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What a beginner should know/learn for sysadmin job?

To explain my situation, right now I am a high school senior with an A+ certification, and am aiming for the Net+ and (maybe) Security+ before the lifetime certification period ends in January, as well as (maybe) a vendor cert. I also have experience in web development, PHP, and Java, and am aiming for C#

I aimed for the certifications because 1 teacher (who is a Sys Admin turned teacher, not like most who have 0 field experience) pushed the class to do it. However when talking with the Sys admin of another school, he said that the A+ is almost worthless, while the Net+ and the Security+ are only marginally better. He says experience is the only real weight.

Now the issue is if my path is correct. You can't expect a 17 year old to have 10 years of experience, but how do I even get a resume looked at? With certifications. Or so I thought.

After getting these certs, I was thinking of going to collage for a class like MIS (Information Systems) and minoring in CS. But is it worth it to spend so much money on those things if experience only matters? Should I not consider collage and go straight to work? Should I not worry about certifications (they aren't cheap you know)? Or should I do what I was planning to do?

Lastly, is CompTIA the right certification house to use?

Related but not an answer

  • You are doing great. Few people start loading up on certifications at your age, and the A+ is a great way to demonstrate that you really do have a basic level of competency. Internships are a great next step. – Skyhawk Aug 11 '10 at 21:55
  • Pleas be clear. When you say "enter the field", what field are you talking about? – John Gardeniers Aug 12 '10 at 0:04

A lot of people bash college for IT geeks, but you learn a lot in those 4 years, and 99% of it takes place outside the classroom. Colleges are one big business, at their lowest levels. And spending time fighting through the bureaucracy of a college is a hell of a way to prep for the bureaucracy of just about any company. You learn patience, you make contacts, build relationships with peers in your field (which are some of the most valuable things ANY geek can have), and generally it gives you a few years to "season" yourself and really figure out what you want to do. Trying to jump straight out of high school and into a career is NOT normal, it only happens in extraordinary circumstances, and odds are, you don't fit the profile (but maybe you do).

All those "crap classes" you take in college? English, Management, Economics? Do I use that stuff day to day in my SysAdmin job? Nope. Am I thankful I have SOME understanding of stuff so i can hold a conversation on any range of topics with my manager, my director, my EVP/CIO, or the CEO? Yes. Having a mature personality goes a long way towards getting your foot in the door for interviews, jobs, and promotions. Think you have a personality now? So did I, when I was a freshman in college. Now I look back at that terrified, uneducated twerp I was, and appreciate that 5 years I spent deciding where I want to be and taking the time to get my education.

Also, don't go getting a ton of certifications until you have a career path lined up. There's no point spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars getting your CCNA, CCNE, or whatever, when there's still potential you'll never use them. Not sure you wanna be a Windows Admin? Why waste time, energy, and money getting an MCP certification?

Also, as was pointed out elsewhere here, Internships are some of the best ways to test the waters of a particular field, build industry contacts, and find permanent jobs. Colleges (at least the ones worth going to) and clubs at colleges, host job fairs regularly. Impress a recruiter there, and you might get an interview. Impress people there, and you got an internship. Companies send recruiters there to look for POTENTIAL, not for experience.

Pick a college. Finish a degree. You don't regret it.

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    When you're up for promotion to manager some day you'll really appreciate all those "fluff" classes from college. Good workers don't necessarily make good manager; well rounded good workers do however. – Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 2:04
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    I'm accepting this just because it highlights most of the points here all in one answer. – TheLQ Aug 13 '10 at 11:01

IMHO, Any CompTIA certification is good if you want to work for the Geek Squad at Best Buy. If, on the other hand, you want to work in the IT field then my suggestion would be to look into Cisco and Microsoft certifications while pursuing a college degree in the computer sciences. You can do all of this while looking for an entry level job in the IT field doing tech support, etc. in order to build up a base of experience.

Those who can...do. Those who can't... teach.

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    +1, but those who teach sometimes can ::cough:: – Chris S Aug 11 '10 at 20:46
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    True enough. My apologies Professor. ;) – joeqwerty Aug 11 '10 at 20:51
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    Cisco certs are network relatedcerts, not degrees. My opinion is to look at the market and see where the bulk of technology lies. For desktops and servers it's Windows (mostly). For networks it's Cisco (mostly). They are the 800 pound gorillas. Once you've established yourself in these two realms you can branch out to more specific certs such as juniper, blackberry, whatever. Telling a prospective hiring manager that your Windows and Cisco certified is going to mean more (for many reasons) than telling them you're Juniper Networks or PHP or Blackberry or yadda-yadda-yadda certified. – joeqwerty Aug 11 '10 at 21:03
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    For an experienced IT person, they're going to know what the Microsoft and Cisco certs mean and they'll value them... to a certain degree. For hiring managers, they've been programmed to look for Cisco and Microsoft certs, even if they don't know what they mean. – joeqwerty Aug 11 '10 at 22:07
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    +1 for getting an entry level job. This is what I did when I started studying and 2 years of expertise in technical support can do wonders when getting an entry level BIS job. – Mark Henderson Aug 11 '10 at 23:53

I can't recommend highly enough that you continue to go to school. Sure it doesn't apply directly to working as a system administrator, but it does help in lieu of experience. Additionally, many companies aren't going to even consider you unless you have a degree.

