Sysadmin 101: Leveling Up

Systems Architect

Although every organization is a bit different, there are two main career paths senior sysadmins might choose from as they gain experience. The most common path is in management. Senior sysadmins over time end up spending more time mentoring their team and often are promoted to team leads and from there into full managers over their teams. The other path continues on with the "individual-contributor" role where they may or may not act as team leads, but they don't have any direct reports and don't spend time doing employee evaluations or things of that sort. Of course, there also are paths that blend those two extremes. In this last section, I describe one of the last levels for an individual-contributor sysadmin to move to: systems architect.

In many organizations, the line between a systems architect and a senior sysadmin can be blurry. Equally blurry are the qualifications that may make someone a systems architect. That said, generally speaking, systems architects have spent a number of years as senior sysadmins. During the course of their careers, they have participated in a large number of projects, both with a team and independently, and they have started to see what works and what doesn't. It's this accumulation of experience with a wide variety of technologies and project designs that starts to build this inherent sense of best practices that makes someone a systems architect.

The following are some attributes common to systems architects:

  • They are familiar with many different technologies that solve a particular problem along with their pros and cons.

  • When solving a problem, they come up with multiple approaches and can explain and defend their preferred approach.

  • They understand the limitations to a solution and where it will fail as it scales.

  • They can distill a general problem down to individual tasks as part of a larger project that can be divided among a team.

  • They can evaluate new technologies based on their relative merits and not be distracted by hype or popularity.

Systems architects aren't necessarily married to a particular approach, although they may have a set of approaches for tackling certain problems based on what's worked for them in the past. Because they have operated at a senior level for some time, they have developed a deeper understanding of what defines a good architecture versus a bad one and how to choose one technology over the other. Technology moves in trends, and those trends tend to repeat themselves over a long enough timeline. Systems architects have been around long enough that they have seen at least one of those trend cycles for some hyped technology, and they probably have been burned at some point in the past by adopting an immature technology too quickly just because it was popular. Whereas junior administrators are more likely to get caught up in the hype behind a particular new technology and want to use it everywhere, systems architects are more likely to cut through the hype and, for any new technology, be able to identify where it would be useful and where it wouldn't.

Conclusion

I hope this description of levels in systems administration has been helpful as you plan your own career. When it comes to gaining experience, nothing quite beats making your own mistakes and having to recover from them yourself. At the same time, it sure is a lot easier to invite battle-hardened senior sysadmins to beers and learn from their war stories. I hope this series in Sysadmin 101 fundamentals has been helpful for those of you new to the sysadmin trenches, and also I hope it helps save you from having to learn from your own mistakes as you move forward in your career.

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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