So, I spend a lot of time on the Internet, like most technical individuals. I spend a lot of time in /r/sysadmin & from time to time, I see questions repeatedly asked that cover the same material, over & over. In this (ongoing) series of posts, I’ll look to tackle those questions, one by one, as best I can. These blog posts will serve as an extension of my primarily website & will be a jumping pad to go to popular resources that I recommend on the Internet, along with giving you what is a generally accepted canonical answer, mixed with my thoughts on the matter.
As I first started on the educational side of information technology, for this first post, I’ll cover what I think are the best (e.g. efficient) ways for you to gauge where you stand as an IT Professional, regardless of your experience level. This post will be through the lens of someone who wants to be on the System Administrator side of the fence. Throughout, I’ll give recommendations to talks you should watch, resources & books you may want to purchase.
In a future installment, I will cover specific resource types (e.g. computer based training) how to determine what’s best for you as an individual & your learning style.
First, what is your goal? Many individuals I’ve instructed & mentored over the years were either out of work (job loss, Military BRAC…) or doing a lateral transition professionally. If your goal is to be a desktop technician & move up the ranks to become a Sysadmin, you will want to look at Network+, Security+, Linux+ & Server+.
Each of these certifications are provided by CompTIA — now, I’m not recommending you get these certifications, however, I do recommend looking at the appendix of each of these exam objectives. They provide a great general baseline on the basics of what these subject matters may entail. This also doubles as a study guide — if you understand many of the terms, acronyms & initialism — then you can skip those & focus on areas that you are weak in.
The reason why I don’t recommend wasting time with the A+ certification is that, it is extremely dated — these days, nobody repairs machines anymore. Further, the skills that this certification teaches you, can be taught in a weekend. A case could be made for Network+ & some of the core concepts of Security+, but that’s a post for another day.
How do you go about acquiring the objectives? Go to CompTIA’s website (for example, Network+ Page) & fill out the information in the field on the right under the box ”Exam Objectives”. You’ll be provided a PDF link of the exam objectives (permalink here if you don’t want to give up any information).
Do you feel comfortable & confident in the terms & materials presented in the PDF? Then, if you’re given some simple interview questions about the subject you should be able to at least describe how you would use these concepts & technologies in the real world.
What are all these certifications? Do they matter? What will I learn?
I don’t want to veer off the subject of this post, but it is worth covering what these certifications cover. They cover a small piece of information, skills & concepts that it takes to be any of the following: hardware technician, network administrator, system administrator, system analyst.
It used to be that CompTIA certifications were lifetime certifications — they have since moved to a “every 3 years” cycle, meaning that, you have to re-up on taking the certification or else it expires. I do not recommend getting a certification just for the sake of it unless your employer is paying for the certification, the certification is tied to keeping your job/additional merit pay, or other factors.
I recommend looking at the exam objectives, but for a brief rundown of what these certifications cover:
A+ – Basic Computer troubleshooting. What are the ports on a motherboard? What are some basic port numbers? How does everything plug in together? How does the motherboard work? Many repair technicians need this to work on desktops or laptops. The ubiquitous nature of computer devices has made this irrelevant, along with custom designed motherboards that cannot be easily serviced.
Network+ – very basic networking. What is an IP address? CIDR, notation, basic concepts of routing/switching, broadcast storms, DHCP/DNS basics, some very basic Windows commands (e.g. ipconfig). Predominately focuses on IPv4, some IPv6 was introduced when I took the exam years ago. The common path for someone interested in learning networking is to get a vendor specific certification (Cisco, Juniper & Brocade would probably be the largest, followed by Software Defined Networking).
Security+ – this covers the CIA triad (not that CIA, silly!), the basic tenants of network security, lots of concepts & theory. Good for people with a MIL background & understand certain DoD requirements. If this sort of thing interests you, you will want to look into OWASP, OSCP & local information security meetups.
