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Linux careers offers plenty of possibilities. At the time of this article, a simple search of 'Linux' on Indeed.com yields nearly 72,000 jobs with 52,000 of them being recently posted. Clearly, Linux is a space where a good, solid long term career is possible. But there are some things you should know before you decide to make the leap.
Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with two long time Linux system administrators. These pros have been in the trenches for many years and shared their expertise with me. I then took their thoughts and added it to my list of "career truths" that I was already aware of and decided to share the details here.
Who should consider Linux IT as a career?
Selecting your career path is rarely a straight line. I know people who have gone to college or trade school for one career path only to end up going a completely different direction. And when it comes to IT, I find that the above statement holds true.
For example, I myself once owned a small computer repair shop. We handled PC and networking needs for a variety of small businesses and home users. But at that time, I was running a Windows shop. This means I supported the Windows operating system exclusively, as that was the accepted standard of the day.
After roughly ten years of running that business, I found myself becoming disenfranchised both with Microsoft's approach to their operating system and working in the field as a whole. Soon thereafter, I found myself ready to make a change.
During this transitional period, I was getting into Linux and really found myself falling in love with it. No license keys, no malware issues to speak of...plus I felt in control of the operating system for the first time.
Needless to say, I never looked back. After closing the doors to my repair shop, I continued offering some limited IT support for those who were willing to use Linux exclusively. I support some of these same individuals to this day.
My Linux IT path was actually a bit different from most people as I was exiting the arena and instead, pursued an "online" career path discussing and writing about Linux IT. My takeaway from my own journey is that I wasn't someone who was well suited for a career in IT at the time. I enjoyed the people element of the IT field, but loathed the "being responsible" aspect of someone else's data. Don't get me wrong, I never had any issues in this regard. But due to customer ignorance (new customers), I did have some close calls as I was often dealing with systems that lacked any sustainable backups. Try telling your client that their customer and financial data is gone and see how that feels. It was just plain bad.
So if you're thinking Linux IT is a good match for you, consider the following:
1. Do you enjoy learning new things? Linux IT is constantly evolving filled with wonderful discoveries and new technologies. But this isn't a career path where you only learn about one thing and that's it. The learning never ends.
2. Are you well suited to troubleshooting? This is a key asset that I think escapes many newcomers entering any IT field. Not everything works like it should and despite your best efforts, you may be spending a significant amount of time troubleshooting why a server is crashing or one of your scripts isn't running as it should.
3. Can you do your job effectively even when stressed? This is one thing I'd love to see more Human Resource Managers (HR) ask new recruits. While there are exceptions, many areas of Linux IT is high stress. If your job involves critical data availability and/or working with stubborn end users who refuse to recognize best practices, you're going to be stressed at times. You may need to be the type of person who can keep it together and persevere through some high stress situations.
If you can answer yes to all of the above and also have an aptitude for technology, then Linux IT may be a career path worth pursuing.
Preparing for your first Linux IT job
When you're fresh out of school, the first temptation is to immediately start racking up various Linux and networking certifications. On the surface, this is fine. But I would suggest instead that you pursue honing your Linux skills first.
This means learning basic Linux commands and functions to the point where you can utilize tools like sed, grep, cron, and awk. Master these, perhaps even learn a bit of shell scripting while you're at it.
Being able to automate basic administrator tasks is actually very important and will demonstrate you're the right person for a potential job. During your introduction to these tools, bundle this with a "Linux server" that you're managing. I would start with this set of Linux tutorials.
Some newbies looking to pursue this career path may be tempted to immediately jump into advanced networking, visualization and container management. I advice each of those individuals to start with the links above first, master them and then move onto more advanced Linux tools and technologies.
Once you have a solid handle on your skills, I recommend making a name for yourself before seeking out your first Linux IT job. There are three common approaches to this.
