It's now or never for old sysadmins to learn new tricks

Watch out for your jobs, says Trevor Pott


Sysadmin blog In most fields of human endeavour the complete invalidation of a person's formal training and skillset generally takes decades, if not generations.

Within IT the tools, applications, operating systems and cloud services learned at the beginning of a bachelor's degree can already be defunct before that degree is completed.

I believe that the traditional roles of IT administrators are evaporating and I want to explore the options remaining to them.

We happy few

The current round of IT job evaporation rests on the rapid uptake of software-defined "X". This ranges from virtualisation to clouds to software-defined storage, networking, even entire data centres.

These tools make it easy for a handful of half-way competent generalists to accomplish what once required teams of specialists.

Terrified of being demonised, vendors of software and services have collectively invested ten of millions of dollars in the past few years to convince us that our jobs are not going to disappear.

Enterprise administrators working for companies that stay as far from the bleeding edge as possible loudly agree with them. These people feel their jobs are secure and that it must be true of everyone else.

The word "bloodbath" has been used more than once

Sysadmins who work for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) tell me a different tale. The word "bloodbath" has been used more than once; the past few years have seen our numbers dwindle.

Jobs are winking out like lights at dawn and we nervously chatter on social media about the best path forward. Wage erosion and position evaporation starts with us SME admins, but the decimation will spread upmarket soon enough. What can we do?

The tough get going

The concept of quitting while you're ahead needs a thorough look. For some, moving beyond their area of expertise and experience would be the equivalent of starting from scratch.

Those who chose to specialise in an area of IT that is being rapidly commoditised face massive competition as that niche collapses.

This competition will create a downward wage pressure that will ultimately drop the salary people are willing to pay. That once-cushy job may well drop below the red line where you can't live on that wage any more without some very dramatic changes in housing or other lifestyle elements.

Reskilling is not for everyone. As much as some would have you believe you can simply wander on over to Trainsignal, take a few courses and be off on a new career, it doesn't work like that for everyone.

Many people are too stuck in their old ways, their prejudices and biases too ingrained to be reprogrammed for the new order. For these folks exiting IT altogether may well be the best plan.

The perfect blend

The CIO’s job and the administrator’s are slowly merging. The usefulness of the MBA-trained CIO is at an end. In today's world IT managers – indeed managers in general – can function only if they understand both technology and business. The two are intertwined and inseparable but only a few individuals are capable of bridging the gap.

The skillset listed above would once have described a well-paid CIO, but there is a war on CIOs. Everyone seems to want to eliminate the job title.

In truth the role is evolving. The CIO has moved beyond being an individual providing oversight of technological operations within a company.

I call the modern CIO replacements "cloudherders." They find the best mix of in-house and hosted technologies and balance them against business needs.

In a smaller business this may mean managing the odd system directly; in larger companies cloudherders evolve almost exclusively into "vendor relations specialists", rather than coalface admins.

The duty of this New World CIO has nothing to do with infrastructure and everything to do with managing the flow of data from a strategic level.

Plumbing the depths

Doubling down on a specialisation is a route that enterprise administrators recommend. I call it gambling. There is a lot of noise from which to extract signals and make out what is reality and what is wishful thinking.

Without question the über-specialists have the possibility of making far more money at their craft than the rest of us. The upper limit on a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) is sky-high but the median salaries are still generally below $125K. In no way do you need CCIE-level certs to make $125K in IT. The gap is narrowing on the benefits provided by these certs.

If you have a natural talent for (or a lifetime's experience in) a given specialisation then delving even deeper into it might well be a good call. Similarly, if you are confident of either your connections or your charisma you might make out like a bandit.

Outside of those possibilities, I can't wholeheartedly recommend certifications simply because that is what everyone else is recommending. It takes about $20K to pursue a CCIE-level certification with no guarantee that by the time you are done you will be making much more than you are now.

This is where the gambling side of the equation comes in. Pursuing deep certs without some natural wellspring of charisma to back you up is all about picking the cert path that will both be in demand and not flooded with others seeking the same riches and glory. So $20K to end up little better off than you are now seems pretty steep.

Broader topics


Other stories you might like

  • Running Windows 10? Microsoft is preparing to fire up the update engines

    Winter Windows Is Coming

    It's coming. Microsoft is preparing to start shoveling the latest version of Windows 10 down the throats of refuseniks still clinging to older incarnations.

    The Windows Update team gave the heads-up through its Twitter orifice last week. Windows 10 2004 was already on its last gasp, have had support terminated in December. 20H2, on the other hand, should be good to go until May this year.

    Continue reading
  • Throw away your Ethernet cables* because MediaTek says Wi-Fi 7 will replace them

    *Don't do this

    MediaTek claims to have given the world's first live demo of Wi-Fi 7, and said that the upcoming wireless technology will be able to challenge wired Ethernet for high-bandwidth applications, once available.

    The fabless Taiwanese chip firm said it is currently showcasing two Wi-Fi 7 demos to key customers and industry collaborators, in order to demonstrate the technology's super-fast speeds and low latency transmission.

    Based on the IEEE 802.11be standard, the draft version of which was published last year, Wi-Fi 7 is expected to provide speeds several times faster than Wi-Fi 6 kit, offering connections of at least 30Gbps and possibly up to 40Gbps.

    Continue reading
  • Windows box won't boot? SystemRescue 9 may help

    An ISO image you can burn or drop onto a USB key

    The latest version of an old friend of the jobbing support bod has delivered a new kernel to help with fixing Microsoft's finest.

    It used to be called the System Rescue CD, but who uses CDs any more? Enter SystemRescue, an ISO image that you can burn, or just drop onto your Ventoy USB key, and which may help you to fix a borked Windows box. Or a borked Linux box, come to that.

    SystemRescue 9 includes Linux kernel 5.15 and a minimal Xfce 4.16 desktop (which isn't loaded by default). There is a modest selection of GUI tools: Firefox, VNC and RDP clients and servers, and various connectivity tools – SSH, FTP, IRC. There's also some security-related stuff such as Yubikey setup, KeePass, token management, and so on. The main course is a bunch of the usual Linux tools for partitioning, formatting, copying, and imaging disks. You can check SMART status, mount LVM volumes, rsync files, and other handy stuff.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022