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Making It in IT: What Makes a Good SysAdmin?

Ed Tittel
Ed Tittel


I always read the articles on Tom's IT Pro about what certifications are needed for validation of various IT skills and job roles. Even so, I don't feel that "certification makes the man," to alter the time-worn phrase. Instead, I think it's the mindset that makes the man. Basically, what I'm getting at might be best restated in the form of a question: Could you please explain what makes a good system administrator? Please address the kinds of skills and knowledge an administrator should have, how he leads and interacts with others, and so forth and so on.

I'm hoping you know what I mean by this question, and its follow-up elements. I'm sure it would help a lot of people whom are struggling to be good system administrators. I know from my own experience that many of them think that getting certifications makes them good, and may even be enough to make them great. However, I know it takes many different things to make a person great. I hope you can address these broader concerns in your reply.

I hope to hear from you soon,



Dear Trevor,

Thanks for your recent email. You raise an interesting question, which requires a much longer answer than the question itself. I believe that there are three areas that a system administrator must cover well to be good at their job, including technical, interpersonal and management/procedural components, all of which are equally essential to success in that role. Here's more information in each of those area.


Perhaps most obviously, a good system administrator must understand the systems he or she administrates at a significant level of detail. This not only means understanding the operating systems, applications and services involved – often best accomplished by earning relevant IT certifications such as MCSE, RHCE and so forth for the platform, and administrator-level credentials for the databases, servers (web, email and so forth) that run on them. Also, a strong working knowledge of networking, virtualization and cloud technologies is becoming a critical skill set/knowledge base for sysadmins to master, simply because that's where their world is going, if it isn't there already.


It's easy to forget that the ultimate goal of systems administration is to make systems, applications and services available to people who use them to get their jobs done. A good systems administrator must be able to communicate and get along well with others, and understand the basic principles and practices of proactive customer service (and even services delivery, as I'll dig into a bit more in the next major heading that follows). People skills are an essential element of systems and network administration, and include communication up the hierarchy into local management, and even up into executive levels, when such interactions are needed or requested. Does this mean all system admins need an MBA or the Project Management Professional under their belts? Not really, but neither of those things would hurt, and might lead to improved career development opportunities.

Management and procedural components

There's an emerging discipline of information services design, delivery and lifecycle management – perhaps best represented by formal structures like ITIL or COBIT that also include a serious governance component – that helps make IT a game-changing ingredient in any organization's efforts to realize its mission and/or financial objectives. It also helps to implement the notion of continuous improvement that lets companies and organizations move from success to success in an environment where tools, technologies and business models change all the time. I think the ITIL fundamentals should be required for all IT workers, especially system administrators, because it helps put their jobs into perspective within the overall mission for and operation of information technology within a company or organization. A good sysadmin must understand the management and procedural components that play such an important role in the successful operations of a business.

I hope that answers your question and gives you some topics to chew on. As always, if you'd like to follow up with additional questions, or voice some concerns about what I've said, I'd be happy to address them for you. Nice to know that, despite your recent career advancements and successes, you're still thinking about what to do (and learn) next. If you can keep that mindset, your IT career will continue to bloom and grow.

Best wishes,

– Ed

Image Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock
Ed Tittel
Ed Tittel
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Ed is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.