Do you need formal qualifications to be a sysadmin?

Thought I’d write this to get my two-cents out there. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I feel like I’m in a good place to put this out for discussion.

I see a number of sysadmins who feel they aren’t “good enough” because they have no formal qualifications. They feel “less than” because they don’t have a piece of paper from a university; or a TAFE (technical college); or any certifications from someone like Microsoft or RedHat.

I can see both sides of the argument for this, mainly because I’ve been on both sides – I’ve been employed with no qualifications and I’ve also been job hunting with some qualifications.

Qualifications are great – they prove you know something, they prove that you’ve got some level of education or training. You have a piece of paper that says “I know this stuff”. That can be incredibly useful to an employer. Tertiary qualifications (in particular) are useful, as they don’t just teach you about specific subjects – you’re also learning how to do self-paced learning, how to work in a team, how to manage your time. These skills are just as important as the knowledge you’re gaining from attending the specific courses you’re enrolled in.

Certificates are also useful in being able to place a baseline – this is what I know, these are the things I have some experience with. For system administrators, they can be a requirement for certain positions, just because they are a useful tool in being able to determine whether someone has the skills required for the position: Has this person worked with this technology? Does this person know how to effectively manage it? Is this person considered an SME in this technology? Having a certification can assist in answering those questions.

However, I have an issue with people judging systems administrators purely on the pieces of paper they have to their name.

Systems administration isn’t exactly “taught”. I don’t know of any specific courses (at least here in Australia) that are designed specifically to teach you how to be a systems administrator. It’s the kind of job you just fall into. Troubleshooting skills are a necessity and they are (sadly) exceedingly difficult to teach – from my experience, it is the kind of skill you either have or you don’t. It’s an innate talent.

Many system administrators started off from the bottom of the ladder – they were helpdesk staff, call centre workers, basic IT service technicians. The lowest on the ladder for IT professionals. But due to their skills, due to their talent, they’ve managed to work their way up. They’ve proven their skills, shown their experience, and have made it to be a full systems administrator, working behind the scenes to keep the servers running, the network going, the lights on.

This means that there are many incredible and talented system administrators out there with no degree. No certification. No pieces of paper to their name. Just years of experience. And yet, when applying for jobs, they’re passed over for those who have the pieces of paper. The experience seems to count for nothing.

My personal feelings on this matter are – formal qualifications can be helpful. They can even be the thing that gets you in the door. But they are not the be-all-and-end-all. Experience, in my eyes, should count for so much more. I would much rather work with someone who’d been in the industry for 10 years than someone who is fresh out of uni with a degree.

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