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I'm currently a high school student wanted to be a system administrator. The biggest thing I see on most job advertisements is experience. What really counts has experience? Is running and configuring a test network for a couple years or is it actual work experience? If it is the latter how can you get experience?

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It's never too early to look for an internship. See my answer to the following similar question: serverfault.com/questions/169501/… –  Skyhawk Aug 12 '10 at 2:54
    
Where might one find one at? By that I mean which companies should I look for? –  Cody Harlow Aug 12 '10 at 3:01
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Any company. What companies are hiring in places where you live or are willing to live for the type of career you want to develop? –  Warner Aug 12 '10 at 3:03
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Companies hire people they like all the time; without ever advertising the job or looking for applicants; and the best jobs are found this way. –  Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 3:06
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Since you are still in school offer to volunteer for the schools tech support. I have yet to hear of a K-12 school has sufficient IT staff. If you can talk someone at the school into letting you help it will be very important to be extremely professional. No pranks, games or other bypassing of network policies. The downside of volunteer students is general lack of professionalism. You must prove that you do not lack that. –  Zoredache Aug 12 '10 at 3:17

8 Answers 8

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Experience in the context of a job posting is where you are providing professional services typically involving remuneration. Nevertheless, remuneration is not always involved and an area where you might consider to develop experience.

A good way to look at it is whether or not the average person would consider it a job if you described it to them.

During an interview, setting up a personal network may be relevant during discussion but is unlikely to have much weight in your fit for the job.

Ways to get experience when you don't have any...

  • Internships
  • Work for low wages
  • Pursue non-profit and volunteer opportunities
  • Find an entry level position relevant to your career scope that does not have high experience requirements.

If you do not have an existing knowledge base and understand technology, you are unlikely to have much luck even with the aforementioned opportunities. Understanding would be developed by configuring things at home, reading, or even school. Universities often create opportunities where experience can be developed during your education.

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A colleague and friend of mine has done most of his work for non-profits. He has a plethora of certifications, lots of experience, and awesome dedication to his profession and I would hire him in a hot second. Of course he'd wind up being my boss in short order. –  joeqwerty Aug 12 '10 at 3:14
    
I was a foreign language major at my university. I worked as a lab admin. After several years as a student employee, eventually writing my own web code and system management scripts in the end, they called me when there was an opening a few months after graduation. Universities are great for this kind of thing. –  ajstein Aug 13 '10 at 3:52

What counts as experience?

  • Patching production servers WITHOUT testing the patches first.
  • Giving the anonymous internet user, Admin rights to your entire web server because it was easy and made everything work.
  • Volunteering to be on-call for a conversion of ~10,000 workstations from OS/2 to Windows NT.
  • Plugging a UPS INTO a master switch.
  • Doing anything in your server rack during business hours and while the production servers are up and running.
  • Thinking Lotus Notes was the best you could do.
  • Replacing Lotus Notes with Groupwise.
  • Using DCAF over SNA
  • Doing anything over SNA
  • Extolling the virtues of token ring while stroking your MAU.
  • Trying to circumnavigate cisco.com
  • Giving your users admin rights to their local computer.
  • Having no controls in place to prevent your users from taking said computer home and letting their children download games on it.
  • Using Windex(tm) on your brand-new LCD
  • Ignoring anti-virus warnings.
  • Ignoring "Are you sure you want to delete?" messages.
  • Ignoring "Are you sure you REALLY WANT TO DELETE THIS?" messages.
  • Standing within a 10' radius of a PRINTING IBM pedestal printer.
  • Thinking one Laserjet 4 plus would be enough printer for an entire office building floor.
  • Thinking the end-users could replace paper in the paper tray and toner in the same printer.
  • Wearing white on the same day you realize the end-users don't know how to install toner.
  • Not buying the VLA version of Filemaker for 100 users.
  • Doing anything to anyone for any reason after 2:05 PM on Friday
  • Having kick-ass personal plans on the weekend.
  • Spending 4.32 agonizing hours trying to remedy a software issue BEFORE ever rebooting the machine.
  • Drinking from an open beverage container in your server room.
  • Seriously underestimating the amount of disk space virtualization actually needs.
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+1. Too funny. That certainly will build experience, quickly and painfully. –  joeqwerty Aug 12 '10 at 3:37
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Sometimes the best experience, is the most painful... –  GregD Aug 12 '10 at 3:47
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Thank you for pointing out some of my previous live experiments. –  Luis Ventura Aug 12 '10 at 4:45
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+1 but you missed Ignoring "Are you sure you REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY WANT TO DELETE THIS?" messages. –  Reigel Aug 12 '10 at 6:48
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Unfortunately regarding the not listening to AV warnings, anyone else find users will ignore your antivirus program's warnings, but will click on the ones that pop up while web browsing, the ones that aren't from your antivirus program, and immediately start running as your user in their profile and home directory and such? sigh –  Bart Silverstrim Aug 12 '10 at 12:55

Test networks can only go so far. They don't teach you much about dealing with people (which is actually pretty important when dealing with computers), troubleshooting problems, or what kind of challenges await when dealing with multiple systems. That being said, a test network at home shows dedication and passion. Most people hiring in IT are impressed with people that love IT. That's exactly how I got my start.

