Laid off from non-profit job. Can I transition into Linux sysadmin work?
June 17, 2014 1:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to get laid off from my non-profit job within the next month. I was hired as a general office admin person, and ended up doing mainly Linux sysadmin work. What are my chances of getting this type of work as my next job? Details and snowflakes inside.

I've been working for a small non-profit organisation for two and a half years. When I first started, I was hired as a general admin assistant focused on supporting radio stations, but my role quickly transitioned into far more technical Linux server administration - the non-profit operates streaming media and other hosted online services for other non-profits and commercial clients as part of its unrestricted income streams.

For the past twelve months, the atmosphere has been poisonous. There's been a perpetual air of impending doom, a snappy and unpleasant office atmosphere, and my concerns about the financial and operational state of the organisation have been rebuffed with "well, that's just how it is in the non-profit sector." The organisation has zero direction, no effective management, no plans or goals other than somehow scraping together enough each month to make payroll, something it has been doing with limited success of late.

Every month, it's a case of "we might not have enough to pay you this month." Even if I wasn't getting laid off, this would have to stop at this point. I'm getting close to 30 and getting too old for this sort of shenanigans. (They still haven't explicitly said "winterhill, you are getting laid off." Like everything with this organisation, it's being dragged out ad infinitum, just to make me more stressed, but it's likely to be within the next month.)

Anyway, to the question - here is a little run-down of the stuff I've trained myself to do and have been doing for the past couple of years (copied from my recently updated CV!):

- Working with a diverse range of Linux server systems, mainly CentOS but with some Debian and Ubuntu servers
- Virtualisation of a number of diverse systems using OpenVZ; also have experience of VMWare
- Installation and configuration from scratch of Apache, PHP, MySQL/MariaDB, PostgreSQL, Postfix, Icecast and various other services
- Server monitoring and maintenance: knowledge and experience in the use of Munin, Monit, Nagios etc.
- Competence in bash scripting and automation of regular administrative tasks
- Up-to-date knowledge of new developments in Linux and relevant open-source server systems.

I'm currently full time (35h/wk) on £18,000 (~$30,000) per annum. Jobs I've found and applied for online with a similar set of skills listed hover around the £30-35,000 ($50-60,000) mark. Is it realistic to be looking at jobs with such a significant salary bump after two years of working with the above? I literally can't find anything lower-paid, or more entry-level. It seems that those are the salaries for the more junior roles. I'm surely not that underpaid, am I?

Can anyone give me any further advice on what sort of jobs I should be looking for with the above skill set and 2.5 years of experience? If it matters, my background prior to this was in radio, including training young people in the use of radio equipment at a community station - so my communication skills (written and spoken) are also at a really high level and I can explain things clearly. Do I actually have a realistic shot of getting these kinds of sysadmin jobs, with no degree and this level of experience, or should I be looking elsewhere? Can anyone give me some career pointers?
posted by winterhill to Work & Money (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Put it all on your resume and apply for Sys Admin jobs.

You have been woefully underpaid. It doesn't matter what you're paid now, it matters what your skills are. Apply for the jobs for which your skill set is a decent match. 80%+ of what they're asking for in the ad.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:36 PM on June 17, 2014 [8 favorites]

At least in the U.S., non-director-level people at non-profits make a wage that is considerably lower than they would doing equivalent work at a for-profit business. As well, keep in mind that they hired you as general office help and that probably set your wage low to begin with. So take both into consideration when applying for other work.
posted by gauche at 1:38 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you involved in your local Linux community? People working in the field you want to be in in the place you want to be working will be able to give you a more realistic idea of what kind of money you could be making than strangers like ourselves, but I will say I recently took a leap from the non-profit sector to a technology role at a for-profit, and I'm making 25% more with almost no relevant experience. And I had a professional position requiring a masters degree in non-profit world. So nearly doubling your salary doesn't seem outside of the realm of possibility to me.

Again, I don't know what the job market for this kind of position is like where you are, but start reaching out to humans - either other sysadmins or recruiters.
posted by mskyle at 1:44 PM on June 17, 2014

I moved from working in a non-profit where my technical work was not the nominal point of my job to working in the for-profit technology industry in primarily technical roles. It can absolutely be done (and yes, the pay is much better even at the entry level). Here would be my recommendations, which are all based on my experience in the US, and thus may or may not be applicable:
  • Add some numbers to your CV, if they are impressive numbers. How many clients were you supporting? How many servers? One-time setup of a nagios instance to watch one server that rarely goes down is one thing, setting up nagios and munin for a few dozen or hundred client boxes is a different thing. If you've done the latter, you should talk about it because it will help employers take you more seriously.
  • Icecast and streaming are much rarer and more specialized skills to have than Apache, PHP, Postgres, etc. Since it sounds like this is a pretty big part of your job I'd consider breaking the streaming stuff into its own bullet point with a bit more detail of what you've done, and maybe looking in particular for jobs that require these skills, since you'd be competing with a smaller pool of applicants
  • Many, many people I know who have sysadmin or "devops" jobs either do not have a degree or have an unrelated degree, so I don't think that is a huge stumbling block for you. It may disqualify you at certain bigger and more conservative companies, but there are many smaller companies that need sysadmins.
  • If you know people working in the tech world, definitely put out some feelers there; a lot of these jobs are filled by word-of-mouth.
  • Consider jobs other than traditional sysadmin roles which might use these skills. There are a lot of jobs where you need to know how to maintain or troubleshoot servers and networks that have other job titles than "sysadmin": enterprise software support, sales engineering, etc.

