Working in IT or as a sysadmin is a worthy goal, but what do you actually need to know to get a job or to advance at your existing workplace? Obviously that answer is going to be different depending on the person and their situation, but in this article, I am going to outline 15 actions you can do today that can help propel your professional IT career.
1. Get Reputable & Foundational IT Certifications
The best way to figure out what IT certifications would benefit your career is to explore job offers across the country for positions you’re interested in and note the certifications that are recommended or required. The most commonly requested certificates are:
- Cisco CCNA certification [ cisco.com] – A good network related IT certificate. Alternatively, there is the Network+ cert.
- Microsoft Certified Professional [ microsoft.com] – Pick the correct MCP for your career path.
- Google, IBM, RedHat and other big name tech companies that offer certificates.
Pro Tip: Don’t get specialized certifications before you’ve gotten foundational certs. It may be tempting to jump straight into certs that target your end goal, but employers are looking for people who actually know the subject from the ground up. For example, having a cloud certificate before getting your CCNA or Network+ cert is a red flag when I’m hiring. I literally put these resumes straight into the rejection pile since I usually have a stack of applicants to consider.
If money is tight, I do maintain a list of free certifications and free online courses. Most of these free certificates won’t directly help your career, but some will. However, the free courses teach valuable skills that can help your day-to-day work, even if they don’t unlock new job opportunities directly. I explore this topic in depth in this article: are free certificates worth getting?
2. Set Up a Homelab to Experiment and Learn
There is kind of a “catch-22” situation when it comes to getting hired for an IT job that demands years of experience. How do you get the experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? One solution is virtualization and/or cheap hardware!
This allows you to get hands on experience with network related software and services without actually setting up your own little datacenter! Just setup a virtualized homelab on a computer using virtual machines and start getting that practical, hands-on experience immediately. This will allow to setup servers, clients and anything else that would typically require you to have a room full of machines.
Of course, the more virtual machines you want to run the more processor cores and memory you’re going to need, but you can also use cheap computers in place of a fully virtualized homelab.
You may want to pick up some used gear such as a pile of micro-computers or old rackmount servers. A Cisco router and switch are also fun things to mess around with that can help you learn and practice at home. If you don’t have a good source for cheap hardware locally, then eBay will be your friend.
So what kind of stuff should you do in your homelab?
The very basics are always a good place to start, such as installing a Windows and/or Linux server, setting up Samba and Samba AD, creating workstations, deploying group policies, or whatever floats your boat. If you’re studying for certification, then setup an environment that will allow you to practice common actions related to your cert.
Also, if you’re planning on working in the cloud, it makes sense to set up a cloud lab on your preferred platform.
3. Challenge Yourself to Complete Projects
One good method to boost your IT skills is to brainstorm a small project that you publish to GitHub or another repository. This could be as simple as some PowerShell scripts or as advanced as you want. However, the key is to create a project that represents a challenge, but is also something you can realistically finish. Publishing the project online allows you to build a repository or portfolio of your work that you can use to show off your practical IT skills.
If you have no real experience to fill out your resume, finishing a couple of bigger coding projects and publishing them to GitHub can help validate your technical skills and substitute for your lack of on-the-job experience. More on this subject in tip 12.
4. Make Your Resume Standout & Fill It With Your IT Wins
Think about the hundreds of resumes that employers have to shift through. Most of them follow the exact same formula, look basically the same, and contain the same level of credentials as the other applicants. These types of resumes blur together and are forgotten by the hiring manager moments after they stop looking at it.
If you want to stick out from the pack, your resume needs to stick out. This also includes your LinkedIn profile.
I haven’t needed a resume in a long time, but the last one I made was in the form of an RPG-style character sheet, complete with HP and other silly stats. Every job I applied for asked me to come in for an interview, and these were all competitive positions with hundreds of applicants.
Whenever I submitted this resume, I edited it for the specific position I was applying for. I filled it with the best IT experience I had related to the specific position I was applying for. That meant for programming jobs, I submitted a resume full of the commercial and open source software I had developed. For the PlayStation game that I wrote the network coding for, I applied for the position by changing my resume to include all the networking heavy positions I had held. For the sysadmin position I ended up getting, I simply highlighted the other companies I had been a sysadmin or jr sysadmin at.
Sure, it is risky to have fun with your resume like I did, but it also showed personality and I’d argue it is far riskier to get lost in the crowd by doing nothing to set yourself apart from the competition. Stand out with a flashy resume and fill it with the most relevant details for the specific job you’re applying for.
5. Take Advice from Your Peers
Since you’re reading this article, you’re already reading advice from a peer. However, I am only one lowly sysadmin among thousands. I recently had over 200 sysadmins help me create this guide with 33 sysadmin tips which I recommend reading and taking to heart. Even though I’ve been a professional sysadmin for decades, I still learned a lot from my peers that I wish I would’ve learned sooner.
Don’t learn lessons the hard way! Make life easier by proactively avoiding common pitfalls and traps by listening to and applying advice from other veterans in your field. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s worth it.
6. Figure Out Your Career Goals & Then Find and Patch Your Deficiencies
When you know exactly what your goal is, it is easier to plot a course that will lead you towards your destination. This means, if you want to become a sysadmin at a company that only runs Linux machines, and you’re a Windows person… well it’s clear that you’re deficient at Linux and need to learn it.
Once you know what career path you want, you can start working towards that goal. This leads us to the next tip:
7. Search for Jobs You Want Nationally & Study The Trends
If you live in the middle of the desert, there are no IT jobs. The truth is, you have to go where the jobs are or settle for whats available in your area (this is a sneak peak at tip #10.) If you really want a certain job, then do the research and find out if that job exists in your region. If not, then find out where those jobs actually exist.
It’s wise to look at all the major markets across the country and to try and discern any trends. What do I mean? Well, if you’re interested in working with the cloud, then find the areas where cloud related jobs are being posted. Since your career will span several years if not decades, try and extract meaningful data such as “cloud jobs are being posted less in California than last year but Chicago has seen a boom.” By keeping track of whats hot and whats not, you can course correct your career and slowly change with the times, rather than being caught unawares as new technologies emerge that changes your industry.
8. Take An Entry Level Position To Get Your Foot in the Door
You have to start somewhere and that often means starting at the bottom. Entry level positions usually don’t pay that well, but they do help you build experience so that you qualify for the positions you really want.
While this bit of advice doesn’t work for everyone, your first IT job will probably be the hardest one to get, so try and get it as soon as possible so you can build up from there.
A help desk job in a giant call-center can be used as relevant resume fodder and sometimes can be the foot-in-the-door that you need to move up the ranks in the right company. These jobs are generally only good for your resume building, but I’ve been promoted from within starting out on the calling floor before moving up to jr sysadmin. After a few years as a jr sysadmin, it was easy to find another job as a full on sysadmin, despite my lack of certifications or a college degree. The few years of hands-on experience was more than enough.
9. Regularly Apply and Interview for New Jobs
If you ask, you might receive, if you seek you might find what you’re looking for. This principle applies when you’re trying to build a career.
You should be on the lookout for new opportunities and apply for jobs that you actually want… even if you don’t think you’ll get it. I’ve done exactly that in the past and ended up with a great job that I thought was out of my league.
The side effect of continuously applying and interviewing for new jobs is that it keeps you in practice and helps you develop new strategies and course corrections for handling future interviews.
10. A Big Factor For IT Job Availability… Is Where You Live… So Move!
If you want an IT job but live in the middle of nowhere… well, you’re going to have to move to where the jobs are!
This is kind of mentioned in tip 7, but it deserves it’s own space. When you’re first starting, you can probably get an entry level job (tip 8) in your local area, but if the jobs you really want are located elsewhere… then be prepared to move there or choose a different career goal. It’s that simple.
Sure, remote working is more popular than ever, so it’s not out of the question in today’s world to work remotely… but generally remote workers live close enough to their office to be able to regularly attend meetings in person. And if you’re working as a sysadmin, then you’re probably knee deep in networking tasks that can only be performed on-premises.
