Sysadmin 101: Leveling Up

Mid-Level Systems Administrator

It can be difficult to draw the exact line where a sysadmin levels up past the junior level. There isn't an exact number of years' experience needed; instead, it has more to do with sysadmins' competency with their craft and their overall confidence and independence. Here are a few attributes that are common to mid-level sysadmins:

  • They generally perform day-to-day tasks independently.

  • They understand some of the technology behind their routine tasks and don't just parrot commands they see in documentation.

  • It takes a few weeks up to a month to be productive at a new job.

  • Their time is pretty equally balanced between daily tickets and longer-term projects.

  • They are able to come up with new approaches and improvements to existing tasks.

  • They can complete simple projects independently and more complex projects with some help from more senior team members.

The main difference between junior sysadmins and mid-level sysadmins has to do with their independence. As sysadmins become more comfortable with servers in general, and the processes within an organization specifically, they start to be able to perform typical tasks by themselves. Mid-level sysadmins should be able to handle all of the normal tasks that are thrown at them without outside help. It's only when they get an odd "curve ball", such as a one-off task that hasn't been done before or some unique emergency, that mid-level sysadmins may need to reach out to the more senior members of the team for some guidance. As with junior sysadmins, this type of help is very important, and it would be a mistake for mid-level sysadmins not to ask for help with odd requests just to try to be "more senior". Asking questions and getting advice from more experienced sysadmins will help them level up. If they try to go it completely alone, no matter what, it will take much longer.

Mid-level sysadmins also take on more projects than their junior counterparts, and they are able to complete simple projects independently. Junior sysadmins might be able to maintain an existing system, but mid-level sysadmins actually might be able to set it up from scratch. They also can start tackling larger, more complicated projects that may require them to learn new technologies and come up with some approaches independently, although in those cases, they'll still sometimes need to reach out to more experienced team members to make sure they are on the right track.

As sysadmins master all of the day-to-day tasks, they also naturally will start to come up with improvements and efficiencies for those tasks, and they may make some suggestions to the team along those lines. These improvements may become projects for them in their own right. They also should be able to provide some level of mentorship and training for junior members on the team, at least with daily tasks.

One of the most important things for mid-level sysadmins to do if they want to level up is to take on projects and help triage emergencies. Projects and emergencies often provide opportunities to think outside established playbooks. It's this kind of critical thinking, research and problem-solving that builds the experience that's so important for sysadmins. They will start to notice some common patterns the more emergencies and projects they work through, and that realization builds a certain level of confidence and deeper understanding that is vital for moving to the next level.

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Kyle Rankin is SVP of Security and Infrastructure at Zero, the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin