Career Perspectives for Computer Administrators
The world of computer administrators is unique and varied. With positions that appeal to everyone from technical introverts to adrenalin junkies, it’s not surprising that more than three quarters of a million of U.S. workers fall into the computer administrator category.
Who Are Computer Administrators?
Computer administrators are not always easily identified by their business cards. Each year the SAGE Salary Survey polls people on a number of demographics, including their titles. More than 2,000 people responded, and their titles contained 400 different words, with “systems” (and its brethren) leading the way. Other popular words included administrator, engineer, network, senior, technical, manager, analyst, IT, UNIX, specialist and support. It’s easy to see that the positions touch a lot of different facets of running a business or other institution.
Computer administrators include those who identify themselves as systems administrators (SysAdmins), database administrators, network administrators and computer security specialists of all sorts. Some employment communities even lump help-desk folks into the computer-administrator rubric.
Demographically, computer administrators tend to be male, though not as much as 10 years ago. They range in age from the youngest employees to the oldest, though 45 percent are under 30 years of age. Some positions are seen as entry level, from which professionals are promoted into other positions. Computer administrators are, by necessity, found in every corner of the computer-using world, as the fact is that computers do not maintain themselves. Even well-behaved systems occasionally need tender loving care.
Often, outsiders lump computer administrators into a sort of mental category associated with interchangeable, low-level menial technicians, but that characterization is wildly inaccurate. Although some more junior administrators don’t share the skill level of their mentors with 30 years in the field, one need look no further than the ruins of the World Trade Center to learn that companies with good computer administrators lost not one bit of data—not even a single real-time stock transaction—even when their main corporate data center was reduced to ashes. Skillfully architected data centers were designed to shift the workload to off-site systems in the event of trouble.
Computer administrators have the distinction of being among the highest-leverage employees in many companies. When the main network or server is unavailable, companies often come to a standstill, losing revenue while idling along at the same spending rate. American Airlines once suggested that a 24-hour outage of their reservations system for any reason would bankrupt the company. Establishments of all sizes utterly depend on computers and the computers’ keepers to keep their organizations running. It is easy to see why computer administration is among the most rewarding of careers and perhaps the highest-leverage position outside of a company’s executive management.
What Do Computer Administrators Actually Do All Day?
The tasks performed by computer administrators vary widely both in scope across administrators and for any given person on a daily basis. Everyone knows that computer administrators somehow make “backups” and install networks, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Many computer administrators on the front lines are “interrupt-driven”—new emergencies and must-do tasks appear with frightful regularity, often at the rate of more than a dozen per hour, every hour, all day, every day. By necessity, these are often short tasks such as resetting a password, starting a workstation reinstall or rebooting a recalcitrant desktop. Server room administrators find tasks that might be more challenging: repairing a Web server that stopped for no apparent reason, maintaining security in light of a threat announced just an hour ago and perhaps studying the specifications of another few terabytes of network-attached storage that must be deployed by the end of the month.
Some administrators work behind the front lines on tasks that take more time (e.g., designing a global system network architecture that won’t lose a transaction when one data center is incinerated).
These folks perform a number of activities:
- They architect technical specifications: How can we centralize our storage so it is reliable, available and secure? How can we keep our global network available all but five minutes per year? How can we spend even less money than we spent last year while doubling the services we provide?
- They create technical policies to keep the organization on track (e.g., all software purchases must be monitored so that licensing compliance can be tracked automatically)
- They monitor legal issues (e.g., keeping track of all the data required to ensure that HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley and the like are all verifiable and auditable in real-time).
- They audit, act, react and plan (e.g., why have our help-desk calls increased 10 percent since we installed the XRibit package?) on how to stay on the curves of ever-increasing storage, ever-increasing connectivity and ever-increasing demands for exploiting the growth.
The key, though, is variety: No two days are ever the same. New requirements, new problems, new products and new emergencies make for a kaleidoscope of actual tasks all lumped into the vision “maintaining our computer systems.” Furthermore, administrators might never have encountered today’s new problem. They require a special meta-skill that differentiates the average admins from the rest. They must be able to figure out the etymology of a new problem and its solution without any specific training on that problem. Imagine a barrage of puzzles being fired at you from all angles all day, even when you’re walking down the hallway, and you’ll get an idea of what an experienced administrator’s life is like.
What Skills Do Computer Administrators Require?
The members of the administrative community are not unified at all as to what skills an administrator might have. They argue about college degrees, programming skills, vendor-specific skills, various technical tools, meta-skills and everything else.
The hope that the employer community might help is a vain one: Employers want admins to have the skills to run that employer’s hardware and software systems today and with no extra training. Thus, job postings for computer administrators typically ask for years and years of experience on hardware and software products X, Y and Z, even if product Z has only been on the market for six months.
When the employer purchases a new piece of hardware or software, it goes on the list. Likewise, when some functionality is phased out, it goes off the list. Because so few sites are identical, this makes for real problems in enumerating skills for administrators.
Different levels of administrators require different depths and breadths of skills. For example, help desk workers who primarily service desktop customers in a university environment end up being very familiar with the pitfalls of Windows, security, privacy and networking. On the other hand, higher-level architects of large networking and storage layouts require intimate knowledge of the interactions at the system level among all the various components of their systems.
It is this knowledge of the big picture that makes these folks so special: The huge number of interactions and their style can be incredibly complex and sometimes quite counterintuitive.
The majority in the middle are the front-line administrators. Some know how to create scripts or programs to automate their tasks. Those who don’t might end up performing certain frequent requests by hand, over and over. Of course, administrators who can repair a broken database just by putting their head next to t