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Dear SysAdmin: A Letter to Your Past Self

Community Manager

Remember what used to keep you up at night but now seems trivial? We promise, no one else noticed your acne back in high school or that time you busted a move on the dance floor. We’re all shaped by life’s countless awkward, funny, difficult, proud, or painful moments and experiences. So, what if you could go back in time and give the past version of yourself some advice?

To celebrate SysAdmin Day this year, we want you to tell us about the start of your SysAdmin career and what advice you would give your past self. What do you wish you knew about your job when you first started? Maybe it’s your most frustrating moment, or your funniest *SysAdmin fail*. Would you have done anything differently if you knew then what you know now? Whatever it is—whatever makes you who you are today—we want to know.

Although it’s impossible to travel through time (yet), reflecting on the past is often the best way to avoid repeating mistakes, grow from our experience, and help others. So, we’d also love to know: what advice would you give future SysAdmins and tech pros after reflecting on your own career?

Tell us by Tuesday, July 16, and we’ll drop 250 THWACK® points into your account.

Level 13

Oh many mistakes over the years.  I would have to say that my most regretful mistake would be complacency.  Not to get too deep here, but I feel that it's not only my mistake, but quite possibly poor leadership/management that is also to blame.  I feel like I've lost years of my career due to this and have often felt as if I should be far more further along than I currently am on my career path.  Thankfully I don't feel like I am in the same situation, but I feel as if the damage has been done and I'm still playing catch up.  I think this also gets into the imposter syndrome subject as well.  It can play tricks on your mind! If I could tell my past self some advise, I would tell myself to stop getting comfortable and allowing apathy and laziness from leadership discourage me from progressing towards my own goals. 

Level 21

Oh so MANY things I wish I'd known before I started managing servers!  In no order, and with no guarantee this approaches a comprehensive list:

  • In a public school environment, ensure every drive and SAN space is locked down with proper AD rights.  I found in short order that high schoolers browsed district servers and setup illegal shares of audio files and videos amongst their peers.  On the bright side, they'd done an exemplary job of file structure organization.  If you wanted illegal downloads of virtually any artist or band, the folders were all there and labelled correctly.  It also made it easier for contributors to simply drag & drop illegal files into the folders.  Ugh.
  • Lock down everything.  EVERYTHING.  Kids will NOT be properly supervised in computer labs, nor are they kept out of teachers' computers, and the most trustworthy students will browse the most repugnant and offensive and alarming contents--sometimes getting it while the teacher is still logged into that computer.  That puts the liability on the employee, and is a career-limiting action.  Kids will discover the most ridiculous and seemingly innocuous scripts, and will set them on timers to run while they're away.  One student thought he found a way (back in NT 4.0 days) of sending a pop-up message to friends computers on the last day of school.  It turns out he didn't understand the scope of the script, and it popped up an unexpected on all 10,000 computers in the school district.
  • Monitor your network with snmp and traps and syslogs, and review them all--OR . . . use a SIEM properly sized for your environment.
  • Take action on people browsing your network without permission (if you haven't made that impossible), and have policies pre-written and shared to users about consequences for things like trying to telnet or ssh into your routers or switches.  Or worse.  Make sure action happens so there are consequences when people try nosing around where their job description or rights does not allow.
  • Patch, patch, patch!   It's not just an exercise, it's preventative.  It's worth doing.
  • Get training for all you do.  It's never been enough to force folks to learn how to do things on their own by using Google.  That method satisfies budgets but rarely results in best practices being implemented.  Nor does it teach folks what all their options are, what NOT to do, and what nested commands have deep ramifications.  Get training, don't work where they don't provide formal training budget.  Anything else is shy of the bull's eye.
  • Not everything works best in VM.  Sometimes apps need dedicated hardware.  That's true less often today than in the 1990's (when I started managing servers), but it DOES remain true.
  • NEW does not equal BETTER.  Stay off band wagons that are here today and vulnerable tomorrow.  That can include the cloud, depending on how you plan to use it, rely on it, and how reliable/highly-available it is for you.  It's not the answer for everything.  It may not be the right answer for anything.  It's certainly more vulnerable to external compromise than an isolated/dedicated internal data center.  Know the risks before you go down that road.
  • Reliability is everything, and implementing connections or technologies or adopting services/programs that are not reliable, that don't scale beyond a POC, and that are not in use in organizations similar in size to yours--these can be big mistakes.
  • HIre enough staff to do the job correctly, or don't do it at all.  (And train them!)
  • Understand that bigger can be better, but it's often slower to change or correct.  If you're in a SOHO environment you can be agile, change directions quickly.  In an organization with thousands of employees and hundreds of thousands of customers, change does not come quickly.  Or easily/affordably/etc.
  • Monitor everything, but especially applications and databases.  You'll get folks who complain their app is slow and many might blame the network when it's actually a slow step in the web interface that needs input from a database query that's taking 30 seconds instead of 3 milliseconds.  If you aren't monitoring every step in the web page build/transactions, then you don't know what's happening.  Having baselines, and alerts for when they're violated or exceeded, is the path to a fast application environment.
Level 12

