In November of 2019, I started working as a Tier 1 support agent at a web-hosting company in the Denver, CO area. Just shy of 18 months later I was promoted to Managed Hosting Analyst, which is a Linux Sysadmin role. I retained a couple roles between then. I was promoted to Tier 1 Expert at about 3 months in, and around 9 months later I received a promotion to Advanced Product Support, which is basically a Jr. Linux Sysadmin role. On average I received a promotion around every 6 months.
If you had asked me years ago, if it was possible to become a Linux Sysadmin in 1.5 years, I probably would have thought you were crazy. I’m not saying this to toot my own horn. But, it’s easy to overestimate how long it might take to achieve a career goal become overwhelmed by the prospect, and fail to start. I’m hoping by writing this, some of what I did, might be helpful to others who are just starting out.
First a little background
To be honest with you, I applied to the Tier 1 support agent role on a whim. I didn’t think I would get the job because I lacked qualifications and experience. I was honestly surprised when they offered me the job. I think this sense of imposter syndrome has followed me to this day.
Ok, so how did I move from a Tier 1 role to Linux Sysadmin in 18 months?
I think I had a couple things going for me out of the gate:
- I was already familiar with and more or less proficient in the Linux CLI.
- I had some coding experience and web-development experience under my belt.
But, I think if you’re sufficiently motivated, this would probably only set you back about 6 months, if you’re comparing to my timeline. These are skills that can be acquired.
8 Strategies That Landed Me That Linux Sysadmin Role
I studied outside of work. A lot. There’s no secret to the quick succession of promotions I received. I put in a lot of extra time outside of work studying and learning the skills I would need to get to that next tier. If you want to grow quickly, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort.
2. Ask questions
I wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and for help. And I listened and observed. I was like a sponge. I think it’s important to identify a distinction between just asking questions or for help, without improvement. Some people consistently ask questions or for help, and don’t seem to get any better. When you’re the person they’re asking, this gets old. Don’t be that person. First try to figure it out on your own, try to find resources to learn about or fix the issue, then if you still can’t figure it out, ask for help and outline what you’ve already tried and where you’ve looked. Then take notes on what you’ve learned because you’ll forget. This is asking questions the smart way.
3. Learn to love solving problems
It’s important to have a keen desire to solve problems. I don’t think you’re going to like IT very much or get very far if solving technical problems doesn’t interest you on some level. One of my primary drives for moving into IT was that I genuinely enjoy solving problems. I love it (or perhaps I’m just obsessive?). I’m not sure what to tell you if solving problems isn’t one of your areas of interest, but perhaps it’s time to think about what you do actually like to do, and if that’s working in the IT space. Be passionate about solving problems, or at least learn to be passionate about it.
4. Be as helpful as possible
Be as helpful as possible. Not just to the customer or the client, but to your team, to members of other teams, to anybody really. People want to work with (and reward) people who are helpful and make work better and easier for everybody else. When COVID-19 hit, I was asked to man a temporary remote helpdesk, to assist people from multiple departments with getting connected and working remotely. I don’t think I would have been asked to do this if I hadn’t been voluntarily helping various people with their remote work setups already. Because I was one of a handful of people on this desk, I got to know all sorts of people on other teams and other departments. The director of my department personally acknowledged my contribution to the company. This put me on the radar of people in leadership of multiple departments. In the words of one of my colleagues, I was a “hot commodity” after that. No doubt, this helped when I put in for those other roles.
5. Solve problems for everybody
Become a meta-problem solver. If you solve a problem and it seems to be a common enough problem, solve it for everybody. If there isn’t any documentation for that problem, write the docs. If you can write a script that automates said thing, try to carve out time to write that script. I wrote guides on how to handle things that are common pain points when working in support. Some of these ended up getting passed around by others and eventually were merged into some of the training materials given to new hires.
6. Become a mentor to others
This goes along with being helpful, but be approachable. If you’re the person others turn to when they are having trouble solving a problem, guess what? You’re now a mentor. As your skills grow… coach, mentor, and teach what you’ve learned to others. If you asked questions the smart way, and worked to grow your skills, chances are you will have the opportunity to pay it forward. Someone did this for you, no doubt, it’s time to return the favor.
7. Have a good attitude
Have a good attitude. In a lot of ways, this goes with being helpful. But I can’t emphasize how important having a good attitude is when looking for promotions. Don’t be that person who complains all the time or has a negative attitude. Don’t commiserate too much with your co-workers (a little is ok, but we all know that person who seems to always be commiserating, you’re literally creating misery together. Don’t be this person). You want to be the person who seems like they can weather the storm and not get bent out of shape about it. You have a “can-do” attitude, don’t complain too much, have a positive attitude, and are reliable.
8. Take ownership and be accountable
Be accountable, take ownership of your work, and do what you say you’re going to do. I feel like this should go without saying, but it’s surprising how common it is for people not to take ownership of their work, show up to work on time, and follow through on things.
Make showing up to work early a habit. If you’re not 5-10 minutes early, you’re late.
Take ownership of your work. If you’re tasked with a problem, try to see it through, and take care of the issue as if it were your own. Don’t just kick the can down the road for someone else to handle. Go the extra mile, make sure you checked all the things, and make sure it’s solved so that it’s not a problem that’s going to re-occur (if at all possible). If you say you’re going to do something, do it. Make sure you notify others if you’re not going to be able to complete said thing, by the time you said you would. This builds trust and accountability. Your leadership wants to know they can rely on you to be doing what you’re supposed to be doing without too much oversight. It’s annoying to have to babysit (or worse, micromanage) someone because they’re not doing what they should be doing. If you want to be given more responsibility, you have to demonstrate you can handle it.
A lot of what I’ve said here can easily be applied to any line of work. It’s not unique to the IT space, or this career path. Some of what I said, like studying and solving problems, are somewhat unique to the IT space.
I also think that working support in web-hosting provides a lot of opportunity for growth. As a sector of the industry, web-hosting seems to value finding cheap labor and then training those people up rather than paying more up-front and hiring people who already have experience and education. It’s the perfect place for someone without a degree, but the interest and drive, to cut their teeth on learning these skills. The company I work for seems to value training people up and promoting from within, rather than hiring from outside. There’s no doubt that this has also helped in terms of my trajectory. But It wouldn’t have happened without the hard work and dedication I’ve put in. I can also say, that for being a Linux Sysadmin, I’m probably being paid under the market average. But, I didn’t need a degree, or any certifications to get hired initially. That’s probably the trade-off.
Also, keep in mind, this is only what has worked for me. Your mileage may vary. If you work hard, are dedicated, and persevere, you’ll get there. It’s only a matter of time.