December 13, 2004

How to get a job as a Linux administrator

Author: Krissi Danielsson

If you ask Scot Melland, it's a good time to be a Linux professional. IT jobs across the board are picking up, but Melland, the CEO of Internet career site Dice, says Linux knowledge is a particularly hot commodity. Job postings on Dice for Linux professionals are multiplying at a much faster rate than any other skill set.

"There are currently 3,400 jobs requesting Linux on the Dice site, up about 200 percent since last year," Melland says. "Of these, just over 700 are for administrators."

With Linux adoption rates on the rise across the industry, it makes sense that companies have a growing need for people who know their way around the open source world. After all, someone has to manage the systems once they're deployed. Salary surveys suggest the average pay for an IT professional working with Linux is around $60,000 per year, so there are definite benefits to entering this market if you have some experience with Linux.

But what are the keys to breaking into this hot job market? What types of qualifications would a jobseeker need to get in the door, and what's the best way to demonstrate enthusiasm for a prospective employer?

Certifications vs. experience

First things first: The necessary credentials vary widely by region, level of position, and even by corporation. While some companies may hire applicants with no experience or credentials at all, it's far more common that applicants need real-world documentation of experience and knowledge.

Certifications can be one path to getting skills down on paper, particularly if you pursue certifications based on performance rather than paper-based exams. "Performance-based certifications can give you an edge in the absence of much on-the-job experience," says Peter Childers, vice president of Global Learning Services at Red Hat. "Prospective employers know you had to prove your skills on live systems."

Choosing a certification program is anything but an easy task. There are dozens of options, and they vary heavily in cost and respectability. Looking at Dice job postings, "the most marketable Linux certifications are Red Hat (RHCE) and Linux Professional Institute (LPIC 2)," says Melland. Administrators should consider the options carefully before committing to a program. A drawback of the Red Hat series is that they are vendor-specific, but given that Red Hat is one of the most widely used Linux distributions in the corporate world, there can still be substantial benefits to having an RHCT (Red Hat Certified Technician) or RHCE (Red Hat Certified Engineer) certification.

"Red Hat certifications are the fastest-growing Linux certifications in the market and the fastest-growing performance-based certifications in IT," says Childers. "This wouldn't be true if applicants and their employers weren't seeing firm results from this."

Experience is the biggest key, according to Allan Hoffman, technology jobs expert at career megasite Monster. "I am not big on recommending certifications in general way," he says. Instead, Hoffman recommends that entry-level applicants who lack experience try volunteer work or an internship to get something down on their resumes first. Places such as nonprofit organizations, churches, and schools are excellent places to start looking for opportunities to gain experience. They often cannot afford the licensing costs of Windows and may be more likely to use Linux, and working for such a cause can also demonstrate enthusiasm and initiative.

So, while certifications certainly don't hurt, they may not be right for everyone and are certainly not a prerequisite for working as a Linux administrator. "Of the 3,400 Linux jobs on the site, only about 500 request certification -- and most of these don't require it," Melland points out.

Demonstrating enthusiasm

Another key to breaking into Linux administration, and really any field, is being able to demonstrate vitality and enthusiasm for the profession during a job interview. This shows the employer that an applicant cares about the job at hand and is willing and ready to make a difference. "If you're serious about the profession, that matters a great deal," says Hoffman.

It also helps to work on giving a good impression during the job interview and find ways to show non-IT experience. "In today's climate, companies are looking for people that have other skills, like customer service and project management," says Childers. It's a good idea to find ways to talk about managing complex projects and displaying communication skills. "Even something like working in a call center and getting an award for customer service can help your ability to present yourself positively."

Breaking in via Windows

For applicants with experience working on Windows, there can be another path to working as a Linux administrator. "Find a boss who hates Microsoft," recommends Troy Backus, a network administrator in Lancaster, Penn.

"I had been playing with Linux for years previous to coming to my current employer," Backus said. When the higher-ups decided to try running Linux, Backus was the one who knew the most about it, and the administrator duties naturally fell to him. Sometimes, companies working on Windows might be mulling a switch to Linux, so getting a job as an administrator could be as simple as being in the right place at the right time.

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