I've always been a self-starter. I would find and implement solutions by myself. My advice to my past self would be-- just because you can do, does that mean that is the best solution. In my first job for example,  there were two COTS apps that I managed that needed to talk to each other. One system would output a file and the other system would input the file. The file format that was exported was not compatible with the format used for importing the file. So I developed a piece of software that would take the output files, manipulate the format and create new files in the proper format, and put them in a new directory where the other system could pick them up. After I left there the new IT guys couldn't maintain what I built. The business manager over the data didn't blame me for the solution I implemented, or the new IT guys for not being able to read code and maintain my system when changes were needed. Instead he when after the COTS vendors and told them to work together so that my solution wasn't needed at all. That is were I should have started. Instead of covering for the deficiencies of the COTS app I should have worked with the vendors to make their Import/Export process more flexible. 

Level 15

Well it's like this.   Self, take the opportunity to spend more time learning software development.   be better at coding.   Take the Engineering / computer science double major vs teh math minor with engineering.  Do not waste time on marriage #2.   Really, don't.   Adopt the cloud, and virtualization sooner.   Get comfortable with SAP because it will dominate your life at some point.   Adopt SolarWinds sooner as well.   Start in 1999.   Although the path to management finds you, its ok to still be very active in the day to day activities.  It keeps you fresh and relevant.   So not leave the Manufacturing industry for healthcare, its boring and your heart is in Manufacturing.   There will be more Star W@rs movies and although the critics don't like them all, you do.....

remember to learn all you can about linux and do not be afraid to be labeled a Mac person just because you can work on them.   You're Microsoft through and through but you will manage them all so get ready.  

Level 10

Advice to past self (and future self): you don't know everything now, you won't know everything later. You will often learn what you need to know in the moments when you need it. Back in 2015 I started working a job where I was the sole sysadmin, network admin, storage admin, essentially I handled all IT infrastructure. I had excellent networking skills, decent Active Directory skills and competent working knowledge of Linux. In just two months working there, I learned how to do proper PXE booting Windows image deployments, Linux server installations and maintenance (along with getting AirPrint to work over Wifi and upgrade said wifi by moving the Unifi server from Windows to Linux, which works much better btw). My point being that I didn't really know how to do any of that prior to working that job, but I was tasked with it nearly immediately and learned what I needed to know.

If in my interview my boss asked if I was a Linux expert I would have said no. I'd probably still say no, although I greatly prefer using Linux for doing pretty much any real work these days. But I have always been able to demonstrate a passion for learning new things and becoming quickly proficient, and those qualities shine through whenever I interview. I put so much pressure on myself those first few months of that job though and I constantly thought I was "going to be discovered" to be a fraud. Now in 2019, I still deal with imposter syndrome occasionally, but back in 2015, I dove in the deep end and came out discovering that I was a very strong swimmer.

Advice in one sentence: you know more than you realize, take risks, always learn, stay humble, and be confident in yourself!

Level 8

One time I was testing the UPS bypass for a new datacenter, and accidentally shut everything off.  Luckily we only had a few systems going at the time and it didn't affect production.  What I learned from that is to make sure you know how it all works beforehand and double-check everything before taking action.
Level 16

Post graduation I picked up a job as a developer and worked on my very first assignment during which i had to learn a lot of things, I somehow managed to pull it off and successfully completed the assignment assigned to me. All of a sudden my manager just walked up to me and said your next assignment would be on a HP Monitoring Tool -> at that point of time this is how my reaction was ???????????

I didn't know what enterprise monitoring was, neither did i know anything about the tool and my senior who had to help me start off completed the training within few hours and simply said that's it

Back then I had a tough time, went back to basics read as much as i could about Network Infrastructure and then started relating it to the monitoring needs. Over the years made mistakes, recovered from it, learnt a lot from those mistakes, but kept moving 

Level 9

I would have to say that going to the cloud would be what I tell younger myself to do. Moving with tech is a lot easier than trying to play catch up. But it all depends on the powers that be to allow me to move with tech.

Level 10

Dear past me (SysAdmin at Retail Location)

You are doing a great job. Your nights and weekends will not be rewarded, but you will look back and be proud. Here is a short list of items to help you along.

*Leverage business needs with IT needs. Find ways of making a business objective work with IT products. Budgeting is easier if you match IT needs with business needs. Always find ROIs.

*Drive change. Don't get complacent. Never settle for what works. If it works, find ways to make it better, more efficient, and more redundant.

*You can end support calls and escalations. Documentation and environment hardening are your best friends

*It will get better, trial by fire will forge an amazing problem solver. New challenges will not seem like mountains, just hills.

*If a new technology can automate or reduce Full Time Equivalents (FTEs), make a business case for it and get it approved.

*Maintain a positive attitude no matter what. People don't like dealing with angry IT folks. Keep everything upbeat even if you are dying inside.

Moving forward, drive change, stay positive.

Level 15

Relish in the simple joys of the synergy created between people and systems to solve problems and commit to being a lifelong learner

Level 12

Always be willing to learn from others and always start troubleshooting with the basics.