A 2-year degree would probably give you more direct experience with system/network administration, but may limit you in the long-term.

A 4-year degree will open more doors to you in the long term, but you are going to need to get your hands on experience on your own for the most part.

In either case, while you are going to school, take any opportunity you can to work in the IT field. This can either be through internships, student jobs or part-time jobs. Sure, you might be working help desk or desktop support but it gives you the experience and contacts you need to break in to the field.

Beyond that, I would ignore the certifications for now. The CompTIA certs have little value and most employers are going to ignore any certifications unless you have the experience to back them up (which you don't right now).

  • CompTIA certs are that worthless? I thought they would help only somewhat, but I didn't think that they were that bad. – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 20:53
  • The problem is that the cert doesn't tell you if the person knows the material or just downloaded some answers off the web. – Doug Luxem Aug 11 '10 at 21:03
  • @Lord.Quackstar CompTIA certification tests are very easy, requiring only superficial knowledge of the subject matter. Microsoft and Cisco certification tests can be quite difficult and tend to require knowledge in depth. Which would you value as an employer? A+/Network+/Security+/etc may help to get you an interview somewhere, and they certainly will help get you into on-call entry-level contract work, but we all understand that you don't need to know much in order to pass them. – Skyhawk Aug 11 '10 at 21:27
  • @Miles For me they were actually somewhat hard, but that might just be because of my age. The much more specific certs would be hard to get though due to the great depth that I would need to go into that subject, information better obtained through experience. Thanks for the info though, I guess I now need to rethink my strategy. – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 21:41

I have a B.S. in computer science and it has opened doors that would not be available otherwise. Several employers have hired me on as a programmer and when they found I could also manage systems and networks started having me do that instead. I would look to at least complete a B.S. before entering the field full time. That being said I didn't learn much about networks or system administration from completing my degree. Get an internship play with systems. Set up your own home networks. Host your own web site.

  • Does CS teach you networking or sys admin skills? I have for the longest time thought CS is for Programmers only. But I am heavily considering doing internships just for the experience. – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 21:56
  • It's also worth noting that a CS degree is generally more valuable than an MIS/BSIT sort of degree. It demonstrates a depth of understanding that is often lacking among administrators. – Skyhawk Aug 11 '10 at 21:58
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    It will depend on the program but in general like Miles said the understanding of the underlying concepts is important. I often receive the comment you just seem to understand what is going on at a low level. It really helps to understand what is going on behind the scenes. – trent Aug 11 '10 at 22:15
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    +1, "Get an internship play with systems. Set up your own home networks. Host your own web site." x 1000! Also, MIS degrees are not for SysAdmins; they're meant for Business-Technology strategist or project managers. It's a different field really. – Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 2:05
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    @peelman - I agree, and add that there are a lot of developers that think they should automatically be admins because they have a CS degree. Unfortunately, systems & network administration, as a career field, is not given the level of respect that it deserves. After all, any kid can install a video card... :( .Of course, all of the 15yo "1337 HTML c0d3rz" balance the equation a bit. – Joe Internet Aug 12 '10 at 6:00

When you hear administrators telling you that CompTIA certifications are "worthless," keep in mind that we're biased: most people here are earning 50-100K and up, so what's "worthless" to us might be gold to you.

Will the A+ and Network+ certifications help you get an internship or a $10/hour entry-level job? Absolutely, they will. Will they help you put money in the bank, pay off a mortgage, and feed a family of four? Probably not.

In terms of your career, get internships. As many as possible. Offer to work for free in the IT department at whatever local businesses interest you. If you or your parents know someone who knows someone, that's the perfect way to get started. You want at least three internships on your resume before you finish college (more is better), and you want them all to have excellent references. That means even when you're working for free, you want to act like you're getting paid: show up early, work hard, get things done, make a good impression.

In terms of education, I would like to offer your choice of two wildly divergent paths forward:

  1. Fast, cheap, and practical: Sign up for WGU's 4-year online degree BSIT program in network administration, the one that includes an MCITP certification. If you are a killer student, you can finish this kind of a program on an accelerated basis; even if it takes you all 4 years, you will graduate with about 10 certifications and an accredited 4-year degree from a real university (albeit one that no one has heard of). You will owe little or no money because the tuition is cheap. Your MCITP certification, along with the degree and your internships, will get you noticed.

  2. Serious, respectable, but expensive: Get a CS degree from the best university that you can afford. While you're in school, get a student job in the university's information services department. You will end up with an attention-getting degree (and the programming skills to match), and you will have entry-level administration/support experience too. (It wouldn't hurt for you to find yourself a CCNA certification in your spare time.)

