Calling friends in the sysadmin/tech business

OK, I have a few friends who happen to be sysadmins, or at least in tech jobs, so to help in my job search, I’d like some feedback and opinions on the following.

Theory: I am outgrowing the label “system administrator” and running out of challenges under that umbrella. So, to find the “next big thing” I should probably look for something that doesn’t have the Senior Sysadmin label on it. Probably something like “Perl tools coder” or the generic-sounding “System Engineer”.

Bit of background. I quit college 3.5 years into my 4 year degree when I had an opportunity for a full time job. I have been in SQA (Apple), SQA/Support lead/Sysadmin (a startup) and now Sysadmin and Sysadmin Manager (AltaVista and SGI). I have 10 years’ experience as a Sysadmin, Senior Sysadmin or Sysadmin Manager (5 years of that in management).

While I was a QA tester and QA lead, I started questioning myself as to whether I really wanted to Be A Programmer When I Grew Up. But, I haven’t forgotten about algorithms, data structures, C, asm, etc. Some of the best fun I have had as a sysadmin has been coding stuff in perl (like this thing). Right now, I’m not having fun, and I really want to get the Hell out of IT (I had a lot more fun and challenge on the production side than on the “serving internal users” side).

As a perl coder, I would probably be starting at a lower rung on the ladder, as compared to the Sysadmin game where I’ve got 10 years experience and I’m near the top. It may involve a pay cut (currently I’m at 110k) but it might be worth it if I can get back to my current pay level in 3-4 years and then end up going higher.

It’s possible that I’ll be hampered by not finishing my degree program. If so, an alternative might be to stay as sysadmin for a while, while finishing the degree in night school.

Last to consider but certainly not least, I would still like to find something that involves killing spammers and freeing the world from spam (well, at least reducing it for my customers and contributing micro-inventions that help the cause).

So. Questions for those in the know (or anyone with an opinion).
Does calling myself a System Administrator limit my options, or are there Super System Administrators out there doing what I’d like to do and making bank?
If I start looking for “perl coder” jobs, what would be some of the key words or job titles to look for? What skills or keywords do I need to add to my resume to make me marketable in that way?
Should I go back to night school for a couple years before trying to make this type of switch? Do I really need the degree, or can I get equal value from some targetted training in Java or other topics?

OK, let’s see those comments!!

0 thoughts on “Calling friends in the sysadmin/tech business

  1. torquemada

    I’m pretty sure we’re still hiring for a super-system-administrator. We may also still be hiring for perl dev jobs, though we set the bar pretty high. Either way you’d be taking a pay cut (though with standard of living differences, not really), and you’d have to move away from your shiny new kitchen.

    I don’t think focusing on being a sysadmin would limit your chances, especially if you can back it up with specialties, like perl coding and spam fighting. If you did live up here, you could try to get into UW’s perl certification programme to pad out your resume some.

  2. goldenlily

    Me, science geek not computer geek. However, I’d like to speak up with reference to finishing your degree. There will possibily come a time when it will be important to moving upwards, even if it isn’t now, we are slowly progressing degree-wards as a society and I really don’t think it hurts your chances not to have one, but it does improve them. Anyhow, my 2p :)

    1. nekodojo

      Good feedback, definitely, and it’s been echoed by a few others. Maybe I will pick your brain about college specifics. I’m a bit afraid to phone up an advisor at a random college and say “I know I haven’t even applied to your school yet but take a peek at my transcripts and let me know how screwed I am in terms of transfer please?”

        1. nekodojo

          I believe at the time I bailed I had like 3 CIS courses left and about as much general ed credits needed. This was at Sonoma State Univ. I believe San Jose State is in the same system and had roughly the same catalog at the time, but I know nothing about their CIS program.

          1. goldenlily

            San Jose State would be a very good place to start. I’d call an advisor up there – they are helpful, which is good because they want your money :)

  3. mysticmoose

    it seems to me that you’re one of those extremely smart and tech-savvy guys that could pretty much learn any sort of tech skills he put his mind to. I am sure that in an interview people will come to the same conclusion. So if you really want to work coding Perl, I think that by showcasing all of the many and creative things you have done as a sysadmin (not just a sysadmin but sysadmin manager) will show that you’re a technical guru and should be hired not for all that you can do now but for what you will be able to do in the future once you put your mind to it.

    1. nekodojo

      Thanks for the feedback. Definitely helpful.

      (Since I have you here, you still haven’t updated DNS for your domain. Let me know when you have time and I can help you do this. If you’ve tried it a couple times and it didn’t take, you may have to email the registrar for support…)

  4. kethry

    Your sysadmin skills are top notch. But what I think really puts you way and above the others is your social skills. Your managing experience, dealing with people, project management and hr cra.. I mean stuff. The tech stuff, if you don’t know (which I find unlikely) you can learn easily. I am not sure what title it should be did your recruiter offer a suggestion?

