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Unix Operating Systems Software

How Did You Become a UNIX Administrator? 903

xylix asks: "I figure there must be a number of UNIX admins among the Slashdot readership and I am wondering how you got into that field to start with. The reason I am asking is that I really want to be a UNIX admin but don't know how to get from here to there. What kind of education did you have(CS or other)? How did you start out (as a junior admin or moving laterally from another position)? What certifications are useful?"

"I am an English teacher now but am a techie at heart and spend all my time coding and using various Linux / BSD distros. I figure I am capable of handling a junior position, but most ads I see for *nix admins are looking for several years of work experience (on specific platforms), CS or EE degrees (I have a BA in philosophy) and perhaps years of experience in a specific industry (financial, wireless, transportation...).

I have been told by a couple people that at 33 I am far too old to start ANY kind of tech career (with no previous work experience). Anyone out there with experience to counter that? I know the job market is tough right now, but I am thinking long term."

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How Did You Become a UNIX Administrator?

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  • by Shoten ( 260439 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:44AM (#2543328)

    Simple...I was told to "upgrade the NT servers," so I installed FreeBSD :)

    • god, where do you get a job like that that lets you have all that control over the systems? my job (state employment) the top dudes decide what they want and then tell the admins to implement their Utopian Idea......I want control (pout)
      • by NMerriam ( 15122 ) <> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:09PM (#2543579) Homepage
        If you want a state job with total control, go to a University. It's basically anarchy on the networks, because every group has their own research needs that would be impossible to meet centrally.

        Get in with a fun group and you can do whatever you like as long as you aren't running an MP3 server and sucking up half the bandwidth of the whole campus.

        We've got pretty much every OS under the sun running on different test servers.
        • Hear hear!

          Its the best kept secret in the IT industry. Sure, its not going to make you rich overnight, but you're not going to find yourself jobless the next day, either :)

          The other nice thing about the uni environment is the surplus machines...I've picked up vaxes, old suns, RS/6000, sgi machines, etc so there are plenty of toys to play with!
    • by Raymond Luxury Yacht ( 112037 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:03PM (#2543523) Homepage
      Hmm... I thought all it took was a deep masochistic streak and a fondness for curry.

      • I thought all it took was a deep masochistic streak and a fondness for curry.

        These traits don't hurt... but having taken every single computer class your college has to offer, then having a project and Un*x box handed to you can have a little to do with it, too.

        forbidden curry .... aghaghaghaghaghhhh...

        Now you've done it... I *actually* left my Bangkok Curry noodles home today and brought in a sandwich, fortunately there's Sneha in Sunnyvale :9

  • Advice (Score:2, Troll)

    by Sneakums ( 2534 )
    Believe me, you do not want to be a sysadmin of any kind whatsoever. You think you do, but you don't.
    • Re:Advice (Score:3, Insightful)

      by punkball ( 240859 )
      Perhaps you shouldn't be an admin if you hate it so much. Don't discourage others who may enjoy it.
      • I'd enjoy being SysAdmin - if it weren't for the users...

        I got in by accident - got a job as a developer, 2 sysadmins. 1 left - I "volunteered" for the job. Got it.

        • Re:Advice (Score:5, Insightful)

          by saider ( 177166 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @01:07PM (#2544032)
          I'd enjoy being SysAdmin - if it weren't for the users...

          That is to say that you do not enjoy being a sysadmin.

          If it weren't for the users there would be no system to admin. Give them their sandbox and when they trash it, delete the user and their resources. If they complain, then tell them not to fuck around and hand them a policy sheet.

          Admining a system is not about tinkering with the OS and hardware, it is about making the box useable to others. This implies dealing with users. If you don't like dealing with users then you need to look elsewhere for another job, because this one doesn't fit the description.

          Having a system admin who hates dealing with the users is like having a developer that hates writing code.
    • Re:Advice (Score:2, Insightful)

      by chadm1967 ( 144897 )
      I'm UNIX/Linux/Windows 2000 Admin (small network) and enjoy it VERY much! Don't discourage others from something just becuase you don't like it.
    • by s20451 ( 410424 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:10PM (#2543586) Journal

      When I arrived at my current place of work, I admitted to knowing a few linux hacks. Suddenly I'm the sysadmin, in addition to my real job. Now I get to spend hours and hours helping newbies configure their systems, cut ethernet cables, and clean up the carnage when we get hacked.

      Don't make the same mistake I did. Never admit to sysadmin knowledge, or you will be marked for life.

    • Re:Advice (Score:3, Funny)

      by dfelznic ( 8812 )
      it's like my uncle says:
      "lock yourself in a room and lie down for thirty minutes. Once the urge passes you can leave the room"
  • by rho ( 6063 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:46AM (#2543342) Homepage Journal

    I grew a beard, started wearing only t-shirts and jeans, and developed a surly attitude. The group accepted me, and I've never worked a full day in my life since then.

    • Similar to my experience, though they handed me an RS/6000 and expected me to learn it from books, which we didn't have. I already wore tshirts and jeans so everyone knew I had to be a programmer.

      Note: The downside of this is, some suits didn't think anyone who showed up at work in tshirt and jeans did any work. It was hard to feel sorry for any of them when they'd complain about 12 hour days now and then... When I was lucky I'd catch the Taco Bell at 1:59 AM, just before they closed, otherwise I slept hungry.

      • Hey, that sounds familiar!

        They put me in front of a VAX cluster and presented my with a grey wall. "Keep these babies running" they said. I started learning VMS and that was a trip. Sleepless nights learning both a new operating system, a whole load of new concepts and a new architecture... That was the place where I first compiled GCC. Eventually someone said "we need someone to admin this box, too", the box in question being an Alpha-station ("hey, it's from Digital, too, so it must be the same!" is what I think they had on their minds). Althought it did run OpenVMS (eventually), it had Ultrix installed on it. And I learned that, too. Based on my experiences with GCC I started installing the whole GNU toolset on it. And one day, back in 1994, someone introduced me to Linux... some seven years later, I'm known as the guy for whom Windows is a horribly complicated and hard to use environment (and also as the guy who can't understand why so many people put themselves to the pain that's called the C shell, but that's something else).

        And I guess that's it...

    • by radja ( 58949 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:30PM (#2543754) Homepage
      hmm.. you still bother with the jeans??

  • Previous admin quit (Score:2, Interesting)

    by punkball ( 240859 )
    It was about 3 years ago and the admin where I was working got in a verbal fight with my boss and ended up quitting. At the time I was a web developer and had basic unix knowledge so when the boss asked, "Who knows Unix?!?" and I responded with "I can list files in a directory and add users, does that count?" I was given the job, a stack of O'Reilly books and put all my efforts into learning as much as I could as fast as possible.
  • Never too old! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by easter1916 ( 452058 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:46AM (#2543348) Homepage
    I have been told by a couple people that at 33 I am far too old to start ANY kind of tech career (with no previous work experience). Anyone out there with experience to counter that?

    This is rubbish. My wife is 33 and just started a new career as a developer. She had previously been doing international trade development, hated it, was bored silly by the politics, got out, took a two-year course at a local community college with a good reputation and is merrily writing business applications. Her previous career stood to her in that, unlike a lot of fresh developers, she understands business and accounting. I know of another developer who at age 48 retrained and has been doing that for a few years. Good luck to you!
    • Re:Never too old! (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TopShelf ( 92521 )
      That's a key point to emphasize - understanding the business needs of your organization is far more important than mere technical skills. Unfortunately, those companies that use recruiters to screen candidates focus all too often on keywords within a resume, and reject out of hand candidates that could make for excellent employees. Therefore, look for the specific packages and systems that employers are requesting, and tailor your skillset and resume to suit those needs. Getting past the idiotic recruiter who doesn't know her ASP from a hole in the ground is the hard part...
  • by sql*kitten ( 1359 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:47AM (#2543355)
    I am wondering how you got into that field to start with. The reason I am asking is that I really want to be a UNIX admin

    Just find a surgeon and get your fingers removed. Now. Trust me, it will be less painful in the long run.
    • If people really want to be UNIX admins, they can go and get something _else_ removed...
    • by Number6.2 ( 71553 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:57PM (#2543974) Homepage Journal

      Heh, you hit the nail on the head, pal :)

      The real "Ask Slashdot" challenge would be "I'm am ,at present, a UNIX system administrator. How the hell do I get out of this job, but still stay in a computer related field?"

      I was shanghi'd into being a UNIX sysadmin for about a year. It was the nastiest experience of my life, especially since I was considered to be the "unix expert" by my non-UNIX cohorts, and was expected to waive a magic wand to get things to work. I developed a whole new relationship with SCSI cables that I never suspected even existed before.

  • by IainMH ( 176964 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:47AM (#2543357)
    I really want to be a UNIX admin

    Ahh - This is your first mistake. Anyone going into the poky comms room meeting the grumpy sysadmin realises that all sysadmins would rather be anywhere else doing anything than what they are doing at that point. Serial murder for example.

