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How to Get A System Administrator Job

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By: Shelby Welty

December 16, 2020

What is a System Administrator?

The system administrator career path is often considered a “stepping stone” for more advanced IT and infosec positions. It offers a host of learning and growth opportunities for passionate technology professionals. With an average starting salary of just over $60,000, work in systems administration helps set the stage for security analysis, incident forensics, penetration testing, and eventually C-suite career tracks such as CIO or CISO.

While skills and certifications can help lay the foundation for sysadmin success, prospective administrators should also be prepared for interview questions that test their technical knowledge and assess their ability to understand the larger scope of system administration impact.

The Sys Admin Solution

IT roles remain largely shrouded in technical mystery for those not familiar with the fast-evolving world of technology. Sysadmins, however, have made their way into the public consciousness as the “catch-all” IT position often seen on TV shows or movies. If there’s a performance problem, security issue, or software failure, system administrators are tapped for a front-line fix.

While real life isn’t always as cut-and-dried as these fictional, functional frictions, there’s an element of truth to the sysadmin solution. These IT professionals are often jacks-of-all-trades who supply a host of potential problem resolutions. What’s more, these pros are always in-demand. Getting started on this career path may require minimal IT or cybersecurity experience and a willingness to learn, and the ability to think outside the box.

Also important? Acing the interview. Here’s a look at some common sysadmin questions.

Question 1: What are some of the most common Unix server commands?

Unix-based servers remain some of the most common infrastructure options available but don’t operate in the same way as familiar Windows frameworks. As a result, prospective system administrators should expect questions about some of the most common Unix server commands used. These include:

  • lsblk — This command provides information on all block-based devices
  • who — Shows which users are logged into the server
  • top — Provides a general overview of what’s running on the server
  • df -khT — Reports the amount of available server disk space
  • netstat — Displays any active TCP connections

Also worth mentioning? Rm will remove files or directories, while mv lets sysadmins rename or move files and directories to another location.

Question 2: Define RAID. Is RAID 0 safe?

The redundant array of inexpensive disks (RAID) storage method is a popular and cost-effective way to distribute data across multiple drives. But not all RAID variants are the same. Aspiring sysadmins should expect questions about the benefits and drawbacks of specific RAID types, along with the expectation that they’re able to highlight where specific options excel.

In the example question above, RAID 0 is typically not considered a safe option. Why? Although it breaks up files and spreads them across multiple disks in a process called “striping,” there’s no file redundancy in the RAID group. This lack of redundancy means that if one drive fails, files are no longer usable.

Other options include RAID 1, which mirrors data by writing the same information on two drives. If one drive fails, companies simply use the second drive while manually replacing the first and then using a RAID controller to copy all data onto the new drive. The drawback? Mirroring won’t improve performance, making it a great choice for security but not for speed.

Solutions like RAID 5, meanwhile, may offer the best of both worlds. RAID 5 uses three or more drives and interleaves file data across all of the drives. It also uses a concept known as “parity,” which leverages contextual clues to recreate lost data. RAID 5 options require more storage space than their RAID 0 or 1 counterpart but provide greater speed and security.

Question 3: What is the principle of least privilege? How does it improve security?

While infosec isn’t the primary role of sysadmins, the sheer volume of systems and solutions they interact with each day makes security a key component of successful IT administration. Prospective staff should expect questions about common security concepts such as the principle of least privilege and how it improves the overall defense.

Put simply, the principle of least privilege ensures that users have exactly the right amount of systems and infrastructure access to do their jobs, no more and no less. By eliminating extraneous access potential and restricting all users — from front-line staff to C-suite executives — to only the functions they need, their admins can reduce overall cybersecurity risk.

All Systems Go

While starting a system administrator career doesn’t always require prior IT experience, it’s a good idea to go beyond general interest with entry-level certifications, including CompTIA Linux+ and Network+, and expand technical expertise intermediate-level qualifications such as MCSA. Ultimately, however, companies are looking for sysadmin personnel who combine technical knowledge with can-do attitudes to tackle any problem, anytime, anywhere.

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