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Rise from your basements sysadmins. We need you up here

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Project management Fifteen years ago, raw technical skill was all that was asked of geeks placed in charge of a collection of computers. That has changed. The diversity of devices and software and the complexity of the internet have conspired to move IT beyond the understanding of any individual. The field has become far too diverse for even the brightest among us to be a true IT polymath.

Our networks are no longer islands. They are interconnected and growing increasingly reliant on resources outside our tightly controlled perimeter. Digital interaction calls for interaction with other people and we must periodically communicate with our geek brethren in charge of other networks. Worse, we now often have to interact with individuals who may be non-technical.

The typical day of a small and medium enterprises (SME) systems administrator such as myself can be filled with anything. In the morning I start negotiations for my upcoming desktop upgrade. This is followed by tweaking my network storage design and spending three hours on the phone with a software vendor trying to explain why we are worried about how the mobile version of its application deals with data. Over lunch I dive into some router reconfigurations. I round out the work day by figuring out how to deploy Foxit via GPO and pick some mobile device management software. My evening will consist of research into the dozen or so new technologies I am expected to implement next week, almost none of which I am familiar with.

A tighter economy has placed serious growth constraints on IT departments. It has also caused many organisations to shed experienced IT personnel, who are appearing on the job market in previously unseen quantities. The availability of outsourced or contracted IT services opens the possibility of not having to keep all the technical expertise in house.

Many larger organisations can still afford to keep all IT functions in-house and maintain a specialist IT department. SMEs can no longer afford this choice. They need a human router, somebody who knows where every bit of technology is and what role it plays. Most importantly, that person must be able to orchestrate users, contractors and vendors while communicating in business terms that upper management can understand.

Communication skills have become as fundamental to the job of systems administration as an understanding of the technologies one administers. Despite this, soft skills are consistently given a lower emphasis by IT practitioners and educators alike. A laser focus on technical excellence produces experts in narrow sub-fields.

Unfortunately, SMEs are far more numerous than the large enterprises that can support such intense specialisation. Systems administrators working for SMEs do not need to understand how to diagnose, decompile and repair every binary on their network. They will never have the time to keep abreast of every nuance in every technical document to go through every standards body on earth.

Systems administration has become project management, albeit with a highly technical bent. Businesses are beginning to wake up to the reality that qualifications such as Project Management Professional are now as important as any vendor certification.

To succeed as systems administrators we are required to go beyond mere technical capability. We must develop the soft skills that cannot be found by spending long nights squirreled away in our basements trying to figure out how to install Android onto our iPhone. ®

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