Have you ever thought about changing careers and breaking into the IT field? Or, maybe you’re already in IT and dream about leaving the helpdesk behind for a more challenging and rewarding career as a system administrator?
Every year, millions of people do just that. But the big question is: How? How do you get potential employers to overlook the fact that you don’t have the right degree or experience to give you a job managing or troubleshooting critical production systems?
We recently sat down with Adam Anderson, author of the Kernel Mastery blog and Senior Support Technician at Silicon Mechanics, to talk about his experience breaking into the IT field. Read on to learn how he went from teaching Spanish, Japanese, and English at home and abroad to getting Linux certified and launching a new career as a Linux professional.
Interviewer: Thanks for joining us today, Adam. I love your blog, and I know that you’ve had a really interesting journey on the path towards Linux mastery. Can you tell us about it?
Adam: In college, I got a bachelor’s degree in Spanish along with a minor in Japanese. Then I got a Masters in Teaching as well as a TESOL certification, which allowed me to teach English abroad. After I graduated, I taught in Japan, Turkey, and Bahrain for several years. Turkey was really fun. I taught English and Drama classes for three years there. I returned to the US after five years or so of international teaching. I wanted to look for more opportunities to focus on my main subject areas: Spanish and Japanese.
Initially, while I was looking for a new teaching job in Washington State, I began to learn a little bit more about different technologies. I’d always been a tech enthusiast in a way, you know? Always loved reading Y Combinator/Hacker News, Slashdot and different subreddits having to do with technology and futurism. I just really liked looking at the trends of technology and different industries.
I started looking into Perl. I liked the story behind the programming language, and the creator, Larry Wall, is said to have based a lot of the principles and the syntax of Perl on natural human language. So that obviously tied in with my interests in linguistics, world languages, and so on. I thought that would be really neat and that what I think are my natural talents in language learning might extend into learning programming.
I started to get into Perl a bit. I got the Learning Perl book, I worked through a few chapters, and then I realized that it just wasn’t going to work to do this on my Windows laptop. I concluded that if I really wanted to get into programming or do web development I had to learn Linux. That’s where my real interest in Linux began.
Interviewer: That’s great. At what point did you decide to pursue a career in Linux?
Adam: I just held on to that idea for a while. And then after three more years teaching in Washington State, I decided I wanted to make the transition and make that my new career, because it was just a little bit more exciting for me. I had taught for nine years and I had a really good run at it, with a lot of great experiences, but I felt like I was hitting a ceiling both in my professional skills development and also in terms of earning money. I didn’t feel like there was much else I could do that was new and different and a good challenge for me.
Interviewer: How did you go about learning Linux?
Adam: Before I decided to make the switch, I started listening to some Linux podcasts: Linux Action Show and Everyday Linux—before it became Geek Talk or whatever it is now—and FLOSS Weekly. They gave me a little more insight into the industry, what it’s like to work in it and how you can break into it. There was an episode on Linux Action Show where a caller left a message and told his story about how he did Linux+ over the course of nine months and he was able to get his first job in IT right away after that. So, I said, “Hey, that’s very doable and doesn’t require going back to university and spending a whole bunch more money.”
At that point, I made the commitment to myself to make the transition. I started with some online Linux courses, went through all the labs and did the quizzes. I also got some Linux textbooks and the exam study guides. So, it was a combination of those things that helped me learn the content and pass the tests. And then what really helped me to be marketable on top of working towards certification was launching my open-source blog, Kernel Mastery, and just going through that process and learning a new stack, even in just a basic way.
I think the real key is you need technical knowledge, you need passion, and you need to have some way to show your passion, some kind of project in your portfolio that can prove to employers that this is not just you trying to get into a field to make more money. You actually want to be this in this industry, because it fits your character or where you’re going in life.
Interviewer: What would you recommend to someone else who is thinking about starting a blog?
Adam: WordPress and many of these other platforms make it really easy. You can do one-click installs and never have to type anything. But if you want to get into this industry, you need to build something, so I would recommend not doing the one-click install. Do the manual installation. Get into the weeds a little bit, and you’ll have some good stories to tell about it and the challenges you faced.
Interviewer: You mentioned working towards certification. What certifications did you get? And how did you decide which ones to pursue?
Adam: There’s obviously a wide variety of certifications, so you have to do your research. Some are more valuable than others and will give you a better return on your investment over time. I looked at a lot of the surveys and market data showing the compensation for the various IT certifications, and it looked like Linux+ and LPIC-1 were among the best in that category, if not the best. So I think these are great.
