Are there blue collar and white collar admins?

Way back in November, Eric Spiegel write an entry discussing Blue and/or White Collar Developers. The primary difference in that column seemed to be whether the developer had gone to a standard four year institute (white collar) or a two year technical institute (blue collar). It sounds as though some of the reactions of the white collar developers wee rather…snooty, toward the “blue collar” developer.

I’m curious how that translates into system administration. I know a lot of system administrators who haven’t been college trained. In fact, I don’t know of a lot of universities that have courses specifically directed at system administrators, although they are out there.

Those of you who have university degrees…do you look down on sysadmins who don’t have degrees? And while we’re there, how do you look at admins who supplement (or replace?) a degree with certifications? Does where you got your degree impact your opinion of the admin?

  • I don’t think that this translates into System Administration as readily. I think that, as a whole (at least in my experience), SAs have a healthy respect for the difficulty that our job entails and the massive amount of experience that it requires to be good at it.

    Therefore, I believe that regardless of the level of education, we respect each other. I have a degree, but not in anything admin related. I have no certifications, but I do respect every SA that I have ever worked with that has helped me fix a problem. Some of them had degrees and some of them had certifications, but as long as they had the passion to fix systems, learn more, find better ways to do things and keep everything running smoothly, formal education and certification was not a necessity.

  • As a SA, you must have experience and also a good knowledge of how the whole IT infrastructure of your company is working. This can’t be given at school. Degrees can give a sense of how quick you’ll get those things but can’t be a warranty. There is the same issue with certification that is not trustworthy to me.

    As a SA, you also need to pay attention to users because my experience shows me that users are the root cause of the problem. Fix the computer you’ll have the trouble tomorrow. Teach the user, you’ll be able to focus to the new problem of tomorrow.

  • Chuck Burkins

    As well as being a self-trained sysadmin, I’m a self-trained developer. (I do have a four year degree, but it’s in chemistry.) Does that make me a no-collar IT guy or a clear-collar IT guy?

    It seems to me, after having managed a number of small teams of IT people, that the college experience isn’t the important factor in EITHER case. Having a four year degree means you have what it takes to get a four year degree. Which *is* something … but not necessarily a something you need for sysadmin or development.

  • My BA is in Music Theory & Composition, but I’ve been playing with computers basically ever since I could read the 40-character columns of the Apple //e screen. I’m glad to have gotten a degree, though, as the analysis and problem-solving skills I developed in school were transferable to IT work with a little mental recalibration.

    I also wound up getting a 14-unit cert in Unix System Administration before my first full-time admin gig, mostly to have something on paper to be emblematic of my 20+ years of experience making machines do what I want them to.

    Sometimes I’m a bit envious of the knowledge those with CS or MIS degrees obtained in school, but that knowledge never seems to be farther away than an O’Reilly book or two if I find I have need of it myself.

  • I’ll throw my hat into the “my degree (meteorology) is not in anything directly related to being a sysadmin” ring. (Guys, seriously. We need to give this ring a shorter name.)

    I know a lot of really bright sysadmins who have an AS (if even that) and some real stinkers who have Masters, so I’m not too inclined to make judgments based on a degree. However, it does seem that in most cases having a degree is advantageous, especially for people in the early part of their career. It’s not just that you get a dose of liberal arts classes to make you “well-rounded”, but there’s also the connections you make.

    Additionally, in many instances, HR will decide to some degree who is an acceptable candidate and who isn’t. Since HR is notoriously bad at screening technical applicants, a degree helps you get past the first step and puts your resume on the desk of the (hopefully) technically competent person who will make the final hiring decision.

  • I’ve always felt that SysAdmin work was the blue collar work of the information age. At least, the day to day type work. When I see what we do on a regular basis, it makes me think that what we do is work that keeps everyone else in the company able to do their jobs. We, generally, don’t make money for the company and are simply overhead positions.
    We clean up spam and malware that other people have. (garbage collection)
    We build and rebuild machines that need to get done. (construction and demolition work)
    We monitor backups and audit logs. (security patrols)

    If we are lucky, every once and awhile, we have an opportunity to create or develop something new that is needed and not just something that has to be implemented.

    So, if you do systems architecture work, white collar. If you do day to day systems admin work, blue collar.

  • I think Justin explained it well. My old director told me a few years ago that IT was the next blue-collar industry, and I think he’s right. Historically, anything related to computers was considered white-collar because computers were magical boxes that did mysterious things. Now, computer knowledge is much more common, so you see the day-to-day work positions changing in perception.

    As an example, my employer recently re-classified a lot of IT positions from salaried to hourly because it was determined that they’re more operational and less geared toward architecture. I think systems administration will be the next to meet that fate, and to be honest, I think that’s fine.