    As for your resume, one very minor thing pops out.
    Silicon Graphics Inc., Mountain View, CA
    Senior System Administrator, 2004 – 2006

    You are still working there right? Put 2004-. Its wierd but shows propective employers who are just skimming the resumes that you are just ‘checking out options’ rather then hunting for a job.

    The degree. Well I work for a University so you know how I feel. But do you want to finish? If so you should do it cause you want to rather then it will mkae the resume look good.

  5. waterowl

    Speaking as a hiring manager who hired sysadmins and perl programmers, your resume needs work. Sure, it does the job but it doesn’t really tell me you’re the great candidate you are unless I read it closely. I’d get 200 resumes for 1 job.

    Sadly, chances are I wouldn’t even see your current resume for a perl programmer job. Your skill set doesn’t even list programming! That’s an automatic reject by the screener at HR. Even if you come recommended, the people who will interview you spend about 30 seconds looking at your resume. Perl is not a database! :)

    1. Tailor your resume to the job you’re going for.

    It’s very important that your objective match the job you’re going for. If it doesn’t, HR will reject it. Interviewers will wonder if you actually want the job.

    Your current objective tells me you want the job you have now. If you want a Perl programmer job, change it to say that on your website.

    I like a skill section on general principle. But when I see a long list of programs with no explanation, I wonder if the person knows anything or is just listing buzzwords. It’s also very hard to read since I’m a human, not a computer. Save the list for if you enter your resume in a company database.

    2. Give me brief descriptions of your skills w/a subject object and verb. Example in the Programming section: Coded monitoring system, spam filtering, sysadmin scripts in Perl. The objects should be either the most broad or most advanced things, preferrably both.

    3. Tell me the big projects you did at work with specifics. You’re awash in vagaries. WTF is “resuable solutions?” Tell me the things you’re most proud of.

    Your Terran job description is considerably better than your past 2 job descs.

    If you have trouble, look at your performance review of things accomplished and ask a former employee or coworker to tell you what you did for them and what stands out for them.

    4. Don’t list previous jobs that are more than 7 years old that aren’t relevant to your current job unless you want to go back to them. If you don’t want a QA job, don’t list them. It clutters up your resume and doesn’t help me to hire you.

    5. In Education, instead of in progress which isn’t true at least not right now, state 3.5 years finished but left to become a Quality Lead at Apple. It sounds better and is also the truth. When I see degree in progress with no other info, I assume you’re going to be taking up company time going to classes. A negative. I also assume you’re prolly a freshman.

    6. Systems Engineer is a better title than Sysadmin and may be needed for some jobs. It depends on the company.

    7. I always notice the degree. No Bachelors degree is a minus ofset by work experience and I count it more in programming which they can teach in college than sysadmin which is more experiential. You only have a bit left to finish. I know it’s a pain but I’d do it if I were you.

    1. nekodojo

      Wow, really excellent feedback.

      The resume you’re seeing definitely doesn’t have the “perl coder” aspect highlighted, and mostly that’s because I’m not sure if that’s what I should be going for at this point. The resume definitely doesn’t say “perl coder” yet but the more I think about it, the more I feel like that’s the way I want to go. Maybe it would help to make a Sysadmin resume and a Perl Coder resume and see which one looks stronger!

      Other than lacking the perl coder aspect, all of the feedback is excellent and I will be making heavy edits. I will most likely ask you to view it again soon.

  6. bhoneydew

    I’m a director, mostly hiring Perl hackers, but I tend to look for people with strong sysadminnery since it tracks well with the skills and attitude I want.

    If you ever intend to leave (or to have the option of leaving) California: Finish Your Degree Comma Dammit. If nothing else it keeps you from getting weeded out before you even get out of the starting gate, and if I didn’t know you I’d think “has problems finishing what he starts.” Don’t let people tell you you don’t want to work for a company that screens on degrees. People mistake HR filtering for corporate culture.

    Systems Engineer is not the same as Systems Administrator, particularly in telecom. Systems Engineer is closer to analyst, solutions architect, requirements gathering, that sort of thing, which is not your (apparent) wish.

    I don’t think calling yourself a sysadmin hurts you, but I think you’re running out of headroom without selling out a bit and going management. It’s possible to bank out somewhat but you need to start publishing, getting on the committees, and so on. Making your name known in the intarwebs. There’s a bigger market for ‘competent sysadmin’ than there is for ‘ace sysadmin’, because they tend to come bundled with attendant personality problems.

    The ‘skills’ section leaves me cold. You don’t show much detail for ten years of ‘management and leadership’.

    If you’re looking to do the perl thing, I’d make note of your perl projects in more detail; a hiring manager is going to want to know the sort of things you do with perl if you’re presenting yourself as competent with it.