I first did Linux Essentials from CompTIA, just to give myself a gentler introduction. Then, I did Linux+, but I got the three-in-one (Linux+, LPIC-1, and SUSE CLA). It took me a year to go through that.
Interviewer: Did you start looking for a job before you got certified, or did you wait until you got certified?
Adam: I started to look in early 2016, when I was about half-way done with my certifications. I went to a number of Meetups in the Seattle area that were tech or Linux related. That was helpful. I could continuously calibrate my strategy and say, “Okay, so there’s a lot of people here that are very confident with scripting and they do Ruby and DevOps stuff all the time. Do I want to do that, or do I want to focus on the more traditional SysAdmin type career track and aim for those kinds of jobs?” It was hard to know where to focus, and there’s so much going on all the time. If you just say ‘SysAdmin’ it could mean so many things. Going to the Meetups helped me to figure out what I would be more interested in.
One day someone at a Meetup announced a job, and it happened to be for Silicon Mechanics. I got called in for an in-person interview during my last week of teaching, I passed the final Linux+ exam the week after, and then I was offered the job and started the very next week.
Interviewer: That’s such a great story. It’s exciting to see how you were able to make this career transition and break into a new field. How do you use Linux in your current job?
Adam: I’m working at Silicon Mechanics, a systems integrator and custom design manufacturer. The company helps customers deploy open technologies, from building out HPC or storage clusters to the latest in virtualization and containerized services. Working in our Support organization, each and every day I’m challenged to be able to respond to a wide variety of questions; from low-level hardware issues to firmware questions, remote/out-of-band management issues, networking, file systems, RAID, cluster management, and HPC.
I’ve more or less adopted a policy for myself of only using Linux on my workstations at work. I use it in that capacity, and only use my Windows laptop when I need to for screen sharing or some of the Microsoft-centric collaboration tools. When it comes to the systems we build here, most of our customers who want an OS installed go with Ubuntu or CentOS. Everyone here in production, services, and support need to be quite familiar with Linux to know how to get around, configure things, and troubleshoot things. In Support, we have our own diagnostic script that is written in Bash as well. It is fairly comprehensive and grabs all of the hardware and diagnostic information that we need. So, of course, we need to be able to navigate through that and parse those outputs too. It’s pretty much Linux all the time for us.
Interviewer: Do you have any advice for other people who come from a nontechnical background and want to break into the IT field?
Adam: I’d say keep it simple. Find a Meetup and attend it regularly to start to build up a network of people that you can talk to. Even if it’s just occasionally, having someone who can act like a mentor is really important. So, find a Meetup or a mentor, and then look into A+, Network+, or a Linux certification like LPIC-1 or Linux+. Having a certification can be very helpful in getting your foot in the door.
Also, you could research professional organizations like LOPSA [League of Professional System Administrators], which I joined this year, or look into apprenticeship programs. We have a promising new program in Washington State called Apprenti. It is funded by the state and it is part of the Washington Technology Industry Association.
Silicon Mechanics just hired an apprentice earlier this year from Apprenti. She has been going through a process which I’m very jealous of personally, because it seems like the perfect way to get into the field. Apprenti is providing technical training, and we are providing opportunities for her to shadow people at our company. She’s actually going to be earning three technical certifications this year as part of this program. I think it’s a great program.
Interviewer: Last question. How would you describe the impact that learning Linux has had on your life and career?
Adam: It’s been mind-opening for me as far as understanding how people around the world can collaborate on a large project like this, a large technical project like the Linux kernel. We have a lot of people with a lot of opinions, but they end up creating something that’s immensely useful and has actually helped to change the world. Linux is pretty much a pillar of the internet, with so many servers running it. And then to see how large corporations (Google, Microsoft now, and others) contribute back to open-source projects, I think that’s really amazing and it gives me hope that people will continue to have good, robust options, things that make life easier, whether it’s an operating system or programming language or whatever. So that’s been exciting for me.
And then obviously it’s lucrative. I was able to get a job knowing Linux at a basic or intermediate level after studying it intensely for one year. Plus, it’s fun and it’s always changing. The ecosystem in Linux is always changing and evolving.
Interviewer: I love the whole ethos of the open-source community and everyone’s desire to contribute and be part of something larger. And I see the same thing in what you’re doing with your blog, and also taking the time today for this interview. Thank you.