  • The collage route of CS does sound good (as I was planning to go to college anyway) considering that half the answers are recommending it. This is though some really good advice, and I will just need to do the hard part of finding a good place to intern at. – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 22:47
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    I'm earning 50-100k? Shit I'm working at the wrong place... – Mark Henderson Aug 11 '10 at 23:54
  • @Farseeker Hmm. I suddenly don't feel so bad about the Atari 800 thing. – Skyhawk Aug 12 '10 at 0:36
  • College will help you with the finding of an internship. – peelman Aug 12 '10 at 1:20
  • well I guess my job is only 1/4 sysadmining so I can't really complain... – Mark Henderson Aug 12 '10 at 1:58

First the brutal reality as I see it:

My personal opinion is that you have been steered wrong. A+ may demonstrate your willingness to learn and get certified but beyond that it's pretty worthless. All it shows is that you've learned to tinker with computer hardware and the subject is generally taught on old and irrelevant hardware at that. Net+ and Security+ are slightly more valuable but as they are broad overview certifications they bear little relationship to the work as it's performed in the real world.

PHP, Java and C# are acceptable as entry points to programming but not directly relevant to system administration. For admin work you should be looking at a combination of what are generally (and incorrectly) called scripting languages (Bash, Perl, Powershell (yuck!), VBS, etc.) and something really solid, like C/C++.

Now for something a bit more constructive:

Vendor certification will be very valuable to you, so I think you should make that a priority, rather than more generic stuff. The reason it's valuable is because it relates to what is in actual use, as opposed to some theory that is probably no longer valid or relevant, and that is what employers are interested in.

As for getting your resume looked at, the first make sure you apply for positions you have a chance of getting. That probably means helpdesk work and internships (we don't have those here so I'm interpreting what they are based on what I've read elsewhere).

If at all possible see if you can enlist the help of family, friends and acquaintances to get your foot into the door somewhere. Maybe one of them knows someone, who knows someone, etc... Don't be too fussy about your first couple of positions, as they should be seen as mere rungs on the ladder, not career prospects.

You might also consider getting some experience, which you can list on a resume, by helping out somewhere, even if it's unpaid. I'm thinking here along the lines of schools, charities, community groups and the like.

  • +1, Very specific certifications (especially in quantity) mean the most. Generic certs like A+ (etc) mean the least; though they still count. We can't stress "experience" enough; even a few 1 day a week part time unpaid internships look awesome on a resume. – Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 2:01
  • @Chris S: Certifications are a double edged sword. I'm sure we've all run across a few "paper" MCSE's in our time. I'm an MCSA and I've run across several MCSE's who couldn't subnet or who knew how ephemeral ports are used. I've known plenty of people with twice the certifications as me and half the knowledge and I've known plenty of people with half the certifications and twice the knowledge. – joeqwerty Aug 12 '10 at 3:46
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    @joeqwerty, sadly, what you say is very true but I still think that for someone starting from scratch it's their best hope. I'll always place experience before paper but when paper is all you have you need to have what employers (who place far too mach value on that paper) are looking for. – John Gardeniers Aug 12 '10 at 4:14
  • @Joeqwerty, I used to be one of those paper-cert MCSEs in high school. So I know exactly where you're coming from. Certs are validation; now if there's no experience, you're validating nothing; if you've got the experience, it's validation your experience taught you something. In either case you can't just rely on certs to prove anything. Certs don't teach you how to fix nasty situations, or deal with unruly end-users, office politics, documentation procedures, etc, etc. – Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 12:48

First this is not a site for career advice.

That said, certs are a dime a dozen; they're only worth something when you have a lot of them.

Find local computer places ISPs, large companies, IT Consulting, whatever. Put your resume together with an objective that you're looking for an Internship. Start sending it to as many places as possible (99% will pitch it; you're look for that other 1%).

Go to college; they will have even more career resources too.

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    Yea I know this isn't career advice, but you also have tons of IT professionals here. I'm not asking if this is the right field, I'm asking how you all did it based on your experience. Anyway, I did consider doing internships for pure experience, however it was somewhat undesirable. I will reconsider. But for college, I was asking if the degree helped, or if I was wasting my money. – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 20:50
  • @Lord.Quackstar: Make sure to check out the spelling program at COLLEGE as well. ;) – joeqwerty Aug 11 '10 at 20:54
  • @joe Opps, sorry. I rely on Firefox's spell checker too much – TheLQ Aug 11 '10 at 20:55
  • LOL. A little kidding on my part... – joeqwerty Aug 11 '10 at 22:05
  • @Lord.Quackstar, for degree, I'd go CS or CIS with a BA minor or a MIS (Mgmt Info Systems); CS is geared for developer; CIS is admin; MIS is Business-Technology Strategist. It depends on how much you want to do pure computer, vs business systems. Degrees are accelerators; you can get the same place working your ass off for 8 years; or you can go to school and work your ass off for 4 years. Just don't make the mistake of going to college and wasting 4 years at keggers while ignoring your studies. Also, find a school with a good program; not necessarily the closest or your first choice. – Chris S Aug 12 '10 at 1:59

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