Work Culture

Celebrating Women in Tech: Shining a Spotlight on System Administrators

Happy International Women’s Day! In honor of the day and Women’s History Month, I want to shine a spotlight on some of my favorite women heroes: system administrators, better known in our industry as sys admins.

We are fortunate to live in a time when many fantastic organizations and education systems are focusing on women in tech, but I’ve found that often the emphasis is skewed toward women in software development and cybersecurity. Yet the range of opportunities for women is so much broader—everything from consulting to sales engineering to technical account management.

Many women who hold these roles today have backgrounds as sys admins, and often, they got their start on an IT helpdesk. Both tech support and sys admins are places where women can learn skills that will serve them well in their careers in technology.

A sys admin is responsible for implementing new technology in the data center, cloud environments, or at the edge and “keeping the lights on” at the same time. The sys admins I’ve met are generally self-taught because we must be Jills-of-all-Trades. They must be able to deploy, configure, and manage both physical and virtual servers running a plethora of operating systems. The job also requires understanding application architecture, workload performance requirements, storage area networks, networking, data, security, and more. And that’s not to mention that many sys admins also have more responsibilities, such as cloud administrator or site reliability engineer, as their organizations embrace a multi-cloud strategy. Put simply, if something critical must be done in IT, a sys admin is usually the one making it happen!

As you might have guessed, my career started as a sys admin! I also had a couple of IT helpdesk and PC repair jobs. Each position taught me troubleshooting skills that furthered my critical thinking capabilities, which I still rely on daily as a chief technology officer. When considering a new strategy or technology, the first question I ask is, “Why?” Once I form a solid reason to answer “Why?” I can move on to determining the what, how, etc. It’s difficult to tell a cohesive and convincing story if I do not have a firm grasp on why. And if I can’t tell the story, I can’t communicate my ideas to others.

My critical thinking skills stem from the technology decisions I made as a sys admin and architect – why does my company need this technology? Why is this technology the one we should use versus other options? Answering those and other questions gave me the information I needed to build a solid business case for new projects when I was a sys admin and architect.

But don’t just take my word for it! I asked a few women at VMware to share their thoughts and experiences on being a sys admin, and I received excellent insight.

Frances Wong, product line manager for VMware Cloud, was a long-time sys admin before joining VMware. She shared that being in IT is a customer service job. And I think this is a great point. Sys admins are there to make everything work and keep it running well. To quote Frances, “The office thinks the hero is the individual who got the printer working to print the paychecks on the 1st and 15th.” While there might not be many paychecks printed in an office in 2023, the mindset Frances shared is what is important. We are there to solve the most critical problems in the moment and for the future.

Jen Slabaugh, senior manager for End User Computing Solutions Engineering, shared her career path of “accidentally” becoming a sys admin after responding to a help wanted ad in college to earn money as tech support for the IT helpdesk. She is now passionate about helping women understand possible career paths in tech because some career counselors might not be aware of positions outside of software development.

So, when celebrating the great women who have influenced and changed tech in the past 200+ years, don’t forget to thank your sys admin! Without her, it’s possible that your organization’s most critical workloads would be offline.

Here’s a discussion I had with Hanna Phan Friend about my career path toward becoming VMware’s first female CTO. It includes more candid advice for women who want to get ahead in the tech industry.


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