Forecast for systems administrators: Cloudy

The traditional sysadmin role is changing, thanks to cloud computing and virtualization. Here's how to ensure you have a job in 5 years.

sysadmin jobs in the cloud

When Donald Roper found himself in the job market earlier this year, he quickly learned how high the bar had been raised in his profession.

A senior systems administrator with 28 years in IT, an MBA and seven certifications to his name -- including one in virtualization -- he discovered that wasn't always enough.

"A number of times, I'd go for an interview, and they'd ask, 'Do you have Citrix?'" recounts Roper. "I'd say, 'No -- I thought you were looking for a virtualization person.' And they'd say, 'Oh yes, you have to have that, too.' Nowadays, they want you to have everything."

In addition, Roper says, some employers also required a phone-based pre-screening stage, in which they'd ask technical questions such as, "What is VMware DRS?" and, "If you have five disks in RAID-5 array, how much disk space do you have?"

"Several years ago, you could have an MCSA certification and get a job as a systems administrator," Roper says. "In today's world, you have to be a master of everything you touch."

Things eventually worked out for Roper -- he is now director of IT at an 800-person company in Greenville, S.C. -- but the situation that he faced is evidence of both short-term and deep-seated change coming to the role of systems administrator, industry watchers say.

Short-term, in a tight job market, many employers are holding off hiring until they find "the perfect candidate," says John Reed, executive director at Robert Half Technology, a Catch-22 sometimes known as the Purple Squirrel syndrome. Longer term, technology trends -- primarily virtualization and cloud computing -- are forcing changes to the traditional career of the systems administrator.

"The job is changing," says Reed. "It's a role that will continue to be in demand" -- there has been a modest increase in the number of sysadmin job openings in the last year, he notes -- "but to experience career growth, sysadmins will have to continue to grow as the role evolves."

Change is the only constant

Alice Hill, managing director at tech hiring firm, agrees that sysadmins will continue to be in demand, particularly those who are willing and able to keep up with an evolving role.

Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs in the network and systems administration field will grow 28% from 2010 to 2020, compared with an average of 14% for all occupations.

Computerworld's annual Salary Survey defines a system administrator as someone who "installs new software releases and system upgrades, evaluates and installs patches, resolves software-related problems, performs system backups and recovery, maintains data files, and monitors system configuration."

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