posted by enn at 2:07 PM on June 17, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm surely not that underpaid, am I?

Why would you think you weren't? It certainly sounds like you are.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:22 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with all of the above comments. You've got the skillz, but it sounds like you're having trouble mentally reconciling the pay jump. For that, I recommend looking at some numbers:

Check out Robert Half Technology's 2014 Salary Guide. They also have a salary calculator on the site, but the full PDF guide will give you adjustment formulas based on location and additional skillsets.

Your local/national government probably also has salary info for various job titles/responsibilities.

It's a lot easier to ask for a significantly higher salary when you can see what the average person with your skills is getting. (Ask for at least the average!)
posted by homodachi at 2:42 PM on June 17, 2014

I know nothing about the tech job market in the UK, but an awful lot about the UK non profit job market. Yes, you are being underpaid ;)
posted by Helga-woo at 2:52 PM on June 17, 2014

Learn how to interview, go on a few. If you aren't immediately picked up, make a note of the technical questions asked, and find out what you don't know in order to answer them next time, with full understanding.

I have interviewed dozens of "senior" linux admins and I stump them with introductory questions (meant to spawn more questions) very very regularly.

So if you are smart, and have your hands on the keyboard a lot, you can do this. The number of qualified candidates these days is very small. We want you here, trust me.

If I can help, use teh mefi mail.
posted by bensherman at 3:46 PM on June 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you know any Linux sysadmins? Talk to some, see what they do, and try to get a sense of where your strengths, and any weaknesses are. Lots of great material online for learning, and you have a live system to learn on, within reason. You absolutely should be getting a job as a sysadmin.
posted by theora55 at 3:53 PM on June 17, 2014

First, you are underpaid.

Second, I'm really not sure what kind of linux admin job you are qualified for. It doesn't sound like you had a technical background before getting this job, and it doesn't sound like you had many/any sysadmin peers or mentors at your job.

However, even if you need some mentoring before being well qualified for more senior roles, your existing experience, and the fact that you had the initiative to learn what you have learned on your own, is a strong qualification for junior SA roles with expectation of advancement, and, in my part of the US, at least, a higher starting salary than you are making now, and a lot of room for raises.
posted by Good Brain at 3:57 PM on June 17, 2014

Hi everyone - thanks for your great answers so far!

I think one of the things I'm feeling is that the skill set doesn't justify such a high wage. I'd feel guilty asking for £25-35k for the sort of thing I've listed above, because it just doesn't feel that challenging to me. There are two options here - either it's really not that challenging and I'm clutching at straws, or it is quite challenging and involved and I just have an aptitude for it. Because I've never done anything outside of radio and never worked in the private sector where I have to justify my existence a bit more, it's quite difficult to work out which!

> Good Brain: I have had zero training, mentoring or professional development in my current job. Each time I've raised the subject, there's been "no budget for staff training," which is standard in the non-profit world. I started with an architecture left behind by previous staff (the organisation had 25 staff a few years ago and is now down to three) and re-worked it all with more modern tools to make it more efficient and less labour intensive to maintain, if that makes sense. I hope it does!

I've had very little contact with Linux people or organisations in my local area outside of work - because work has been such a pain for over a year, and I've spent twelve months firefighting and worrying about whether I'll get paid, I've not had a lot of time or energy to socialise or network. That's a negative, I know - but hopefully the light is at the end of the tunnel, now.
posted by winterhill at 4:11 PM on June 17, 2014

I think one of the things I'm feeling is that the skill set doesn't justify such a high wage. I'd feel guilty asking for £25-35k for the sort of thing I've listed above, because it just doesn't feel that challenging to me.

Every time I try to read the bulleted list of your responsibilities, my eyes glaze over because I don't understand a single word of it.

You have skills, specialized skills, and you are apparently good at using them. Don't sell yourself short, literally.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:23 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing that will likely be different at a for-profit company is that there will be more of everything. Maybe you will be in charge of 1500 machines instead of 15. Maybe you will be part of an effort to upgrade a version of some package on a running production system. That is making money. Design the runbook, try it out on multiple non-production machines. Figure out things that might go wrong. Get paged at night when things do go wrong. Be technically competent, and be able to communicate with other people. These are all valuable skills.

