Advice for newbie systems administrator?
July 5, 2007 8:23 AM   Subscribe

I will be starting a new job this Monday as a systems admin for a small company, and I was wondering, what are some good resources that might be helpful for someone like me?

Company background: This is a small place of only about 10 people that does the majority of its business online. From what I learned in the interview, they use an Exchange server for email and contact information. They have all relatively new Dell desktops running XP.

Responsibilities: Keep the systems running smoothly. Make updates and changes to the website.

My background: I'm a college student who is happy to have found what appears to be a stable job with flexible hours and decent pay. I don't plan on working at this place for more than two years, just until I finish school. I don't have a ton of experience working with networks, but I know my way around a computer and I have some PHP and SQL proficiency, which was mentioned as a prerequisite in the original job description.

My question: What are some good resources that might help me learn more about regular sysadmin duties and help me get through problems that I might encounter? I'm looking for anything, here; forums, blogs, articles, books, or even just some advice. The person who currently holds my position is leaving soon, but he will be training me for at least a week.

Keep in mind that this is not a very high paying job so I don't expect to have to do anything too crazy or difficult.
posted by erpava to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I had a similar job in college. I would encourage you to eventually seek higher pay if you find yourself coming in on weekends and such.

The biggest thing (which you may or may not be used to) will be the high degree of customization. With larger systems you can tell users no, this is not so in a small environment. The problem is that things like Exchange are geared toward having a lot of users in groups and such, and while it may take 5 hours to setup something you can gear it up for 500 people without any changes after. This sort of functionality is lost and you do the same amount of work for one user. There is no getting around this.

You'll have an erratic schedule, so do what a good friend told me to do, "be like the Nazis." Why did the Nazis keep such good records? To prove they were getting the job down. Similarly I would recommend running a half dozen or so reports (antivirus, spam, disk usage, etc.) -- they serve no real purpose but they showing that things are working well.

Also run several layers of backups. If anything, to cover your ass. I hate to say it, but due to the nature of IT many people don't understand things. You need to have a lot of insurance out to explicitly cover your ass. These events are rare, but it helps to say that you did everything you could have done plus a little bit more (even if it is inane and seems more trouble than value you'll get out of it).
posted by geoff. at 8:29 AM on July 5, 2007

I think those are all good recommendations except for the be like the Nazis part. Please don't be like the Nazis.

That said, I also had a similar job in college and the best thing you can do is sit your ass down in the Barnes and Noble at night and start thumbing through various topics you want to get yourself more familiar with. This really, really helped me. I was also short on experience on the networking side, and I learned an awful lot this way.

Also, see if they'll let you get involved in one of their software projects as well as a contributor. This will look great on your resume when you graduate.
posted by fusinski at 8:50 AM on July 5, 2007

The Internet is your manual; do your googling and run some searches specifically in for things like sysadmin checklists, backup best bractices, xp user administration. Google your problems as you have them - searching for error messages (in quotes) will almost always point you to what you need.

I did get some decent use out of, and Experts Exchange (you used to be able to see most answers without logging in but they may have nipped that finally). can also be a really useful resource.

During your training time with the outgoing admin, make sure you find out where the media and licenses are for all their software, and any logins the company might have related to that software (and preferably get copies of related emails for when you need support or it's time to re-up something). You can teach yourself just about anything generic with a search engine and the occasional book, but knowing that Susan quoted you 20% off for last year's AV renewal or that you have to call a special support number for some piece of equipment is golden knowledge.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:54 AM on July 5, 2007

The technical issues you'll face in a windows-dominated environment fall into two categories: trivial and intractable. The joke is that an MCSE is the "Four Rs," for Retry, Reboot, Reinstall, Reformat, and it's mostly true. Many problems can certainly be solved without resorting to baseball-bat maintenance, but it's almost always quicker for one-off problems. If something keeps happening, look to a proper debugging procedure.

As goeff. points out, licensing and backups are key, but don't forget regular virus scans. Look-busy reports are great too. Honestly, the bigger problems you'll likely have are political and procedural. Do you have the authority to fix problems that are caused by your users (by telling them/disallowing them) or will you be beholden to them? Is your immediate boss technically literate? Will you be asked to (essentially) violate the laws of physics? What policies are in place that you will be in charge of enforcing, and are those policies so often ignored that they are moot?

Most important advice: Cover your Goddamn Ass. Keep logs, records, copies offsite of everything. It's good for the business (fire) and good for you. It doesn't sound like this is a big enough company for the most crucial sysadmin rule (get everything in writing) to come into effect.

Good luck.
posted by Skorgu at 10:10 AM on July 5, 2007

I have not been a systems administrator but I do manage a bunch of projects with near constant interruptions. I found the book Time Management for Systems Administrators to be a really useful way of looking at how to prioritize and think about work in a job where part of it is boring admin work and part is exciting putting out fires work.
posted by jessamyn at 10:25 AM on July 5, 2007

I've been in your position a couple of times (the only IT guy for a small group) and I have to heavily 2nd what Lyn Never said about getting all those odd scraps of info out of who you are replacing.


#1 Set yourself up a "ticket" system. Request Tracker is one that is easily obtainable, and I think you should be able to find a copy that will install on windows. I'm sure there are others that are free or open source that you might like.

Even though you are the only one who will be using it... it will do wonders for helping you keep track of what is on your plate (and for showing your boss what is on your plate) and can also help you identify trends. Like twice a week Sally can't print to printer 3... may be something you need to look into instead of having Sally reboot her computer twice a week.

#2 Set yourself up a wiki. Document everything in it. Policies, procedures, software licenses, IP addresses, warranty info...
posted by austinetsu at 10:26 AM on July 5, 2007

Sorry, the "Nazi" remark was rather crass and was used as a somewhat jarring way to remind us to write down things. The point is: If you're the only one doing IT you are only responsible to yourself. That does not mean you shouldn't record what happened.

I recommend against a ticket system, especially with 10 people. People will want on demand tech support (or e-mail and voicemail) at that size. They will balk at the idea of a ticket system. In practice I always found it best to make them at least believe they were getting my full attention. Sometimes this involved white lies, but users are for some reason, happy to wait if they believe you are directly helping them. You'll also get annoying orders to stop what you're doing and tend to one computer right now (even if more pressing server issues that you know will effect everyone). I advise that you simply say that you are looking into their problem and stall. It is better than saying you are "x" in queue or something abstract like that. IT has a reputation for being nerdy and socially awkward, try to fight that.
posted by geoff. at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2007

Back up religiously. Backups are rarely needed, so it's easy to neglect, but when they are needed, they are critical.

For general pc troubleshooting, I love UBCD. The ability to boot to a cd and recover files from a machine that won't boot to its OS is huge. It's also a great idea to have a spare hard drive and a USB connector for transferring larger amounts of data, and a USB memory stick.

Viruses and spyware consume a huge amount of time, so focus prevention efforts there.

In a small environment, you could set up an email account for requests - and use that to track requests, if you feel the need to have a system.

Web-based business? If they don't have a disaster plan, start working on one. A cable cut 100 miles away could cost a lot of business if there's no alternate Internet provider.
posted by theora55 at 11:41 AM on July 5, 2007

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