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Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Sysadmin rules!

How do I move from hardware to software?

September  1995
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This month we provide tips for moving your career from the hardware to the software side, plus: the tricky parts of salary negotiation. (1,600 words)

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Dear Edgar:

Hardware as a career is dying. I've been in hardware for 14 years and wish to become a sysadmin. How?

Signed, Hardshift

Dear Hardshift:

Although hardware will never truly die as a career, you are right that we are seeing much more development and career potential on the software side. I spoke to Curt Vincent and Tom Blackerby, two managers at Pencom Systems Administration (PSA) -- our newest and fasting-growing business unit -- providing contract sysadmin services. Both made the shift from hardware into systems administration. They tell me that such a switch is unconventional, yet (of course) possible.

Before entering the vast area known as systems administration, ask yourself a few questions to ensure you have a personality suited to this field.

Systems administration is a truly demanding field, encompassing, among other things, programming, networking, and database development and administration. Most who come to this profession are former specialists in one or more of these fields. As a sysadmin, you are a conductor, directing an orchestra of networks and systems, and your instrument of control is the operating system -- most probably Unix. Even though you won't be designing operating systems, you need to understand them intimately, as you will work with them in nearly everything you do. And you will soon find that the various flavors of Unix are living, breathing monsters that require care and feeding.

Unix is where you will soon find yourself, but is probably not the best starting point. You must first bridge the gap from your chips and circuits and into the software. Explore device drivers, which are the first layer of software and which control the hardware. From here you will begin to understand how the machine processes software at the hardware level and how the operating system itself carries out its commands.


Read up
Since systems administration is an amalgamated profession that has arisen out of the need for a controller or maintenance man in this world of networked and distributed systems, there is not yet a commonly accepted path to follow. I suggest you start by picking up the O'Reilly series of books that lays down the fundamentals of networking and operating systems.

My top choices from the O'Reilly sysadmin series include:

Find a mentor
More importantly, find yourself an apprenticeship. There is no academic specialty and there are no courses addressing all the issues adequately. I suggest working for the new breed of company now arising that focus solely on systems administration. Working within such organizations, you will find that solutions to the truly tough problems -- the "secrets" -- are handed down in the workplace. You will be amazed at how quickly you learn the tricks and nuances of the trade when you work with a team of "masters" who help you properly learn the art.

As you might guess, we think our PSA is one example of this new breed, but others are also forming. When working with this type of a company, you will be joining a national team that allows you to cross projects, geographies, and networks, collectively solving the most pressing problems and keeping every member wired into the progression of advancements.

. . .you are a conductor, directing an orchestra
of networks and systems, and your instrument
of control is the operating system. . .

The point is, no good sysadmin lives in a bubble. Systems administration requires the study of several disciplines and the ability to integrate this wide range knowledge. Although it is not common or as easy, you can turn your understanding of hardware into valuable sysadmin skills. In the long run this approach should help you achieve a wide understanding of how and why the systems work the way they do. (That is of course assuming that by hardware you mean computers, not toasters.)

Dear Edgar:

Assuming one gets to the point in the interview process where salaries are discussed, and your present positions' salary is at the very low end of the scale (as dictated by working for a state institution that historically pays half or less of industry norms), how does one politely go about negotiating a salary to commensurate one's present level of knowledge, years of experience, expertise, etc.? Can relocation expenses be negotiated? What would be a good way to go about doing that?

Can I negotiate vacation time based on years of experience and level of expertise? Or is this unheard of?

Thanks for your help,

-Poorly Paid

Dear Poorly Paid,

There's a hard way and an easy way to negotiate salary. The easy way is to let a recruiter (you expected me to say this!) handle this for you. The hard way is to do it yourself. Let's talk about the hard way first.

In trying to negotiate your own salary and benefits you face several risks: Offending the hiring manager, asking too little, asking too much, getting stuck on minor details. I have heard of cases where a job offer was withdrawn because the candidate let emotions get in the way and stubbornly refused to give in on some very minor moving expenses. A good recruiter will tell you point-blank that you are out of line; but the hiring manager will rarely let you know when they have been offended -- the "company" will just rethink its decision to hire you.

Regardless of what your salary is or where you think it should be, always tell the truth. Interviewing is very much about assessing compatibility and gauging basic personality traits -- the most important of which is honesty. If you are going to negotiate the terms yourself, be forthcoming: There's no reason to forfeit basic trust over a few dollars. And remember, in the 90's all resume and salary information is checked by either the employer or by a good recruiter.

You want the hiring manager to make you an offer on par with your skills and experience, not necessarily with your previous salary. When conducting negotiations yourself, I suggest you explain your current compensation situation and let it be known that you know what you're worth. Mention the factors that you feel contributed to your previous salary -- low cost of living, working for a state institution, added benefits, etc. Every company has a salary structure, which in most cases fits fairly within the given marketplace. Be open with the interviewer and explain that you wish to be a "team player" -- in this case, that means to be compensated according to the salary structure already in place.

Relocation is reasonable. Vacation? Maybe
Yes, you can negotiate for relocation expenses. Firstly, and most importantly, you must collect the facts. What exactly do you need the money for? Don't present a case for relocation expenses just because you want another $10,000. Delineate the expected charges: family, temporary housing, transportation. (Real estate commissions and mortgage discounts are rarely included these days.) Once you have the facts in place you can approach the hiring manager with a calculated, reasonable number.

Vacation is also fair game, but don't expect protracted negotiations on this topic. Companies normally have a specific policy pertaining to vacation. Feel it out. Perhaps you can convince them to start you on level of seniority that guarantees slightly more vacation time. Realize, however, that this subject is typically governed by corporate policy and the hiring manager may have no leeway here.

A shameless pitch for recruiters
It's really fairly straightforward: The benefit of having a third party negotiate such issues is that you can express your wishes and limits frankly, and then stay out of the mess. As I mentioned before, emotion almost always becomes tied up with money and many a "done deal" has quickly unraveled. No matter who you are, when you are involved in personal negotiations, it is very difficult to tell when you have "crossed the line." A seasoned recruiter will have the skills to negotiate your optimum salary. Of course, the recruiter has to be one you trust, so you can accept his advice and know that the outcome is the best possible. Information on how to find a quality recruiter is available in previous columns.

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