October 31, 2002

Do Linux sysadmins really get paid more than MCSEs?

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

One reason corporate IT managers often give for selecting Microsoft server software is that Linux (and Unix) sysadmins supposedly command higher salaries than Windows sysadmins. But David Foote -- co-founder, president, and chief research officer of IT salary research and advisory firm Foote Partners, LLC -- says there is no virtually no salary difference between certified Linux sysadmins and those who hold equivalent Microsoft certifications.

Foote Partners tracks IT salaries all day long, every day, in almost every conceivable area, by constantly asking 29,200 workers in 1,820 private and public sector employers -- and their bosses -- who gets how much, what kind of skills they have, and lots of other questions. Foote says he doesn't get his information from HR departments, but directly from the people who either get or authorize pay and bonuses. He says his methodology is superior to salary surveys filled out by HR departments. He wrote an article for Computerworld in November, 2000, where he descibed the difference between his salary studies and typical analysts' salary surveys in greater detail than we have time to get into here. (You may want to follow that link before you read on.)

Okay, that article is more than a little self-serving. The guy sells his surveys for a living. But unlike many analysts, he isn't doing "sponsored" surveys, just trying to compile the most accurate data he can so that his clients can make intelligent compensation decisions. He has no axe to grind one way or the other; he just collects and interprets numbers. And, he says,trying to compare Windows sysadmins to Linux sysadmins salaries directly is not possible because he "can't find enough people with the title 'Linux sysadmin' or 'Windows sysadmin' to be statistically valid" when making comparisons, so he tracks not by title but by skill sets and certifications.

Currently Foote Partners tracks Red Hat (RHCE) and LPI certifications, and compares salaries of people who hold them with those who hold MCSEs. And, he says, people with MCSEs currently get an average of about 7% more than than sysadmins without certification, which is exactly the same premium sysadmins with Red Hat certification are likely to get. He says the "value add" for Solaris and HPUX certs is also in that 7% range; that, in effect, after adjusting for all other factors (like experience, company size, location, and level of responsibility), Linux, Unix, and Microsoft sysadmins all get paid about the same.

He notes that sysadmin pay in general has declined over the last year. Indeed, he says, IT pay is "overall, down around 5% in the last year," and also notes that the "premium" received by MCSEs has declined by 13% in the last year, while "Red Hat and LPI haven't changed their premium value."

Foote says certifications are becoming a much more important factor in sysadmin compensation; that just having the skills is no longer enough if you haven't passed a test that proves you have them. Direct quote: " Skills pay alone is declining precipitously, but certification pay has been holding up pretty well."

The bottom line, he says, is "Get certified!"

This is especially important if you're looking for a job, he says, because "right now, recruiters get so many resumes when they put jobs out that they're scanning for certifications."

Foote says that even if you already have a job and plan to stay in it, certification is a good idea -- especially if you work for a large company, that "Certifications are big now because managers are desparately trying to hang on to training budgets; they're getting [employees] certified instead of spending a lot in training." And, he adds, some of this is because lots of certifications hanging on a wall make a manager look good, often to the point where, he says, "whether the person certified is better [at the actual job] is immaterial."

Yes this is a cynical view. But it is a realistic one.

Security and Project Management

Foote says "security" is now just about the biggest salary-increasing buzzword you can have on your resume. It's the highest growth area; holding a widely-recognized security certification can net you an average 13.2% salary premium compared to uncertified sysadmins. The only certification Foote says is currently more valuable than one dealing with security is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification issued by the Project Management Institute, but he says it is not easy to get, that "you need 7000 hours of project management experience to qualify for the exam."

But if you have that experience, and pass the exam, Foote says you can get around 15% more than you can get if you have the experience but don't have the piece of paper. If you're a skilled IT project manager, this is certainly worth checking out.

Fast Facts and Figures

According to Foote:

  • The average sysadmin pay in the U.S. today is $71,860 per year
  • average sysadmin pay has declined 3% in the last year
  • Web developer pay has dropped 15% or more in the last year
  • Where you live has more to do with pay than almost anything else, all other things being equal

The IT Industry is Always Changing

That's one fact Foote kept returning to over and over: what's hot today is not the same as what was hot last year, and may not be hot next year.

He suggests that before you sign up for classes or certification exams, you check the online job boards to see how many jobs are being offered for what kind of work in your area, but warns that it is not wise to base your long-term career direction on jobs you see advertised today because of the constant changes in the IT industry.

And a final warning: Foote says you should not use salaries offered on job boards as a guide to what you might actually get paid if you find a job you want (with a company that wants you), because those listings are typically placed by human resource departments, and when it comes to salary and bonus negotiations you need to talk directly to budget-setting department supervisors, because they -- not HR -- are responsible for the actual hiring, and they may be prepared to pay much more (and sometimes a bit less) than the HR people think a given job is worth.

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