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

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 …

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Good article.

What you mentioned about certifications struck a chord with me. I'm currently doing a CCNA but i'm wondering how far to go after i've completed that. (I.E CCNP/IE etc).

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Ceb

CCNP has a substantial increase in value as an opportunity to enter mid-level contracts inaccessible to those who only have Associate level Cisco certs. Most of the time when you see a CCIE headline on a job offer it'll say in the details that they prefer a CCIE but will take a CCNP with experience.

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The CCNP builds on what you did at CCNA and really gets you prepped up for networks (except multicast/mpls). The jump to CCIE is huge though and really requires in depth knowledge of the protocols and loads of lab time. However if you get it then it makes it much easier to find work

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Thanks for your thoughts guys.

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Good assessment

Your observations match my experience. Fewer sysadmin jobs around and middleware type crafting required instead. Time to exit for us oldtimers mostly, which is exactly what my older associates are doing. Many have no choice as age discrimination labelled as efficiency measures/cost cutting means jobs are vanishing whether essential or not. After all, customers are not important.

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Although I agree with the main point of this article, there are many environments, particularly in the public sector, where traditional IT methods are still carried out and are very much stil lthe norm. It *will* only be a matter of time before these get absorbed too, but the pace of change in these places is much slower. The MoD in particular is still very anti-Cloud/SaaS/anything offsite for many of its networks and facilities, and until Cloud service providers start to take the security and integrity of such systems seriously it's likely to remain so.

But I entirely agree with the main thrust of the article - change or die.

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Anonymous Coward

"But I entirely agree with the main thrust of the article - change or die"

Always thought of IT as one of the most Darwinian professions :-)

(Unlike, say, politics, where the dinosaurs still roam - "hello is Mr Dennis Skinner there? It's the 21st Century calling?")

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Anonymous Coward

@tim_lovegrove " It *will* only be a matter of time before these get absorbed too"

In the public sector I'm not entirely sure this is true, at least not as much as elsewhere. Particularly, education and county councils etc.

The public sector, more than anywhere else, has a number of factors that tend to prevent these kind of changes.

- Greater requirement to prove they are adhering to data protection standards etc. Which in a lot of cases means keeping data and services in house.

- Greater need to be able to, in the event of failure/data loss etc, be able to investigate and explain the cause of the problem. Rather than just point the finger at a supplier and shout and stamp their feet. Sure external agencies can perform such investigations, but they are less likely to actually care about getting answers. When your cloud based solution hosted by MS, Amazon etc breaks or is unavailable I'd like to see you get a better answer from MS, Amazon etc than "there's a service outage and we're working on it".

- Finally, and probably most crucially, public sector has a greater tendency to promote from within when it comes to management jobs. Which means that when the current CIO/IT Director, who is fond of the old ways and keeping things in house, retires or otherwise leaves he will likely be replaced by a subordinate or a lower paid peer from a similar organisation who will be of the same/similar generation and mindset.

Of course there will be some change in public sector. It's unavoidable, but I think it's quite likely the rate of change will be practically glacial in comparison to other areas.

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>hello is Mr Dennis Skinner there? It's the 21st Century calling?")

Yes a politician that believes in something beyond racking up expenses, lining their pockets, getting re-elected and screwing over anyone that gets in their way is so 19th century.

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Anonymous Coward

"hello is Mr Dennis Skinner there? It's the 21st Century calling?"

"hello is Mr Dennis Skinner there? It's the 21st Century calling?"

Yeah, a politician on the national average wage and no more, no expenses fiddles, who votes with his constituency and his conscience not with the whips, and most of all one without a PPE degree and a network of unpaid "researchers". Very un21st century isn't it.

Well actually quite a few people outside the Westminster/City reality distortion field might prefer to have more like Skinner and fewer like the indistinguishable Cleggeron/Milibandelsons that are currently ruining the country.

http://www.theyworkforyou.com/mp/dennis_skinner/bolsover

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Happy

AC@11:29

(Unlike, say, politics, where the dinosaurs still roam - "hello is Mr Dennis Skinner there? It's the 21st Century calling?")

But there's still no bite like a bite from an old beast.

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Unhappy

There will always be a place for someone dealing with/explaining to end users. Which is a shame because I never liked dealing with end users :(

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Not eveyone can code

Hell, a lot of coders can't code! :)

Despite all the automaton, automation can and often does still fail and software is often badly written.

In the end, where the "rubber meets the road" is still the providence of a live person fixing the problem. Someone still has to load, configure and troubleshoot the automation. Most coders I've met don't really understand the hardware or system quirks they are writing the software for so still need someone who is more of generalist. Those would be sysadmins.

Nonetheless, the author is correct and the move to sysadmin automation is moving ahead.