    Miserable Bastards

  • I know a guy who owned a car spares store near where I lived.. One day he decided (through bitching from his daugher, who was getting all techie at school), to move into the IT industry.

    So, he signed up for an MCSE course, got the books, setup the boxes at home, and sure enough a year later YATE was born (Yet Another Textbook Engineer)..

    I'd say this guy was in his late 40's and is probably earning about £250 per day contracting.. Not exactly Unix, but a similar path.. I wonder if the recession here in London will do to the YATE's..
  • Not to old (Score:2, Informative)

    by Ashcrow ( 469400 )
    You are not to old. Don't let anyone tell you that! I worked with a guy who decided to become an admin at 43 and he's doing more than great working at a huge network.

    As for degees, CS or other CS like degrees are good (sans MIS ofcourse), though proving your worth can take you much farther in some cases. I got my first admin job out of high school by talking over the other admins head, though I didn't mean to.
  • by bergeron76 ( 176351 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:48AM (#2543368)
    Sounds cliche but that's what I did. I'm only 25 and I'm making more than your average MCSE right now (considering that MANY mcses are unemployed right now).

    Started in Help Desk at college.
    Did miscellaneous consulting jobs for friends, etc...
    Got a job as a Jr. Admin.
    Got another job as a Sr. Admin.
  • Just know it. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by benploni ( 125649 )
    Every Unix Admin interview I've seen involves LOTS of verbal troubleshooting. Things like What does nsswitch.conf do?. If a machine is seeing lots ethernet transmit errors, what might be wrong?. How should you NOT run sendmail spools over NFS? Skill is crucial, all else naught.

    Getting the interview is a different story. Perhap certification would help there, but I doubt it.
    • I've always thought that sort of interview process is just stupid. Your job as an administrator (or mine, for that matter) is to be able to ADMINISTER a system. This means setting up, expanding, securing, and troubleshooting a system.. System could mean a single server, a group of servers or an entire network. Your job is NOT to be a walking encyclopedia of terms, facts, and knowledge. Being a successful system administrator (or network admin) means when someone comes to you with a problem you know how to effectively use all reasources available to you to solve it. I'm sure I'll get flamed for this, but I've been an administrator for over 5 years now, and didn't know off the top of my head what nsswitch.conf was when I read your post. A simple "man nsswitch.conf" explains it's a config file for system databases. I've never admnistered an NIS environment, so I've never had a need to touch it. Does that mean I don't get hired at company X?

      This is why MCSE's are generally useless.. Just because they've read a book or braindump and can explain that DNS stands for Domain Name Service, or that IP connectivity operates at Layer 3 of the OSI model, doesn't mean they'll know jack when your lusers come to them and say "when I type in in my browser I get a 'server not found' error".

      Yeah, I'm straying off topic, but if you want to successfully test a (potential) sysadmin, give him a real world scenario and let him use the resources available to him (his brain, books, the web, coworkers, etc) to solve the problem.

      In the interest of getting this back on topic, if you want to be a sysadmin, concentrate less on memorizing facts and how many bits are used in a class C netmask and more on how to quickly learn things you don't immediately know.

  • Education? (Score:5, Informative)

    by OldBen ( 14811 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <8311mjm>> on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:49AM (#2543371) Homepage
    I started at age 26 after majoring in Art and getting into the industry through web design. My advice; find a small shop (5-10 people) that supports a few Linux/UNIX systems, and doesn't mind you learning on the job. That's the best learning environment you'll ever have. Usenet and a million other web-based resources are out there if you run into a brick wall on a problem.

    Good luck, and you're never too old!
  • Upon entering college I got assigned work study with the IT dept. I was working with the two UNIX admins doing lowly stuff like changing aliases and updating dns records. This helped a ton because i got a chance to work on stuff that was terribly important while feeling my way out on the systems (there IS a difference between solaris and linux). Two years later and two unix admins later I was the full time admin and started getting the pay to prove it.

    So I guess my answer would be to try and get a junior admin job if you can even if you don't plan on working with the comapny forever the experience you get doing the lowly stuff will let you get familiar with the systems as well as learning from hopefully experienced people and learning from their mistakes as well as your own.
  • by genkael ( 102983 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:49AM (#2543376)
    You are not too old to become a tech person at 33. As a matter of fact, you are more likely to be taken seriously then someone who is 20.

    Becoming a Jr Unix admin requires that you know the basics of Unix/Linux: creating user accounts, installations, problem determination, permissions, disk space, adding hardware, backup strategies, and simple shell scripting to name a few. Solid end user knowledge of a real *nix like Solaris, AIX, HPUX, or True64 is a huge plus.

    Getting your foot in the door is often more important than what you know. You usually have to have someone on the inside who knows you before you have a chance of getting hired. Unix administration isn't a job that you can get by walking in off the street. Since you are a programmer, you do have a much better chance.

    • You are not too old to become a tech person at 33. As a matter of fact, you are more likely to be taken seriously then someone who is 20.

      Well, yes and no. The issue is that as you are older, it is more difficult to change industries. Not because older people are slower, more set in their ways or anything, but because you will be starting from scratch with little or no experience. And you will have financial commitments (mortgage, school fees for the kids, whatever) that a fresh graduate won't. Which leaves you with two options, attempt to persuade and employer to pay you enough to cover your commitments, which may be more than a junior sysadmin is worth to the organization, or cut back and reorganize your own lifestyle while you get up to speed.

      The best route is not to do this while changing jobs, try to make a lateral move within an organization you have been with for a long time, one where you are a known contributor. Maybe to cover a vacancy, maybe in addition to your other responsibility. Bear in mind that the economic downturn means that there are (or will be) experienced people coming into the job market with lots of skills and experience.

      I still think anyone who sets out to become a sysadmin is crazy, it's something that people tend to fall into by accident. Like, do people wake up one morning and say, I want to work in bomb disposal, or bioweapon quarantine control? Crazy!
    • creating user accounts, installations, ... adding hardware, backup strategies

      These things are nice, but I'm looking for when I interview you are these:

      • Can you show that you learn and adapt on your own.
      • Can you deal with people.
      • Will you work a problem until it's solved.
      Here's what I don't give a rat's ass about:
      • Any certification.
      • Your grade point average.
      • That you can use "foo" package.

      I used to give applicants a 10-question quiz that was designed to see what you did under pressure and when you didn't know the answer (one guy came close, but nobody ever got a 10). My boss made me stop when its reputation kept even good people from applying. :) I guess they didn't realize it wasn't supposed to be like the lame classroom exams they were used to around here.

  • Getting Started (Score:5, Informative)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:50AM (#2543387) Homepage Journal
    There's any number of College Extension departments, like UCSC-EXT [] in the San Jose area, which offer many classes, even a program. RedHat [] has Certification programs for Linux (and if you can admin Linux, it's a small jump to Unix)

    For good practice you might want to get a PC and install FreeBSD or one of the Linuxes to familiarize yourself with the resources, shell programming, etc.

    • Re:Getting Started (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Tet ( 2721 ) <slashdot@astradyn[ ] ['e.c' in gap]> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:16PM (#2543639) Homepage Journal
      For good practice you might want to get a PC and install FreeBSD or one of the Linuxes

      I'd avoid Linux. I may well love the OS, and have been using it since the Linus boot/root disk days, but I'd advise something else for learning how to admin the box. Linux makes life too easy, with the consequence that you get used to the niceties and are then stuck when confronted with an OS that doesn't have them (and most of the paid Unix admin jobs will have such an OS).

      Writing bash scripts, for example, gives you some syntactic sugar, but little in the way of real added value over and above plain Bourne shell. But it means your scripts won't be portable, and when confronted with an OS without bash, you're stuck.

      I'd recommend OpenBSD or Solaris, or preferably both. Both can be acquired at zero cost for PC hardware, and hence make good choices to play with. Try to do everything you do without resorting to adding extra toys to the system (via the ports collection or, for example). Some might claim that's making your life hard for the sake of it, but I'd say it gives you invaluable experience that you'll welcome later in your Unix admin career. Get exposure to as many different versions of Unix as you can lay your hands on, and learn the differences between them. I've met (and in fact, interviewed recently) too many admins that only know Linux, or only know Solaris. Ultimately, Unix is Unix, but if you can show exposure to a wide variety, you're demonstrating an ability to deal with the variance between systems. I've met AIX admins who didn't know how to use a system without smit/smitty, and hence are useless on any other version of Unix.

      • I totally agree with this. I used pico forever on my SuSE systems because I was familiar with pine. When I started mucking with OpenBSD, I had to use vi. Blech. Until I started using it more and more. And all of a sudden, I started LIKING it. This came in very useful when I was put in charge of a Sun box at work. OpenBSD makes you do things the hard way until you learn how to make it easy for yourself.


