What Is a System Administrator? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on Jul 1, 2021

System administrators support, troubleshoot, and maintain computer servers and networks.

System administrator completing tasks at work

System administrators—also known as sysadmins—are information technology (IT) professionals who make sure an organization’s computer systems are functioning and meet the needs of the organization. Sysadmins support, troubleshoot, and maintain computer servers and networks.

A system administrator’s job description might include: 

  • Managing Windows, Linux, or Mac systems

  • Upgrading, installing, and configuring computer hardware and software

  • Troubleshooting and providing technical support to employees

  • Performing regular security tests and security monitoring

  • Maintaining networks

System administration vs network administration

Some organizations might use system administrator and network administrator interchangeably, and there are many overlapping responsibilities. But there’s technically a difference. System administration focuses on servers and computer systems, while network administrators work more specifically with network-related tasks and equipment, like setting up routing, IP addresses, and maintaining Local Area Networks (LAN).

If you’re in a smaller organization, these responsibilities might be folded into one role, while larger organizations may tend to differentiate them. Since systems and networks are often intertwined, it’s not rare to see job descriptions that require knowledge of both.

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System administrator salary and job prospects

A system administrator’s average base salary in the US was $80,683 in March 2021, according to job search site Indeed [1]. Salaries can vary depending on experience, and the cost of living of where you’re located.

Computer systems administrator employment is expected to grow four percent over 2019 to 2029, reports the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is about as fast as the average for all occupations [2].

How to be a system administrator

Becoming a system administrator will entail learning some specialized skills. Earning a certification can bring you needed experience and enhance your resume.

Skills you need as a system administrator

As a sysadmin, you’ll need to develop a core set of skills that will allow you to make sure the computer systems in your organization are running smoothly. Here are the top skills that you’ll want on your resume:

  • In-depth knowledge of operating systems: Whether it’s Windows, Linux, or Mac, hiring managers generally look for competency in administering the operating system used in their company. Windows and Linux operating systems have been widely embraced and are good systems to start with, though it’s a good idea to check if your industry favors one over others.

  • Familiarity with hardware: Working physical devices—such as servers or printers—will be an important part of a system administrator's job. 

  • Cloud administration skills: Familiarity with cloud applications like Office365, Google Apps, and AWS can give you a boost in the hiring process.

  • Knowledge of networks: Being able to set up and maintain Local Area Networks (LAN) and Wide Area Networks (WAN), in addition to setting up network security features like firewalls, are often expected of system administrators. This might often be the case at smaller companies, where IT professionals are expected to wear many hats.

  • Communication and interpersonal skills: In addition to working on a team, sysadmins will often be expected to help other employees that don’t have the same technical knowledge, through help desk support or other means. Being able to communicate well will be a key part of a system administrator’s successful day-to-day tasks.

Certifications for system administrators

There are several certifications you can take in order to gain experience as a systems administrator.

Windows Server Administration Fundamentals

Having knowledge of Windows servers is likely to be a significant asset as a system administrator. The Windows Server Administration Fundamentals certification will qualify your expertise in Windows servers, networking, Active Directory, account management, and system recovery tools. 

Google IT Support Professional Certificate

The Google IT Support Professional Certificate equips you with the skills to tackle common sysadmin tasks such as customer support and troubleshooting. It also introduces you to commonly used systems like Linux and Domain Name Systems, and prepares you for the CompTIA A+ exam. Though not a certification, the course will earn you an industry-recognized professional certificate at the end. It requires no previous experience.

Red Hat System Administrator Certification

Getting the Red Hat System Administrator Certification will give you the needed experience with Linux operating systems to land an entry-level job in systems administration.

CompTIA Server+ or A+

CompTIA offers several certifications that are designed to prepare you for entry-level positions. The Server+ or A+ certifications in particular will leave you with the necessary skills and experience under your belt to start applying for entry-level IT jobs. While you’ll gain specialized knowledge around servers with the Server+ certification, the A+ certification covers a broader set of skills applicable to other aspects of IT.

Preparing for the interview

Preparing for any interview means anticipating some questions ahead of time and knowing how to answer them. Here are some basic questions you might encounter when you interview for a system administrator role.

  • Describe your experience with hardware.

  • How would you deal with a virus?

  • How would you know when to upgrade a server?

  • Tell us about a time when you weren’t able to solve an issue. What did you do?

  • What qualities do you have that make you a good system administrator?

Interviewing for IT jobs: Since IT jobs are highly technical, interviewers are likely to ask you several technical questions in addition to more personal behavioral questions. Be prepared for both. Refresh your IT skills by mentally walking through several tasks you know how to perform, and practice explaining them aloud.

It’s a good idea to think about some stories of when something went well for you, and when things didn’t go so well—and what you did in that situation to make it better. Having concrete examples at the ready can help you feel mentally prepared and appear more confident to employers.

Getting started as a system administrator

As computers only grow in importance in virtually every sector of the economy, system administrators have played a vital role in making sure computer systems are running smoothly and securely. They are likely to be an important part of the IT sector for the foreseeable future.

Getting started as a system administrator can be as simple as enrolling in a course. Check out the Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera to see if it's a fit—and get a seven-day free trial.

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Article sources

1. Indeed. "Systems Administrator Salary, https://www.indeed.com/career/systems-administrator/salaries." Accessed March 25, 2021.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Network and Computer Systems Administrators, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/network-and-computer-systems-administrators.htm." Accessed March 25, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Jul 1, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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