Road To MCSE: The Future Of Network Administration

Sunday Nov 26th 2000 by ServerWatch Staff
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I read an interesting article recently addressing the disappointing pay rates commanded by todays network administrators. It appears that the pot of gold promised by less than ethical training firms is beginning to look like a pot of coal for those who sought to enter the industry with dollar signs in their eyes. However, the article took me aback because I found the low rates somewhat surprising.

Thomas Shinder

I read an interesting article recently addressing the disappointing pay rates commanded by today's network administrators. It appears that the pot of gold promised by less than ethical training firms is beginning to look like a pot of coal for those who sought to enter the industry with dollar signs in their eyes. However, the article took me aback because I found the low rates somewhat surprising.

Traditionally, the network administrator for even medium sized concerns was responsible for virtually the entirety of the network design and function from the ground up. A single individual, or more likely, a single small group of individuals, was responsible for the software, hardware and network infrastructure. These individuals had years of practical, hands-on experience and a depth of knowledge consistent with their experience. These people commanded high salaries because no one else could do their jobs. If the company lost one of these key team members, they were hard pressed to replace him.

But like all industries, the IT industry has become exponentially more complex. The amount of information a person needs to learn in order to be a well-rounded and well-qualified member of a network administration and design team has increased at a Malthusian rate. Those people that have been in the business for years have a learning curve, but since they are "at their core" network engineers, their learning curve isn't nearly as steep as it is for those with limited experience.

Another important factor is that the number of applicants for jobs in the industry has increased by leaps and bounds. But not all applicants are created equal. A lot of them want "jobs", and hopefully well paying jobs. The person looking for a "job" is quite different than the person who is making for himself a professional career.

On the next page, we'll talk about the "job" seeker.

Thomas Shinder

The "job" seeker is someone that wants to get into the industry because he thought it might be interesting and was told the pay was good. He might also be someone that didn't have any interest at all in computers and networking, but was sold down the river by someone telling him that all he had to do was sit through some classes, and the "phat" paychecks would be rolling in "in no-time". The person looking for a "job" might also be someone that has an interest in computers and networking, but lacks the dedication, resources, or emotional support to do what it takes to make a professional career for himself.

The industry needs job seekers. As the size and levels of complexity of network and computing environments grows, so does the number of positions of different types open up. And with the increased number of positions comes a greater degree of stratification of those positions. Some opportunities require little more than knowing how to answer the phone and searching a help-desk database. Some require a basic knowledge of a particular operating system, software package, or network device. And some require that the person is a master of operating systems and network topologies.

On the other hand, there is the person looking for a professional career. He reads everything he can get his hands on, he ask questions of himself and others about incongruent issues, he pinches pennies and foregoes life's pleasures to obtain the hardware and software he needs to advance his career. When he's not working, he's studying and practicing in order to gain more and more experience and learn the nuances and "undocumented features" of the technology that has galvanized his attention.

These professionals are the "go to" guys. They are the ones that everyone goes to when no one can or will find the answer to a particular problem. They are paid well and are highly regarded because they will, time after time, pull a business out of a potential disaster that could negatively impact the company's bottom line.

On the next page, we'll try to figure out what this has to do with salary discrepancies.

Thomas Shinder

What's all this have to do with the salary discrepancies I noted at the beginning of the article? I think the problem of low salaries is related to the emerging stratification of talent in the industry. The oft quoted figures of high salaries in the network administration field were for those that already had a very comprehensive skill-set and years of experience. The "average" salaries we see now due to the amalgam of skills required in the industry.

This is similar to what we see in medicine in the United States. Medicine is a very complex endeavor, similar to the IT business. And the medical industry is stratified. In a simple classification scheme, there are LVNs, RNs and the MDs. Each of these groups studies similar subjects: Anatomy, Physiology, Biochemistry, Pharmacology and others.

However, the amount of study and hard-nosed dedication required of each of these groups is stratified. On the top of the food chain are the physicians, who put in a minimum of 12 years of post graduate work of dedicated study before they can even practice, and then after they enter practice, they must constantly study to keep up with the advances in their field. RNs must put in at least four years, and LVNs 2 years. They all practice "medicine" in one fashion or another, but their skills, and their salaries, differ based on their level in the hierarchy.

The IT industry does not, as yet, have such a hierarchy. The only standard that exists right now is how much do you know, how much can you do, how fast can you do it, and how fast can you learn to do the next "new thing". The faster and better informed you are, the more money you can make. It's definitely a performance based compensation system.

So, while you slog your way through your MCSE studies, think about where you want to be in the IT food chain. Do you want to be the job seeker? Or maybe you are looking for more, and you're interested in the middle rung and want to be the network admin? Or, maybe you want the "Brass Ring" and become the network engineer who knows a lot about everything and continues to learn more everyday.

Your earning potential is directly related to what decisions you make, so consider your options carefully. But whatever decision you make, you'll make the most of your position by becoming the best you can be for whatever you try to do. So go for it - the pot is still out there; it's just that some pots have more gold in them than others.

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