8 Golden Rules for Sysadmins

Getting the most out of your career can be rewarding.  Today I feel like taking a minute to slow down and reflect on a few of the things that I have observed in my time as a system administrator that I believe lead to success.  The following are some general rules that I have found to be true both in my work and more generally, many of these rules are just attitudes which can be applied to life as well.  Hopefully these come as common sense to you but it is always good to take time to reflect on good things.  I hope this isn’t too cliche or too much of a time waste for many of you but rather an opportunity to take a moment and analyze your current situation and potentially reevaluate anything you feel to be a weak area or area that could use improvement.

1. ) Always have a backup. Good backups are an invaluable asset to you as a system administrator, and can be a great bargaining piece if necessary in political battle.  Often times backups are overlooked by IT staff, so by ensuring you have good backups (you must always test them!) you are covering your own ass and are able to deflect blame if something out of your control occurs.   As a bonus, you look like a hero when the CEO or president of the company needs files from a month ago and have no idea where to turn, you will look like a magician and could potentially strengthen their view of IT.

2.)  Be likable. It can be a sad truth but many promotions hinge on whether or not people like you. You may be far and away the smartest, most technical or most talented person on your team but it is not going to get you very far if you are an asshole, and people don’t like you.  In this profession it is the case more often than not I see colleagues take the “holier than thou” approach which just perpetuates the stereotype that IT people are jerks.  If you can manage to be smart and not an asshole in IT you will go far.

3.)  Learn how to write. This doesn’t mean you have be able to produce enough volume for a novel, just use writing to develop your own voice, and use it as a way to communicate things effectively.  The great thing about writing is, the more you do it, the easier and more impactful it becomes.  Use your writing as an opportunity to help position yourself for success in the future.

4.)  Learn to program. Again, following up on the last point; this doesn’t mean that you need to become a software engineer, this is just the ability to quickly patch some code together to automate something that you are doing every day or having the ability to look at some process and say, “hey, I bet I could write a script to make this work better”.  It will make you more productive and efficient and will free up your time for other important tasks.

5.)  Patience. In this line of work the number one virtue any Sysadmins can have is patience. Being able to be pulled away from your work multiple times a day to help with completely unrelated issues can quickly become frustrating so having patience to deal with these things is incredibly helpful. And if you can deal with distractions well, people will like you more. Reference rule #2 for more on that.

6.)  Never stop learning.  System administration changes considerably quickly, which in my opinion is great, if you embrace it.  New technologies are always are always on the horizon, companies get bought and integrated into other companies all the time and technology strategies change all the time.  It is a never ending game of catch up for the sysadmins, so if you become content with where you are at and don’t keep up on your studies and on your technologies you will surely fall by the way side sooner than later.

7.) Attention to detail.  This one can be a real difference maker.  There is something to be said for tidiness and orderliness in system administration. Not only does it make things much easier to fix when everything is in a specific place, but it just makes you look better and in all reality doesn’t take much time to do things correctly. We all know the reckless admin who pays no attention to the mess they are making, and in turn it reflects poorly on their character.  Even if they are a genius and amazingly talented, it makes that person look sloppy and lazy to me.

8.) Balance your life.  This helps prevent stress and burnout.  Work and everything associated can get stressful at times so finding a balance becomes a great benefit when you learn how to manage it correctly.  Being able to leave work at work when you need to is crucial in keeping your sanity, but that’s not the only thing that’s important in balancing your life.  It is also helpful to find things outside of work that you enjoy doing.  Whether that be a hobby, interests outside of work, exercise, an interest group, vacations, whatever.  When you spend time focusing on the things that make you happy outside of work it will recharge your spirit more quickly and ultimately help keep you happy as well as productive at work.

Did I miss anything?  Have any other helpful tips that you’d like others to know about?  If so, let me know.

Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.