11. Learn The Foundations of Networking
Most sysadmins spend a lot of their time working with networks, including troubleshooting and implementing networking solutions. A firm foundation in the basic structures of layered networking will help you troubleshoot networking issues quickly and efficiently. Without this foundation, you’re going to be blindly stabbing in the dark trying to fix basic issues, so make sure you have the fundamentals of layered networking committed to memory if you aspire to be a sysadmin.
12. If You Don’t Know How to Code, Then Learn Some Basic Coding
You may have no interest in coding and no desire to be a programmer, and that’s fine. However, knowing just the basics of coding can come in handy in a multitude of situations and will help you understand how software works under the hood. Case in point: using batch files to simplify or automate common tasks.
A batch file is just a text file with a bunch of commands, but it is also an amazing tool that can help you easily automate complex repetitive tasks. Creating a batch file is an easy to understand form of coding. If you know some PowerShell, DOS or some Linux command line then you know some foundational commands that you can string together into a basic batch file.
To really supercharge your automation, I recommend learning Python. I’ve written Python scripts that eliminated an entire department (note: I helped move those employees to other tasks before I destroyed their jobs.) Don’t underestimate the power of automation… it’s not just the future, it’s already here and can be an invaluable tool in your toolbox.
13. Network With Management & IT Professionals
Getting a great job is often more about knowing the right people rather than being the best candidate. That may not be ideal, but it’s reality. To that end, if you’re looking for a career in IT, then it makes sense to build some relationships with people in the field.
Sure, computer techy people are not traditionally known to be the most social of animals, but some of us like to party too! Getting friendly with and socializing with other IT professionals is a great way to land a good job.
14. Get “Experience + College Degree + Relevant Certs” For the Best Chance to Get Hired
If you look at job requirements for sysadmins and similar positions, you’ll find a degree in Computer Science, several years of applicable experience and some IT certifications as the common factors uniting most of these job listings.
That means that if you’re seeking a career in IT, checking these 3 boxes is your best bet to maximize your chance of getting the job you want. If you don’t have all 3 of these things, then I would argue that 2 out of 3 is usually good enough. I would also posit that you should prioritize them from top to bottom like this:
- Years of Experience. The more years of on-the-job experience you have, the better. Although this can be a catch-22 of how do you get the experience if all the jobs require it.
- BA in Computer Science. It’s like an IT certificate but with a lot more weight behind it. It also shows that you can follow through on long-term career commitments.
- IT Certificates. See the first tip for specific recommendations.
I dropped out of college while pursuing a computer science degree because I was already landing the IT jobs that I wanted. While I do have a handful of IT certificates, I actually never promote them since they’re not the good ones. What I do have is a few decades of on-the-job experience as well as the fact that I am a high-level sales person… which I use to my advantage in job interviews by selling myself.
Tips #8 (getting an entry level IT job) and 9 (apply for jobs constantly, even ones you’re not quite qualified for) are what landed me the sysadmin jobs that allowed me to build decades of hands-on “in the field” experience, which is why I recommend those techniques. However, I have definitely missed out on some amazing jobs because they were serious about their requirements… which is why I recommend working towards having all 3 of these qualifications nailed down.
15. Work on the Basics If You Haven’t Mastered Them, Then Continue to Learn the Advanced Topics
Everyone starts at the beginning, but some people get bored with the basics and want to skip ahead. I am one of those people, and boy oh boy has it bitten me on the ass more than once. When it comes to computers in general, it really makes sense to start with the basics and then move on from there.
This definitely applies towards advancing your IT career. For example, if you try to jump straight into cloud computing certification before you understand the basics of networking or how to work with clients and servers locally then you’re going to have a bad time.
It’s like building a house, you don’t start from the top (the roof) and build downwards. No, you start from the foundation and use that build up from. That’s just common sense, and it applies to learning any technical skill out there.
These are tips that have worked for me, or the hard lessons I wish I would’ve learned sooner. I hope that this article helps you progress in your career. Please let me know in the comments below any tips that you have, or if you have any questions, comments, disagreements or other thoughts on progressing as sysadmin in today’s market. Thanks for reading!