Some people have asked me what it takes to break into system administration. When it comes to education, I try to make the point that it only gets you so far — it gets your foot in the door. To gain the skills that are needed to get the job done, you really have to sit down and aquire them yourself. Sure, you can go off to training and get the official scoop, but if that is your primary way of learning skills, you’ve drastically limited yourself.

So, in talking with a co-worker (who is an NT administrator) about this, we agreed that probably the easiest entry-level position to obtain is a help-desk job. Of course, you’ll want to get with a comany that is going to help you out and provide training, but good luck actually getting training — especially since the economy seems to be slowing down a bit.

How did I break into system administration? During college, I worked part time for Dow Jones doing software testing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that part-time job was an invaluble aid to my career development. Everyone looks at prior experience — even if you are fresh out of college. My school was particularly poor in that regard; they didn’t really push internships or other work opportunities. I don’t blame them too much since they were a commuter school, but I’ve met other people who’ve gone their for a degree who were really hurt by this.

Anyway, because of that part-time job, I was able to get a job at Motorola in Austin as the software tester for an internal tools development group. A year later, fed up with the tedium of software testing and with a real desire to move back to New Orleans, I started working at Tulane University as the Unix SysAdmin for the EECS department. Again, there were questions of experience. I was asked what my experience with Solaris was. I was asked some technical questions about compiling software. Because they used Solaris at the school and at Motorola, I had a modicum of experience on the OS. Because I was desperate to move back to New Orleans and get out of Software Testing, I was willing to take the relatively low salary. My boss later told me that I seemed genuinely enthusiastic and this was another point in my favor.

You’ll note that training really didn’t enter the picture. No one asked about Certifications. And, although they did want a college degree, that was just a marker, something to check off and not really a qualifying attribute.

Through the mentorship there (my boss was a professor who studied operating systems and security), I gained a raft of valuble skills that led to much more lucrative jobs later. Without the on the job training I garnered at Tulane, though, none of that would have been possible.

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