Tips for changing computer specialties in mid-stream
Changing careers from one computer specialty to another is no easy task. A reader asks: Should I go back to school? Our Career Advisor says "No," there are other, better ways if you're already employed. But they take steady application of a major career virtue: Initiative. (1,300 words)
I have been working for almost ten years as a programmer but saw from your Unix Expo "Pencom Hiring Trends Booklet" that systems administration is the top position in open computing these days. I have become fascinated by this profession. How do I get started in this field when I have no real experience? Should I take a year off and go back to school?
For someone who is already out in the working world, school is not the answer. Not to devalue academics, but school is geared to teach you theory, while the working world involves the invaluable experience of applying this theory. Classes can never expose you to the pressure, immediacy, and necessity of a production environment.
This is particularly relevant in the world of system administration where a company's lifeblood often flows through its systems: When it goes down, theory cannot restore the network -- only hands-on, in-the-field, tried-and-tested techniques can be relied upon. As one of the top managers of Pencom Systems says, "There is not a school in the universe better than job experience."
So how do you get a job without the experience, and the experience without a job? Clearly this is a catch-22 situation, but it is not unique to systems administration or even to the world of computers. Whenever we seek to staff a project using, for instance, C++ and Sybase, we obviously seek out skilled software engineers who have used these technologies, or at the very least are proficient in object-oriented programming and relational databases. Frankly, we would not consider a Basic programmer, even if he/she has proven that moving into this field is his/her life's greatest aspiration.
In discussing your question with another vice president here at Pencom, I got the terse advice, "Initiative."
What did he mean? Initiative means actively seeking the new innovative projects in your company and working hard to be assigned to that project's team. Initiative means being willing to stay late and on weekends, helping the sysadmin team with their work. Initiative means even changing jobs to find the company that will give you on-the-job training and experience in your desired specialty.
The first people to convince are your superiors. This will require motivation and initiative. If they are beginning to put together networks or set up a Web site, persuade them to let you be involved in the project. At the very least, sidle up to sysadmins who are running the show and ask to help during your off hours.
Perhaps you may even be allowed to make a complete, official transition into systems administration work; but be prepared to come in at a low level and to take a substantial pay cut. (Getting onto the cutting edge path can have its price.) If you don't have hands-on experience, prove your initiative by demonstrating your learned knowledge of the vital parts and processes.
Even though you are not going to school, you must still do your homework. In this Digital Age information is not difficult to come by. The Internet is a global library, replete with FAQ's, discussion groups, and white papers. And, unlike school, the Internet is open 24 hours a day. To make a change into a different discipline, you will have to fire up your initiative and learn on your own time. Read books (we like the O'Reilly series), scan Web pages, and work with other sysadmins during lunch and after hours. (See the attached sidebar for more recommendations on text resources.)
If you have access to a couple of machines, plug them into each other and set up your own mini-network. Or get involved with some beta testing. Or go to a local university and hunt down the network security guru -- perhaps she will be able to point you in the direction of some interesting people or projects. Or volunteer your time to some local groups who are setting up systems but cannot afford to hire skilled professionals.
The key here is to stay focussed and on target. Once you become proficient in your chosen field, using today's technologies, the world will open up. --Edgar
Next month I will address network security -- what does it involve, where is it going? Meanwhile, keep those questions coming.
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One of the top Pencom System Administration (PSA) managers recommends certain books and Internet resources as good starting points for those interested in the field of networking. Here's a useful list.
There are a number of methods for networking, and each requires its own learning skills. For the moment, we will concentrate on TCP/IP over physical networks such as Ethernet, Token Ring, and FDDI. Perhaps the best book to learn the concepts of networking is Internetworking with TCP/IP, Volume I, written by Douglas E. Comer (Prentice-Hall, ISBN 0-13-468505-9). This will get you started on the concepts of networking, the Internet, and the comparison of the TCP/IP five-layer model of networking against the OSI seven-layer model. It also goes into detail about how datagrams are routed between different networks via RIP (Routing Information Protocol), EGP (Exterior Gateway Protocol), and OSPF (Open Shortest Path First). There is also an entire chapter devoted to hardware and IP multi-casting, something that is becoming much more popular on newer networking hardware.
To get more information on the specific implementation details of TCP/IP in the various operating systems, Internetworking with TCP/IP, Volume II, written by Douglas E. Comer and David L. Stevens (Prentice-Hall, ISBN 0-13-472242-6) is the book for you. This book shows actual C language examples of implementations of various parts of the TCP/IP protocol suite, including ARP (Address Resolution Protocol), ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol), IP fragmentation and re-assembly, and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol).
For an overview of the various protocols and standards used throughout the Internet, you should get your hands on the various RFCs (Request For Comments). These can be found on various machines around the Internet, but the canonical source can be obtained from nic.ddn.mil. Reading through the RFCs may prove to be daunting, as they are extremely technical, but they make an excellent supplement to both of the books mentioned above.
There is no substitute for experience. Having the knowledge mentioned in the books and RFCs might make you "book smart" on the concepts and methods; but it will not give you the knowledge and troubleshooting tools you will need to deal with network issues. Only experience can give you that. Trial. Error. Trial. Success.