How did you become an admin?

by Brian K. Jones

I work in academia. I'm a sysadmin. However, I took a rather non-traditional route to sysadmin-hood. The very brief version of the story goes like this:

I started as a lowly database reporting geek. I found that I liked databases, and the database guys took me under their wing and made a DBA out of me. Then I went to work for Sybase and became a full-blown data snob. However, on various client sites I found that the people I inevitably needed to interact with to get my work done were the sysadmins.

As time went on I gained their trust and they started giving me more privileges on the machines where the database servers were running. It was a great help, and I was able to spread my sysadmin wings in an environment quite close to what would be called "production".

After about a year of Perl scripting on the database end and for the sysadmin tasks I needed to perform, I decided that what I really wanted to do was build out these huge end-to-end systems. I wanted to do everything. I wanted to much with network gear, environmental monitors, power distribution, UNIX, databases, LDAP, Apache, and whatever else I could get my hands on. My next job was for a consulting firm that put me through tons of systems training, and I was on my way.

When I wasn't at work, I was reading books about Linux and UNIX (I think I read all of the ones available at that time, actually), pounding the Linux forums, and setting up services on Linux boxes I had set up at home. I could rattle off ipchains rulesets in my sleep, recite Apache rewrite rules verbatim, quote error strings and tell you what they meant and how long you had before your disk just completely failed. I could set up quad-boot machines, run Linux on old SPARCs, and I had already written code to handle most of the basic admin tasks, as well as some basic monitoring.

In short, I was determined. I had given up any notion of a life, hacked day and night, read Phrack, 2600, the llama book, bat book and more, grokked perl, php, sed, awk, tr, ed, vi, ksh and bash, and had gotten myself ready to sit for the SCSA, SCNA, CCNA, and CheckPoint certifications after working in IT, mostly in database administration and development, for about 3 years.

I still felt like a flaming idiot. Heck, there are plenty of occasions where I feel pretty dopy now! Luckily, my sponge-like brain has shown no signs of becoming saturated.

My main goals now boil down to doing my best to fight specialization. I don't want to stop coding Python, or doing database development, or maintaining LDAP servers, or building beowulf clusters, or maintaining VMWare servers. Aside from these goals, I also try to share as much of the knowledge I have with others who might be where I was 10 years ago by putting it here, or on my blog, or on my Linux admin site, or other sites, or on IRC, or the forums, or in magazine articles, or in slide presentations for LUGs. Oh - I once put some of my knowledge in a book, too!

What I want to know now, though, is this: How did you get here? Did you major in CS and choose systems work? Did you do something non-technical and became your company's all 'round IT guy? Did you fight your way out of the phone support farm? Let me know! Share your story!


2007-05-22 19:55:17
Hi, thanks for sharing your approach!

I major in CS and started my career 3 years ago, by working as a Perl programmer in a small company. Since there was no dedicated system admin or DBA, I had to setup and take care of everything by myself.

Now I am familiar with setting up and maintaining typical LAMP environment, and some other staffs like qmail. I am still reading a lot of books in my spare time. And I really admire your focus on techniques!

2007-05-24 07:51:38
I started working as a computer lab tech at a local University. I took that job because it was a Unix shop, and I hoped to get my feet wet. I had been a Unix nerd for quite some time, but with no real world experience.

Eventually I moved into doing data reporting, working with the DBA and sysadmin. I was sort of the backup sysadmin since I knew a lot about Unix. Eventually the DBA left, and I took over the post.

We're a small shop. I'm still the backup sysadmin for most of our stuff, and the primary on my big database system.

The amount of work can be daunting at times. Sometimes I think it would be nice to do just one thing or the other. Maybe only wear three hats. But then a shiny new project comes along...

I really do love my job =)

2007-05-25 11:17:43

I've been taking sysadmin duties for 6 years now, while finishing my chemical engineering degree. After getting it, I'm still working at my former department :), trying to keep up with all inovation in Unix/Linux worlds. I'm completely self-taught (and have bought dozens of O'Reilly books also).

Christian Pearce
2007-05-25 11:46:05
I majored in CS. During my last two years of college I wrote perl scripts for website back in 97,98. Everything on Linux of course. I never really fancied myself and SA. I didn't really think I had what it took. But years of doing development in Linux I learned a lot. Then I went to work for a SUN VAR writing software that managed machines. Primarily focused on configuration management, extending existing tools like cfengine, and big brother.

After several years of development and deployment on customer sites I have a lot of Data Center experience. Keeping my software development skills sharp at the same time. Now I can essentially work as an experience SA, or Web Architect.

It was during this last job that I realized I didn't need to choose between the field of programmer or systems work. That I could do both and be better off for it. When developing a web architecture I understand the pain systems guys go through and gain their confidence when deploying. When working as a systems guy I understand all to well how developers can make your life tough when deploying their shoddy code.

Right now I am working for myself on both long term web developments with a lot of custom development in PHP and short term data center infrastructure deployment.