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Re: Not eveyone can code

in a lot of cases automation can contribute towards badly written code. It does so much for you, people who barely know what they are doing can be let loose on the systems and you'd be amazed at what sort of damage they can do.

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Coat

Re: Not eveyone can code

Like turning off all your ATM's?

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Anonymous Coward

I would agree with your comments about a CIO having technical experience is important in a small to medium company, however my experience with large companies (FTSE100 size of large) is that a CIO form the business, with appropriate advisers from an internal consultancy team is a very valuable thing. It's two different ways of cracking the same egg, in the small to medium case, you don't have enough resource in the company to have technical advisers for the CIO, so a technical CIO who understands the business is a good thing. However, in a larger company where you have resource to advise the CIO, having a CIO from the business who really understands the different requirements is also very useful.

The key is that either CIO has to have a very good level of understanding of one of the two key skills and an ability to learn from others around him about the one that less is known about.

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Big Brother

Very true and applies to database administrators as well.

The ideas are very true and apply to database administrators. I chose to retire because the cuts were happening without the proper software to automate the monitoring and updates. Also Oracle was directly telling upper management that their software would do all the work of a dba. May I suggest a slight difference in attitude between us. The article seems to imply that the cause is the financial cuts from the customers but there should also be the technical person automating there own job out of existence. If similar work has been done multiple times then automate as much as possible and move on to larger problems. But what are those larger problems? Perhaps much better failover / backup / recovery or quicker security patching, or better testing / auditing to insure high quality software infrastructure?

A real problem is the market place seems to change quicker with Apple and Microsoft causing massive changes in the OS and interface in a relatively short period of time, it becomes difficult to set out a new path of what software product to learn.

There will always be a need for someone to install the NSA secret monitoring software.

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Re: Very true and applies to database administrators as well.

Or not :)

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/08/09/snowden_nsa_to_sack_90_per_cent_sysadmins_keith_alexander/

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Re: Very true and applies to database administrators as well.

"But what are those larger problems?"

Security.

Good article.

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An interesting article. Truly successful IT staff have in-depth knowledge and experience across multiple disciplines and architectures. Pidgeon holing ones self to a single effort such as networking, databases, etc, is a sure way to limit career opportunities and employment longevitiy. No matter what the career, failure to adapt to changing needs will soon have you being shown the door. In my personal experience, those who remain hungry to learn and put in the personal effort to do so will thrive. Those who don't, won't.

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And yet, for the past 15 years those who've made the most money in IT are the hyper-specialists. That's changing, slowly.

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> And yet, for the past 15 years those who've made the most money in IT are the hyper-specialists. That's changing, slowly.

Those that make the hyper-money are usually the ones that are shown the door first when harder times arrive.

Question is: do you want a secure future making a reasonable income by being flexible, generally knowledgeable and willing to learn, or make a short term, possibly tenuous killing while realising that you make yourself a target when your employer discovers a way of doing without your expense? High fliers' astronomical wages are tolerated because they bring a much needed skill which comes at a price. However, it's difficult to drop someone's salary when they become less useful. It's easier to just show them the door.

In my experience, in software dev, the ones that last are the ones with a good overall and fundamental understanding of computing issues and can turn their hand effectively to a number of different disciplines.

This usually comes from a good educational grounding which covers the eternal fundamentals in our field. When the shit hits the fan, then these guys are often the last guys standing due to their flexibility and that they know how everything works having been around a long time.

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I'm a contractor. Crazy stupid money, please.

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I'm a contractor. Crazy stupid money, please.

I've heard Cow-gary (Oil-gary? Harper-gary?) is the place to be for that. Certainly not Vancouver.

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Have to agree

Trevor makes some great points and I do agree with almost all of them. Many companies are going down the route of either outsourcing the function, or relying on cloud based systems. Their arguments are that it is cheaper, they don't need the technical staff etc etc.

But the place where I am working is a classic example of how badly it can go wrong. The IT is a shambles; no-one is managing it or taking responsibility for anything. Service delivery is abysmal; basics such as getting DNS actually working seem to be beyond their capacity. Even thought they are obsessed with paperwork, there doesn't seem to be any managment control; as a result, they regularly buy hardware that's expensive, unsuitable and often sits around unused for lengthy periods of time.

What's worse, the "strategy" is being set by people with only the most minimal of understanding of IT; and they are screwing up so badly, I cannot believe that it won't be long before the whole thing just dies and they go belly up.

I had thought about starting my own MSP for small businesses; I'm damn sure that I could provide a significantly better service to SMEs than what I've see in a number of places. But I'm starting to think that maybe I should just call it a day; get a job stacking shelves for the next 5 / 6 years to keep me active, then claim early retirement and live out my life wandering around in a drunken stupor somewhere warm.

