By Jennifer Wagner, Experts Exchange Marketing Intern
In honor of Sysadmin Day and all our beloved sysadmins who work fearlessly to solve the problems we mere mortals cannot, Experts Exchange user and volunteer Andrew Leniart has shared an in-depth look at how he became a sysadmin and what has kept him in this demanding role for more than 18 years.
After working in construction and maintenance for over a decade, Andrew decided to pursue a new career path. He became a self-taught computer wiz and worked as a system administrator for a powder coating company. After almost 18 years in that role, he decided to branch out on his own. Andrew now works remotely as a system administrator for several accounting firms in Australia, ensuring both servers and workstations are kept up to date and functioning correctly.
Why did you decide to take on the demanding role of a system administrator?
I enjoy problem-solving and making the rules. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and as a sysadmin, those are faced on an almost daily basis. From planning and solving the current and future needs of my clients and employer with both hardware and software needs, and keeping security concerns at the forefront, everything was left to me.
What does a typical day in the life of a sysadmin look like? What are the highs and lows of the job day to day?
It’s hard to define a typical day, as it changes depending on the circumstances. When everything is up to date and working smoothly, there isn’t a great deal to do, so you either go actively looking for flaws or ways to improve performances for the client (or your employer), creating and submitting proposals, or putting out small fires for the less IT-savvy employees.
Highs are when everything is working smoothly and the help phone doesn’t ring, so you’re left to your own devices. Lows would be when you’re trying to rectify a problem that has occurred and is interrupting workflow for staff, and you keep getting asked “when” and “how long” which are both difficult questions for a sysadmin to answer and only serve to make the process longer. Fortunately, the latter is a fairly rare occurrence for me.
What do you find to be the most interesting part of your work?
The variety of issues that are encountered on a weekly basis. From staff wanting to do things a certain way that isn’t supported by the software they used to problems they encounter in their work that need an “out of the box” solution. Much of my time can be spent on those types of issues and there’s a great deal of satisfaction involved when you can satisfy their requests (assuming their requests are reasonable, of course). I also thoroughly enjoy the constant evolvement of technology and trying out new things. Where else can you get to try and play with a variety of software solutions and be paid for it to boot?
What is your funniest sysadmin story?
I have two favorites. The first is with the managing partner where I was employed. Countless times he would call me over to his desk because something wouldn’t work in Word, Excel, or whatever program, yet when I got there and stood behind him so that he could show me the problem, it would suddenly perform perfectly. I couldn’t begin to count the number of times that happened during my full-time employment with the firm.
The second is when I got a frantic help call from the receptionist of a company I was working for and she said their entire network and internet were down. The “boss” was peeved, so the situation was “urgent.” I went through the basics with the receptionist over the phone, asking her to check the lights on the company router. “Yes, they’re all on,” she said. I then asked her to disconnect the power and plug it back in after a few seconds. “Didn’t make a difference,” she said. The next step was for her to check the network plugs in the back of the machine, and so on.
As nothing seemed to be resolving the problem, with a spare router and tools of the trade in hand, I hopped into my car and drove to their office. Upon getting there, the receptionist’s relief to see me was obvious and she trotted off to make me a cup of coffee. While she was doing that, I kneeled on the floor to check the router under her desk and immediately noted there was no power to the router.
I followed the power cord back to its plug-in point which revealed a power pack only half inserted into the power socket. It was obvious she accidentally kicked out with her feet. I pushed the power pack back into the socket, and a few seconds later, the network and internet came back to life.
She returned to praise me and tell me what an IT Guru I was.
What IT myths or false misconceptions do you encounter most often?
Complaints of slow network performance when clients or users insist on connecting via WiFi rather than a hardwired connection. Or websites that are performing slowly. Workers will bitterly complain that their problems are a result of something on their computer, but refuse to accept the logical reasons for it. That can be frustrating and a huge time waster.
What is your strategy for solving some of the hardest troubleshooting problems you come across?
Google and fellow peers without a doubt. I’ve had documented instances where I sought help from a software vendor (including Microsoft) where I was told that something wasn’t possible, or couldn’t be done, only to find a solution at a site like Experts Exchange by some out-of-the-box thinking from my peers. Regardless of how well you know a software package or the hardware you’re using, there is no replacement for others’ real world experiences. Just because you can’t solve something doesn’t mean it can’t be solved.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a sysadmin?
Without a doubt, to never believe what I’m being told until I can reproduce it for myself! Users will often exaggerate problems they claim to be having and try to blame procedures, software, and equipment available for their lack of ability to perform their duties properly.
What advice would you give to a student currently exploring this career path?
Firstly, be aware that every man and his dog are after these positions. It’s a hard position to get into, and you will always be learning. If you’re not prepared to keep learning for your entire career and beyond, then this isn’t the job for you. Secondly, if you’re already getting frustrated by friends and family asking you for help on what you think are common-sense issues, be warned that’s exactly what you’re getting yourself into with this career choice. Finally, be prepared to be the center of attention when something goes wrong. You’re the sysadmin, so it will be your fault until you prove otherwise.
How can those who do not work in IT help those who do?
Be honest when describing a problem and what you did before it occurred. We’ll probably know anyway, and it’ll be a far smoother interaction with us if you’re just upfront about what happened.
Believe your system administrator, follow the procedures they give you and don’t be afraid to ask for help in understanding how to do something, regardless of how stupid a question you might think it is. It’s as simple as that. We get those types of questions all the time, and we’re happy to help because, for the most part, they’re easy, but it’s difficult to help someone who isn’t being upfront with what’s really going on.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Looking back, I don’t think I could have chosen a better career. It may not be the highest paying career, but it’s certainly an interesting and enjoyable one.
Learn more about Andrew Leniart’s experience
Andrew stumbled into his career as a sysadmin after working in construction and building maintenance for 10 years. As a self-taught computer wiz, he began to write technical tutorials for a floppy-disk distributor. His tutorials quickly caught the attention of the Australian Commodore and Amiga Review editor and he was soon writing his own column for them titled, “Andy’s Attic”. It also appeared in their sister magazine, Australian PC Review.
This work led to a deepened interest in working with computers. Andrew moved into a role as an instructor for computer classes at the australian company, Future Kids. During his time at Future Kids, Andrew was also the office manager for a powder coating company, where his knowledge of data recovery and troubleshooting landed him an interview and a full-time position as a system administrator. After almost 18 years with the company, Andrew decided to branch out on his own. Now, Andrew is the system administrator for several accounting firms in Australia. And, fortunately for us, is a Senior Editorial Editor here at Experts Exchange.