As far as getting experience, you just need to get something. Be willing to settle if you really want to start a career here. Try to get an internship. Approach IT consulting firms about working for a low wage (the hourly guys would love to charge $100-200/hour for an $8/hour employee). Toss your resume all over the place. Go on Craigslist and apply for everything you think you can do (if you're not qualified, don't waste your time. It'll just end up in the trash). Level 1 helpdesk jobs are usually pretty easy to get and are a foot in the door.

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Don't you think that if you technically qualify for a sysadmin job at all (since the IT consulting firm employs you) and you earn them $100-200/hour while getting $8/hour, you voluntarily agree to sell yourself and be treated like a slave? Of course less experience pays worse, but 200/8 that's 2500%! Selling yourself like this is giving up real value (you waste your time making somebody rich) for virtual value (acquiring the so-called experience). You might end up making those $200/hour yourself in 20 years, but that implies some poor younger dudes working for $8/hours instead of you. –  halp Aug 17 '10 at 20:13
    
First of all, the IT firm doesn't make $200/hour pure profit. They have to account for overhead. Second, there's the time that they spend training you, which is real value to somebody that needs it. Third, this is business, profits need to be made. Fourth, if an employee agrees to work for a wage, it can hardly be called slavery. Fifth, they're paying you all the time, not just for hours they are billing clients so it doesn't really work out to 2500%. –  Jason Berg Aug 17 '10 at 23:06

Fixing problems on production systems - it's the only experience I care about, anything else is just practice.

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I personally wouldn't consider anyone for a job who has only home lab experience. Just because you built your own home network doesn't mean you have the ability to manage mine. Also, home lab experience is hardly verifiable by prospective employers. Employers want to see real world experience gained at real world companies.

I would suggest looking for an IT internship or a helpdesk\tech support position at a small company. Let people know that you're interested, that you're pursuing some type of formal education\certification and that you want to get your foot in the door.


EDIT

I would consider someone with home lab experience for an entry level helpdesk\tech support position, but not for a system administration position.

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I'm not sure I would, joe. I don't want to micro-manage a support guy. –  Warner Aug 12 '10 at 3:14
    
True, it would take more effort\attention on your part. The trade-off is that you can get them to work for a lower wage then a more experienced tech, until they build a base of experience for themselves. You can also give them more menial tasks\grunt work that the more experienced tech would balk at... like getting coffee and donuts in the morning. :) –  joeqwerty Aug 12 '10 at 3:21

Think of it a bit like driving a car. Driving an old bomb on a farm paddock may allow you to learn the controls but it really doesn't prepare you for what you will face on a busy city street or the open highway.

Any work you do in a test lab without the supervision of an experienced person may get what appears to be the desired results but may very well be done using incorrect and/or inappropriate methods. With that in mind I think few would consider such practice as experience in an employment context. Further, I would be wary of taking a job offered by anyone who thinks differently, as their standard may be questionable.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, beats real on-the-job experience under the supervision of someone who knows his/her trade. It's really unfortunate that system administration can't be learned under an apprenticeship because that both the industry and those working in it would benefit enormously.

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The thing is that you can have someone sysadmin for ten years in an environment and they can completely learn it wrong. Well, maybe not completely, but certainly not be a good fit as a sysadmin in your business environment. You end up having to spend a lot of time retraining them or they end up miserable and moving on. Hopefully the hiring process screens them out, but not always. –  Bart Silverstrim Aug 12 '10 at 12:16

As I left school a few years ago for my first system administrator job I was thinking that "hey, I know this stuff - it's no problem". However I discovered that theres a big difference between the schools lab and a production enviroment. When you mess something up ppl actually cant work if its bad enough. Other stuff you learn is how to use different solutions together something you rarely practise in school. Another thing that, atleast I think, is experience is to be able to handle all politic within the company. there's actually mote politics then you can guess (atleast that was the case for me). One way to get experience is to offer your services for free to different companies during a limited time. The problem is often to just get the first job really.

Good luck in you future career!

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Others have mentioned it, but it can't be stressed enough - it's unlikely that you'll be able to get a job as a system administrator straight out of school. It's generally a senior-level position and requires a great deal of trust because of the access the position requires. That's why experience is almost always required.

Start smaller and work toward that goal. Help desk or desktop support is generally a good starting point for someone aspiring to be a sysadmin. Yeah, it can be pretty menial work at times, but it shows you exactly what the work is like, lets you learn slowly, and shows your employer you can be trusted to do it right. Once you're in the door, you can volunteer for higher-level projects that will help you stretch your skills. In no time, you'll have the experience needed to be a successful administrator.

Good luck!

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