Server+ – this is a great exam for someone who may work in a datacenter & has to rack & stack servers, design a network from the ground up, setup a server from scratch. Some of this is dated (e.g. SCSI) but the concepts give you a good foundation in what to expect when dealing with a server (diagnostics, memory matching, how things differ from desktop hardware)
LiNUX+ – This exam covers the basics of Linux. Very basic command line stuff. Focuses on the init run levels (gross). No real distro specific knowledge is expected. You need to know certain bash esoteric knowledge, file pipes, redirection, error handling, and so on. This cert gives you the LPI Linux certification as well. The common path for someone interested in Linux is to get distro specific certification — the industry standard is Red Hat Linux (RHEL for short) — it is a very well respected certification in the System Administrator industry.
NOTE – There are many many IT certifications, this warrants a separate post — but these are the basics for a lot of people. I’m here to describe what studying for these certifications will teach you & how you can use that knowledge (sans certification) to grow as an individual.
I’m a Help-Desk tech & I understand a lot of what you previously mentioned, or feel I’m ready to be a Sysadmin. What should I look into or research?
I highly recommend purchasing this book & having it by your desk with you. Use it as a reference. I will do a review at a later date about this, but I feel it covers a lot of ground in a condensed form about the vastness of the IT industry.
Another mandatory book to read is Women in Tech by Tarah (@tarah) – I personally don’t care if you’re a dude who has any opinion at all on the title — you need to read this book. There is an insane wealth of knowledge here (the resume writing suggestions are particularly rock solid).
Something to build upon TPOSANA is The Ops School – this is a project that has exploded over the past few years in terms of content & is absolutely vital for our industry.
Some additional links I think folks find handy, to get them in the right frame of mind & help you think about some of the stuff that keeps Sysadmins up are below. They are from a friend of mine, Matt Simmon’s blog. Matt is a Sysadmin I met at a conference local to New Jersey, LOPSA-East. A great mentor for sure.
Standalone Sysadmin – The Impostor Effect vs Dunning-Kruger
Standalone Sysadmin – Difference between SRE, Sysadmin & DevOps
Standalone Sysadmin – Three activities that will make you a better Sysadmin
An excellent resource that is great for people of all experience levels is the sub-reddit /r/homelab — I’m a moderator here — so if you have issues, please let me know. In addition, you should check out the Discord chat. There are immensely smart people here & you should learn as much as you can. Learn, give back to the community & enjoy the rewards 🙂
Another blog I really love reading is by Jess Dodson (@GirlGerms) – her blog is here — it’s totes awesome – she is a Microsoft MVP based out of Australia. (There are a lot of wicked smart people out there — you’ll them mentioned more here as opportunity presents itself)
I’m a Sysadmin looking to become a Sr. Sysadmin — what should I look into?
You may want to start by viewing viewing this talk by Adam Moskowitz – it covers many things that I’m passionate about & try to instill into my peers of admins that I know.
I really like this talk by Shawn Sterling ().
Check out The Finer Art of Being a Senior Sysadmin by Sheeri Cabral (@Sheeri) which I came across from Tom Limoncelli’s blog, EverythingSysadmin.
I also really heart this ServerFault post — it covers an immense amount of detail & is great for newbies & Sysadmins looking to become Sr. Sysadmins alike.
If you need to learn a lot about some security stuff, and/or Linux things to round out your skill-set, I highly recommend anything written by Daniel Miessler (@DanielMiessler), but in particular, the stuff on his Study Page is rock solid.
If you’ve read this far, what you’ll quickly realize is, with the exception of arguing about DevOps* – there is usually a definitive, proper way to do something. That proper way usually only breaks in very specific circumstances. If you’re wondering what sparked this post, I decided to collect a list of questions that are common to the /r/sysadmin sub-reddit over here. It didn’t do well, as expected.
That’s all I have for this post at this point in time. Note that I did not cover making lateral moves to networking or information security as these are not my specific wheel-house. Some of the suggestions & advice applies, some does not. More on that later, as I learn with you all on this journey! If I think of anything else, I’ll be sure to add it. If you have feedback for this, please let me know on Twitter 🙂
But wait, I actually want to learn about certifications! >:-(
Tune in next time 🙁