  • by AIXadmin ( 10544 )
    While most Unix administrators fell into their positions. Eg. Right place right time. I think you need to look at getting some training. Forget the CS degree.
    I had a friend who broke in at 32. He went off and got certified on Sun, and their E10K's. It helped him get his foot in the door. He was lucky though. Also concentrate on learning a scripting language or two like Perl. You need to have skills that will make you stand out from the rest of the crowd.
    • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:30PM (#2543751) Homepage
      I want to put in a plug for getting started at non-profits (not volunteer work, but a paying gig at a non-profit). They tend to be a bit more relaxed about qualifications, since they usually can't pay as well as businesses can. Since they usually have fewer people to throw at a problem, you'll get a chance to work with more environments than you might if you just became the mail-server-backup-guy at a corporation with an IT staff of 500. And you won't have much of a budget, so you'll learn how to make your existing stuff work instead of just having the option of throwing money at a problem.
  • Small business start (Score:2, Informative)

    by mcSey921 ( 230169 )
    I started at a small business that needed help with all kinds of different technical areas and then pushed them towards open source OSen as a cost cutting measure. I then moved on to teach high school and then back to a software company that needed hardware/network support.

    Perhaps a lateral move inside your education organization from teaching to system administration would be a good idea. I know that in Illinois techies who are also certified teachers are in great demand. I know several classroom teachers who became school district "technical coordinators" at great benefit to their wallets and stress levels. I suspect that you all ready spend some of your time answering less technically savvy teachers' questions. You might as well get paid for it.


  • by melquiades ( 314628 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:51AM (#2543401) Homepage
    I am sure that others will have more specific helpful advice, but the fundamental principle is simple. It's the same way you learn to program -- or play the piano, or dance the watusi -- passionate curiousity and reckless experimentation. Education and experience are both very valuable, but both of these are offshoots of a self-driven desire for knowledge.

    So, install Linux on a partition (I imagine you probably have already). Network your apartment/house/dorm room. Set up a web server and host your friends' sites. Set up a firewall. Follow the security updates for the software you have installed. Put a free database on it and write some useless but entertaining CGI on it. Translate the code into Java, Perl, and PHP just for kicks. Get excited, and the rest will follow.
  • by Hanashi ( 93356 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:51AM (#2543403) Homepage
    I got my start as an admin in college. I was a CS major, and the CS department network was run entirely by students (supervised by a full-time staff member who was management only, and not too technical). I started as a lab consultant, helping people with their editors and compilers and such. It was more of a general helpdesk position, with light administration duties. I was promoted fairly soon after to a real administrator, with the root passwords and everything. By the end of my college time, I was the head of this group, which made getting my first admin job outside pretty easy.

    During this time, I also helped a friend of mine (who was an English major at the time) learn to use the Unix workstations and the Internet. He parlayed this into a position within the help desk organization and then eventually into the administrator group also. So it's possible to do if you have one person who can give you the first break.

    If you're not in a university environment, probably your best bet is to try to get involved in the Linux community somehow, get your name attached to some projects that you can use as partial credentials on your resume. Also, if you're not already running a network of at least a couple of Linux machines at home, you probably should. There are several skills you'll need to develop which can't be practiced on a single machine (NIS, NFS, DNS, sendmail or other mailer, etc). Good luck!

    • Actually you should go a step further. Set up a mixed unix environment, get one each of linux, BSD and solaris. (all quite cheap)

      And seek out a Linux/Unix user group in your area.
  • by Pointy_Hair ( 133077 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:52AM (#2543415)
    Don't ever go out in the sunlight, bathing is optional, answer all questions with a clear and concise grunt, and use one word e-mail replies (my personal favorite is "NO").

    You'll know you're good when you are like a phantom and you're co-workers can't describe what you look like and are too afraid to try finding you.
  • by PHanT0 ( 148738 )
    1) Install Linux.
    2) Learn it inside-out.
    3) Get a CS (Computer Science) degree.
    4) Enroll in co-op, that might start you in the sysadm dept.
    5) Look for odd-jobs that have a lot to do with networking. (afterall, every UNIX that's worth admin' is networked)

    Hope that helps :-P
  • My introduction to unix (which was at first linux) begun because I'd been flunking out of college while playing MUD and MUSHes, and it turned out one day that I wanted to try out my own. So I asked the game owner what I needed to do.. and he pointed me at Slackware's site.

    From that point on my main machine was a linux box and I pretty much taught myself everything I knew from the ground up. Fast forward a year when I really am running my own MUSH, when a guy I played the game with gets hired at an ISP.

    This was in 98 I think.. maybe 97, just when the internet was starting to speed up and the industry was really gearing itself up. This was the point where anyone who could operate a bash shell was getting hired, and I did.

    That was the foot in the door I needed, and while it's definetly tougher now, I have enough of a resume that I can get a job at any number of differing places.

    I guess the piece of advice to be taken from this is, find a friend working where you want to work. Have them put your name in. Long as you're not a drooling idiot, chances are good they'll take you in. God knows when I first got hired I wouldn't have been able to do it on my own merits, even considering how well I'd done self teaching.
  • Go the .edu route (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jwalther420 ( 107214 )
    I highly recommend trying to find a junior position at an .edu somewhere. Colleges tend to be a training ground for tech careers around here in NC. I got my first admin job at an .edu even though I was marginally qualified and gained VERY valuable experience. Another nice thing about colleges is that they tend to have a wide variety of machines/platforms.

    Good luck!
  • Just do one of the following:
    • skip the meeting where the new sysadmin is to be chosen,
    • Show up to that meeting and pay attention,
    • Adopt a grumpy demeanor, or
    • Draw the short straw
    Its fun, its easy, its BOFH.
  • I had a very Unix-centric education at NCSU, which has helped me out a lot, but most of what I know comes from a decent fundamental understanding of operating systems and C/C++. If you want to be a unix admin, forget about certs, find a job as an NT admin where you can get some hands-on with Unix. Read A LOT - Think Unix, Unix power tools, Unix System Administration Handboot, and Essential System Administration, for starters. Perl will also help you understand a lot of the philosopy behind Unix. Hack around with Linux/BSD. Pay close attention to people that know Unix. Keep a command cheat-sheet. Ask questions, don't be afraid to be borderline annoying.

    One day, a lot of the Unix philosopy will just "click" with you, out of the blue, it's strange that way. Don't think of it as a destination, like you would think of a Certification... It's a journey. It's a gearhead thing, either it's for you or it's not.
  • ... for a small startup software company. I was hired as a programmer, and my first day, the boss sat me down in front of a Compaq Deskpro,(386 16mhz, 4mbytes RAM, 40meg hard drive, and a 40meg tape. It cost him almost US$10,000 at the time), and handed me a stack of SCO XENIX 51/4 install floppies. He told me to keep installing and configuring until I understood what I was doing.

    I've been both an admin and a developer ever since. I have worked with better programmers, and better admins. I find that I can bring a unique perspectives to both realms. I can bring an Admin's sense of process and procedure and documentation and paranoia to the development process, and I'm good at programming solutions, not just hacking scripts, for administration problems.

    Unless you like wearing a pager 24/7, being a sysadmin might not be right for you.

  • Start digging (Score:2, Interesting)

    by himself ( 66589 )
    Heck, I'm an English major, but I got my start by just getting access to a box at work and trying stuff. Admittedly, I worked at a service bureau (where I printed out stuff from Quark and Pagemaker to film imagesetters and color plotters), and thus got chummy with a sysadmin who gave me an account on our Suns, but the point holds: log in, do a ps and then look up each process with 'man' until you get bored. [That admin was an art history major, who pined for a career in art restoration. Go figure.]
    I was stuck in non-admin jobs until I just got together a system and started using it. I tried NetBSD on an old Mac to get the feel for installating, and I tried some Linux distro on a dusty old PC. Eventually I found a support job where I had a server I could legitimately log in to, and I started reading stuff and trying it out.
    The books "Unix System Administration Handbook" (be sure to get the 3rd edition) and "Essential System Administration" -- both fairly expensive, but like any good tools, well worth their cost in the long run -- make for good reading even before you start laying hands on a keyboard. (I know: nothing can substitute for real experience.) Mailing lists, like those hosted at, also make good reading: you can learn a lot from other peoples' mistakes.
    It may make you look like a wannabe, but try to get a bit of book-learnin' under your belt, if only to avoid wrecking the first system you get access to.
    (Re-reading the above, I have to point out that I had a series of fairly grim support-type roles in places that happened to have Unix around until I found a place willing to hire me as an actual administrator. You have to be willing to start out in a very junior position -- i.e., tape monkey -- in order to get your foot in the door. A corollary is that many places care about your actualy ability and not what certification and training you have in your portfolio. And never mind those people telling you that you'd rather not do it: they're just jealous of your charming innocence and niavete.)
  • by jermz ( 6352 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:57AM (#2543464)
    when I started a C programming class at San Diego State University. I was introduced to Unix at that time, and fell in love with it's power and simplicity.

    I was content to be a user, but when I started working in the computer industry in 1995, I was introduced to Linux by a co-worker and fellow Unix lover (Thanks Martin!). I got bitten by the sysadmin bug then. We had a part-time consultant sysadmin then, and I emailed him with problems I was having with my Linux box, and he helped out immensely. Even when I brought down the email system with a badly configured, he was patient and walked me through it.