1. Volunteer for a local non-profit. Whether this is something as remedial as teaching people how to use computers at first, it may soon turn into your managing their data stores and other server needs. Many of these opportunities evolve into the volunteer handling a variety of duties. Linux IT is no different.
2. Apply for an IT help desk position. Sometimes this means working for a local ISP or perhaps a web hosting company. Even if neither of these seem to compliment your Linux career goals on the surface, it shows future employers that you're able to handle difficult challenges when needed. Plus, it's not uncommon for people to be recruited for better paying Linux IT jobs from these entry level positions. I've personally seen it happen many times. As long as your skills are up to par, you're in a far better position when an IT position in the same company opens up than the new kid fresh out of school is.
3. Network at industry events. I've had younger people tell me this approach to job hunting is dated and my reply is that the hiring managers at these events would disagree. Hone your skills, make up business cards listing your skills and contact information. Then begin introducing yourself to any booth or person at Linux industry events who you happen upon. I had a ten plus year consulting job that I got taking this approach. It works.
Building your Linux career: IT job interviews
Depending on the Linux IT job type you're seeking, odds are you're going to be interviewed by both HR managers and IT division managers. The former is more easily fooled by an exaggerated resume than the latter.
Repeat after me – if you don't know how to do something, don't pretend otherwise. Because even if the IT division manager happens to miss that you're not skilled in an area your claim, it will come to light when you're on the job in a real world situation.
A better course of action is to admit that you don't know something when pressed about it in an interview and instead, mention that you're in the process of learning it now as to be more effective in the future. This shows the IT division manager that you may not know everything, but you're interested in learning and willing to be honest about your current skill set.
You should also expect to that a skills test may be requested to verify that what you say you can do, is indeed something you're familiar with. Remember to master the Linux basics linked above, then begin exploring the advanced stuff when you're ready. By taking this approach, you'll be ready for most entry exams should they come up.
Choosing your first Linux IT job
Depending on where you live, you may find that you're able to choose from the jobs presented to you. Obviously this means you have in-demand skills, have obtained desirable certifications (Red Hat certs usually), and already have a proven track record dealing with stressful technology situations (help desk or a previous job).
It's at this point you have to decide what next steps will make the most sense for you. As a general rule, this usually is broken up into the following segments.
Location of the job. Is there a commute? Since it's highly unlikely anyone is going to hire a junior admin to work remotely, figuring out whether to commute or relocating is the best option.
Career path direction. Is the company you're interested in working for going to make continued learning available to you? Do they pay for certs, conferences, and training? Not all of them do and if one of them does, this needs to be something to consider as it's a tangible asset that will advance your career. As a junior administrator, I'd go so far as to suggest that a company that pays a smaller salary but pays for continued education is the better choice when starting out.
Company culture. When you're given a tour of the place, do you get the sense that everyone is reasonably content with being there? As cliché as this must sound, I can't impress upon your enough how important this is. As a junior administrator, you're going to be seeking out help and mentorship from some of these individuals. If they hate being there, odds are so will you.
Can you do the job asked of you? Remember what I said about being honest about your skills? Once hired, you're expected to accomplish tasks that match the skills you've claimed to possess. Honing your skills and being in a workplace that encourages continued learning is going to present you with a very attractive Linux IT career.
Your ever-evolving Linux IT
Remember what I said about your career evolving over time? That you may start out doing one thing only to shift gears and go another way? This is true when you're starting out as a junior administrator. You may start off simply managing data stores only to move into DevOps one day. You may even feel like the skills you learn today won't apply to your career later on if you decide to get into something a bit different.
Don't worry, your skills are legacy assets that will only serve you as you progress through the IT ranks. By building up your basic Linux skills first, starting off in the trenches at a low level IT job, you're learning secondary skills that will transform you into a more effective Linux IT employee.
Do you have any suggestions for someone looking to get into the IT field? Perhaps you have some hard lessons learned you wish someone had shared with you early in your career? Hit the comments, let's talk about it.