Educating a Sys Admin


Article from ADMIN 55/2020
Education is important, but is it important in technology-related fields? The widely held opinion is that education is not as important for techies.

Education is important, but is it important in technology-related fields? The widely held opinion is that education is not as important for techies.

I recently had a friendly debate with a colleague about whether system administrators need a degree. By degree, we meant an associate's, bachelor's, master's, or other equivalent educational certificate from an accredited college or university. Spoiler: We both agreed that a degree isn't required. However, the debate didn't end there because, in my opinion, professionals who are in professional positions should have a degree.

Now, having said that, I've never heard of a degree program in system administration – at least not at the bachelor's level or beyond. Some two-year programs offer system administration as part of their IT-related curriculum, but I know of no formal computer information systems (CIS), management information systems (MIS), information systems (IS), or information technology (IT) degree programs in system administration. To be perfectly clear, we were discussing Linux system administration, but I'm not sure the reference platform matters.

My argument was that entry-level admins don't need a degree, but most companies offer tuition assistance and any non-degreed professional should be required to obtain a degree as part of the hiring contract. As I told him, I've worked with degreed and non-degreed sys admins and managers. I believe I even had senior managers or director-level managers that held no degrees. To my surprise, they got the jobs and managed (no pun intended) to maintain themselves in their respective positions. Unfortunately, during the 1990s, one could bluff one's way into a good IT or IT management job with no experience. It also helped to have friends in certain positions, but that's another story – perhaps for my memoir.

His argument was that he doesn't see a need for IT personnel at any level to have a degree. He didn't offer any explanation. I think part of my colleague's opinion comes from the fact that he came into the IT field from far outside of it – just as I did. If you were born before 1990, you probably came to IT from another discipline because the job market was wide open and not enough people with a background in managing computer systems could be found to fill the jobs. Plus, the only IT-related degrees available were for programming. The whole IT, IS, MIS, CIS, Cyber Security degree thing started in the 1990s and later.

My opinion comes from my own history and experience with degreed vs. non-degreed professionals in IT, and let me state here that I'm not sure it really matters from what field you came to IT. I've worked with people from a variety of professions. One person had a PhD in physics, one was an electrical engineer, one had been a secretary, one had been an office assistant, one was a mechanic, one was a videographer, and I was a chemist. So, the IT field is full of people from diverse backgrounds. In fact, I'll make an even more controversial statement here by stating that the best IT people I've ever worked with didn't have any educational background in IT, IS, MIS, and so on. They were all degreed and very smart people, but none had a related degree. I'm not sure an IT-related degree is great for the more technical positions, but certainly you want people who are analytical and technical. Yes, I know there are people who are self-educated who can meet those criteria, and they can work well with others with a positive attitude. My point is that a degree plus technical and analytical skills set a person apart from the tech hobbyist and techie wannabes.

My best advice is to educate yourself through certification courses, college courses, and online training opportunities. If you're lucky enough to score an IT job without a degree, go for it, but also go for a degree. Negotiate education as part of your hiring contract if your employer doesn't do so. You'll never regret getting an education, and you'll never have to apologize or make excuses for not having one. To summarize, I think education is important and everyone in a professional technical or managerial IT position should have a formal education to some degree. And yes, I know what I did there.

Ken Hess * Senior Editor

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