    As I started taking over day-to-day administration of the Solaris and SunOS servers at work, I found it invaluable to use the knowledge of the Unix propeller-heads at work. All were engineers, but they knew enough about Unix to give me a hand when needed. I also made friends with some old-time Unix-heads that proved to be a wonderful resource.

    Don't underestimate the power of a mentor. Find someone with a long beard to talk with regularly. Also, read, read, read. Surf the net. Install software "just because". You will screw up, and have to recover. Nothing compares to removing "",

    I now have 6 years of sysadmin experience under my belt. Even when sysadminning wasn't my official job title, I still found a way to do some. I've got the sysadmin bug, and bad. I love the challenge of it. I love knowing that every time I upgrade some software, or tune a system, that the people who make the product that pays my salary are able to do their work that much more easily and quickly.

    As far as certification, it might look good on a resume for a PHB, but in real life don't mean much. Like an MCSE. You know the books, but real life can be much different. In short, if you have the time and $$$ to burn, go ahead. But your time can be equally well spent hacking on a system.

    Do it, do it, do it. I love this job.

  • by Teancom ( 13486 ) <david.gnuconsulting@com> on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:58AM (#2543475) Homepage
    1) Repeat 10 times a day: "this change should not affect end users.

    2) Type 20 times a day: "rm -fR ~user"

    3) 10 reps: "what did *you* do to screw this up?"

    4) Stop showering. Now.

    5) Smash your pager, claim it was "killed in the line of duty".

    6) Pick any given operating system, and develop an intense hatred for it. You will work with this os for the rest of your life.

    7) rinse, repeat.

  • A friend sat down with me and helped me install slackware from a bunch of 5.25" floppyes ..

    The most used commands during my first year were "man" and "vi", and still today it's those I most frequently use.
    My advice to those who realy want to become Unix/Network/Security admins: read, read a lot, and study how the system realy works, so when things go wrong, you know where and what the problem is.

    Oh, and *never*, *ever* reboot a system just to se if the problem goeas away... Instead use the opportunity to learn some new stuff.

  • I went to class. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dschuetz ( 10924 ) <> on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:59AM (#2543481)
    That's it. I was in a boring-as-hell lower-level CS class, and usually skipped it. One day, I went, though I sat in the back and read some novel or something. Late in the class, a couple guys from the university Consulting Lab (UMCP's faculty/staff computer help desk) got up to recruit. I joined the team a few weeks later, and got hurled into the marvelous world of admin when our VAXstation 2000 (X-windows, 40MB hard drive) crapped out and I had to rebuild it from a 10mb tar file on a remote server (an early NeXT cube, no less :) )

    The rest, as they say, is history.

    How would you get into it now? Don't really know. Certainly, it'd help to "play" with the stuff at home, but unless you've got 4-10 machines at home, networked, in regular use, you simply won't have the need to do a good job administering the server (and won't hit upon any of the major challenges).

    Is 33 too old to start a tech career? From the standpoint of unconcious hiring discrimination, maybe you'll have a problem there. Plus, there's always the "why are you swtiching careers?" question. From the standpoint of being too old to learn -- bullshit. If you're smart, and can learn new tricks, you'll have a fighting chance.

    Best advice -- learn to type fast, and find all the online documentation centers (man pages, web, etc.). If you type and can research the problem fast enough, nobody will ever know you don't know the answer ('cause you'll have just gotten the answer). After that, learn perl. Any time you find yourself doing the same thing more than once, spend the 20 minutes (or three hours) to write a script to do it instead. Then the next time it'll take 30 seconds to do, and you'll look smart. :)

    Where do you teach english? If it's at a high school, you might be able to help part-time with in-house stuff, though I wouldn't be too surprised if a lot of that got given to students. If you're at a college, try the same tack with the help desk or whatever there... Then, maybe, look for jobs with contractors doing help desk in a UNIX or UNIX-Server shop (if you live in the Washington, DC area, there are LOTS of these jobs). You won't be doing admin, per se, but you'll be seeing the "lighter" side of it, especially the customer-side of things, and if you show enough aptitude and interest, you should be able to ease into a SysAdmin side. Another bonus for gov't contractor stuff -- they're used to "second careers" as military enlisted types retire and start working as geeks.

    Good luck!
  • I started in high school. There were two distinct networks running, the DECnet one and a student-run network of Sun4 systems that the professionals didn't understand enough to run on their own. Schools are typically in need of fairly technical people and are most willing to give people without any experience a chance. The pay crap, but it puts that work experence on your resume. A company took one look at my experience and hired me up. I happen to be a CS person, but academics seemed to matter less than experience, though I keep both strong. If you are willing to do Unix admin, and have the work experience and references to back you up, in my experience you can get those jobs. Make sure you get your hands on as a diverse set of Unix variants as you can. Companies love to see a long list of Unix variants in professionaly work history. And old hardware as well as new. Old hardware both gives the impression of a longer history, and lets them know you have delt with systems that aren't as mature as todays.
  • a common path (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sv0f ( 197289 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @11:59AM (#2543487)
    Try to become a programmer and fail.
  • 1993: I was lucky enough to have a friend who was into Linux and spent a lot of time arguing with me about how Free software could possibly work (what? written by amateurs, given away for free, and you say it's better than a Macintosh??)

    1995: After various post-collegt Mcjobs, got a temp job paying GBP5 per hour converting Lotus 123 files into Excel, on Windows 3.1. These 123 files had macros, so I taught myself VBA from the manual and help files. In 96 we got web access - which made an enormous difference as I could search for software, help from othe users, etc. Got into Perl about this time (10 line sof Perl == five pages of VBA, and it's soooo much more elegant and powerful...)

    1997-8: Brief spell at Logica, then joined Bain [] as the sole developer in teh London office. I twisted the specs and fought to do as much web-realted stuff as possible, which I could sneakily do in Perl on Apache rather than IIS/ASP, and no-one was any the wiser :) Also got into net admin stuff, learnt as much as poss about TCP/IP, DNS, routing...

    About this time, installed Debian GNU/Linux on my shiny new PC. practice, practice. Save up for many O'Reilly books: read them, practice, test, experiment.

    2000: On the basis of the Bain web dev and home experience, worked for a couple of dotcom startups: by the time the last one went bust in August I'd got tons of 10-hours-a-day Linux experience (get the hours in!), networking (DMZ design), lots of security experience hardening production servers, w/stations, IDS, pentesting etc. Still supposed to be spending 50% of my time developing websites...

    Which brings us up to the present: I've got tons of experience and knowledge, but no MCSE / CCNA (UK employers don't seem to pay for formal training in my experience...) I really really really want a job in network security, or system/network admin, or even good old Perl web development... but the job market here (London, UK) is dead, I'm on the dole, and with my savings going fast I soon won't even be able to afford Net access.

    In summary: practice, practice, practice; keep a career goal in mind when changing jobs - how will this position help me get where I want to be? Look out for any chance to get experience in your chosen field. Practice at home if you can. System admin involves knowing about a lot of different areas: networking in particular is a huge field. Look out for tasty free information on the web: there's an absolute ton of indispensible stuff out there. Don't /ONLY/ read O'Reilly's: I reckon about a 5:1 ratio of ORAs to 'other' publishers' books...

    Good luck!

  • by tollieman ( 243634 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:00PM (#2543499) Homepage
    After I was hurt in a parachute accident in the US. Army, I moved to Tampa and started with a contractor answering phones at a support center for a large retail chain.
    After a few months of training on my own, listening to processes the analysts were going thru etc. I was promoted to Tech Support Analyst Level 1. I read man pages, looked thru the available documentation on the systems etc. And kept learning. I then progressed to a Level 2 Analyst, and after a few months I was hired onto the company that I was contracted out to.. IBM!
    After a few months as a Level 2 Analyst, I applied for a position in Technical Services. Here again I studied the OS we were using, SCO Open Server 5.04. Studied Korn shell programming, Learned PERL, Learned Perl OO methodology, learned hardware specific stuff like SCSI, IO, IRQ's etc.
    During all of this time my passion was Linux, so I was also studying it as well. In March 2001 I received my RedHat RHCE, and applied for a position as a Software Engineer providing Linux Solutions for Xseries IBM servers.
    By the way, I am a High School Drop-out.
    Just goes to show you what hard work can do.
  • by Shipwright ( 175684 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:01PM (#2543501) Homepage

    True Story: At my small accounting software company Marlon hated hardware the least so he ended up being the one that called when the /var/spool filled up or the SCO refused to talk to the HP 9000. When Marlon left it was decided that Jay had been most seen in the vicinity of Marlon so he started getting the calls, got his name in HP's and UUNET's support databases, etc. When Jay left, well, I had been Jay's roommate for a year... The rest is history.

    For management style think 'Lord of the Flies', not Harvard MBA.

  • I hate to be the guy who shoves a hot poker in the eye of this... but we really don't need more sysadmins.

    What the tech industry needs is better coders and more robust administration programs where simple tasks, even server cloning can all be automated. Setting up a website or email or dns for a customer should be painless, fast and simple.

