Moving Up in IT: System Administrator Role

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The system administrator role is a true workhorse in the IT department. I have spent a good chunk of my career in this role and I have found that even in different environments the system administrator's role will remain the same, to provide a stable and secure network environment for the business.

This doesn't always make you the most popular guy in the room, because you will at times have to make stands even against your own boss to keep the network running smoothly. Though you must remember that the IT department is there to support the business unit so make sure that you clearly understand what the business needs from IT to be successful.

Usually someone in this role has paid his dues in desktop support/helpdesk roles and has worked his way up into this greater position of responsibility.

This is usually done by having an aptitude for the work, and also by taking training outside the normal responsibilities of the desktop role. Unfortunately not all companies will pay/provide for this kind of progression, so be prepared to be willing to pay and invest time in your own career growth.

System Administrator Responsibilities

The system administrator can wear a lot of hats depending on the size of the organization you are working in. I have worked in shops where there were only two of us at this level, and we had full responsibility for all the Wintel servers in our datacenter and all aspect from backups to hardware.

The main key of course would be servers, you are going to be working on them a lot and in today's networks you will find some diversity. Even in our Wintel shop I worked on Novel and *nix servers, so it is important to be well rounded.

In larger organizations the system administrators are sometimes organized into teams with specific responsibilities, some of these include the following:

  • Installation/Hardware
  • Backups
  • Operations

The installation/hardware teams generally build images and spec out the hardware for specific solutions. They will put the server image on the hardware and rack it up for the other teams in the datacenter.

The operation teams will handle day to day workload on the servers managing users and performance of the servers online. They would also handle escalated helpdesk issues that require greater security or server knowledge.

The backup teams will manage and coordinate the backup strategy for the servers and applications.

They will check the integrity of the backups and status of the jobs making sure to fix any problems that may arise. Restores are also done by this team for user and application data as needed.

System Administrator Training

As of today most Microsoft administrators are at a cross roads for training between Server 2003 and 2008.

There are plenty of shops that continue to use Windows Server 2003 and will for the near future so learning that skill puts you in a good position to get a job at a large percentage of shops.

Those opting for Server 2008 training are "future proofing" their skill set. Even though in the short term they may find positions harder to come by at first, they are well positioned for migration work as companies look to move platforms.

When companies start their migration work, they will start hiring consultants to bring their staff up to speed and help plan. If you are an established expert, it is a great time to work high paying consulting jobs and then settle in with a company you fit well with as a full time administrator.

Train Signal has options to cover either situation you want to work in as they have outstanding training for both Server 2003 and Server 2008.

Microsoft Certifications

For the system administrator role Microsoft currently has two options because of the different versions of Windows Server.

For Server 2003 you will be looking at the MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) and you can get identifiers for either Messaging or Security.

For Server 2008 you can look at MCITP (Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist) Server Administrator.

Both of these certifications take multiple exams to pass so don't think you are going to knock it out in a month or two.

System Administrator Role Pay Scale

As always this section varies by geographic location, size of the company, and also your experience.

According to the salary surveys, system administrators come in around 65K on average. I know of positions for those with experience who can get over 100K, though expect to have to specialize in a discipline like messaging to command those rates.

What most beginning administrators will see is low to mid 50K as these guys usually get promoted from a desktop support role so the pay bump isn't as great in the same company.

Once they get experience they will see that they can get a greater jump in pay by moving companies in most cases.

Finding System Administrator Jobs

Much like desktop support roles you can usually find a good number of these positions being advertised on the big job boards.

I will reiterate though that if you are moving up into this role from a desktop support role 99% of the time it will be easier to get promoted from your current position in the same company.

Not many companies will want to take on an unproven system administrator even with certifications, though if you have proven yourself to the right people at your current company they would be more willing to take a chance.

The best job boards for finding System Administrator positions are:


Never underestimate the power of networking for these positions. Get involved in your local user groups or even the newsgroups and forums.

You will be surprised how many people know of open positions somewhere that might not be advertised yet.

Parting Thoughts

The system administrator role is critical to keeping the IT department running day to day, and some people never aspire to go beyond this role as it is very challenging.

Depending on your company you can work in different things almost every day. The downside of this position is that sometimes you can get placed on a team and never get to go beyond those responsibilities and it can stunt your career.

Always make sure to keep up your skill set either on your own or through other opportunities in your company.

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Dave Lawlor

Dave Lawlor has been working in the IT field since leaving the U.S. Army in 1996.  Working his way up from printer hardware repair to running a corporate datacenter for a multinational corporation, Dave has seen many environments throughout the years. Focusing on web sites and search engine optimization the last few years, with the release of Server 2008 it has renewed his passion for the Wintel platform and server technologies. David also runs where he posts free videos and walk-throughs for a variety of server technologies. David currently works as a freelance technical consultant and writer for a variety of companies in the Chicago area. (MCTS, MCP, A+)