IDG News Service - Systems administrators install, upgrade, monitor and maintain software and hardware to keep IT operations running smoothly. They often do data backup and recovery. In small IT departments, they are jacks-of-all-trades. Very large organizations can have dozens of systems administrators, each focused on specific areas.
Things they typically maintain include operating systems, business applications, mid-range server hardware, local and wide area network hardware and software, security tools, Web servers, e-mail systems and PCs. The job is as unglamorous as it is essential, says Jim Lanzalotto, vice president of strategy and marketing at Yoh, a recruiting and outsourcing provider. "It's like the offensive line guys protecting the quarterback," he says. "If they do their job right, you never hear about them."
Why you need one: Systems administrators are experts in the nuts and bolts of the company's IT engine, doing mundane but essential tasks every day to prevent problems and improve systems' performance. When something does break, they do early-stage diagnostics. They also must stay on top of the fast and constant technology changes affecting the company's systems, and as such are repositories of granular and critical knowledge. It's a role that will be in demand for the foreseeable future, says John Estes, vice president at Robert Half Technology, a technical staffing company. "Systems are growing in numbers and complexity, and of course there are always new product innovations," he says.
Desired skills: Minimum of three to five years of experience, depending on the work's complexity. For higher-level positions, some companies require a bachelor's degree in computer science, but many employees have just specific vendor certifications or a two-year degree from a technical institute. Common certifications are Cisco Certified Network Associate and Cisco Certified Network Professional.
How to find them: CIOs often grapple with whether to "buy or build" talent, but when it comes to systems administrators, consensus is that it's better to hire from the inside, says Dave Van De Voort, principal human capital consultant at Mercer Human Resource Consulting. "There is a value in having systems admins who are familiar with your business processes and IT infrastructure," he says. If looking outside your organization, avoid using traditional job advertisements, the old "post and pray" approach. Instead approach trade associations, network in conferences and look in online forums and blogs.
What to look for: Excellent problem-solving skills, current knowledge of technology and the ability to be a constant learner. They should be comfortable multitasking and dealing with crises. "They must remain calm and composed under pressure, able to deal with users rattled due to a systems problem," says Van De Voort.
Salary range: US$65,000 to $85,000
Elimination round: Fling a specific technical question about the systems the candidate will be overseeing, whether it be virtual LANs, hybrid Linux/Windows environments, storage or networks. Or explore how the candidate deals with emergency situations: "Tell me about your worst day on the job from a technology standpoint."
Growing your own: Typically, these employees start as hardware technicians, in charge of PCs and peripherals, or providing desktop software support, and move up through the ranks. Groom those who have always liked technology, who took computers apart in their teens.
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