    The ultimate goal of every sysadmin and programmer should be to render themselves obsolete.
  • by cjsnell ( 5825 )
    1990-1993 Ran a BBS while in high school

    1993-1995 Went to college at Vanderbilt University. Admined Mac machines and did videotaping for the graduate business school.

    1995 Worked at a (then) small ISP back home in Texas doing tech support and modem maintainence. Installed linux on my desktop.

    1996 Went back to Vanderbilt; got a job on campus as a systems administrator with the student-run computer center.

    1996 Quit Vanderbilt, moved to New Mexico to attend UNM. Got a job on campus admining SGIs for the physics department.

    1997 Left the Physics department for the Computer Science department, which had more UNIX boxen.

    1998 Dropped out of UNM to go to the Bay Area and work for @Home as a sysadmin.

    1999 Fired from @Home. Moved to Utah and got a job with iMALL as a sysadmin. iMALL bought by @Home (they're following me!!! AGGH!!!).

    2000 Quit iMALL to start Blue Aspen Software.

    2000 Blue Aspen fails, moved to LA to work for Ticketmaster CitySearch.

    2001 Quit TMCS to work for my fathers company for a few months, to help him out.

    2001 Moved to Boston to work for small startup,

    2001 Bailed from to move to Virginia and work for one of the largest companies on the Net, who shall remain unnaimed. :)

    There you have it. :)
  • by Havokmon ( 89874 ) <> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:03PM (#2543527) Homepage Journal
    I did it the wrong way.

    Me: "I can build the corporate web site. We've got some older PC's laying around here. I have Slackware 1.2, it has a web server. That should do it"

    Boss: "I want it to run on NT."

    Me: "Why? There are problems all over the place with Windows in general crashing just by receiving a bad packet. Nobody will know the difference."

    Boss: "I will know, I want to run NT."

    Me: "No. I don't want to spend all my time rebooting the thing, and people won't be able to SEE our website when that happens."

    Boss: "It WILL run on NT."

    Me: "Fine. Just get me the ad slicks and I'll make them into web pages."

    A week later....

    Me: "We site is all done. Goto to see it."

    Boss: "Great! And it runs on NT right?"

    Me: "Nope."


    At that's how it all started....
  • I graduated from Miami U with a BA in philosophy and a BS in physics. I started the very next day as Miami's primary Unix sysadmin. Now, at the time, they only had a couple of Unix boxes, and almost nobody even knew what they did, but they were mission-critical (BootP and DNS servers), and I learned right away what the word robust meant. Since then, I have taken on primary or secondary responsibility for about four dozen Unix boxes, and we've added three or four more Unix admins. Still, I think I'm considered the guru among them.

    The hiring manager told me flat out that there were at least a few other candidates that were much more experienced in Unix than I. He told me he was going to recommend me anyway, though, because he liked my enthusiasm and really felt that he would enjoy working with me.

    Before graduation, I had been the sysadmin of my own home Linux box for a few years, and had even spent a year as president of the Miami Unix Collective, a student organization of Unix geeks. But I had no enterprise-level sysadmin experience, period, and certainly no certifications from Big Blue or anything like that.

    The thing is, I had a passion for learning. All the Unix I knew, I had crammed into my head in between studying Plato, formal logic, mathematical physics, and organic chemistry. I think the manager was impressed with that, and I know he was impressed with how much I picked up after I started here.

    I've been a Unix sysadmin here for five years, and pretty much everybody knows to come to me if they're stumped with something Unix-y. And pretty much everybody comes out of my cube with at least a good direction, if not the answer to their problem.

    I script and automate routine stuff that doesn't really need my attention, and I augment systems with GNU and other tools more useful than the ones that come with the systems, so that I can work more efficiently. Folks frequently have to ask me to slow down if they want to be able to repeat what I'm showing them. I think it's because I've really come to think in pipes and regular expressions and such.

    That's really the most helpful thing of all-- being able to think Unix.

    Forget worrying about the degree. Just show them your stuff, and they'll hire you. If a particular employer won't hire you based on your capabilities, but is insisting on some silly technical degree, then you probably don't want to get stuck with them, anyway.

    Best of luck.

    clayton hynfield

  • How I did it... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Zwack ( 27039 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:06PM (#2543549) Homepage Journal

    I may be younger than you, but here's how I did it...

    I got my first degree BSc (Bachelor of Science for non Brits) in Applied Physics. I spent three years unemployed doing a lot of computer based voluntary work.

    I went back to college, got my MSc (Master of Science) in Software Technology and went to work as a software engineer for the R&D side of a small company. The other part of the company was an ISP. We needed to get some new servers running so myself and one of the other Software engineers were allowed to install SunOs on them. We secured them as best we could, and from there I slowly moved into administration. Before long I was transferred to the ISP side of the company as the web servers moved over (don't ask why R&D ran the web servers). Then I was trained in Cisco Routers, got more involved in network administartion, and ended up moving to the US...

    Now I'm in my second job over here both of them have been pure systems administration.

    How can you get into Systems Administration? Well, my advice would be to get experience with other flavours of Unix. At least try Solaris X86 (a free download from Sun) and one of the BSD variants. Linux only isn't going to be so useful if they are looking for a Unix SA. HP-UX and AIX experience could also be useful, but harder to get unless you want to buy a workstation from e-bay.

    Read at the very least one of Essential System Administration or The Unix Systems Administration Handbook.

    Network... Join Usenix and SAGE. Go to local meetings. Advertise on the SAGE website that you are looking for junior positions. Talk to local technical recruiters. Keep an eye on local job postings.

    Apply for non-junior positions, try and talk to the hiring manager first, but it's possible that they may not get what they're looking for, and be willing to accept a good junior candidate instead.

    Don't worry about your lack of experience, you have most of what you need. As a teacher you should have good communication skills. You should be able to manage your time. You should be used to putting in long hours when needed. You should have problem solving skills. The knowledge of particular versions of Unix is secondary. I'm working on AIX now, it's radically different from other versions I've dealt with. It's still Unix, the other skills are more important.

    I wouldn't try and get a help desk job and move over... I've never seen that done successfully.

    I hope that this helps.

  • I figure computers ain't actually all that hard. Unix administration takes about the same brainpower as auto maintaince, just a somewhat differient set of talents.

    I would suggest the following.
    1. Get a 486 something and setup a NAT router/server for your home network.
    2. Add pop3,imap,apache and any other interesting daemons, basically make your own little ISP on that 486.
    3. Bullshit your way into your first job, when you don't know something, read the FAQs..

    Half the time I swear, being a computer expert is just a zen and knowing how to use google really well..

    Getting involved with an IRC group is another way. Learning sysadmin skills well stealing software is a highly popular method.
  • Blunder into it! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Pretender ( 3940 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:08PM (#2543565)
    Good to see another English major in this line of work.

    I first started at this company as "Microcomputer Support," that is, Windows and some Mac OS. This shop has been all Windows and VMS since time immemorial, but one of their critical apps was switching from VMS to Unix so they had to do it too. I happened to hear at some event that they were going to have to start working with Unix, and since I had already logged a few years with Linux and BSD, I started to push through channels and ask if I could be involved - that's all I asked. Next thing I know, the Director of Technologies is calling me, asking for an interview, and in a few months, after taking a battery of tests and as soon as they were able to replace me, I moved to my new office as sysadmin. This must have been divine intervention; everything else here goes through lots of channels and gets tested with umpteen Gartner and PWC statements, blah blah blah, but for some reason (I'm sure it was a clerical error) they awarded me the job. Of course, they are paying me about half what an outside consultant would charge, so maybe that has something to do with it.

    Having said that, you might be surprised at how boring and thankless this job can be sometimes. I know a lot of people who really have programmer tendencies, who get stuck with sysadminning and burn out on the whole industry.
  • I've been doing Unix (and other OS) administration for almost ten years now. I started out in college, getting a student assistant job with the Computing and Network Services department at CU Boulder. My only Unix experience at that time was a one semester C/Unix workshop I had to take for CS.

    Day one:

    Boss: "Go ftp this new patch from UUnet."
    Me: "What's ftp?"
    (Boss smacks forehead and groans)

    The rest is history. :) I spent two and half years in that student job learning about ten different Unix variants, got a job three weeks after graduation doing Unix admin. I've picked up a lot of networking knowledge, NT, and even some VMS skills along the way. I've worked for government contractors, done classified work, and even shared in the dot-Com Internet startup bust. Its been a wild ride.

    To date, I don't have any certifications, but I plan to change that with the job market getting so tight. My one word of caution would be that many experienced Unix admins are out of work right now, and are going to win out for a job every time against a newcomer. The best advice I can give is to try and find a volunteer or entry-level part time position to build up some experience before trying to jump in full-time.

    - Necron69
  • First, nobody chooses to become a SysAdmin. They are told to do it and get stuck doing it. That, or they get hired into a job that suddenly turns into a SysAdmin job (often different than what they were hired for).

