Getting to Senior: Sysadmin Level IV and Beyond

Monday afternoon, Adam Moskowitz taught his "Getting to Senior: Sysadmin Level IV and Beyond" course to a near-capacity crowd. As expected, the audience consisted mostly of mid-level admins looking to position themselves for career advancement. Moskowitz lead off with a disclaimer that attendees were "not going to like most of what I'm going to say today." His position is that much of what makes a good senior sysadmin is not the technical skills, but the "soft" skills. As such, only half an hour was spent discussing the technical skills a senior sysadmin should know. The rest focused on "squishy" (i.e. technical-ish, but not purely technical) and soft skills. Despite the warning, everybody stuck around.

Moskowitz lead off with a review of the technical skills that a senior sysadmin should know. It isn't necessary to know all skills in great depth; for a senior sysadmin, the real skill is not in knowing technical information, but in learning technical information. The senior sysadmin should be comfortable with a wide range of technologies, including email, networking, storage, printing, and all of the other technical components of a modern IT environment. This includes some software engineering principles, especially version control. One important point is that a senior sysadmin should use the tools the business uses, not whatever he or she feels like using. This is helpful for interoperability and for a sense of empathy with the business users.

The next portion of the course was devoted to the squishy skills. Some of these are around the planning and design of systems, and especially requirements analysis. Requirements doesn't just mean technical requirements, but the business requirements as well. A senior sysadmin should see the big picture of the business, not just IT's corner of it. The big picture includes things like applicable regulations and laws (e.g. HIPAA, SOX, PCI), budgeting, and what the business needs from IT in order to stay in business. A good senior sysadmin will also stay current on the state of the industry by reading books and journals, and (of course) going to conferences. Conferences are not only good for learning, but they're a great way to network and meet people who can provide valuable technical help when problems arise.

The remaining half of the course dealt with soft skills. Success for a senior sysadmin is not about technical prowess, but about interactions with people. Indeed, technical competence does not necessarily correlate with business satisfaction. Moskowitz shared a story where the IT group simultaneously lowered their ticket closure rate and improved their standing with the business by spending a few minutes talking to users when an incident was reported. It's important that the users feel like IT wants to help them. "If people don't want to come to you to ask for help," Moskowitz said, "then you are failing at your job."

Unfortunately for many sysadmins, society seems to have a bias toward extroverts. If you're not an extrovert, Moskowitz suggests to get good at faking it. A good senior sysadmin is seen as being approachable. This means being able to talk to peers, management, and business users in their own language and in a helpful manner. Learning to say "no, but..." instead of just "no" is valuable. The ability to give small "workplace presentations" is of particularly important value, too. These could be short lunchtime tech talks, presentations to executive leadership or user communities, or even large conferences. It's not necessary for every senior sysadmin to be comfortable giving a talk in front of a LISA-sized audience, but it's helpful (especially if you want to talk your employer into paying for you to attend a conference).

Learning new technical skills is old hat for a sysadmin. Changing things about yourself, which is what learning soft skills comes down to, is harder. Finding a good mentor, getting some training, and practicing constantly will help you make progress. The goal may be months or even years away, but it's worth doing to advance your career and your position within the organization. Change is required, growth is optional.

Overall, this was an excellent class, even for someone who thinks he or she is already in a senior role. Even if you're already good with soft skills, as I consider myself to be, it's a great way to refresh your mindset. Combined with some of the other business/leadership-focused training sessions at LISA '13, this is a great track for becoming not only a great technical asset, but a great business asset.