2007-05-27 04:54:48
I'm just majoring in CS, but I finished a Foreign Languages degree some years ago. I got interested in CS after buying a Magazine which included a Linux CD (RH 5.2). Then I went into FreeBSD, Solaris and many programming languages. Now, I work as PLSQL and VB developer, I hate this work, as I'd like to work with DB, OS, networks... But in Spain, when you become as developer, you'll be always a developer :(

Should you have any recommendations to change my way, please don't hesitate to tell me, hehe. Many thanks for the info.

2007-05-27 04:55:26

I'm just majoring in CS, but I finished a Foreign Languages degree some years ago. I got interested in CS after buying a Magazine which included a Linux CD (RH 5.2). Then I went into FreeBSD, Solaris and many programming languages. Now, I work as PLSQL and VB developer, I hate this work, as I'd like to work with DB, OS, networks... But in Spain, when you become as developer, you'll be always a developer :(

Should you have any recommendations to change my way, please don't hesitate to tell me, hehe. Many thanks for the info.

2007-05-27 09:27:35
I started out as a hardware hacker for a worl-wide computer manufacturer that is no more... I was asked to learn UNIX to support some of their/our customers and when I was laid off, I went to work as a sys admin for one of my customers. I've been doing it ever since.
Saint Aardvark
2007-05-27 15:23:43
In 1990 I went to university, intending to become a physicist and work at CERN. The physics lab had PCs running DOS, but there was a passing mention in the software manual of FTP and telnet. That was enough to start me learning about networks, though only in a superficial way. At the time you could still download big lists of hosts from the NIC, and I remember trying a bunch to see if they ran telnet or FTP servers. I'd also downloaded a copy of the Jargon file and printed it out; for many years, I was entranced by the culture it described, and I wanted to be part of it.

Cut to '97, and I'd bought a used 486 so I could check my email on the Vancouver Community Net from home by modem, rather than having to walk to the library. I'd heard about something called Linux, and since I'd also heard that Windows 95 (which was installed on the 486) had lots of viruses, I decided to go with Linux.

In 2001 I finally got bored of working in grocery stores and sandwich shops. I'd become a reasonably sophisticated Linux user by then, and decided I wanted to become a sysadmin. I managed to ge a job on the helpdesk of a small ISP; they already had a sysadmin, but since it was a small place everyone did everything. Two years later, I was setting up mail servers, handling abuse email, and tracking down ADSL problems.

Finally, I heard about a contract job as a sysadmin for a local software company. My wife convinced me to ask for what I thought was an outrageous sum, and after some bargaining they hired me. A two-week contract turned into a full-time job, and I've finally got the job I wanted for a long, long time.

Marian Marinov
2007-05-29 15:31:50
I never actualy got a degree in IT but I starter to work as a sysadmin when I was very yang, just 14 years old. My first experience as a sysadmin was with the building and managing our neighborhood network. After that I starter to work for the first ISP in my home town. Now 9 years later I'm teaching Linux Administration and Network Security courses in a university which I never finished.
2007-05-30 00:02:16
I would say my start out is definitely not a standard one. My college degree was in Fine Art: Sculpture! I started out designing my mostly sheet metal based work using 3d applications such as Form-Z and 3D-Studio Max. After college I went to work for a small freelance design office in a youth organisation where I helped kids workout how to prep things for print and eventually design web sites. I was always really focused on helping people with whatever question they had, I found myself setting up the office network which lead me to cross platform file sharing and internet connectivity. Still early days yet. I then decided to get a job doing helpdesk support with a cable company where I learn more about Internet stuff. After moving house to another city I got a job with a small ISP where there were some real geeks to show me the ropes. There I learned about Linux, Unix, perl, Java, etc... Within 3 years I was the senior Sysadmin and within 5 I was single handedly running the servers and network. After 8 years I left and now I'm working in academia with some very clever people. I now see that instead of using an arc welder and sheet metal to build beautiful things I'm using electrons. It's still art. ;-)
2007-05-30 05:34:00
My father forced me to take a computer course in high school. We had a teletype with an acoustic coupler and a timeshare account. I lived near Dartmouth College which gave accounts to locals on their DTSS (Dartmouth Time Sharing System). This was where BASIC began. I found conferencing (think chat rooms) and chatted up. This is 1981.

I eventually got an Apple ][, school had Commodore PETs. I went to Clarkson University for Mechanical Engineering. They gave a computer to incoming freshmen. I learned Fortran, Pascal, Spreadsheets, LaTeX. I did some course work on a VAX/VMS system. My room mate had a Unix account and introduced me to Usenet.

So I played with computers alot. I got a job as a data analyst on Macintoshes. Lots of spreadsheet and graphing work. I played with Minix at home. I learned awk, C, Gnuplot, VI, Emacs on DOS. I took over maintainence of the Macs and did some PC stuff. I played with Minix then got a 486 and tried OS/2, BSD386, and Linux. Linux booted.

That lead to a Jr. Sysadmin position. I think I had nearly every O'Reilly book out at the time plus all the sysadmin books. I learned X11, Networking, NIS, DNS. From then on I worked as a sysadmin, mainly on Unix.

It really comes from being technical with a tech degree and playing with stuff. I still do because there's always something new to learn.

