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I am looking for a bit of advice regarding a career change.

I have had a look through some of the other threads with similar questions although most are a few years old now so maybe the advice has changed, hence this new question.

I am UK based, 30 years old and started out as a desktop support tech 10 years ago (Wintel) and the moved to development, mainly in PHP/jQuery/XHTML/Lotus Domino/SQL. I have also gotten my hands dirty with server installs (Windows Server 2003) with Active Directory experience as well as lots of hardware installs. I've set up a couple of IIS sites as well, although this was using step by step instructions, so I don't have a huge understanding of that.

I am tired of development, mainly due to feeling that every project goes the same way - badly speced (not by me), great coding done by me and my team, passed to users, users hate/don't use. Once you've coded one project, you've coded them all as far as I'm concerned. I am more drawn towards the system infrastructure and am keen to ensure that things are running optimally, kept up to date etc, but find that my role does not allow me to do this, which is frustrating.

I am about to take a career break to look after my child for 4 or so years so see this as a great opportunity to sit down and learn a new trade (while child is asleep :)), to enable me to get into a role I would like once I go back to work.

So my questions are:

  1. Are sys admins still as essential as they once were, what with many services going into the cloud? I used to view them as essential for any firm which has PCs and servers, but maybe that's not so true any more.
  2. I would assume that the most useful skills to have for any mainstream sys admin job would be Windows Server, Exchange and Virtualisation. Would you agree?
  3. I have access to all MS products, which I can download for testing (Technet subscription) so can use those for learning on, or get the VMs. Do you think that, coupled with books and exams, that would be enough to get a good skillset?
  4. Do sys admins still do a lot of out of hours work? Obviously with a child I would prefer not to be working lots of evenings and weekends. The odd one is fine though.

I am not overly concerned about salary - I get paid a fair amount already but without job satisfaction the money isn't worth it. I would prefer to be reasonably paid but enjoy what I do and find it satisfying.

I know the above is fairly vague, but any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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From my own experience I can assure you that learning a new trade while the child is asleep is a major undertaking - you'll be so glad that you have the time to do all the things you can't do while the child is awake, there hardly will be a lot of time to concentrate on something completely outside your daily routine. –  the-wabbit May 29 '11 at 11:55
    
That may well be the case - it's hard already and we've only had the baby 3 weeks! I don't see any other way of me doing this though so I just need to try. –  Jim May 29 '11 at 17:43

5 Answers 5

You're looking 4 years in the future, so you should take any answer with a grain of salt. That said, there are several trends that I've seen in my own work that may gave an idea of what will happen.

  1. There are several barriers to a corporation migrating services to a cloud hosting model: performance, reliability, and security. Of these, performance and reliability will continue to improve, but security will remain a big question mark. So much of the value of a company these days is in its intellectual property. It would take a rare IT manager to put the crown jewels of the company in someone else's hands.

  2. From my point of view the growth industry is storage. The trend is for software vendors to consolidate more and more features into more standardized products; for hardware vendors to produce more capable servers, so that you need fewer; and for data storage and performance requirements to continue to climb. Data storage is also very hard to outsource to third parties - performance requires the data to be close to the application. Separately, to the extent that systems move to the cloud, Unix skills will become even more important.

  3. The only way to really learn a product is to get hands-on experience. A product may work out of the box, but the test is in integrating it with other systems and trying to resolve real-world issues. My suggestion would be to set yourself a goal of running a network or site for real people (even just friends and family, or volunteering somewhere). By the way, I think a few years of programming experience is a great bonus for a system administrator - it gives you insight into the systems that you're working with that you can't get any other way.

  4. A good sysadmin will automate himself out of a job. It is your job to make sure anything that could cause a catastrophic failure is prepared for and mitigated, that change management procedures are followed, and metrics are tracked in order to pick up problems before they happen. Of course you can't have everything in fully-redundant clusters - there will still be some out-of-hours work for changes, but these can usually be scheduled in advance.

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I'd also add that a trend I'm seeing is the "Private Cloud": being able to provide self-service on-demand computing to internal customers. I think part of this is the virtualization push and the over-capacity that comes with it and companies looking for ways to charge that back to other departments. –  gravyface May 29 '11 at 12:26
    
@gravyface: That's true. I've heard people compare cloud computing to electricity utilities - but the analogy falls down because with electricity, you're not pushing anything back up the wire. A private cloud model can provide the utility benefits while keeping data within the corporate bubble. –  Tom Shaw May 29 '11 at 12:40
    
Wow you guys are fast! Thank you for the replies. The hands on experience is going to be my main issue. I can't get a huge amount of it at work, as they'd wonder why I wanted to do it (they don't know I'm planning on leaving). I would be perfectly happy to go in at a low level and work my way up - as I say I'm not looking for a huge salary. Thanks for the heads up on the storage. –  Jim May 29 '11 at 12:48

My $.02:

  1. Yes, there are still tons of companies that don't trust, or can't allow, their services in a cloud & have to run them on-site, such as hospitals. I mainly see small startups looking to the cloud to provide sysadmin type services. Even then, who runs the cloud? :)
  2. That sounds like a good general assessment. I would add some unix skills in there too for more flexibility.
  3. Book smart is good, but IMO needs to be coupled with "street smarts" too. In other words, books won't help you learn actual everyday scenarios. It's hard to emulate a user base. You can set up test environments & try to emulate things that may go wrong & fix them, & that'll help, but nothing will replace experience.
  4. Yes, that's the staple of being a sysadmin. If a server is down at 3am, the sysadmin goes in to fix it. 24/7 uptime means 24/7 on-call. I'm sure your workplace has more than one sysadmin so you wouldn't be alone there, but you can expect to work odd hours.

