Why formal sysadmin education isn't likely any time soon

July 12, 2012

A while back I ran across Tom Limoncelli's The road to intentional, formal, system administration education. In it Tom put forward the view that system administration should and in fact needs to move to a more formalized system of education and training. Unfortunately I have to take the opposite side of this; I don't believe that such a move is likely any time soon and I don't believe that trying to make such a move would work out.

The fundamental reason I feel this is an economic one. In almost any scenario, sysadmins getting more training than they currently do are going to demand more money in exchange. This is especially so if entry to system administration becomes more restrictive (eg, if in practice it now requires the new training), which would lower the available talent pool and thus drive up prices. If getting the new additional training has no reward (in terms of better pay) it's not clear why most people would bother spending the money on it.

(Some people will always be interested in immersing themselves more deeply in their field, and there will always be some jobs for more advanced experts. However you need more than a few jobs in order to pull any significant number of people into the additional training.)

However now we get to look at the extremely cynical take on DevOps. One corollary of this view of DevOps is that additional money to pay for better trained sysadmins is almost certainly simply not there. Employers are already not paying for sysadmins as it is; they're going to be even less willing to pay more to get basically the same thing. And if employers are not willing to reliably pay extra for better educated sysadmins, sysadmins are not going to get better educated.

(My cynical view is that turning a sysadmin into a 'real' DevOps person as many places mean it implies turning them into a programmer and a developer. I think that's a fine thing to do, but it's very far from more training and education focused on system administration. If you think that this is the future, you might as well focus on a couple of 'development in the real world' courses for programmers.)

The optimistic view is that I am underestimating the improvements that organizations will see by employing properly trained sysadmins. In the face of the extremely cynical take on DevOps I can't bring myself to believe that there is any really big improvement to be had here, because today organizations that want drastically improved results don't seem to be hiring good sysadmins to get them; they do entirely different things.

The extremely pessimistic view is that would-be sysadmins will have no choice but to get this training in the future because the market for sysadmins will shrink drastically and so 'proper training' will become a minimum requirement to get hired at all. Again I find myself unable to believe in this and think that if would-be sysadmins have to get additional training at all, they are just going to go learn how to be developers; it pays better (as far as I can tell).

(There are some people who could have been developers but who chose to be sysadmins instead, myself included, but I don't think it's all that common these days.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2012-07-12 09:48:36:

While I'm not a fan of the Limoncelli approach to formalizing sysadmin, I don't think your reasons fully capture the situation. In your cynical DevOps post, you mention why you think some companies are moving towards devops and getting rid of typical sysadmins. In this post you posit the the only reason for getting better education is to make more money.

Given that sysadmin work has been under fire for a while now (first outsourcing, now some flavors of devops), one can only conclude that sysadmins just aren't cutting it with the current approach. Formalizing education is one thing that may help sysadmins provide more value and stem the tide that moving against them. Getting better may only be about treading water.

It's a fight against becoming obsolete, not getting more money.

By cks at 2012-07-12 10:39:00:

I mentioned that possibility in my bit about the extremely pessimistic view of all of this. Ultimately I think that the whole DevOps/NoOps/etc movements are a sign that traditional system administration and thus traditional sysadmins are just not cutting it. Better traditional sysadmins seem unlikely to change this, given that that's not what firms are looking for now.

The counter-argument is that the reason firms are going to DevOps or NoOps is that they simply can't get traditional sysadmins that are good enough in enough quantity; if this changed, they'd happily change back to sysadmins. I don't believe this, partly because the issues I perceive DevOps and NoOps solving are broad process ones; if the processes themselves are broken, you can't solve your problems by having better people do the old processes better.

From at 2012-07-12 16:07:04:

Now square your view with the fact that MSCE, CCNE, RHCE exist.

From at 2012-07-12 19:41:59:

Was the "myself included" link at the bottom intended to be self-referential?

By cks at 2012-07-12 21:29:14:

Whoops, the 'myself included' link was not intended to point to this entry. Thanks for noticing and pointing it out, and I've fixed it now.

From at 2012-07-13 10:31:17:

Re: cks at 2012-07-12 10:39:00:

I think you're intentionally reading "education" extremely narrowly to uphold your point. It's quite obvious that any sort of education can easily mean learning new and better ways to do things. I get the feeling that you're painting a picture of "traditional sysadmins" as only doing the most basic and menial tasks, also possibly for a point of argument.

"System Admin" is the term for a general class of IT worker, so I don't want to start splitting hairs over whether this is really a "system architect", or "senior sysadmin", etc... All of those jobs are part of the overall class of "sysadmin".

I recently listened to a podcast with a tech venture capitalist, and he made a good point about the cloud. The cloud is great for getting up and running fast to prove your concept, but to get any investment from them, you need some sysadmin types who know how to run and scale the system architecture. So the cloud (which when talking DevOps is often considered one and the same) does not replace sysadmins, it only allows startups to have less overhead and reduces the cost to fail. Once you graduate to being a real company, you still need someone who can see the forest. Developers can only see the trees.

By cks at 2012-07-13 11:53:23:

I should have made this more clear in the entry: I'm reacting to Tom Limoncelli's article, not just using it as a jumping off point. In his article Tom advocates for system administration moving to something like the electrical industry with equivalents to electricians, electrical engineers, and advanced researchers. Taken seriously, this implies that all levels of system administration would require significantly more educational certification. This would be especially so for the middle level; Tom explicitly talked about a 4-year degree in 'systems' or 'system administration' or even a Masters-equivalent.

(Although Tom waves his hands about current vendor certification efforts at the starting level, I think that these are much more lightweight and limited than what an electrician needs to learn and know.)

PS: all of this ignores whether or not the whole model is appropriate for system administration in general. I happen to think that it isn't, but I opted not to start that debate in this entry.

By cks at 2012-07-13 11:54:06:

Now square your view with the fact that MSCE, CCNE, RHCE exist.

This is a good point and I rambled on long enough to make my answer into an actual entry, WhyCertificationsWork.

Written on 12 July 2012.
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Why system administration certifications have worked so far »

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Last modified: Thu Jul 12 01:16:11 2012
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