Staying a SysAdmin Might Mean Changing Employers (and Your Paradigm)

Posted by Wesley David in IT Professional, SysAdmin on 21-06-2010

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In my last article, I discussed how the SysAdmin may become a SysBroker (or SysSherpa depending on your preferred semantics) that acts as a guide or liaison between the wants and needs of a business and the offerings of “$n as a Service” providers.

Some reports portend that the traditional roll of a SysAdmin will be changing drastically within businesses. No longer will they primarily procure servers, rack them, manage OSs, deploy patches and generally act as steward of the mundane “keep-the-lights-on” chores.

Concerning the traditional internal SysAdmin role, it is expected to exist in smaller numbers within a company, but in greater numbers withinin service providers.

Think about it for a moment, if an internal SysAdmin is merely spinning up server instances in a cloud or migrating a company’s ERP or project management system to a service provider, he no longer has to worry about the gritty details of high availability servers, application patches and database I/O. He merely negotiates a SLA that has the availability and performance he needs.

The internal SysAdmin now only worries about patching the applications on his side of the cloud that interface with the provider’s API, keeping the network up and responsive and other somewhat less intensive tasks. While those remaining internal tasks are certainly important things to keep up on, they’re not in the same category of premature-gray-hair-producing-tasks that the former were.

Does this not strike you as somewhat disconcerting? Are you thinking that much of your IT department’s current activities will be outsourced and will leave a significant number of people without jobs? The reality isn’t quite so grim depending on how accepting you are of change.

Inevitably, you will have to ask yourself (with apologies to The Clash) “Should I stay or should I go?” If you attempt to stay working as a SysAdmin internal to a business you will most likely have two broad possibilities.

First, you can hope that you’ll be retained in a central IT role. More probably you’ll be working as a broker between the company and an increasing population of service providers. See my previous blog post for more about that. It’s also not unreasonable to expect that there will be a need for a few true-blue SysAdmins (sans the brokerage duties) to manage customized systems, those too complex for absorption into the cloud and those that require more security than the cloud can provide. However, don’t count on even those jobs to stick around forever.

Second, you can seek to be moved into a closer relationship with an individual business unit. The saying “There are no IT projects, only business projects that have an IT component” is true enough to mention here. The technology projects that are directly valuable to the business’s activities  are the ones that are most closely tied with an individual department’s processes. For those components to work the best and ultimately make the most money for a business, the IT workers need to be focused intently on that department’s operations. That is not something that can be done from a distant, centralized vantage point, and executives have been saying that for some time. The move towards departmental IT is underway and will only continue to grow.

If you prefer those two options, then by all means stick it out. However, know that you’ll most likely be faced with playing a round of IT musical chairs with more internal applicants than open slots.

This brings us to the second set of possibilities for us SysAdmins: abandoning corporate IT in favor of working for a service provider. When your cheese get’s moved, grousing about it doesn’t make it grow wings and fly back to you, right?

As I see it, there are two broad categories of service provider that a SysAdmin could look to for employment. The first is the classic, high-level SaaS provider (the business model formerly known as an ASP).

I say “classic” because they’re nothing new. System administrators are not new to the idea of outsourcing certain components of their technology infrastructure. Most of us have web sites that are not hosted on our own machinery. Many of us have looked to outsourced anti-spam (Postini) or e-mail (Zimbra or Exchange) providers. Online office apps such as Zoho and Google Docs have been attracting people for years. Basecamp as a project management tool is loved by many a small or medium sized team. Do I even need to mention Sales Force?

I say “high-level” because in an environment like that, you’ll probably be working with managing the higher level application functions and not tweaking the grittier bits of the datacenter itself like the servers and networking equipment. That leads us to the second possibility for an external SysAdmin…

You could choose to work tending to the actual datacenters and server farms that are the building blocks for service providers. The EC2s, Terremark vClouds and Flexiscales of the world need some serious SysAdmin/Network Engineer brains to be able to manage their sprawling server farms, massive network designs and the method of virtualization used to create their commodotized wares. There’s only going to be more of a demand for their services, and thus more datacenters built that need managing.

So how’s your resume looking? You may want to take a quick look at it to see how you can improve it in the next few years now that you know what the future holds. Do you want to try and keep a internal IT position? Would you rather take flight to the other side of the cloud?

It’s worth noting that you don’t have to work for a “name brand” service provider like Postini or Zoho. There is plenty of pie to go around and there are plenty of smaller service providers out there. I submit my own self as an example. In the first half of 2010 I went through my own paradigm shift due to realizing the truth of what I’ve laid out in this and my previous blog post here on SysAdmin-Talk. I decided to walk away from my traditional position as an internal corporate IT SysAdmin and start my own hosted services company. If you’d like to read more about my personal journey, you can do so here.

Working at a medium sized service provider (or starting your own) may offer you the best of both worlds, with the hardware and networking challenges of managing datacenters (or at least a few cabinets in a collocation center) as well as the higher-level challenges of operating system and application management.

Analysts have stated that there will not be any lost need for the SysAdmin in the next 5 years. However, the places that we will find ourselves seeking employment from will be different. It does require a bit of a shift in your expectations, but if you can accept that, then you’ll have vibrant and exciting career ahead.

Are you ready for the shift? Have you already shifted jobs ahead of the curve?

Comments (2)

I have already sensed a change in the market a few months ago and was unclear as to what was going on. I suspected that something was amiss and started to prepare for a ramping up of new skills. Recently I have started my CISSP studies and will look at virtualization, ITIL concepts and network architecture next.

Even in the corporate 500 arena there are changes afoot. The leaders of large IT departments are trying to do more with less and push their overall costs down by leveraging tools that require less people and less hardware. The emphasis is on customer facing skills and less on hard core IT skills. We are required to learn and talk like the customer, meaning we speak the same language, and not techo-geek…

It is what is is…

Thanks Knothead! It sounds like you’ve experienced first hand the shifting sands in the IT world. It seems the gritty technology jobs are moving more towards the $n aaS providers and less inside the IT departments.

Great that you’re willing to learn new skills!

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