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Systems Administrator, or Infrastructure Architect?

There's a career slant to all of this.

Infrastructure architects typically develop themselves via a systems administration career track. That creates a dilemma. A systems administration background is crucial for the development of a good infrastructure architect, but we have found that the skillset, project time horizon, and coding habits needed by an infrastructure architect are often orthogonal to those of a systems administrator -- an architect is not the same animal as a senior sysadmin.

In a nutshell, a good infrastructure architect embodies a balanced combination of systems administration and software development experience, as well as business sense, writing, hardware, project and team management, physical plant, and interpersonal skills. Because the field is still in its infancy, the IA also needs a good foundation in practical science and engineering in order to stand a chance of solving original problems on a regular basis.

Good architects seem to be motivated by impatience and efficiency; they hate doing the same thing twice, and are always looking for a better way. But at the same time, they must have the patience that comes with good people skills, a dedication to the organization's mission, and the hard-nosed pragmatism needed to preserve and improve return on investment for the business.

Infrastructure architects tend to spend most of their time writing code. This makes them "look like" developers or toolsmiths, in the same way that a building architect might "look like" a draftsperson. "Architecture" is a pattern of thinking; tool writing (or drafting) is how the architect expresses the design.

It's a complex mix. There is no degree program or established career path which develops this sort of person, which means that to acquire real-world experience in this skillset a person has to have done some intentional career-hopping.

This causes no end of confusion and expense when it comes to recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and writing and reading resumes. Recruiters generally don't know what an "infrastructure architect" is, and managers far too often assume that "senior sysadmin" means you know how to flip tapes faster. Most of us at one time or another have been restricted from improving a broken infrastructure, simply because it didn't fit within our job description.

In order to improve this situation, we might suggest that "infrastructure architect" be added to the SAGE job descriptions, and USENIX and affiliate organizations help promulgate this new career path. A better understanding of this career field will be key to improving the state of the art of enterprise infrastructures.

In the meantime, we'll do our part on this site to continue to try to build the consensus needed to codify the field.


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