Level 14

Remember all those tiny mistakes you made that you thought were enormous blunders.... you were wrong. You recognized them, learned from them and moved forward in your career. You also never forgot that nobody truly does it on their own, they have help. Whether from a mentor, teammate or someone close to you, they listened, and you did too!

Level 16

I love whenever this comes up.

The one I learned now, that I wish I knew then was:

Always know when to step away, and always know when to push onward. Basically, that feeling when you're on the edge of success but need to take a break, or when you're feeling that you need to stop something but really shouldn't. We may be an intuitive species but sometimes we mistake our own signals.

I've had a number of times where I worked myself to death trying to figure something out and then after I took a brief break I was able to solve the issue. I've had a few times where I should have pursued opportunities that I missed because I didn't push on.

Level 12

Batteries can be removed from rack mounted UPSes. Remove the batteries from the UPS BEFORE you try mounting it into a rack! You'll save knee pains later in life!

Level 13

Dear past self:  you won't know this yet, but you know how it seems like your career is going nowhere at times and other times goes in directions that don't make sense?  With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, the road is much straighter than it seemed while I was travelling down it.  Don't miss out on learning things that seem somewhat out of scope.  When they ask you to learn databases, or programming, or be a midrange admin, or all the other things, dive right in, because down the road that will create opportunities you would never have had had you not had all the variety of experiences you did.  Don't get locked in a room being a one trick pony.  Oh yeah, you'll  have to relearn your job and reinvent your career about every 3 years, so get used to it.  Life long learning buddy.

One more thing - it's all about the people and relationships.  Cling to the good ones, put the bad ones behind you as quickly as possible.  Working with good people is better than making a boatload of money.

Hang on, it's going to be a great ride.

Level 8

You're going to learn Cisco IOS eventually, study it sooner. Buckle down and figure out how scripting works, it's not actually that hard. Your troubleshooting skills will take you everywhere.

Also, don't buy a house in late 2007.

Level 13

In the debate of Degrees vs Certifications it continues to appear as if both matter. Take the time and get the certifications in the technology areas you currently work in. In the years to come, even though your jobs will change and not require them, they are like the magic keys you discover in video game [King's Quest, etc.]. Having them will allow you greater flexibility to open doors. Sure they seem fleeting and technology is always changing, but for reasons you can't comprehend now companies still put them in the job requirements. They never mention thing like "Candidate must have a CCNA - within the last 3 years" they just want to see CCNA. Silly I know. But listen to me, you will in the future want to have more opportunities open to you and the certifications will open those hidden doors. Having a Masters Degree in EE, does get you a better salary from many places, but it fails to open as many portals as the certifications will.

Level 12

Learn about networking, system admins are okay, but networking pays more :-) Don't forget the backups.

If you have a copy of your configs, make sure it's up to date. Oh yeah, use ncm!!!

If you can't see it or hear it, doesn't mean it's not working. Monitor your systems, if you can't monitor all of them, pick the most important.

It's okay to fail, as long as you don't let it happen again!

Level 9

Don't sweat time on call and accept it.  You are going to be on call one way or another the rest of your IT career even when scheduled not to be.

Level 9

My advice to my past System Admin is to get trained! Spend time in reading blogs, watching videos and taking up courses. It definitely helps, you recall/remember what you learned years later when you least expect it. Also, don't just confine yourself to one topic/area. Talk a lot to your colleagues from different teams like DBAs, SAN Admins etc to understand other's perspective.

When it comes to being technically strong, always reach out to tech support without hesitation and ask questions!


Mudassir Syed

Level 21

You've offered an interesting point of view.  Where I work, being a System Administrator (Server admin) pays better than being a Network Analyst.  About $10K to $25K, depending on the position.  It probably depends on industry and location.

Certainly working in bigger cities for bigger companies can result in much bigger compensation.  But some forms of lower pay come with their own better non-salaried compensation, like living and working where your friends and family are, where you grew up, where you have no traffic to contend with, where you can have a lake home or cabin (or both!) for very-affordable costs, and where the air is clean and it doesn't get too hot or too humid or too cold.

On the other hand, some negatives can accompany those jobs that are occasionally in "better" environments.  Mosquitoes, for example.

Level 19

The main thing and most important simple thing I'd tell myself... "YOU DON'T HAVE TO HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS!" - The simple key is just letting the customer know that your concerned about their problem and you're trying to help.  Also this means just telling them with status once in while that "YOU ARE WORKING ON IT!"  I've found, the hard way, that you don't even really need to solve all the problems... but it's so important to make sure the customer knows you are actively involved with working their problem and their problem is important to you.  It sounds so simple but boy can it get in BIG trouble if you don't do this!


Level 13

Second this: never stop learning now matter how busy it gets.

mudassir  wrote:

My advice to my past System Admin is to get trained! Spend time in reading blogs, watching videos and taking up courses. It definitely helps, you recall/remember what you learned years later when you least expect it. Also, don't just confine yourself to one topic/area. Talk a lot to your colleagues from different teams like DBAs, SAN Admins etc to understand other's perspective.