    There is no formal education, no particular degree required. Anyone who tells you that is in management - do not trust them. If any degree is favorable, then Philosophy is a good one (or Psychology) because one of the questions you're going to be asking yourself alot is "Why on earth did the idiot do that?" (and several slight variations).

    To be a good one, you must have excellent reading and comprehension skills - this is because the management and users in the company that will hire you do not possess these skills in even the tiniest amounts and you will need them in spades to not only survive but to keep the company rolling along. Not only are these skills required, you must practice them (you know, by actually reading stuff - books like fiction and tech refrences).

    Some people will say that you must also be either a sadist or a masochist in at least some small part. I would say instead that a better quality would be a Zen-like attitude - you know, shite happens. But if you have to kill someone at some point, think of it as a perk.
  • by JuliaMackert ( 196471 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:13PM (#2543620) Homepage
    So, you have a BA in Philosophy. So what? My degree is in Paralegal Services.
    Three years ago, I went from being a married, stay-at-home mom to divoced mother of three. I can't say I'm a true geek at heart. I'm interested in computers but not obsessed. The model is the same for Paralegal Services and Computer Science -- research, discovery and investigation, and analysis -- only the data is different.
    I've only been in this field two years. I'm 45; I was 43 when I changed careers, so to speak. I changed the format of my resume to draw attention to what I was learning and the fact that I was continuing to learn and to draw attention away from my lack of work experience. I installed linux on a second partition on my Windows machine at home and learned both Operating Systems. I added a linux firewall to my home network and learned system administration and network security. I learned programming languages and protocols. I put all this down on my resume -- experience is experience. I provided copies of my executable programs when I went on an interview. I joined the local LUG, and as I got to know other members, they pointed me toward job openings, and I was able to use them as references.
    Thirty-three is not too old to change careers. Statistics show that people change careers as many as three times during their lives. If this is your heart's desire, you owe it to yourself to go after this.
  • UNIX Experience (Score:2, Insightful)

    by leadfoot ( 159248 )
    I had not considered a job as a Unix Admin before this one kinda fell into my lap. I've had years of experience using and semi-admin with HP-UX, going back to 1987. This was in the US Army. I've been to HP-UX training, Solaris training and since I've started this Unix Admin job, several Compaq Tru64 classes. Even though I didn't have any "real world" admin experience, I was able to successfully interview for this job. All the technical questions I answered easily. I'm not sure what experience you have and can put on the resume to help get your foot in the door. But sometimes it just takes the right timing and a "what the heck" attitude. Good Luck!
  • as a ISP admin, they were running this kludge of NT and Novell servers. Well needless to say after about 6 months of them crashing every few days the admin was fired and i was told to "fix the servers". I fixed them allright, but not in the way my boss had in mind. He had spent about $15000 in total on all the OS's these servers were running and after i switched them all he was pissed that i did with a $1.98 what he spent so much on. I installed FreeBSD on everything, used cistron radius, apache, squid, named, sendmail/pop3d, MySql, asked for a check to buy a billing program, and bought platypus. The first year we had a uptime of 320 some odd days, and only rebooted the servers to go from 2.0 to 2.2 kernels. The only problem with this was i put myself out of a job. My hours were cut back because their was nothing to do. Now im working on an OS/390 for a diferent company, but i still consult for the ISP.
  • Just do it (Score:5, Informative)

    by tmark ( 230091 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:18PM (#2543657)
    I fell into my job by accident. I don't love it, but it is a paycheck, and my experience might be useful.

    I installed Linux in grad school (Psychology) while fooling with some web stuff. I learned just enough to write Perl scripts, move files around, configure interfaces, build Apache, set up virtual hosts, and configure my MUD client. Really minimal.

    After grad school I took a job as a programmer for a few months where I did no administration. Then I started working for a pissy little young web development company. They needed someone to write Perl CGIs and they wanted someone with an academic pedigree, which I had. After meeting with the owner I bought a book on CGI programming, and learned how to write very minimal CGIs (with Perl). A couple of days later I was working for them, writing all their CGIs.

    At this point they had their own 'administrator', which meant a tech guy they had off-site who could answer their questions. We had to telnet in to a box at the provider to do work. Our company had no "production" or "development" servers; all development work was just stashed under a hidden directory (of course this caused problems when an HTML monkey overwrote files in the wrong directory).

    I quickly realized that I could run Apache in the office, and use my box as the development server. Our company also had this problem where we had only 10 I.P. addresses, and greater than 10 employees (part and full time). You can imagine the chaos this caused for a company working on Web work: people were literally stealing each other's IP addresses if they went to lunch or the bathroom, and other people were perplexed as to why all of a sudden their Net connections weren't working properly..

    So I set up NAT on a Linux box, and the problem was solved. By this point I had *become* the de facto sysadmin, not by design or calculated career path or formal training, but by accident. I knew how to do some things, and I knew how to find out how to do the things I didn't, and I just went ahead and did them. Once you solve a problem or do something that needs to be done you start building credibility. Just make sure you do it right. Once you start doing some things you will be surprised at how many other things people ask you to do, and how many things you find yourself having to learn how to do.

    So my advice to a would-be admin is - anyone can get into the field. Just start doing it. Set up a Linux box at home and host your own domain. Figure out how DNS works. Get a book on CGI and Perl and learn to write some CGIs. Host virtual domains. Set up email accounts and give them to your friends and family, and thereby learn how to administer users and mail and all the headaches that come with it. Design workable backup schemes even if you have nothing worth backing up. All this work *does* count for something, if not full-fledged work experience, it is better than nothing.

    Then find a company that is willing to hire someone who is industrious but maybe not too experienced. Often times these are the tight-wads that don't want to pay for a 'real' administrator, but you're not a real administrator yet, anyways, so that's perfect. Look for companies that haven't yet figured out they need a UNIX-like solution, then go in and provide it for them.

    Or do pro-bono or volunteer work. Just do something.
  • by TomatoMan ( 93630 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:19PM (#2543667) Homepage Journal
    I was a programmer for a site, hired to do a website. They used NT. I hate Windows. I had heard of "Linux". I installed it. It was cool. I got hacked. I cursed. I reinstalled and learned a little more. I got better. I got hacked again. I cursed and reinstalled and learned more. I de-Windows'ed other machines. I learned more. I bought my own server and learned a shitload about security before plugging it in. It's been up for a year and weathered hack attempts every day. I still fear people who know more than me and I try to keep up. Life is good.

    Certification? School of Real Life, baby.
  • Get a job. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mckwant ( 65143 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:20PM (#2543673)
    No, really. I admin six boxes at a state agency, and sort of backed into the position. Coming out of college, I had a BA in International Studies, and (most of) an MA in International Affairs (suffice to say it's a bad idea to seriously annoy the profs on your committee). Upon realizing how valuable THAT was, I got a job installing computers in junkyards, then VB programming, then Web programming.

    Took a job at this state agency as a programmer, then filled a void when it turned out their UNIX skills were crap.

    I do not currently hold any certifications.

    It used to be that you could apply for a job with a fraction of the experience stated as "required." I don't know whether the economic crash has changed this substantially, but it never hurts to apply. The worst that'll happen is that they say no. So tip #1 is: just apply, and see what happens.

    #2) Don't be a snob. Before I started here, this was an NT/Novell shop, which has (slowly) changed into a UNIX/Novell shop. The migration has gone pretty smoothly, but required some handholding along the way. OTOH, you may have to take on some NT admin stuff en route. Once people see that you don't have to reboot *nix boxes daily, you're in pretty good shape.

    #3) Don't ignore your local and state governments. Is it sexy? No. Does it pay well in comparison to other IT positions? No. On the up side, they still have positions to fill, and you may find yourself at the top of a middling crop of non-traditional IT resumes. Being a medium sized fish in a smallish pond has its advantages.

    #4) Use your strengths. One of the big problems in IT is that the people who staff the positions can't communicate. This certianly doesn't apply across the board, but the stereotype fits for the most part. I'd think someone who can write effective emails and describe the situation to PHBs would deliver significant value to an organization.

    #5) Practical experience over "home use." Can you start something where you are? It doesn't have to be big, per se, just functioning. Email/WWW gateway for your students? I know that getting something into production will greatly increase your value over "well, I set SAMBA up at home, and I've got Apache running on my home network." This'll also give you an idea of whether you actually want to do this.

    Good luck.
  • by Poppa_Chubby ( 263725 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:20PM (#2543677)
    Well, I'm from a very similar background as you are. I have a history degree (with minors in CS and chemistry) and have worked as an admin for the past ~6 years. Here's what I've managed to learn and what I've done:

    Take a shot at adminning for a small ISP, they usually can't afford to pay an admin. Be prepared to get paid squat, but you should at the least have very flexible hours.

    Review your job situation very frequently and objectively. Don't get caught deadending or in a rut.

    Don't be afraid to change up jobs after a year. Its hard to do, but it seems like unless the company you work for allows you to advance within, you can only advance by getting out of there.