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Re: Have to agree

Totally agree. Avoiding the cloud is the best way to maintain job security. If you're just another cog in the machine you're easily replaceable. Furthermore who can trust what they can't see or touch?

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PJI

Re: Have to agree - cloud

Re cloud, trust etc.. To anyone with half a brain who reads newspapers, listens to news and so on, it must be clear that the "cloud", being simply a marketing term for a distributed network of servers and software for remotely stored data and, possibly, applications, is a major security hole. Add to this that the most widely known and used "clouds" are in American (USA) hands, using servers on USA territory, so subject to USA laws requiring full access. So, just who would even dream of using such a service for anything other than the most trivial data or work? Any firm, or even any individual with interests in anything outside stamp collecting, would be criminally ignorant and carelss to expose their data to such a system.

The danger of mainly automated system administration, basically in the hands of a part-time IT/most of the time business manager, is that they will be unaware of what is where and their dependance and vulnerability.

So, we can not and should not waste time fighting it. We need to devise automation that is not synonymous with obscurity and loss of responsibility and either think again about "clouds" or, as I believe the EU is considering, make sure that there are good, secure, non-USA clouds, secure business clouds, private user clouds, encrypted clouds and so forth.

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This may not be relevant,

but we're still waiting for our "infrastructure team" to take the guy who quit two weeks ago out of our development team e-mail address list. When we send messages, we get an error reply back because his account has been deleted.

So maybe they -can't- take him off the list, now. Ohdear.

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Re: This may not be relevant,

"but we're still waiting for our "infrastructure team" to take the guy who quit two weeks ago out of our development team e-mail address list."

Maybe they've got more important things to do first?

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Re: This may not be relevant,

@AC

Perhaps I'm failing to catch some sarcasm in your post, but if you think that the effective updating of internal systems to remove staff who have left the company from internal distribution lists isn't a problem, you're not thinking correctly. Most of the time, updating someone's mailing list memberships is done at the same time as administering their permissions. So if they haven't done that, there's reason to worry that said person's account is still active with the same access as when they were still employed... which is a fairly bad process failure.

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Re: This may not be relevant,

@Captain Underpants

Apparently you didn't read the part where he says they get bouncebacks because the account doesn't exist.

But you keep imagining your imaginary problems, and I'll keep thinking his infrastructure team might have more important things to prioritise than email distribution groups. Deal?

Great.

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Re: This may not be relevant,

If the process says it's the infrastructure team who deals with this stuff, the process is wrong. Doesn't mean them failing to adhere to the process helps anything, that just means everyone's working in an ad-hoc fashion. And, you know, that'll only ever have awesome results...

Tl,dr: there's scope for everyone to have a scoop of the blame cake here.

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Retire

If you are old enough and have a good pension plan then the best route may be to retire.

System admin jobs are going the same way as most coding jobs did - either automated or outsourced to cheap countries. The only support jobs likely to continue for a while are the junior IT support - swapping keyboards and mice - swapping PCs - replacing toner and paper etc but these jobs pay peanuts. For most companies under 1000 employees, there is no business reason to have their own system administration team if they can get their administration done by an outside group for less. Using the internet, most system administration can be done just as easily from 5000 miles away as from 50 feet away.

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Re: Retire

Are you kidding? 1000 employees and nobody on site? Or one person from the read of your post? Impossible my friend.

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Re: Retire

An "automated" system admin? I'd like to see that... Me thinks you don't know what a real Sysadmin is.

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Re: Retire

More accurately put, automation means that a system admin can administer a much larger, more complicate network with many more servers.

The company still needs an admin.

But they no longer need *two* admins. Someone is now surplus to requirements.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Retire

Did you notice this link?

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/08/09/snowden_nsa_to_sack_90_per_cent_sysadmins

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Re: Retire

@Duncan

I've seen a fair bit of how well that works from a friend working in a school that decided to go down that route. Now, instead of their "expensive" on-site sysadmins (2 guys, from memory) they have a helpdesk number for a helpdesk based in Norway (I think), with something like a four-hour response time. As opposed to the "how long it takes to get to the classroom from the IT office" response time when they had proper on-site support.

Don't get me wrong, there's scope to do outsourcing of that sort properly, but it's not at all cheap to do properly.

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Coat

The problem with specialization

Part of the issue is that with specialization, ones focus can become too narrow.

If you happen to be the guy/gal who is specialized too narrowly, its possible to have the specialization override your view of business process. This immediately makes you less valuable.

25+ years into the business I realize that my utility to my customer(s) comes from a very broad range of knowledge and the ability to understand the business processes that these customers (use/need/rely on). I'm far from afraid of adding to my pool of knowledge, indeed, quite happy with learning more.

