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Career: Systems Administrator

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.

Associated Careers

Database and Unix administration opportunities are available in other sectors, such as the financial industry. Though this route offers high pay, many people choose a Web atmosphere for its less corporate and less stressful environment. More and more large companies using any kind of enterprise software will rely on Unix. For example, human resource companies utilize People Soft, which relies on the Unix platform. Many people enter systems administration from varied backgrounds, and some leave to return to fields that use the same abilities to manipulate within systems, whether they work with notes of a symphony or blueprints of an office building.

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