    A CS degree or EE degree does NOT an admin make. I think out of the group I work with only one has that degree (Actually he has both). The rest of us have our degrees across the spectrum.

    Apply for some of the jobs that you see in the papers/web. Chances are the ads are asking for the moon while hoping they'll get someone with a telescope.

    Just because a company is asking for a CS or EE degree shouldn't scare you off. Alot of times they want someone with any degree. It has to do with the stupid traditions that companies have, but it also shows you can stick something out for 4+ years.

    Honestly, if you have some decent programming skills you should at the least be able to get a job as a programmer. If you find one at a small firm, you'll be the programmer and the admin so your dilemma is solved. Good luck.

  • It's harder now.... (Score:3, Informative)

    by adturner ( 6453 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:22PM (#2543696) Homepage
    My short story is:

    1) Started doing PC desktop support
    2) Company wanted me to help with the Novell servers, so they trained me. Started playing with Linux on my own.
    3) Next job did pc support + novell and learned about IP networking and routers. Did more Linux on my own.
    4) Next job hired as a network engineer (manage the routers, switches, etc) and started helping out on the Unix side of things. By the end of the job (4 years) I knew more about Unix than most of the Unix admins and was basically doing Unix admin 50% of the time.
    5) Current job doing all sorts of Unix and security things.

    Honestly, I got luckly. My 3rd job was a small internet startup which wanted someone who was smart and was willing to train since they didn't want to spend much $$$. Of course this was in the middle of the .com revolution, so finding good people who knew something was really really hard. Now that the bubble has burst, companies know they can find quality tallent and don't have to train people.

    My current company layed off most of it's technical staff a number of months ago, and of my friends with 2 years experiance, none have found anything. (Well, one friend moved to Switzerland and just got a consulting job yesterday.) One of them with just under a year experiance, hasn't even gotten an interview. At least here in the Silicon Valley, things are the shits for people who don't have years of experiance.
  • by sammy baby ( 14909 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:22PM (#2543699) Journal
    ...or at least, used to sell: "It's a tough job, but somebody said I had to do it."
  • Far too old? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by _johnnyc ( 111627 )
    I don' think so. I got my start at 33 working as a contracted sys admin in a small department in a large telecomm company. I had been working with Linux for a couple of years, took one of those sys admin career programs at a sub-par college after I left my dead end job at a bank, and I haven't looked back since.

    Fact is, being 33 is probably a big advantage if you have the skills to go with it. There are many young, talented linux/unix whiz kids out there, I've learned from them, they've learned from me. Often, IT departments are full of these young people who are really smart about technical stuff, but are lacking good communication skills and "bedside manner". Being older and having more epxerience is a huge advantage in these environments.

    Ideally, you enroll in some kind of college level program that gives you a solid background from which to start. The college I went to wasn't much good, they hardly taught Unix, with the emphaisis being entriely Novell and Windows NT. Out of 23 kids, I was the only one interested in Linux and Unix, I spent my spare time studying and learning linux while doing well in the college courses.

    When I finished the course, I spent a hard winter on social assistance and hit the jackpot by the spring - a company had heard about me through a fellow student who applied for a job requiring Unix and NT knowledge and experience. This company had a contract with a small department within Nortel , and they were desperate to fill the position. So while I was pretty desperate, they were even more desperate, and I got the job.

    The position I got was perfect for my skill set at the time. It was varied, required good communication and service skills, and I got to support HP-UX, NT, and Novell servers as well as Windows 95 (ARGGHH). The latter was the hardest part. I wasn't over my head with this position, but I got my feet wet.

    I left that job to go on to a real linux position a year later, and there I learned tons about linux and networking and I never realized how little I knew until then. I worked side by side with a young man who had very little social graces, but knew tons about Unix since he'd been into it since he was 12. We taught each other a great deal in a year.

    Certification can be important, but not essential once you've got the experience. It might be more important in this economic climate. I have university history, a technical diploma from a private college, and that's it.

    It's been a great experience for me. I built a new career for myself by 33, after spending 11 years in a dead end job. You can do the same if you want to get out of teaching. In fact, the fact that you're a teacher will be of great help to you if you get into unix system administration.

    Any way, all the best you!
  • It's not too difficult to be a sysadmin. I came into this world from a degree in Physics & Math. The trick is to know what you're doing (for the most part) ahead of time. Now I'm in a senior positions, and I'm doing the hiring. So here are my easy steps to getting hired as a sysadmin:

    1) Install and run as many different kinds of unix as you can get. DON'T just stick with Linux. When I do interviews and stuff, I get a million kids with Linux experience. Truly motivated sysadmins will also install xBSD and Solaris x86 (it's free -- go get it now). Run them every day. Make them work together over a network(NFS, NIS, etc). And when you apply, write all this experience down! Of course it counts as "real" experience!

    2) Read all kinds of books. Develop your knowledge. You need to demonstrate a depth of understanding, in lieu of experience, when you're at an interview. If you can converse intelligently about the pros and cons of various topics, that's a good sign.

    3) Here's an important one: do _NOT_ try to get a job at a small development shop run on Linux. This place will do very little for your career. You'll learn (guess what?) even more small-scale Linux skills. Woo. Now you're just like the vast majority of the people I interview but don't hire. From a career development point of view, it's far better to get into mid-sized or larger companies. Find places that can -afford- to buy EMC storage, Shark arrays, E6500s or 10ks, Cisco 8500s, giant robotic tape libraries. Find places that have fleets of enterprise servers, multiple remote offices, dedicated frame networks, and whatever other cool stuff you can find. Yeah, you'll be hopelessly lost in most of it, but you'll -learn-. If you're keen and enthusiastic, most places will let you get involved with the good stuff in some way. And if they don't let you watch over their shoulders while they're doing the cool stuff, leave and find another job if you can.

    Sure, the "enterprise" stuff isn't the be-all and end-all of sysadmin. Buuuut having that stuff on your resume opens up a lot of doors, and gives you a lot of room to maneuver with your career. Small-scale shops are run very differently from "real" enterprise shops. That's not to say they're bad, it's just that it's a very small subset of the sysadmin universe, and it's vastly overpopulated right now.
  • The quick story: I lucked into it

    The long story:

    '94 I transferred to the University of Toledo, majored in Computer Science and Engineering. Met a guy in my CS class who was deep into unix. Got accounts on SunOS 4.1.3 servers, learned the zen of reading man pages and weaning myself off of DOS/Windoze.
    '95 Unix loving friend helps me install RedHat on my home PC (he got sick of hearing about my failed attempts with slackware). Got a job in a unix (solaris) lab with the math department as a monitor.

    '96 got a fulltime 2nd shift job to pay for way through school. It was a night operator job. Basically backup the novell box and run printouts and crap like that.

    '97 starting playing with HP/UX at said job.

    '98 realized I knew more about unix than the current admin. Current Admin left for much better job. I took over said admin's job.

    '99 dealt with y2k stress. Installed several linux boxes at job.

    '00 got Sun Ultras in the door to handle new e-commerce project.

    '01 got job with Sun longer an admin, but life is much better. :)
  • Helpdesk (Score:4, Insightful)

    by oneiros27 ( 46144 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:33PM (#2543789) Homepage
    You'd be amazed at how many folks come up from the dregs of their university helpdesk. Unfortunately, as you're already 33, and most have had a job that actually pays well, and you don't have to deal with abusive people, this may not be the best way for you to go.

    For me, and quite a few of the folks that I've seen, they get a part time job during college, supervising the computer labs in some way, then once they're seen as dependable and hard working, they might be given a few extra tasks to do by your manager, or they might just been seen as the person that everyone keeps refering questions to.

    From there, you either use that as a job reference to go someone else, or if you like working for the university, you wait for a good job opening (expanding the department, someone leaving), and work your way up from there. [I did a little of both -- I left for a couple of years, then came back]

    Of all of the folks I've dealt with in the past dozen years or so, I've only seen one person recently make the change over once they were over 30. [Quite a few did so decades ago, but it doesn't seem to be a common thing these days]. Unfortunately, he was a little bit of a black sheep, as he kept making poor decisions which affected other departments, and many of the other system admins wanted nothing to do with him. The person who hired him had also been stripped of all of their hiring abilities. Of course, he didn't try to take the slow route, but went to a certificate course, and then applied for the job.

    I would say that the folks who don't come from an all-computer background tend to make better system/network admins overall. I've worked with some great folks with Psych/History/Art/construction backgrounds, and because they don't think in the conventional CompSci/CompE terms, they can sometimes circumvent many of the problems. There have been quite a few CompSci folks that have made spectacular system admins, but there also tend to be so many of 'em in the field who suck, and bring down their average.

    So, well, where's that leave you? Unfortunately, there aren't many places to go. You say you're a teacher, but not where. If it's in higher education (college, university, whatever), you might be able to teach a class with a computer slant once a year/semester whatever, come up with a reason to put up your own server, so that you can work it all back into fleshing out a resume. For high school/middle school, you might be able to do some of the same stuff with extracurricular activities...maybe be an advisor for a computer club, etc.