  • Ian

    I have a four year degree in MIS. I think the personal value of that degree(or any for that matter) comes down to the individual institution and the person getting the degree. Each school does things differently, have different staff, different curriculum, and many other variables which go into the quality of the education. Beyond that, the student needs to take something out of the program, which not all do.

    From my own experience, there were some classes that had real value for me such as intro to databases and C programing. There were others such as all the java classes they crammed down our throats to fill out the program, which did nothing but frustrate me.

    Basically, if I was hiring, the four year degree would show me the person can stick with something. Once you get past the first full time job with a reasonable amount of experience, I would see the four year degree as less critical.

  • My degree is in Business Administration with a minor in Computer Science. The university did not offer a CompSci major at that time, almost 30 years ago. I have worked in the IT field ever since I graduated. I started as a software developer, moved to an in-house application support role and then became an SE (Systems Engineer) for Hewlett Packard. While I was supported SysAdmins, I also became the SysAdmin of the sales office demo center. And I found my calling in problem solving and customer support. When I left HP, I became a full-time SysAdmin and I have never turned back.

    The skills that help me succeed as a SysAdmin come from mostly experience and on-the-job training. I’ve taken SysAdmin classes from HP, Sun, SGI and DEC. I’ve taught classes for HP. And I have had training at several USENIX LISA conferences and others. But experience is and always will be the best teacher for a SysAdmin. The real crash course is time working in a call center or helpdesk.

    The most valuable thing I learned in college was the perspective of the business executives. Sales people at HP appreciated that I knew the technology and that I spoke the language of our customers. Technical skills are very important, but I firmly believe one’s skills in customer support are the most important. Whether the customer is a workstation user or the CTO/CEO, Consider the SysAdmins you know and I’ll bet that Customer Service skills are what make the good ones stand out.

  • I took some college for knowledge back in 1980’s – Unix I, Unix II, Pascal Programming, and “c” Programming while working for Pacific Telephone as a PBX Technician for large entities like Hewlett-Packard and Xerox in Palo Alto, California. My after-hours hobby was running a multi-user multi-line Xenix/Unix OS ‘c’ dialup BBS for 8 years..

    I am an “accidental” sysadmin.. Since I rack and stack, as well as repair, and SysAdmin Unix systems, I am blue-collar.. And after all these years, I can say I have almost seen it all. Yet, some surprises still happen..

  • I’ll give my response in a slightly different way. I had a boss once who was an intellectual snob. He had to get into a p-ssing competition with every employee at least once, and had to keep them stuck in the office on at least one 24 hour demonstration of his intellectual prowess over something incredibly tedious and minor. He carefully inspected the resumé of every job applicant to make sure they had sufficient university qualifications, and any sign of improper qualifications or insufficient qualifications and they were out. He was suitably horrified when, after I started working, he discovered that maths is not my thing. Unfortunately, all this attitude translated to similar interactions with customers.

    It’s not that it doesn’t matter whether someone has a degree or not, but it’s whether they have the skills. Sometimes those skills are best honed by a degree, and sometimes they’re best honed by life experiences. And there’s that mix in between where someone may not have the complete skill set, or the formal qualifications, but make up for it with energy, determination and a drive to continue to learn as they go. The best system administrator I ever employed had only done either 6 months or a year at University, but more than made up for it with natural curiosity, tenacity and intellect. Of the four best consultants I ever hired, only one of them had gone to University. One was a long term industry insider – someone who started before there really were qualifications. Others did TAFE (technical college) courses of various kinds.

    In some organisations the degree may be what gets you in the door, but it doesn’t make the seat more comfortable or the work any easier if you don’t have the raw talent and enjoyment of the job.

    It’s like the Dilbert cartoon where he’s having problems with his computer, someone leaps into frame in a super hero costume and exclaims “Get away from the computer, I’ll solve this, I have CERTIFICATION” … then next frame admits to being stumped because that issue wasn’t covered in the exam…

  • I am a sysadmin with a CS degree. I’ve always considered myself “blue-collar”, since I went to the state college in my town. I’ve gotten several MS certs since then but I feel no condesension towards sysadmins who have neither certs nor degree. People in the snobby town over from mine still look down on my school.

  • Richard

    Wow, great question Matt, look at all these responses! I’m also a home-grown SA, I’ve always been madly interested in computers and networking but never had the money to go to college, being forced to move out at 18 and needing a job to pay rent puts some of us on a certain unavoidable life path. I found a job in dial-up tech support though for a small ISP and since then have been able to learn and grow through opportunities and hard work. I like what an earlier poster said about respecting other SA’s, I can’t agree more. Regardless of the other SA’s experience or background I always respect them for doing their best.

