Why Computer Science degrees translate to System Administration

I run across a lot of articles and posts that talk about how a degree in Computer Science is usually irrelevant to system administration and that you are just as well off with another degree or no degree at all. I think that line of logic is very short sighted and today I am going (or at least attempt) to explain why. By no means am I criticizing these approaches, in fact I believe in the logic that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I have found many other highly successful admins that have reached their positions by these alternate means. I just want to quickly clarify that I am not advising readers that taking the CS route to becoming a system admin is the only, right way to go, I am simply relating my own experiences in system administration to my background in CS and making a case of why pursuing a degree in Computer Science, or any other degree in engineering for that matter isn’t going to hurt your chances of becoming a sysadmin.

When you think of Computer Science you think of programming or maybe math, at least I do. Most CS programs these days have a heavy orientation towards programming and the scientific and mathematic applications of programming as it applies to the world around us. As an aside, I am beginning to see many more programs that are tailored to specific disciplines inside the realm of IT which looks promising. This is a great hybrid approach in my opinion because it gives students a chance to look at a few alternate options. Coding isn’t my passion so having an option to become a system administrator without the amount of intense coding from a CS program looks like an attractive approach.

It is true that many of the mundane daily tasks related to system administration don’t involve 8 hours a day of reading and writing code. Because of this I think it is important to characterize and distinguish a sysadmin as somebody who relies on software tools and programming to solve problems and technical challenges but doesn’t necessarily devote all of their time and energy to living in and interacting with code. The relationship of the sysadmin to programming is more of an indirect one, though still very important.

The farther along I wander on in my journey as a sysadmin the more I realize how the CS background is helping me.  I have a solid foundation in many of the core concepts that were taught through the CS program, which in turn  have indirectly influenced my abilities as a system administrator for the better. The first and most valuable asset my CS background has given me is the ability to write and understand code.  This is extremely useful in my daily slew of activities.  It allows me to approach problems with a programmatic methodology, it allows me to automate redundant and repeatable tasks with scripts, it gives me intuition into why databases or programs are slow, it allows me to debug issues systematically, and on and on.  Obviously these skills can be learned elsewhere but having them rolled up into your education when you learn about Computer Science as part of the package deal is very convenient.  I would much rather have this set of skills and have the ability to look at things from a different perspective than have to learn each of these techniques separately.  There is no way that somebody coming from a business or other similar background will know about silly things like big O notation or how different algorithms work at a fundamental level, it just isn’t part of their background so they don’t spend time thinking about these things.

This really parlays into other areas well and you are setting yourself up for a diversified and broad horizon for future employment prospects. For example, take a pure sysadmin that knows no programming or CS; at their core they know system administration. But what if they either get burnt out (which is common in this profession) or they don’t keep up the skills to match their position? There is nowhere in the industry for these individuals to turn, unless they want to go into management. That is why I believe individuals that choose not to further their careers are essentially crippling themselves and their future prospects by not knowing how or learning to program, or to at least understand how system administration and programming can relate to each other. With a diverse background the CS sysadmin could potentially move into a Devops role, a pure programming and development role or a management role. With the diverse IT ecosystem, programming and development skills are very much saught after and so the demand is high for these other types of positions and sets of skills.

Another well known fact in the IT industry, which I don’t necessarily agree with but nonetheless exists, is the fact that just having a CS degree will open doors that may not otherwise be open without a degree. I personally believe that a degree shouldn’t dictate your position but by having a degree you set yourself up for some unique opportunities and certainly are not hurting yourself. For example, all other things being equal, somebody scanning through resumes has to select an individual applicant that either has a degree in Computer Science or a degree in Philosophy. Which do you think will be picked? Like I said, I don’t think the hiring process is fair or even has anything to do with skill but can be used as a way to get ahead of the competition in the hiring process and can therefore a degree be valuable by itself as well as viewed as a strategic component in the hiring process if nothing else.

Here’s what I am saying. You don’t have to have a degree in Computer Science to be a great System Administrator. But the CS background definitely equips you with the tools to both understand some of the more abstract technical concepts and ideas and give you a robust framework working through and solving these difficult and complex problems. Ultimately the most important factors in being a good sysadmin (let alone anything else) is a combination of many different things, including a willingness to learn and the amount of experience an individual possesses. There is no cookie cutter way to build the perfect sysadmin and you will invariably find a very diverse group of people in this profession, but a head start with a CS degree is certainly one path that won’t hurt you and is a good attribute of many good sysadmins.

About the Author: Josh Reichardt

Josh is the creator of this blog, a system administrator and a contributor to other technology communities such as /r/sysadmin and Ops School. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.