Making it in IT: Systems Administration or Programming?

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

With the rise of mobile devices in the enterprise are typical systems administrator roles declining? Is now the right time to focus on programming and software development instead? Patrick from Yellowknife, Canada asks if staying on the server and network administration track is the right career move, or if switching back to programming would offer more opportunities.

Dear Ed:

Hi. I just read some of your articles on the Tom’s IT Pro website. Thanks for the great work!

I am 34 and I live in one of Canada’s Northern Territories. I need some career advice, because I'll have to move in a year or two to go work in the big cities five to six hours south from where I currently live. Right now, I am studying 10-15 hours a day on these topics: Windows Server 2012, basic Cisco stuffs, and various hypervisors, including Active Directory, DNS, DHCP, Exchange, SharePoint, vSphere and necessary network infrastructure tools and technologies.

Right now, I’m wondering if I am on the right track... I am afraid that system administrator or network administrator job roles may disappear with the rise of mobile devices and operating systems (iPhone/iPad/Android, etc.)

That’s why I wonder if I should start back into programming and learn Java or C#?  In Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto, it seems that there are a lot more programming jobs available, especially in Java, J2EE, and so forth. However, I seem to enjoy networking quite a bit more: I did some C++ 10 years ago; I remember the concepts, and the basics, but not the details.

But with server/network administration, I could get a job without moving or something close (maybe), even if I use just 5% of what I learned. What would you advise me on what to do?

Thank you for everything.

Patrick Turcott

Yellowknife, Canada

Dear Patrick:

Your current slate of activities -- namely, "studying 10-15 hours a day on Windows Server 2012 with the basics of Cisco, all virtualized on my computers, including Active Directory, DNS, DHCP, Exchange, SharePoint, vSphere, and other networking technologies" -- is both sound and well-advised. You’ve described a major chunk of modern IT infrastructure as practiced by companies of all sizes, many of which use Microsoft, Cisco, and VMware technologies heavily.

Thus, let me assure you that you are on a good track for yourself, and that what you are studying and learning should indeed help you find a job when you move further south to look for work. Though there are profound reworkings on the client side of IT -- and you are right to see mobile devices such as iPhone and iPad, as well as Android smartphones and tablets remaking client computing as it’s known and practiced today -- the data center (and the cloud) remain essential to IT service delivery and are not going to disappear in the foreseeable future.

Thus, rather than agreeing with your query about starting back into programming to learn C# or Java (which are both fine languages, with excellent development platforms around them) I’d suggest that you decide whether or not you want to stick with conventional IT or work as a software developer first and foremost. If you want to stick with IT and technology administration, you’ll next want to decide if you want to work on the back end in the data center on the server and service delivery side, or on the front end (with conventional and mobile clients) on the service consumption side. Given your current studies and efforts, I’d urge you do stick with what you’ve already been doing, simply because of the time and effort you’ve already invested there, and the real value and job opportunities that niche will offer you.

I hope you can agree with my assessment of your options, and my recommendation as to your continued course of study and learning. You’ll also want to accumulate some certifications along the way; I’d recommend the MCSE: Private Cloud and the CCNA/CCNP/CCIE track for you, possibly along with VCP5 from VMware.

Best wishes in your upcoming career development and job search efforts. Do feel free to email me again if you have further questions or concerns.

Thanks for writing,

-- Ed

Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry, who’s worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications, including Tom's Hardware, and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.

Check out Ed's Tom's IT Pro blog Making It in IT - Certification & Training.

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