Casey Strouse
2007-05-31 09:01:30
Hi there Brian, great post. I got my start when one of the admins from the shell hosting company that I had an account with noticed the large volume of shell scripts and C programs that I had written and stashed in my home directory. He set me up in his sudoers file with limited privileges and it grew from there.

After that gig I moved on to a job at a data center working on their FreeBSD and Fedora Core servers. Now I'm working on moving up the chain and trying to get a job in the NOC at another data center.

Juliet Kemp
2007-05-31 09:56:20
I got introduced to Linux by a friend during the last few months of my first degree (in Philosophy, Politics, & Economics, so not CS or even close!), and learnt a certain amount playing with my own machine. Then decided to do a self-funded masters in Politics; I started off working a bar job, but then a part-time sysadmin/front-line help job (it was pretty much a bit of everything - there was only me & the full-time IT manager there) came up in one of the colleges & I went for that. I didn't really have enough experience but I was up-front about that, was confident that I knew where to look, & most helpfully, I was the only applicant :-) So I got the job. I did a couple of coding/development summer jobs, as well, out of that.

After the MPhil I spent a couple of years doing something else entirely (research work for a charity), but got bored & decided to go back to coding/sysadmin work (a half dev, half SA post in the uni I currently work at). The initial thought was to move more into coding, but in fact I found I was getting more out of the SA work. Then my boss (who was also a half-&-half role) left, & I convinced the head of group to change to one full-time SA rather than two part-time ones, and that that full-time SA should be me. Once again not *entirely* qualified for either the job I started at, or the one I have now (well, I'm well-qualified for it *now*, but I wasn't 2 years ago!), but I am good at the self-teaching thing, so it's worked out well.

I do like what I'm doing right now; I enjoy the self-teaching aspect (& however good you get as an SA there's always more of that!), and I very much like the level of independence I have. I don't think it's going to keep me interested indefinitely, though, so I'm currently retraining as a psychologist. Not impossible that I'll wind up back doing IT work at a later stage, of course. I don't really have that much of a career plan even now :-)

Phil Lembo
2007-06-01 11:26:15
Saw my first real computer in High School, a DEC PDP 8. Then went to college and got a degree in history, then law school. Spent more than a decade mostly working as a trial lawyer. Got married, wanted a better life, and wound up at a Microsoft ATEC. Moving over into Unix wasn't that big a deal in the end. Been a sysadmin for over 10 years now, most of which I've spent at the same company specializing in LDAP and identity management. Almost entirely self-taught. Really like the work, and appreciate it when someone shares concrete, detailed info that I can use to make my environment (and my life) easier to deal with.
2007-06-06 12:04:15
I'm not the only BFA grad to chime in so far, but I bet I'm the only one to have been introduced to Linux via Ubuntu. After art school and several years of bike messengering and racing, I parlayed some basic knowledge of HTML into a very lowly position as a web designer at a small web & video shop, which (thanks the gods) was mostly Macs. Pretty soon, on top of the web design & development stuff I was soaking up, I was asked to make the WinXP-based video encoders talk to the Mac editing stations, and then getting Helix running on a Red Hat server. From there it was a slippery slope into Linuxland. I've moved to a new organization where I'm lucky enough to work under some very sharp people, learning SELinux and how to manage a multi-homed HA web site running multiple instances of Apache. The best part is that I still get to use a Mac (Parallels is the ultimate sysadmin's tool in a heterogeneous environment) and even get to do some front-end stuff once in a while, mostly cause no one else around here seems to know Flash(!). I'm with you, fighting specialization, because there is just too much cool stuff out there still to learn.
Alan Gaudet
2007-07-23 14:09:52
Your story really reminds me of what ive been starting to do recently
I Just graduated from high school last year, and I finally recieved my very own computer to use as I went to college for computer programming and analysis diploma. After I got there I realized that I don't want to do stand alone coding and development and that I want to be able to control run optimize database (oracle) etc everything for a company someday, so I really decided I want to be a sys admin for my career. I currently work for level 1 support for Fujitsu computer systems (FCS) which is helpfull on my resume, and my employer also offers me free web based training for a variety of certifications after I become a full employee with benefits. I have decided to stop with the CPA course and pursue a few certifications before moving onto a bigger city where I can work/learn my trade.
I was just wondering if you have any suggestions that you can offer for me. I really know no-one in the IT industry besides the call centre people at my work and they have little knowledge of the type of industry that I want to get into for my career. Anything would be helpfull.
Your story here has really made me believe that if I work hard enough I will be able to accomplish my goals for my future.
I am going to spend the next year of my free time configuring and running small servers on hardware I will purchase with my earned money :), hopefully this will give me a good jumpstart.

Thank you so much

Alan (

2008-01-09 14:22:48
It sounds like many of you (if not all of you) were very lucky, you were in the right place at the right time. I myself not so lucky. I took courses in TCP/IP, HTML, web site design, etc at a local community college, didnt finish due to lack of money. I have my own little network at home that includes my tera station (can never have enough space). I started running my own little part time business helping people with computer problems and helping them set up wireless networks. However I can't seem to land a job that utilizes my skills. What can i do to get a job like yours?