Education is a racket, you will not learn something through the mere awarding of a degree or certification. You only get what you take from your education. Treat each class like an outline and your coursework like a single bullet in the outline. Don't waste your time; attack your education with passion and determination. Build upon success.

Experience is overrated, knowledge of a sysadmin is hard won and quickly outdated. You must search desperately for the underlying truth in all your actions. The experience you gain must be fundamental, and must be applicable to many situations. Failures are costly, do not waste them.

Education stands on the shoulders of success, building over time. Experience flows from failure, sharp reminders that help us predict the future. A well tempered sysadmin will seek both success and failure with equal delight. Success expands our horizons and creates new frontiers to conquer. Failure keeps our head in the game and builds an understanding of the future.

It is within this combination of education and experience, of success and failure, that we may find true understanding and fulfillment. Finding work that fulfills our needs and pays the bills, is the beginning of a life well lived.

A New Year is upon us, and I personally want you to be passionate about your work. Pursue your passion, and turn your experience into education. If you don't know where to begin, start with the links below. Good luck, and have a passionate New Year!

Further Reading:

500 Word Summary of Dewey’s “Experience & Education”

The World Needs You to Do What You Love

Are There Blue Collar and White Collar Admins?

SAGE Sysadmin Core Job Descriptions

108 Things a Sysadmin Might Do

How To Become a Hacker

Learning From Failure

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