Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Employment catch-22, systems administration nirvana, and money + happiness

This month, answers to the questions: How can I get a job without experience, and how can I get experience without a job? Is there such a thing as systems administration nirvana? And is it possible to find a six-figure salary and happiness in the same job?

January  1998
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Tips on how to overcome the difficulties of finding a job after a sudden career change. Also, is systems administration nirvana just a pipe dream? And, what to do if you want a six-figure salary and a job that makes you happy. (1,000 words)

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If only...

Dear Edgar,

I recently decided to make a career change, went back to school, and graduated with an A.A.S. degree in electronic technology. But everyone I have interviewed with has told me the same thing: If only I had some experience in networking they would hire me. They all want someone who knows networking or has at least some hands-on experience.

If no one will hire me how do they expect me to gain experience? Two years ago, all I knew how to do on a computer was turn it on. Now I can do almost anything technical, and I am learning HTML and C at home. I may not know it all, but I have resources and have come quite a way since I started this endeavor. After 20 years, I went back to school and came out with a 3.67 G.P.A. Where should I go to get started in the fast-paced and complicated world of computers?

Starting Out

Dear Starting Out,

You are caught in the catch-22 that faces most everyone looking to start a new career: How do you get a job without experience or gain experience without a job? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. For some, the first break comes relatively easily; for others it's the most difficult point in their career.

Busy hiring managers usually aren't interested in taking a risk with someone who says he or she knows how to do something, but has never done it in a work situation. As you continue looking for a job, consider doing some pro bono work, or interning. For instance, offer to build the Web site for a nonprofit organization. Or set up a network for a young or technically-challenged company. As an intern, you may or may not get paid; however, this type of situation will give you experience and may even lead to a full time job. Eventually, you will be able to point potential employers to real-world projects that you have worked on, hopefully gaining a few good references along the way.


Does Sysadmin nirvana exist?


I have been a Unix system administrator for 10 years and a team leader for five years. My career goal is to create an environment for myself and my team that does not involve the kind of intense stress and pressure which results in burnout and turnover. I know there are many contributing factors, and every work place is different, but is system administration nirvana even possible? Or, should I adjust my career goal to accept that a system administrator's job will always be out of control?


Dear Dreamer,

Systems administration is an explosively growing and ever-changing field. The push to build and maintain more and better client/server networks falls largely on the shoulders of professionals in this field. The companies that center on this kind of work are still trying to figure it all out, with demands on everyone involved.

All the same, there are some arenas where systems administration is more stressful than others. It sounds like you are working in high-tech, high-demand environments, such as a brokerage house, where everything has to be done yesterday. If that's the case, maybe you should think about moving to a company with a less chaotic environment.

You may also want to explore the option of moving to a think-tank, research, or nonprofit organization. Places like Stanford Research Institute (SRI) do a lot of interesting work, but are not accountable to the same profit-driving pressures.

Some see nirvana as big money. Others see it as quality of life. If you know your limits, you should be able to find the right balance.

Lots of money, career satisfaction too?

Dear Edgar,

I am a systems support specialist with over five-years experience in PC-based hardware and software support. I also possess networking experience with Windows NT and Windows 95.

Even though there are a lot of jobs in hardware, most of the money is being made building software. My goal is to make a six-figure salary as well as have job satisfaction. I like systems administration, and I work in academia, where I take college courses for free. I would like to learn Oracle and PeopleSoft.

I am very inquisitive and like to try new things. Are there any entry-level positions available for Unix administration, or involving Oracle or PeopleSoft? I'm also considering learning C++ and Java. What direction or courses should I take to prepare to meet my goal?


Dear Inquisitive,

You are right that there's more money to be made in software than systems support. But your most important goal right now should be finding the particular field in which you have the most interest and talent.

You talk about systems administration, databases, and object-oriented programming. These are all interesting fields, but if you want to work yourself towards a good job in software, you must begin to specialize and pick one area of concentration. A diligent foray into the world of systems administration is a full-time job; as are both database development and object-oriented programming.

Take advantage of the university setting to take a few courses and get experience in one of these areas. Then, when you're ready to start building towards that six-figure salary, you'll have to get out of academia and into the corporate world.


About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president for Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. He specializes in guiding advanced systems careers and helping employees explore all staffing alternatives. Reach Edgar at

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