Three technical skills every IT admin should have

If you're an IT administrator lacking in a technical background, learn all you can about these three fundamental principles. It will make all the difference in your career.

Not everyone has the luxury of learning the basics of IT at the start of his or her career, and that's OK. But at some point, you need to learn, or learn more about, a few essentials in order to get ahead.

Many people I know focus on one area of IT -- be it Microsoft Exchange, the AS/400 or database administration. Often these people were former accountants, English majors or blue collar workers who made a career change into IT. They took an interest in something, and they made it their specialty. Unfortunately, all too often the learning stops there.

When you enter IT at this level and focus in only one area, you can get pigeonholed. The lack of broad computer, software and networking knowledge can also make it difficult to troubleshoot problems, design new systems and assess business risks. You simply won't know or understand all the facts -- it's like a medical doctor who doesn't understanding the basics of chemistry and biology. If you claim to be an expert in any arena, you have to know the fundamental elements of your work.

Here are three areas essential to your success in any IT career:

  • TCP/IP – Knowing the suite of protocols and basic IP addressing is crucial for anyone working with networked computers, period.
  • OSI model – It took me about 10 years to wrap my head around the concept of the OSI model, but once I got it, it helped everything fall in place. Just knowing the reasoning and context behind the physical, network and application layers will really help you in your day to day IT work and when speaking with vendors and management about specific business problems that networked computers and software applications can help fix.
  • Programming – That BASIC class you took in high school or that Fortran class you took in college probably aren't enough. The basics still apply, but you most likely took them too long ago for the material to be of any value today. Understanding things like program variables, compilation and debugging are essential, and so are the fundamentals of modern-day HTML, JavaScript, Java and C#. Spending a few hours perusing some software resources on the Web and books in the bookstore will really pay off.

Understanding and being conversant on topics such as the TCP/IP protocol suite and the OSI model with other IT professionals and management will do wonders for your career. It'll provide more opportunities and just makes things easier. When you hear other people talking about bits and bytes you can be comfortable with the conversation rather than having it create anxiety.

Don't let your lack of technical knowledge be what holds you back. Your key focus moving forward should be to know a lot about a lot. It's OK to find your niche and specialize in it, but if you want to be successful in IT over the long haul, you can't afford to overlook the basics.

Kevin Beaver, is an information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments. Kevin has authored/co-authored seven books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies and Hacking Wireless Networks For Dummies (Wiley). He's also the creator of the Security on Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. Kevin can be reached at  kbeaver@principlelogic.com.

This was first published in February 2010

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