4 Must-Learn Skills for Windows System Administrators

During the recent PowerShell Summit in Charlotte, NC, I was part of a panel discussion on the future of the IT pro. The job and its duties that you have now will most likely change in the next few years. So unless you plan on retiring in the next few years, then there are some things you need to do if you plan on having a long and rewarding career as an IT professional. Let me also stress that I’m talking about your career, as the job you have today is not your career. If you limit yourself to only doing what you need to meet your current job, then your career will advance at a snail’s pace. Although you probably feel secure, there’s no guarantee that your job will be there tomorrow. You could be out of job by no fault but your own. If you haven’t taken steps to actively manage your career, then how long do you think it will take to find the next job that’s really something you want?

I tell you all of this not to frighten you but arouse your passion. If you aren’t passionate about IT and advancing your career, then you might as well move on now, and I hear Chipotle is expanding in the US. All kidding aside, this means you might have to invest some time and money. If you wait for your job or employer, then you’ve waited too long and you’re falling behind your peers. You have to keep telling yourself that your job is not a career. Although it is nice if you can get your employer to send you to conferences or training classes, this shouldn’t be your only criteria. At the PowerShell Summit there were many attendees who paid their own way, which speaks volumes to their commitment to their careers.
Of course, I’m not blind to budgets and the need to balance family and work. I have to do the same thing. So however you can do it, here are four IT skills I think you should be focusing on.

1. PowerShell

It probably comes as no surprise that PowerShell tops the list. Yes, you need to have a grasp of core concepts. Eventually you will need to be able to implement and troubleshoot PowerShell remoting, which is going to be a critical skill. Personally, I think you should learn a little bit about regular expressions. They are useful in more ways than you might imagine, and I wish I had learned sooner. You should also strive to become a PowerShell script and toolmaker. As you develop your PowerShell skill sets, don’t simply list PowerShell on your resume. Instead, describe what you did with PowerShell and the impact it made, such as, “Using PowerShell automated server event reporting from 5 hours a week to 2 minutes, which saved the company $10,000 a year.” Hopefully this is something you can accomplish in your current position.

2. Desired State Configuration (DSC)

As part of learning PowerShell, you will need to understand the concepts and techniques of configuring servers with Desired State Configuation (DSC). Microsoft is investing a tremendous amount of resources into DSC. If they think it is important, don’t you think it should be important to you? You will see DSC play a much larger role in how you manage not only Windows servers, but also non-Windows platforms.

3. Docker and Containers

The concept of containers has been part of the Linux world for a while now. and it will play a major role in the next versions of Windows. This is more than just another virtualization technique and personally, I’m very interested to see where Microsoft and Docker go. For IT pros on the Windows stack, this is a fledgling technology, and you have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor. Don’t put it off, or you’ll put yourself at a disadvantage.

4. Microsoft Azure

The last major technology I suggest you begin learning about is Azure and cloud technologies in general. Personally, I know this is an area where I definitely need to step up my game. Even if your company isn’t doing anything with Azure now, they might tomorrow or your next job might depend on your Azure skills and knowledge. Microsoft is constantly expanding and extending its Azure services, and I think the more proficiency you can demonstrate, then the better off you will be. Don’t simply say you know Azure, but explain what you have done with it.

Where Do I Start?

Perhaps by now you are feeling a little overwhelmed or even disheartened. Take a deep breath. The most important first step is to believe and accept that only you can manage your career and it has to be an active process. Next, give yourself a little self-assessment. Given my list, what do you are already know? What gaps do you need to fill in? Next, start building a plan. What do you want to learn first? While it may seem self-serving, I have to think PowerShell would be at the top. So many of the other items on my list are either extensions or will be managed by PowerShell.
Ask yourself how you like to learn. Are you good at reading books? Do you need video training? Do you benefit from live, in-person training or presentations? If you have the budget, sure buying books, attending conferences or purchasing a Pluralsight subscription are great steps you can take. But there is so much you can do that doesn’t require a huge monetary investment. But it will require time and commitment. Instead of plopping down on the couch to watch The Flash, spend your time on one of these tasks:

At some point you might need to setup a test lab. This too doesn’t need to cost a lot of money. If you are running Windows 8 or later you can most likely run Hyper-V. You can get evaluation versions of Microsoft products to setup and test. You can use the free VirtualBox to run your test environment.

Will this be easy? Of course not. I am firm believer that we make our own luck and often that comes as the result of doing the hard work to prepare ourselves when the opportunity arises. I’m not “lucky” to do what I do or be a Microsoft MVP, I worked hard for years to put myself into this position. You need to do the same thing and if I can help get you where you want to be, I’d love the opportunity.
Do you actively manage your career? What items or technologies are on your list? How do you balance everything? What would you like to add to my opinions? Please share in the comments.