Forecast for systems administrators: Cloudy

The traditional sysadmin role is changing, thanks to cloud computing and virtualization. Here's how to ensure you have a job in five years

When Donald Roper found himself in the job market earlier this year, he quickly learned how high the bar had been raised in his profession.

A senior systems administrator with 28 years in IT, an MBA and seven certifications to his name -- including one in virtualization -- he discovered that wasn't always enough.

[ Doing server virtualization right is not so simple. InfoWorld's expert contributors show you how to get it right in this 24-page "Server Virtualization Deep Dive" PDF guide. | Track the latest trends in virtualization in InfoWorld's Virtualization Report newsletter. ]

"A number of times, I'd go for an interview, and they'd ask, 'Do you have Citrix?'" recounts Roper. "I'd say, 'No -- I thought you were looking for a virtualization person.' And they'd say, 'Oh yes, you have to have that, too.' Nowadays, they want you to have everything."

In addition, Roper says, some employers also required a phone-based pre-screening stage, in which they'd ask technical questions such as, "What is VMware DRS?" and, "If you have five disks in RAID-5 array, how much disk space do you have?"

"Several years ago, you could have an MCSA certification and get a job as a systems administrator," Roper says. "In today's world, you have to be a master of everything you touch."

Things eventually worked out for Roper -- he is now director of IT at an 800-person company in Greenville, S.C. -- but the situation that he faced is evidence of both short-term and deep-seated change coming to the role of systems administrator, industry watchers say.

Short-term, in a tight job market, many employers are holding off hiring until they find "the perfect candidate," says John Reed, executive director at Robert Half Technology, a Catch-22 sometimes known as the Purple Squirrel syndrome. Longer term, technology trends -- primarily virtualization and cloud computing -- are forcing changes to the traditional career of the systems administrator.

"The job is changing," says Reed. "It's a role that will continue to be in demand" -- there has been a modest increase in the number of sysadmin job openings in the last year, he notes -- "but to experience career growth, sysadmins will have to continue to grow as the role evolves."

Change is the only constant

Alice Hill, managing director at tech hiring firm Dice.com, agrees that sysadmins will continue to be in demand, particularly those who are willing and able to keep up with an evolving role.

Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in the network and systems administration field will grow 28 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared with an average of 14 percent for all occupations.

Computerworld's annual Salary Survey defines a system administrator as someone who "installs new software releases and system upgrades, evaluates and installs patches, resolves software-related problems, performs system backups and recovery, maintains data files, and monitors system configuration."

For that panoply of responsibilities, a person employed as a systems administrator in 2012 can typically expect to earn an average compensation of $75,616, including salary and bonus, a 2.7 percent increase that was noticeably better than the 1.8 percent increase averaged across all job titles.

Right now, good opportunities exist for traditional sysadmins. According to Reed, demand is particularly high for those with Linux skills and any experience with mobile devices, and there is continued demand for professionals who work with Windows.

For sysadmins, cloudy days ahead

That said, the move to cloud computing is almost certain to impact the role of the sysadmin, as service providers increasingly take care of software, applications, infrastructure and computing platforms.

According to IDC projections, by 2015, some 24 percent of all new business software purchases will be of service-enabled software, while Gartner predicts the market for cloud-based infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) will grow by 47.8 percent through 2015.

"It's [an] adaptable moment in technology for infrastructure-focused professionals," Dice's Hill observes. Her advice? Smart systems administrators should begin augmenting their skills by focusing on other technologies, applications and processes, such as security.

"Since the lower levels can now be handled by cloud service providers, the sysadmin has to adapt the role closer to specialized applications or logical administration, such as policies, protection and processes," she says.

"There is a fundamental change happening because of increased use of cloud solutions, service providers and, to a certain extent, virtualization of services, even when they're offered internally," agrees Heikki Topi, a professor of computer information systems at Bentley University and a member of the education board at the Association for Computing Machinery. For systems administrators, he says, "there is a need to operate at a somewhat higher level of abstraction."

Opportunity ahead?

Where others see the move to cloud computing as a direct threat to the role of the traditional systems administrator, Philip Kizer sees opportunity.

Kizer, president of the League of Professional Systems Administrators (LOPSA), believes that cloud computing makes the sysadmin role more vital than ever.

With platform and software as a service (PaaS and SaaS), for example, companies should not rely solely on a service provider's expertise, but should augment that with highly experienced employees who understand the company's unique and sometimes complex requirements, Kizer says. Without an experienced sysadmin, companies "are at the mercy of providers' sales literature and sales staff," Kizer says. "They have no one with direct knowledge of their business requirements to advise them."

Within the industry, the prevailing wisdom is that most large companies are or will be initially adopting private clouds, where systems administrators are definitely still needed, before moving to a hybrid model of private/public cloud.

As a greater number of companies seek those cloud solutions, Kizer says, they will need staff to integrate cloud services into their existing business systems. "There will be programmer, sysadmin and project manager positions that will be needed, which could be new workers or sysadmins transitioning to those new positions," he says.

