Certification, Culture, and the Availability of Systems Administrators

Ever wondered why it is less expensive to hire an administrator for a Windows based network than it is to hire an administrator for a Linux based network? Supply and demand is the obvious answer. The supply of Linux administrators is smaller than the demand for Linux administrators. The supply of Windows administrators is more aligned with the demand for Windows administrators.

This raises some interesting questions. Why is the supply of Linux administrators smaller than the demand for Linux administrators?

I’m reasonably sure that the cost of Linux administrators is a direct reflection of the fact that  Linux administrators are as rare as hens teeth. Why is this the case?

I suspect it has to do with training and certification. Microsoft provides a whole lot of structures, such as their training and certification process, for the professional development of systems administration skills on their platform. Someone who wants to aim towards a career as an administrator of Windows Server has a very clear path to follow. Most Windows administrators have some form of Microsoft certification. Although no one really claims that having a certification means that someone knows all there is to know about Windows administration, the certification process itself provides a structure for learning about Windows products in the context of daily systems administration type tasks.

Microsoft seems to understand that not only do you have to provide a product for the server room, but that you need to also provide people that can run that product before organizations will start to use it. There is no point having an awesome product if you can’t find anyone to run the damn thing!

While Linux is definitely available as a product, “growing” a readily available supply of Linux administrators has proven to be far more difficult. Perhaps this is partly due to the Linux culture of “work it out yourself”. There is an attitude amongst more experienced Linux administrators that you can only learn Linux administration by doing it, not by reading about it. That it should be difficult to learn to be a Linux administrator. That you can’t “book learn” Linux. When I’ve asked Linux administrators about the value of certification they’ve told me that certification is just a worthless piece of paper with no value whatsoever.  That passing a test doesn’t mean that you know anything about running a real Linux server.

When I’ve talked to Linux administrators about the RedHat RHCE certification, the impression they give is that it is something that is probably worthwhile, but not something that they would actively pursue themselves. Certifications are just pieces of paper, even if they are just pieces of paper from RedHat.

I think that this “cultural difference” is important. On the Windows side there is a defined path with clear marker points where a person can go from being new to the industry to a generally recognized level of knowledge through certification. It won’t necessarily make them a great administrator, but does show that they have demonstrated that they know how to perform a broad range of common job related tasks. That pursuing certification is worthwhile because most other Windows administrators have pursued certification at some point.

On the Linux side I suspect that there is more of an apprenticeship culture. That there is no clear path to being a Linux sysadmin when you are new to the industry other than spending many years as the designated PFY  to some elder BOFH  . That pursuing certification is a waste of time for the Linux admin because other Linux administrators don’t have them and don’t see them as all that necessary.
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