If you're looking for gratification for doing a good job, don't expect any as a sysadmin. If you have a good boss, maybe some there. You won't get any from users though. Users expect servers to work 24/7, so having things working "optimally" in your opinion is just "normal" from their perspective. So, at best, you just won't get any complaints. I know this because my current position is a mix between sysadmining & desktop support, & I get a lot more thankful users on the desktop support side than I do on the sysadmin side.

The grass is always greener on the other side, & that's especially true for worlds between sysadmins & developers. I've thought about jumping over into the developer world myself as well, but I keep reminding myself of that & I stick to getting better at what I'm already invested in doing. I've talked to developers who wanted to switch to sysadmining for the same reason. IT burnout affects us all. Balance your life somehow & you'll be happier.

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Thanks for the answers, I guess if I want to be a sys admin I need to accept some out of hours work. The grass is always greener on the other side, you're right, but I think I have always really been the "techy bloke" who likes setting things up, configuring them and keeping them going, then upgrading them. I fell into the developer role and found that I could do it, so stuck at it, instead of loving it and sticking at it. I would say I am burnt out, but I do feel I really want to get out of software development. –  Jim May 29 '11 at 12:50

Are sys admins still as essential as they once were, what with many services going into the cloud? I used to view them as essential for any firm which has PCs and servers, but maybe that's not so true any more.

Yes. The most succinct way I can describe what a sysadmin does is to balance access, and availability to resources. All IT infrastructures need someone who can do this no matter what platform you sit on.

I would assume that the most useful skills to have for any mainstream sys admin job would be Windows Server, Exchange and Virtualisation. Would you agree?

The best skill you can have is self motivation and the ability to figure stuff out / research stuff off of your own back. The core skills you need are soft skills. Having hard skills (like Linux, Virtualization or Exchange) are easy to acquire and yes, are necessary - but the mixture you require depends on the current and future IT infrastructure for wherever you end up being. Soft skills are way, way more valuable and ultimately dictate your career and salary goals. Fault diagnosis, data enumeration and manipulation skills (data gathering and reporting) and critical thinking are at the very least necessary. It is the narrow minded IT manager who employs you solely on what certificates and products you know.

I have access to all MS products, which I can download for testing (Technet subscription) so can use those for learning on, or get the VMs. Do you think that, coupled with books and exams, that would be enough to get a good skillset?

Probably. Reading the manual, trying this stuff out for yourself is the first step. Whether or not it will get you into where you want to be is a different question. A business which has services handling thousands of requests a second for example is very difficult to replicate in a training environment off of your own back. But, yes - demonstrating your knowledge and knowing you can put it into practice should at least get your foot a bit into the door.

Do sys admins still do a lot of out of hours work? Obviously with a child I would prefer not to be working lots of evenings and weekends. The odd one is fine though.

This comes with the territory. Desktops might work shifts but servers do not and may be expected to be operating 24/7. I would imagine some shift work or unsociable hours in any job like that.

Salaries vary greatly depending on business, ability and what you would be responsible for managing.

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As far as I know I have the soft skills. Most of the skills I have learned which I use every day have been gained through my own reading and research. I would like to think I have the other soft skills you mention, I have obviously done a lot of testing, bug finding etc. I haven't done much data enumeration, but I see no reason why I couldn't. –  Jim May 29 '11 at 12:56
  1. the clouds need admins as well - typically even with a considerably higher skill level. And even with cloud computing every company will need someone helping with the decision and maintaining the prerequisites.

  2. I'd add deployment skills (for operating systems as well as applications) to the list of the technical skills. As much as you hated badly spec'ed software, you will hate badly planned infrastructure operations - knowing about ITIL, making the right choice for rules and following them will help you avoid that frustration.

  3. What is already said by the other posters here doesn't need additions.

  4. If you will be asked to work out-of-hours greatly depends on the organization. If you take a vacancy in a little rat-shop being the only one with some kind of technical clue and even asked for advice before operating the toilet flush, everyone will have a really bad feeling about the thought of you being absent at any time of the day, week or year. If IT is a larger team which is well-led and well-organized, there is always a way to make the rotas fit everybody's pressing needs.

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ITIL - knew I'd forgotten something. Thanks for that. –  Jim May 29 '11 at 12:57

Simple answers from my experience (nearly 20 years in IT and related fields):

  • 1 - yes. Companies outsource some functions to the cloud but they can't outsource them all (thankfully)
  • 2 - not necessarily. I see a lot of Unix sysadmins. All depends in what organisations have (and what they can outsource)
  • 3 - a lot of the sysadmins role is responding to real world problems. Tricky for you to simulate at home, but certainly worth you practicing with all the tools at your disposal. Odds are you might only get an entry level role, depends on how well you get on with the interviewer:-)
  • 4 - variable. I know sysadmins who so incredible overtime and others who are not much more than 8 to 6.

Good luck with it.

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Yup, it'll be hard to emulate real world issues, but some experience is better than nothing I guess. Having certs plus some real world experience (from my current job) may be enough to get me a lower level role, which is fine to start with - that's how you get the real experience :) –  Jim May 29 '11 at 12:52

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