System administrators, or sys admins, have long been the unsung heroes of enterprises, often forgoing sleep or meals to keep essential applications up and running for a company’s customers and users, no matter the problem. During the past year alone, IT specialists were sleeping in data centers to keep the entire business from crashing, not to mention educating entire workforces on how to work remotely and making sure they could access their tools.
We’ve been there—we both started our careers as sys admins, with many memories of 24-hour shifts, file copies that took ages, and intense pressure from above to fix what was broken, now.
A lot has changed in IT as cloud computing has exploded and business leaders have turned typical infrastructure systems on their head. How can sys admins keep up with—or stay ahead of—these changes to remain just as important as they’ve always been? In our recent conversations with organizations of all sizes about what they’re planning, here’s what we’ve heard, and some tips to keep in mind as you’re navigating this new world.
Redefine what “team” means to you
For lots of businesses, the shortest path to cloud has involved simply reassigning traditional teams like compute, storage, or networking into IT support roles, while app developers simply become cloud app developers. But that means that all those people are doing the same type of work in different ways, with different toolsets.
Successful organizations instead have one platform team that delivers technology to people. Various team members have expertise in particular areas, but they’re collectively responsible for the availability of the platform. Whatever your particular area of systems expertise, you share the same goals as your counterparts—something to remember as you’re getting to know colleagues and choosing what skills to learn next.
Think beyond your favorite technology
It’s easy for IT teams to get tied to one particular vendor or functionality that’s been in use for a long time, but very often that isn’t the right tool for the job. As a sys admin, that vendor name might even be in your job title—but don’t let that limit you.
Modern challenges and their solutions aren’t structured by a specific vendor or product, so you don’t need to be either. For example, ransomware has become a huge problem for companies across industries. Preventing that issue doesn’t mean just adding the free solution from your existing vendor. Instead, identify the problem and its potential impact, then find the technology that can best solve or prevent that problem.
Adapt to a self-serve world
Your users still need your help, but in a different way than pre-cloud, pre-container days. The simplicity of self-serve public cloud opens the door for business users to do more of IT’s tasks themselves. It’s a shift in how technology is delivered, as well as in mindset. Sys admins used to control everything, but now, the users of the past can now buy and provision technology themselves when they need something they aren’t getting from IT. It’s a flip in the balance between IT and the business and offers a ton of opportunity for admins to shift as well.
Try to stay ahead of what business units want—before cloud provider salespeople get there—and give developers easy ways to get started, whatever that looks like for your company, whether it’s self-serve portals, do-it-yourself provisioning, or expansive sandbox environments.
Instead of fixing what’s broken and monitoring potential issues, you can put your skills and knowledge to work learning about the next level of the tech stack, educating yourself (or seeking out education and community events) on automation, infrastructure as code, new and emerging challenges, and more. Instead of the care and feeding of servers, you’re tending to the workloads and their users.
Put your skills and knowledge to work now
Anyone doing the day-to-day work knows more than those just hearing about it secondhand (usually, a company’s leaders). Human development is just as important as tech development. Evolving from a Windows infrastructure sys admin one day to running Kubernetes the next may not be realistic—but that doesn’t mean that you can’t pivot.
And, importantly, sys admins generally have a treasure trove of institutional knowledge, much of which isn’t documented. Which server tends to run out of capacity? Which app goes down? What’s the first thing to check after a power outage? (Insert your own mental notes here). Untangling that web of services and tools is going to be extremely important to avoid reproducing sprawl or losing track of your assets once they’re in the cloud. Share what you know and consider what you’d like to learn and what you’re already familiar with as you’re helping execute the company’s cloud strategy.
Always think bigger
This tip likely isn’t new if you’ve been working as a sys admin for a while—but it’s something that isn’t changing even as IT and business models do. Now, knowing what’s next should include keeping an eye on what the next level of complexity may be, whether it’s containers, edge computing, or ML and AI, and how that might affect your work. Go bigger. Go wider. That might mean letting go of other projects, but it’s all in the name of upskilling. Learn all about the jobs of the people on either side of you, as well as the jobs of those above you—it will only serve you well to be better prepared for change.
System administrators have been the foundation of IT for decades now, and that’s not going to change. Be curious, learn fast, communicate with your peers and leaders, and keep the future front and center.