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System administrator skills you need to succeed in the cloud

Cloud technology gives IT administrators more tools to manage enterprise resources than ever before, but the expanding technology also requires admins to develop a new skill set.

System administrators must continuously learn new technical skills as organizations move to the cloud. Surviving the transition is one thing, but thriving requires admins to adapt their career development plans.

Some system administrator skills, such as using PowerShell, remain essential in every administrator's tool belt. Even with mastery over the staples, admins would have to fight to stay current in the fast-paced IT industry. Microsoft and other vendors keep admins on their toes with developments in the cloud, including Microsoft Teams or Azure services. Microsoft even redesigned the Azure certification path to reflect the changing job roles.

Steve Goodman, a principal tech strategist at Content and Code, based in London, helps customers migrate to the cloud and understand how to use Office 365. He spoke with us to discuss system administrator skills necessary for the cloud, how to stay relevant as technology changes and ways to avoid burnout.

Where do most organizations run workloads? Would you recommend different system administrator skills for different data center deployments, such as hybrid?

Steve Goodman: The end position for most organizations is some form of hybrid environment, whether that's Office 365 or more traditional workloads moving partly to Azure. People who run service for their local Active Directory -- for at least the foreseeable future, apart from the smallest organizations -- are likely to carry on with on-premises Windows Servers running local Active Directory. That will be synchronized to Office 365, Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS) and other services up in the cloud. Most IT professionals also need to know Azure Active Directory.

Steve Goodman, principal tech strategist at Content and CodeSteve Goodman

A lot of the traditional technologies that were on premises, such as VPN connectivity and multifactor authentication solutions, are moving to Office 365 or the EMS enterprise mobility and security components. People still need that legacy infrastructure knowledge and experience, because they still have to support it. They also need these new skills where they know deeply about one particular technology, like Azure Active Directory Premium or multifactor authentication, and a good high-level understanding across the broad Microsoft 365 suite.

What are the must-have system administrator skills now, and will these change from year to year?

Goodman: The must-have skill still goes back to identity. Intune and Windows Autopilot appear to be the two biggest growth areas. Almost every customer that we're working with [at Content and Code] is looking to manage PCs and mobile devices using Intune and Windows Autopilot. PowerShell also remains vital, and it translates completely from the on-premises world into the cloud.

They need to contribute and learn skills in Microsoft 365, Office 365, mobile device management and end-user computing -- the whole Windows device management story in Microsoft 365. We're seeing constant demand for Microsoft Teams as the gateway to using Office 365.

Teams has so many changes because it consumes so many different services. It's a constant journey. Teams is almost one of those technologies where it requires more than one person to understand all of it within an organization. Some people might become more focused on the high-level architecture, like Exchange administrators focusing on Teams or mobile device admins focusing on EMS and Intune products and Active Directory.

We're seeing a shift in learning those skills that come as part of the Microsoft 365 suite, and it complements their existing skills and builds upon their existing knowledge. What we see with a lot of the customers at Content and Code is they are changing the operating model for their IT services from one that is more reactive and based around long planning for change to one where they can begin consuming new services as they come along.

They need to be more proactive about the new services that might be launched and changes to the services. They have to rapidly learn about the new technologies and decide how best to implement them for the organization. Then, they need to go through a cycle of getting that deep knowledge if they've chosen to push ahead with rolling it out.

What advice would you give to administrators about their career paths? How has that changed from even a couple of years ago?

Goodman: You might say in five years' time, I want to be a Skype for Business administrator and to be managing enterprise voice for a large organization. Today, you couldn't make that sort of plan for your career, because you'll need to be learning about the technology continuously. The technology that you'll be rolling in at five years' time can be vastly different from how it is today.

You have to aim for the role you want, rather than focusing on a particular technology.
Steve GoodmanPrincipal tech strategist at Content and Code

Our podcast with Will Rowe made a good point that it's more about focusing on what you want out of your career and what makes you happy. That might not be the technology that you're using today. It might be the things that you're doing as part of a role. It might be designing rollout plans and rolling out new versions of software, or it might be managing maintaining the suite that you've got. You have to aim for the role you want, rather than focusing on a particular technology.

[IT] engaging with the [business side] is critical. Traditionally, a decade or more ago, the productivity side of the suite had a lot less business engagement. IT would build out these products, phone systems, email systems and file systems, and they would effectively throw them over the fence. We see a lot more engagement with the business where IT works to understand what the user base wants to achieve, the pain points users have and how the solutions will solve actual business problems.

That has two effects. One, it means that we'll be able to deliver a productivity suite that is actually making the business more productive. It also means that we're listening to users or actually understanding the things that they're using the systems for.

Instead of the users finding other tools that they need, seeing no value in IT and causing potential security breaches, we've engaged with the business and spent time understanding their pain, solving the problem for them and providing them a decent set of tools that will help them achieve what they need. IT becomes a valuable part of the business again.

What can admins do to handle the demand for more skills and not get burnout?

Goodman: Get a high-level understanding of the wider suite that you're working with and then, for the time being, focus on particular areas where you're going to be able to provide value. That might be focusing on Teams or Microsoft cloud app security, rather than trying to understand the entire suite. You can't know everything. Accepting that and focusing on the areas that you can provide value is going to be very helpful. You're not trying to concern yourself with all of Office 365, all of Azure, all of the time.

Learn about things incrementally. Don't expect to learn the entire products in one go. Learn about the areas that are going to be most important and use the resources that are available.  For example, if we look at Teams where it's got lots of different technologies in it, then you might want to focus on the voice aspects of it. Those are smaller areas of a large product that are easier to bite off and understand bit by bit.

This was last published in May 2019

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