Automation, be it puppet, cfengine, chef, or some proprietary tool(s) from a large commercial vendor are absolute requirements. And being willing to dig deep and hard into *small* issues to resolve them before they become large ones (and recognizing which small issues will blow up) is a skill that one needs to hone as well.

As with all tools, however, your automation can and will break. If you don't have the patience or skills to tear it apart and find out WHY it broke, you are in very very deep trouble. Usually your automation has allowed your task pool to expand far beyond your ability to fix things *manually* by the time it breaks.

A broad general skill set and a very healthy understanding of the business processes your customers use and need, and strong automation skills. This is what will keep you employed in my view.

But then I could just be a cranky old fart with no patience left.

I am currently on vacation ---- I think I need another drink.

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Re: The problem with specialization

Don't see why people need these automation tools. (If you understand the OS properly you should be able to code what you need). Using someone else's tool makes it harder than just writing something from scratch in a suitable language. (Lisp or ocaml even perl). Powershell if it is Windows. (If you are a big enough company have someone who can make everything work with Powershell).

Automation is ok if you understand everything that the tools are doing. (Pretty easy with stuff like Solaris Jumpstart very difficult if it is some Windows tool that does everything using COM objects).

I have not done that much with it recently I did Jumpstart stuff for thousands of servers. (And worked under a really decent contractor who used Smartstart and could do anything anyone could want with it in the time before anything was easy).

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Re: The problem with specialization

Weber's Definition: An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.

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What he said

I've taken a slightly different approach. Being of the tender* age of 30^H^H31, I'm in a position where my house is being sold, I've become a single man, so I've taken a look at the national occupation shortage register, and decided on a completely different path.

Sure, I could become a developer, or a website bloke - and to be honest I already run a small MSP and have a few tech support customers. But I'm just not feeling good about IT any more. Perhaps a career in social work, where I get to deal with actual people, may be more engaging...

Four years at college/uni doing a people-related qualification (for free, cause there's a skills shortage in this field) and I can then go into teaching, assistant/deputy/headteacher, or do social work for £30 an hour (as a friend has just done).

Interesting times ahead!

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Re: What he said

Aha! So you've just become single and you're looking to spend four years at university. I can certainly see where you're coming from there.

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Re: What he said

Ha! Got the T-shirt...

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Re: What he said

"can then go into teaching"

Be warned - teachers are severely overworked. Not only can you expect to work the normal eight hour day, but another few hours a day on top of that at some, plus a sizeable chunk of your weekends, just to keep up with the work piled on you.

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Anonymous Coward

Teacher shortage

I'm nearly twice your age. A few years ago, when I had 10 years left to "classic" retirement age, I responded to one of the ads offering a route into teaching for those with IT experience. The ad specified a first degree with >50% IT content.

I have an Elec Eng degree from Imperial, '73 - '76. I focussed on the computing and "light" electrical (as it was known then) components of the course. I got an "A" in the 2nd year optional computing course. My final year project (25% of the degree) was programming a PDP11 vector graphics device. I also got an "A" in 3rd-year digital circuit design. Apart from the first 11 months post-grad, my entire career has been in IT hardware and software. Including hardware and software in the high-energy physics group at Imperial.

However, this wasn't good enough for the bureaucratic numpty I spoke to. 40-odd percent 1st-degree being IT-related ddn't reach the bar. No discussion. No allowance for the nature of "IT" in degrees being very different back then.

Oh well, not my loss......

I wouldn't recommend social care, not children and families anyway. When it all goes mammaries-vertical, your chances of being selected as the scapegoat will be very high. Foster Care is a worthwhile option, but carries equally high risks - though they are more manageable if you have your head screwed on right.

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Ceb

I've been involved in contracts since I left the military and recently added technical instruction to my repertoire. I've found that being in the business of instruction keeps me from getting pegged into a specialist's role and eventually eliminated from the market. When new technologies come down the pipe I have word they're coming and time to prepare. As well, being an instructor relies on charisma as much as expertise, so I found myself nodding along to what I saw in most of this article.

As stated in the article though staying in isn't for everyone. In this industry you're constantly learning new information. While it's certainly true that older technologies drop off the plate eventually, you certainly pile it on a lot faster than it falls off.

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Anonymous Coward

What a load of nonsense, another trolling article on a friday to keep the reg site ticking over over the weekend.

If only it were as simple that a dev could write an app and plonk it down on a cloud service and scale to thousands of users but back in reality this takes people with skills to work out the kinks and keep running. They are slightly different skills than before but in IT which job can you do that doesn't require constant learning?

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Agreed

There are still plenty running NT4, 2000, 2003 & other classic servers in their domains who dont give a shit about the modern crap because its expensive, all fucked up & weve got to change this because it wont run with... (substitute expensive program of choice). They just want something that works and people who know how to run & fix it.

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