    I agree that the Terran job desc is best; avoid “head net guy”. Say what you did, not who you were.

    1. nekodojo

      That’s all very good feedback, and it makes me think positive things about possibly making the leap from “I wrangle servers” to “I am a coder”.

      I want my sysadmin/operational experience to be seen as transferrable and relevant, but at this point I’m not sure if my next job will be “Sysadmin (can do perl)” or “Perl Coder (with sysadmin experience)”. I guess I’m looking for the “gateway drug”.

      I appreciate the resume advice too… I may hit you up again for a second look (if it passes the Waterowl test!)

  7. gregbo

    Does calling myself a System Administrator limit my options, or are there Super System Administrators out there doing what I’d like to do and making bank?

    I checked some positions that match yours on Dice’s salary wizard and you’re at or near the high end of sysadmins and sysadmin managers. I think it will be difficult to make much more than that, especially given the tech sector is starting to cool off a bit in the SF bay area, as a regular employee. You might be able to make more money as a contractor, but probably not right away, and not necessarily only fighting spam.

    For comparison’s sake, look at and her website.

    If I start looking for “perl coder” jobs, what would be some of the key words or job titles to look for?

    I guess the usual stuff: LAMP, CPAN, etc.

    What skills or keywords do I need to add to my resume to make me marketable in that way?

    I guess you should just list the projects you’ve worked on. I imagine the top paid contractors are lead developers on key CPAN modules, SourceForge projects, etc. Just looking at your résumé offhand, you don’t list much Perl work. Mostly management work, which is understandable.

    Should I go back to night school for a couple years before trying to make this type of switch? Do I really need the degree, or can I get equal value from some targeted training in Java or other topics?

    For management positions, getting the degree is probably helpful. For contractor positions, probably not. In fact, since you’ve been around a long time, you may not even need to get targetted training. Just pick an open source project that interests you. :) (Although there are some positions that seem to require certifications, I don’t know if they’d really help you out that much.)

    1. nekodojo

      Definitely good advice… I have so far been intimidated by getting involved with either Sourceforge projects or CPAN modules.

      I am now starting to think that my “scan input looking for transaction details” program might make a good “hash object containing a fixed-size pool of anonymous hashes” module. I could probably make modules out of a few things I find myself using over and over.

      Thanks for the feedback.

        1. nekodojo

          Main reason is probably that I don’t see myself as a “programmer”. Even though I believe I’m fairly good at it, it’s not my “official” job so I just don’t think of myself that way. It’s not really that I’m scared what everyone else will think or say about me, it’s more that when I think of something I need, my first thought is “Someone should write that” and not “*I* should write that.”

          The idea of starting to sell myself as “perl coder” is still new — hence this post… I only really started to think that maybe I could be something other than “just a sysadmin” a day or two before posting this.

          I guess what made me think maybe I’m outgrowing my title, is that I interviewed a couple other people for “Senior Sysadmin” positions here at SGI. One fellow had more years experience than me (13 yrs) and yet his understanding of programming and system calls was… rudimentary.

          1. gregbo

            It could be that the guy who interviewed for the senior sysadmin position just hasn’t done a lot of programming lately, so he didn’t remember how to answer the questions you asked. But if you don’t want that to happen to you – in other words, you want to be hired for your programming skills, you have to find ways to do as much programming as people who are hired for such skiils. (Perhaps not as much in terms of lines of code, but utility of tools.)

            It’s an interesting dilemma. I don’t know what Phil’s background was, so I don’t know how he would have rated (compared to the people who worked for him) in terms of the ability to program. The impression I got from Mr. Bills during a discussion I had with him about something related to my work was that he didn’t have a hands-on understanding of what I was doing, even though he had done development a few years ago. hasn’t responded yet; I wonder what he thinks?

    1. nekodojo

      Re: Pitch Yourself

      Yes, I’d love to read over it and may take you up on the offer to borrow it. I’ll try to keep Thurs. open.

      Technical vs management is something I often waffle about. I have more *fun* with technical side, but I think I’m more effective as a manager (compared to other managers) and I think I’m able to make important contributions as a manager. As a technical specialist I can solve problems and make projects come together, but as a manager I can affect how others work and perhaps make 8-10 other people work smarter and be happier. In other words, to me management is not as fun, but more rewarding.

      I’m currently in charge of internal-facing systems and I don’t think anyone outside of SGI would be affected if those systems went down. SGI is a hardware maker, not an internet service co, so I doubt any amount of moving around inside SGI would put me in an external-facing position. But, at AltaVista, I (and my team) were in charge of the production site (and that was cool).

  8. gregbo

    I don’t know if you’re still thinking about this, but are you active in SAGE? Some of your questions may be answered there. Also, take a look at ‘s journal.

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