    I’ve had to work with some admins that don’t like their jobs and only sought the position for money or power. It’s a real drain to work with admins that are not passionate about their positions :<

  • I’ve got a BA in Information Technology and Informatics. After 4 years in the program, I left still not knowing what “Informatics” really is, and never learning a thing about IT. I’ve always looked at the degree as A) something to get my resume past non-technical HR people (the ones who “know a degree is good” and don’t know that 99% of SA work isn’t taught at ANY college) and B) good training to put up with pointless tasks.

    I’ve worked with SAs who has degrees in everything from CS to engineering to political science, and many with no college education, and can’t say that I’ve found any parallel between formal education and quality of SA work.

    About the only tangible benefit that I can I got from my degree is that I currently work at the University where I got the degree, and there’s a definite bias in the hiring process towards people with degrees (whether it serves any purpose or not, I can’t say, but at least the University is convinced their programs are useful).

  • Having a university degree doesn’t necessarily teach you how to troubleshoot a network, figure out what process dragged a server to its knees, or figure out how to write a script to repair every entry in an LDAP database while the whole development team is doing it by hand. Playing around on your own, setting up your own stuff (and fixing it when you break it), and (sadly) thinking quickly on your feet when things go pear-shaped in the data center do.

    I don’t look down on other sysadmins whether or not they have degrees or certifications because being a sysadmin is hard work, and every extra pair of hands and skull full of brains is a blessing in a crisis. Doubly so when a truck full of new gear arrives and $boss wants it all racked and powered up in three days.

    For what it’s worth, I have a degree in comp.sci with a minor in math. I worked as a sysadmin my last few years of high school to afford college and all through college to cover tuition. No certs.

  • How about an apprenticeship instead of either a four-year university or a two-year trade school? I’ve been thinking lately that colleges are just not the best place to learn somethings. A four-year degree in English plus a six-month apprenticeship might be better preparation a technical career than getting a technical degree.

  • Anthony

    In the course of my 4 year Comp.Sci degree they taught us absolutely NOTHING about systems administration. The entire focus of the program was towards software development and research. We weren’t even taught anything about the OS’s that we were expected to work on – you either knew it already or figured it out.

    When I am interviewing candidates for a job I look at if they have a degree or other certifications – they aren’t completely meaningless (mostly.) However they are not the most important thing on someone’s resume. In fact they are just a tick-box as a point of comparison. I know too many people who breezed through University because they were able to memorize textbooks but graduated without a clue as to what they had memorized actually meant.

    The most important qualifications someone can have are how they think, how they learn and that they know when to ask for help. I always look for two types of thinkers, and try to have a healthy mix of both working with me.

    I look for people who “just get it” – they have that general understanding of how things should be and can apply that to any new situation and quickly become familiar. They also have an innate sense of “what is wrong” and can quickly identify the source of troubles (most of the time at least.)

    I also look for those more rare individuals in this industry who are very methodical and organized and treat each problem with a step-by-step approach trying each mundane thing as they go. They take a little longer to get to solution, but they are guaranteed to get there.

    Putting one of each of those types together on a team make for the most stable and reliable systems infrastructure you can hope for.

  • Phil Howard

    I find it ironic that the same people that suggest those “other” college courses make one a better rounded person are also the same people that tend to act snobbish and look down on other people that may well have learned what they know some other way.

    I went to college for 6 years. I left for complex reasons before I got a degree (the courses I needed to finish were scheduled over the next 2 years, creating an utter waste of time just to get 3 more courses). Then over the next 6 years I realized the waste of time those 6 years in college really were. I learned more about computers … and life … after college, then in college. But I also realized that the college years prepared me to do this “life learning” thing.

    People can, and do, learn (and many learn very well … many other don’t) by either path. I find it’s more about the individual. I’ve met idiots with Ph.D’s. I’ve met geniuses that hadn’t graduated high school.

    College is just institutionalized learning. I see two year tech schools as just a concentrated form of that. It’s what you do what what you have and what you get that determines who you are and how you succeed.

    I’d be more worried about how System administrators, Network administrators, Software developers, Electrical engineers, Graphics artists, Documentation writers, and Management, all think of each other, and how well each deal with the differences in people. Having had to do at least a little of each of those roles at one point or another, I’ve acquired a rather interesting perspective on it all. So now I just look down on everyone equally … and myself, too. None of us is really up to being able to do everything like an expert. Nor should we try, or expect others to do so. A very few might well be able to everything. Not I. Respect those who do something well. Respect those who recognize the roles of others. And respect those who know their own limits.

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