    If you're a seasonal teacher (eg, high school, and have 2months off for the summer), or you have enough extra time, you might try moonlighting for an ISP helpdesk, and flesh out your resume from there. Although it might be possible to take some certificate course, and then get some manager to hire you when you have to experience, you'll do better in the long run if you get a good foundation, and build from there.
  • by krow ( 129804 ) <brian AT tangent DOT org> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:35PM (#2543795) Homepage Journal
    After getting mugged for the third time, two by knife and another by gun, and surviving happening in on a gang turf war while trying to make a single delivery, I realized that I bet I could get a safer job where I could wear t-shirts and jeans too. I had been dinking with UNIX boxen up to that point and saw and ad at the local library to administer a small system they had (the thing is while it was UNIX getting a shell on it was impossible).
    I bullshitted the entire interview including my age.
  • I broke into unix administration in college. I was working on a fluid-dynamic simulation code and made the mistake of asking the school's sysadmins to mount/unmount/dump/restore/whatever one time too many. Found myself (reluctantly) with the root password. Then found out that Next machines (this was 1989; NextOS 0.8beta had just been released) ran much faster than 1/4 of the school's 11/780. Soon I had root keys to four NeXT machines running mach, a DECstation 3100, some sort of (then-) screaming fast 386 machine running SVR4,and a sort of klunky Tektronix terminal. The main guidance I got was, "Don't break anything, and whatever you do don't bother us."

    That turned out to be excellent experience, and in graduate school I administered a VAX and a couple of Ultrix workstations just because we needed to do work on 'em and there wasn't any money for a sysadmin.

    My point? Just start administering whatever way you can. The problem-solving and man-page-reading skills are far more important than anything you might put on a resume.

  • Before i was a Unix admin, i was a senior helpdesk tech. I had experience with Linux & Solaris on x86. The director of IT operations was interviewing inside the company for a Unix position and I submitted my resume. I was not the most qualified of applicants, but I was certainly the most professional. Unlike the others I wasn't zealous about UNIX and I acknowledged the fact that NT had its place in our environment. I had the maturity and professionalism lacking in many in the tech field at that time. Much to my surprise, I was given the job. I proved to them that I could do the job by spending almost every waking moment studying and tinkering. 3 years down the road I recognize that I got very lucky, right in the middle of a dot-com rally. However my background has been tremendously rewarding - My stance on Unix & Windows interoperability makes me much more attractive to the employers that I would want to work for, as opposed to someone who would say to hell with standards and throw the Free-and-CoolUnix-Variant-OS-of-the-day on production servers. Now I'm certified as a MCP, SCSA and SCNA. I'm a few tests away from my MCSE. I'm getting paid way under market value though, after getting laid off from my last job and taking a position with a television broadcaster. :( Damn the economy - DAMN IT!
  • You are one sick bastard. Why would anybody voluntarily become a sysadmin? The way it traditionally works, is that your job is something else, but you (foolishly) install or set up something correctly (because no one else around, knows how, and it's something you need to get done in order to do your work) and forever afterwards, you're known as the guy who knows how to do that kind of stuff. Sysadminning is a trap for unwary programmers. It's something you should be running from, not to.

  • ISP (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Gr8wyrm ( 84004 )
    Let me start by saying: I've been Sr. UNIX (mostly Linux) / network admin for a medium sized, still in business dot com for about 2.5 yrs. Couple of hundred servers, about a dozen web sites and all the related hardware. Like alot of others in this field that I know I'm on the 7-10 year college graduation plan and currently have no degree. Diverse and qualified experience were more important, atleast to my employer, than a diploma.

    Now to answer your question, How do I get started?: In my opinion, the best way is through a small/medium sized ISP. Unfortunatly there aren't alot of those around anymore, but its a great way to get started. Since money/resources are usually tight there's alot of creative thinking and solutions. Also, because there usually aren't alot of employees, but still a need to support many services (smtp, pop, imap, nntp, radius, dns, etc...) you'll get alot of exposure to a variety of hardware and software. They'll almost always have a tech support department and without alot of prior experience thats a great way to get your foot in the door. 5-6 years ago, while just beginning to dabble in linux and without any relevant experience to speak of, I sent a resume to a local mom and pop outfit. I got hired as first level tech support in a company of about 15 people. I left three years later as a sys-admin with not only OS (Solaris, Linux, M$) and software specific experience, but also alot of LAN/WAN (Cisco, 3Com, HP, Alteon, Bay, etc...) experience to boot. Lots of learning under fire and if you're looking for a decent paycheck find another alternative, but I can honestly say that there's not a chance in hell I'd have the job I do now without having been there. Just my two bits...

    Suddenly, I realized, everything had gone terribly wrong.
    - Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in LV
  • by zaius ( 147422 ) <> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:48PM (#2543897)
    I became a UNIX admin by hanging out around a bunch of other UNIX admins until they let me have root. Then I started to get rid of them...
  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:50PM (#2543922)
    That sounds like the title of a great poll to me. Imagine the poll:

    How Did You Become a UNIX Administrator?

    o Programming too stressful.
    o Some script I got off IRC.
    o Told to "upgrade the NT servers" (apologies to Shoten!).
    o Read "Tricks of the UNIX Masters" over thirty times.
    o That's GNU/UNIX administrator, thank you very much.
    o Everyone else laid off, also CEO and Janitor.
    o Defeated CowboyNeal in hand-to-hand Nealmatch.
  • another way (Score:3, Interesting)

    by psych031337 ( 449156 ) <psych0 AT wtnet DOT de> on Friday November 09, 2001 @12:59PM (#2543983)
    As clifford Stoll might say: "I got into *ix via a 75 cent accounting glitch."
  • by alen ( 225700 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @01:10PM (#2544056)
    You need to sleep your way to the top. And don't be picky who you sleep with.
  • by Brad_Silva ( 54385 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @01:40PM (#2544307)
    Before you get too far along the road to SysAdmin-hood, ask yourself these questions;

    1) Can I handle high stress? Or, am I willing to trade frequent moments of high stress for moments of huge job satisfaction and the ability to play with tech toys?
    2) Are you someone who likes order to your day? As a SysAdmin, even if you are a highly organized person yourself, your day tends to be very fractured. You are having a good day when you come in the morning with five things you would like to work on, and actually get to work on two of them.
    3) Are you a 8-5 person? The pro here, is that I can come in anywhere from 6am to 10am, and with arrangement with my boss, even later than that, or like today, I'm leaving at three. The con is, I'm on call 24-7, I'm working tomorrow rebuilding the filesystem on a production server and I rarely work a 40 hour week.
    4) Can you handle people getting in your face, being pissed at you, yelling at you, etc. Can you tell a VP, "NO" and make it stick? One problem with being a SysAdmin, is that one day you're a star, the next you're an asshole.

    If you can handle all of that you're probably well suited to being a SysAdmin. Learn how to accumulate browny points with upper management and spend them on pay-raises and trips to LISA and InterOp. Become intimately familiar with the O'Reilly book catalog, because you never know when you'll be told: We need this "insert technology here" next week (next week if you're lucky). Also, not something all SysAdmin's do, but one of my preferences; Make friends of other SysAdmin's, don't worry about calling for advice on situations you've never encountered before, and be willing to accept panic'd calls from friends on how to handle various problems.

    Because, while I've worked in a lot of tech jobs before I became a SysAdmin (I've been one for eight years now), I've never had a job with more job satisfaction and less boredom. But it's not easy.

    Good Luck,
  • by edunbar93 ( 141167 ) on Friday November 09, 2001 @05:03PM (#2545753)
    I did tech support for two years at a small ISP, and after I burned out at that job and found out that programming was really kind of neat, I took up a degree in CS. I spent two years getting my first year done (I didn't take physics or math 12 in high school and I needed both for prereq's, which totally screwed me up) before I found out that while I'm pretty good at Algebra, your algebra needs to be perfect to do Calculus. (ie, I flunked out of Calculus 102) I also found out in the course of this that I would really rather be tinkering with computers than doing mathematics. Unfortunately, mathematics is about half of a CS degree these days (they changed the requirement for physics during the time I was in college. Thank you.)

    So after I dropped out of college, I went larval with FreeBSD and an ADSL connection for about a month or two. It was probably the best education I ever had. After spending three months desperately trying to look for work, a programmer friend of mine went to his boss and said "since we're going to need a new sysadmin Real Soon Now, please hire Ernie. Oh, and if you don't, I'm going to quit."

    By this time, I had actually gained enough knowledge to pass as a sysadmin, and after being in the job for about 9 months (dot com, and this all happened about a year and a half ago) I had learned enough about learning to be able to adapt to anything that was to come my way.

    Now I'm working in another tiny ISP where everyone is doing everything. I get to answer phones, sysadmin, do tech support, and data entry. So does the boss, so we're all working hard to make it happen. It's not a perfect sysadmin job, but it certainly will be as the company grows.

    Oh and by the way, I love this job. It's the closest thing to playing with computers that I've experienced. :)

Never buy from a rich salesman. -- Goldenstern