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Date Thu 05 July 2012

I recently came by a question on ServerFault, Listing side projects in a jr. sysadmin resume asking whether people (hiring managers) think it’s appropriate to put “side projects” (running your own web and mail servers, freelance web work, etc.) on your resume. Since I’ve been interviewing candidates for a few SysAdmin positions lately, I thought I’d take the time to write down a few of my ideas on this. Two disclaimers first, though. (1) I tend to be pretty geeky, progressive, and very open source/DevOps focused at heart. Not everyone I work with will agree with what I say here. As a candidate, remember that you’ll probably interview with all types, and what I say here won’t be the best advice with Enterprise types. I’m very open source centric, and have always held SA jobs where the majority of the software I run is open source and not vendor supported. (2) If you happen to actually interview with me, don’t make the mistake of reading this and tailoring your resume/responses to fit if that’s not accurate. I’m not a manager, I’m a line SA.

First, my response to the ServerFault question:

Not a hiring manager, but an SA doing technical interviews and hiring recommendations, and also have only been with my current employer for 7 months (so I’ve been on both sides of the table recently). My current employer is a pretty big company and pays well, so we’re quite selective.

SA candidates with 5-10 years experience and a laundry list of certifications, software and hardware names, protocols, etc. are a dime a dozen. I’m looking for people who really love what they do. I have an instant bias against resumes that don’t have either a personal website/URL, or some personal projects/experience other than 9-5 job on them. There are lots of people who meet the technical qualifications. I want someone truly passionate, and that means learning and experimenting outside of work.

Personally, on my resume, I have a few personal projects listed (mainly programming projects and volunteer IT work I did for non-profits), and I also have a link to my personal resume site that has links to my SVN repo, and a bunch of other projects.

Some things I look for:

  • Not in all cases, but I like to see a website or blog listed on a resume. It’s a big plus. I have resume.jasonantman.com with copies of my resume in various formats, as well as a bunch of links I’d like employers to see.
  • If you’re a working SA, I should be able to find you on Google. Either by name or email address, I expect to google the contact information I find on your resume and find at least some mailing list/forum posts, bug reports, or software projects.
  • I can’t stress this enough, do not overstate your experience. I’ve been an SA for 5 years, a hobbyist for much longer, and I’ve never used the word “expert”. I list software, protocols, languages on my resume as beginner/basic, intermediate, and “strongest”. If you list something as “advanced” or “expert”, be prepared to answer expert-level questions. If you can’t explain a 3-way handshake, don’t list TCP/IP on your resume. If you list “strong knowledge of Linux internals”, you should be able to at least explain open() and close(). If you list advanced RADIUS experience, I will ask you to explain CSID, WPA key exchange, and what attributes are valid in an Access-Reject. In short, don’t say you’re a genius in something unless you are; you never know when your interviewer may have spent the last 6 months immersed in it.
  • All SAs should have some programming skills. If you’re a recent graduate (let’s say any time in the last 5-8 years) I’d expect at the very least a vague memory of C++, VB or Java. If you’re a working SA, I expect to see either strong Bash skills, or at least a functional knowledge of Perl. Python, PHP or Ruby; preferably both. If you’re a “senior” Linux SA, you should know enough C to be able to make sense of strace output.
  • As stated above, non-full-time-job projects are a big plus. When I took my first SA job, the majority of my experience had been doing volunteer work for a non-profit ambulance corps (which I was also a volunteer EMT on). If I said that I did 40 hours a week for them, it would be an understatement. I wrote a few 10,000+ line PHP applications for them, and designed the infrastructure to run them 24x7x365. Small shop? Sure. But I learned a LOT, especially about how to make things resilient enough that I didn’t get paged often.

I’m sure I’ll update this over time as I distill more of my ideas.


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