Network and Systems Administrators Need Certifications

Certification is more important to some IT jobs than to others.

A recent study by Burning Glass found that job postings seeking qualified systems administrators and network administrators list IT certifications as a requirement or preference far more often than is common for many other IT openings. It's the sort of research that begs the question, "What's up with that?"


Why would these areas filter to the top of a list about employer-requested certifications? Certifications are available that relate to many jobs, but apparently there is something that makes them more desirable for aspiring systems or network administrators.


The same study also found that IT job postings requesting or requiring a degree from a university — especially an advanced degree — are becoming less common. There's a strong supposition on the part of many, apparently, that many employers are shifting toward certification as a marker of competency and job readiness.


What Do Systems and Network Administrators Do?


Systems engineers (also called sysadmins or systems administrators) are responsible for the maintenance, configuration, and reliable operation of computer systems and servers. They install hardware and software, and also participate in research and development to continuously address the IT business needs of their organization. Systems administrators also actively resolve problems and issues with computer and server systems to limit work disruptions within the company.


Most systems administrators start their career by pursuing a degree in computer science, IT, or engineering. In addition, many systems administrators choose to get applicable certifications in order to improve opportunities for advancement. A common progression in the career path of a systems administrator is to move on to become a systems engineer and then a systems architect.


In contrast, network administrators (or engineers) are responsible for maintaining computer networks and solving any problems that may occur with them. Typical responsibilities of the job include: installing and configuring computer networks and systems; and identifying and solving any problems that arise with computer networks and systems.


This may sound generic but here's an important means of distinguishing between systems administrators and network administrators. If the job involves or directly affects data in transit, then the applicable job title is usually network administrator (or engineer). If the data involved is "at rest", then the applicable job title is usually systems administrator (or engineer).


The Importance of Hands-On Knowledge


Certification is more important to some IT jobs than to others.

I think if we were to look at the job duties of network and systems admins or engineers, you would see a direct correlation to certifications that require "hands-on" knowledge versus "book smarts." For systems, the same as for people, certification is: "A written guarantee that a system or component complies with its specified requirements and is acceptable for operational use."


For these two job descriptions, your validation doesn't come from a degree. Sitting in a classroom doesn't qualify you for the complex routes you would need to setup on routers and firewalls for a network engineering position, or for the highly technical software installs you would need to do for a systems engineering position.


What employers are looking for when they seek certifications from candidates are the hands-on certifications. Your business degree or MBA will matter little when you are setting up a cloud server on an AWS platform. What you need is a "validation" related to your ability to perform complex, technical tasks. That is what certifications do, and why employers seek certs from people entering these professions.


Don't Count the Chickens Without the Certs


Besides the overall understanding of why employers are seeking people with certifications and accreditations, there are sometimes specific instances or scenarios where a potential employer could request or desire a certification.


The first scenario is where your degree doesn't match the role you applied for, but you have some certifications or aspirations toward them. I once worked with a very talented network engineer who had a poultry science degree. He was one of the best people at troubleshooting complex routing issues on networks that I have ever met.


We hired him based on the fact that he had some networking certifications that I personally knew were very hard to achieve. If we hadn't seen those certs, then we would have passed on a great candidate who happened to have the wrong degree.


Oftentimes, this scenario plays out to the detriment of the job candidate. You may wind up not getting the job because the employer is keen on certifications. Just remember that, no matter what your educational background says, the right certification can get you a second look from an astute employer.


Get the Work Done


Certification is more important to some IT jobs than to others.

To put a finer point on my contention that the "proof is in the pudding," employers — or at least the ones you want to work for — understand that they need people who can do the work. Most certifications — or at least the ones you want to get — prepare you for real-world scenarios that will allow employers to pick the candidates who have proven their chops by gaining those certifications.


What if a scenario presents itself where you wanted to upgrade your role in the company or switch roles completely? How could you prove you could do the work to your employer or to the hiring manager? What if you obtained a certification that put you ahead of other candidates? You would have the distinct advantage over an outside competitor by knowing the inner workings of the company already — and having the certification proof that you could actually pull off the work.


I see this particular scenario for the company wanting certifications and the need for the candidate to have one as one of the best match-ups there could be. Systems and network administration positions are often-times moved into by business analysts or testing engineers, to name a few.


What if you don't have a degree at all or are just coming out of school? If an employer is keen on getting a best-fit candidate, then they will be looking at certifications for network and systems administrator candidates.


If you are just getting out of high-school or changing industries completely, then consider getting certifications that show you could do the work, learn on the job or achieve anything you set your mind to. The employers out there will take notice and will make the choice to bet on a resource with potential energy that costs a little less than one with kinetic energy that costs a lot more.


A no-lose proposition


To sum it up, employers are more likely to pick candidates for systems and network administrator positions who have certifications that prove their ability to do the highly technical functions of these jobs. We went over four specific scenarios that outline when an employer might (or would) want these certifications.


Bear in mind that it is almost always in your best interest to keep up on certifications that prove you can do the job you want — or even the job that you already have. As always, happy certifying!


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author
Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive.

Nathan Kimpel is a seasoned information technology and operations executive with a diverse background in all areas of company functionality, and a keen focus on all aspects of IT operations and security. Over his 20 years in the industry, he has held every job in IT and currently serves as a Project Manager in the St. Louis (Missouri) area, overseeing 50-plus projects. He has years of success driving multi-million dollar improvements in technology, products and teams. His wide range of skills include finance, ERP and CRM systems. Certifications include PMP, CISSP, CEH, ITIL and Microsoft.