I hear chef is popular these days.
posted by Phredward at 5:32 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's a little facile for folks to be stating categorically, "you are being underpaid." Small nonprofits often pay, well, very little. Short of the nonprofit sector suddenly becoming highly profitable through magic and semantic paradox, this will remain the same. Their need for folks with technical skills will also remain, even though by nature they can't remotely compete with salaries in the private sector or even larger nonprofits. This is all just to say, the concept of being "underpaid" is different for different people and different contexts, and if (say) you do want to continue working for small nonprofits, you're not required to be bothered by the fact that you could theoretically make more in another sector.
posted by threeants at 6:21 PM on June 17, 2014

(I'm definitely not excusing organizations that pay staff way less than they could. It's just highly context-dependent, I think.)
posted by threeants at 6:23 PM on June 17, 2014

I'm a Linux sys admin in the UK and have been helping to recruit on and off over the past year. As bensherman said, there aren't very many good candidates out there, and 90% of people we speak to fail when asked very simple questions. If you put those skills on your CV, and could answer questions like 'how do you install Apache? how do you setup a new vhost?' etc., you'll already be ahead of 90% of candidates.

I suspect if you've been working at a small non-profit, you probably lack some experience required in lots of commercial positions (e.g. working with a large estate, configuration management, large infrastructure projects, high availability etc), so you might be looking for a junior to mid level position for a year or two, but I would think you could advance quite quickly in the right company.

Other skills/knowledge for interviews are good communication (you may be required to explain a failed database at 3AM to your manager, what impact it has had, and how you're going to fix it/how long it will take), general Linux, computing and networking knowledge beyond the high level services (e.g which schedulers are most suitable for a database server, what's LVM, describe a Linux boot process, how does DNS work etc...).

Feel free to mefi mail me if you have any specific questions.
posted by jonrob at 12:51 AM on June 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a self taught CRM ADMIN and Excel whiz. I spend maybe Five hours a week actually working. The rest of my time, I'm available. Go figure.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:48 AM on June 18, 2014

At least in the US, I make about $65k plus benefits in a university / nonprofit setting. I might be able to make more in the for-profit sector, but I like the mission, people, and the low pressure work environment, so for now I stay. But it's still enough that I can retire comfortably, support my parents in their old age, etc.

As it happens, I have several non-profit clients in need of Linux admin skills. While threeants says you might be underpaid, what mostly happens is they can't afford to pay the wages people with decent credentials ask for, so they're constantly pulling this bait and switch. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't and the employee sticks around because their sister is on the board of directors, etc. Either way, at some point, when that person leaves, the non-profit's in a bind.

So the question is, can you transition? Probably; I get plenty of recruitment emails asking me for graduating students every year, and the truth of the matter is that as Amazon EC2 takes off and constantly gets cheaper, demand for many other sysadmin related skills takes off. Just because you can spin up a hundred Micro instances doesn't mean they'll configure themselves into working webservers, etc.

The real question, IMO, is at what wage. The challenge you face is that nobody knows whether you're the kind of hire that worked out, or the kind that didn't. Given the circumstances under which you're seeking new employment, it'll be hard to convince people to give you a second glance. You need ways to improve your demonstrable bona fides. The hard way would be to get a degree or some Linux certifications. A simpler move would be to start your own website which can function as both a playground and portfolio, and demonstrate that you can bootstrap an online presence, not just keep the machinery someone else put in place operating. Start attending local LUG meetings--Sheffield is active and nearby. When you get to know people better you can offer to present on a topic (one likely related to your job, like Icecast). This isn't just about 'building your network' for potential job opportunities, but also your professional contacts, i.e. people you can bounce your questions off of, discuss emerging technologies like Docker with, and build your own public reputation / persona.
posted by pwnguin at 10:38 PM on June 18, 2014

> pwnguin: The challenge you face is that nobody knows whether you're the kind of hire that worked out, or the kind that didn't. Given the circumstances under which you're seeking new employment, it'll be hard to convince people to give you a second glance.

Not threadsitting, but I should stress that the reason for my redundancy is unrelated to my performance at work - you'll understand that I can't tell all on a public AskMe but it's mainly down to the lacklustre performance of other areas of the organisation leading to across-the-board savings needing to be made.
posted by winterhill at 10:10 AM on June 19, 2014

I believe you, but it's not me you'll have to convince. Sure, if the firm goes under shortly after you leave, okay, hiring managers can probably figure it out, but I doubt they'll find out a press release stating your firm is taking a 20 percent across the board layoff.
posted by pwnguin at 9:07 AM on June 20, 2014

« Older Are you efficient, Switzerland?   |   Steer compost and vegetable gardens Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.