Not to mention, he maintains, there will continue to be highly intensive or proprietary tasks that require on-premises hardware and services, as well as desktop, laptop and tablet support roles, even if those personal devices connect to cloud services.

Bentley's Topi agrees that systems administrators will need a new set of skills geared toward the cloud. For instance, they could become involved with negotiating contracts with providers, understanding and effectively managing service level agreements and taking an active role in vendor management.

"There's a need to understand in-depth what has been promised [by cloud service providers] and how these promises are being delivered -- that's really important in this new environment," he says.

With the ability to quickly change the external resources being used -- whether it's processing power, storage volumes or network capacity -- deft management of these resources will also be necessary.

"In extreme cases, you can bring up thousands or tens of thousands of servers in a very brief period of time," Topi says. "That can't be managed without a very highly automated and structured approach," which would require highly skilled systems administrators to set up and orchestrate.

Translating business requirements to the external service provider is another skill that will be needed, as is troubleshooting, Topi says. "Let's say there are multiple providers of IT resources -- systems administrators are the ones who can troubleshoot with external providers to figure out the problem quickly."

Sysadmins in transition

Thom Jonsson, a senior systems administrator at AT&T Services, is one systems administrator who's heard the message that change is in the air.

To keep his skills and capabilities updated and relevant, Jonsson recently transitioned from a senior systems support role, focused on security and compliance, to a new role with an AT&T cloud team. His functions are relatively the same, he says, but are now applied to a virtual environment, using VMware-based servers as opposed to physical ones.

With several certifications -- including CompTIA's A+, Network+ and Security+, as well as Cisco's CCENT/CCNA -- Jonsson says he is primarily self-taught in cloud technologies. "You can't pigeonhole yourself into one thing," he says. "You need to step out of your comfort zone because technology is ever-evolving."

Jonsson believes sysadmins who can work with networking, security and operating systems will find plenty of job opportunities available, an assertion echoed by others in the field. "Even if [a company] is handling their data and applications in the cloud, they still need someone to do the connecting and routing and networking," says a senior systems administrator in the telecom industry who asked not to be named. "I would get a Cisco certification or Juniper -- that way you always have something in your back pocket."

He speaks from experience, having been in the job market in 2008 after a layoff. "I had 10 years of Solaris experience and a little bit of networking, and I could only get one interview," he says. But within a week after getting his CCNA certification, he began receiving interview requests for networking jobs and continues to receive emails responding to his resume. He ultimately scored a sysadmin job that was similar to the work he had been doing before the layoff.

The more certifications and tech skills you can accumulate, the better, Reed says. "We have hundreds of candidates who apply for the positions we advertise, and everyone feels they can do the job, but companies are looking for the best candidate," he says. "You can be a Windows admin with two years of experience, but if you're competing with someone who has also touched Linux and Unix and has several certifications, you can see where you'll have a disadvantage," he says.

How to prep for change

Traditional sysadmins will not be able to make these changes overnight -- but they do need to get started because the clock is ticking. Forrester forecasts that the global market for cloud computing will grow from $40.7 billion in 2011 to more than $241 billion in 2020.

They should start, Topi says, by surveying the business context in which they currently work, the roles and responsibilities of the people they serve, and the business model of their employer. Also important, he says, is developing better communication capabilities, specifically the ability to both negotiate with and listen to users in a different way. "There will be an increasingly high intensity of dealing directly with users and understanding their needs," he says.

Employer-provided education can be somewhat helpful, though companies tend to provide training in narrow, product-specific areas, Kizer points out. Some universities offer formal programs in systems administration, and both LOPSA and ACM are working with educators to help define their curricula ( sample PDF here), but most skill revamping will likely be self-taught, he says.

"With the availability of free virtual computing environments, you can build you own cloud on your own hardware for learning, or you can cheaply rent it from IaaS providers."

Hill suggests sysadmins looking for gaps in the IT department and orient themselves to take advantage of the openings. "Companies aren't going to let go of an eager, adaptable and accountable employee," she says, "but sometimes employees have to remind leadership that that's who they are."

In place of employer-provided training -- which Hill agrees is hard to come by -- sysadmins should develop personal networks so they can develop mentor-apprentice relationships to learn about areas in which they're interested.

Change can be good

The need to change can actually be a good thing in the long run, Hill says. "The closer you get to the application layer, the closer you have to get to the business, and tech professionals who add value to the business are viewed in a different light." That "different light" can include a boost in salary, Hill says, noting that the overwhelming number of six-figure salaries in technology professions are be considered business-IT roles.

In the end, the role of the systems administrator is still a vital one, technologists and industry observers agree, but, as Topi says, "It's not going to be the same sysadmin as it was 10 or 20 years ago."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Read more about IT careers in Computerworld's IT Careers Topic Center.

This story, "Forecast for systems administrators: Cloudy" was originally published by Computerworld.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies