Friday, July 31, 2009

Ways to Learn Systems Administration

Suppose, as an accidental systems administrator, you realize that you have a lot to learn.  For instance, in my case, I hadn’t managed a network in a while when I started managing this network, and in particular, the server software was unfamiliar.


I actually sat down and made a list of what I realized I didn’t know.  Of course, there were lots of other things I didn’t know – but I couldn’t list those, could I?   The things I didn’t know fell into two groups:  things about our own network that ought to be documented somewhere, and general knowledge of the software and systems.


See What You’ve Got:  Regarding our own network, I asked around and discovered that someone had a computer inventory.  It was just for fixed assets, but by adding a little additional information, it was a great start.  I snooped in cupboards, closets and drawers, and I got everyone to turn in the software disks that they were hoarding.  I created an updated inventory with such useful things as service tags, and I sorted through all the software disks to see what we had.  Getting people to cooperate with this was a gradual process, but most people are more than happy to relinquish their private CDs and information as they realize that you will take good care of their user needs.


Finally, I created one updated, decent inventory and built essential documentation, like our server settings.


Take Classes:  I took classes, both at a college and from a popular business seminar company.


Find a Mentor:  I have several people who help me when I have questions.  I work at a nonprofit and I pay attention to what our volunteers do in their careers, then I make a point of getting to know some individuals who like to help our organization and give good, sensible advice.  These folks are helpful and constructive, and they challenge me to stretch and learn.  A great mentor always has the attitude that you can learn to do it – he doesn’t do it for you, but he shows you what to look for and suggests ways you can improve.


I am picky about whose advice I seek, avoiding people who merely want to criticize or impress.  Remember the old saying, “Real men don’t eat quiche”?  Well, my opinion is that real a man eats what he chooses to eat and doesn’t worry about his manly image! Correspondingly, it appears to me that truly smart systems people don’t need to tell everyone how smart they are all the time or tear anybody else down.


One of the fabulous things about a mentor, who’ll find time for you when the system’s down and your head is starting to ache, is he’ll look at your situation with fresh objectivity, and he’ll make great suggestions that didn’t occur to you.  He might run through some troubleshooting steps, and maybe there’s something you forgot to do because of the distractions that come with an outage. 


Read Books:  I have purchased some reference books that I need frequently and I keep those at hand.  I have a limited tolerance for reading documentation (sigh) but find that, by reading a little every day, I can build some genuine education. 


Learn the Software:  When somebody asks me a software question, and I don’t know the answer, I like to go to my desk and work with it until I find the answer, then give it to the user (unless I’m madly busy).  Reading the help screens and clicking around is a bit boring, but over the long haul it builds knowledge and adds value to my services.  Generally, if one user has an issue with the software, it’s bothering other people, too.  When the next person asks the question, I can help them quickly.


Subscribe to Tech Mags:  Lots of great free stuff there, and besides, you can get a lot of this online now.


Call the Manufacturer:  Sometimes this is absolutely the last thing I want to do.  I want to throw on a band-aid and move on.  However, the things I call about are usually known issues and the support people will tell me very quickly what software to uninstall, which driver to update, etc.


Use the Internet:  I join online groups and list-serves.  I run Google searches all the time.  I read user forums.  I read lots of everyday user product reviews before I buy equipment. 


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