The Future of System Administration in Cybersecurity

Every year, it seems like the tech skills gap is growing. The demand for top-tier tech talent is enormous, and that makes it challenging for organizations to attract new talent and retain existing employees.

Additionally, the rapid pace of technological innovation puts countless companies behind the eight ball when it comes to hiring — and retaining — the best and brightest in information technology (IT). While colleges and universities struggle to create and deliver computer science and information systems programs in a manner fast enough to accommodate technological change, companies across every industry fail to actively develop new employees.

In addition, the tech skills gap is only expected to widen over the next few years. In fact, the 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study (GISWS) predicts as many as 1.8 million IT jobs could be unfilled by 2022. Making matters worse, the outlook for the cybersecurity industry is even more grave. According to recent estimates, there will be as many as 3.5 million unfilled positions in cybersecurity by 2021.

Skills Gap = Gap in Cybersecurity

Today, we use the internet for a myriad of functions, from work to play, and we operate under the assumption that security experts are keeping us safe from cybercriminals while we’re online. However, in today’s IT environment, security teams are already spread rather thin, and predictions expect this issue will only be exacerbated in the coming years as the shortage continues to grow.

Because security teams strive to protect our most important and sensitive information, the deficiency of qualified security professionals is projected to cost businesses across every industry $6 trillion as cyberattacks continue to increase in size, sophistication, and cost. No matter the industry, the cybersecurity skills gap only serves to open the door for hackers and bad actors to do an increasing amount of damage.

The Constant Evolution

The rapid evolution of IT and cybersecurity has established them as critical functions that must be embedded into the core of modern business. This shift has developed across all industries, even those that have traditionally been non-technical in nature. As a consequence, more companies are competing for the same talent in the marketplace, which makes hiring and retaining high-quality employees an even greater concern.

While a majority of IT professionals have specific skills related to certain areas, many of them do not have the breadth of skills or the experience necessary to secure the ever-evolving modern threat landscape. In fact, just a small percentage of the cybersecurity workforce has the necessary skills and experience to fulfill cloud architect responsibilities, for example.

As previously mentioned, this evolution has created an environment in which the expanding cybersecurity industry reveals different new skills gaps as established roles shift and change. One shifting and changing role is that of a system administrator, or sysadmin.

The Role of a SysAdmin in Cybersecurity

Because our reliance on computer networks is only getting stronger, the information stored within them can be incredibly valuable to hackers and bad actors looking to cause damage. As such a critical piece of modern business, computer networks require a dedicated employee or several employees to manage the day-to-day operations of the network, which is where sysadmins come in.

Whether organizing, installing or supporting the computer systems, sysadmins have a myriad of responsibilities. Some of those tasks may include anticipating the needs of the network and computer systems before setting it up, installing network hardware and software, ensuring upgrades and repairs are implemented in a timely fashion, maintaining network and computer system security, adding and assigning users and network permissions, as determined by the organization and training users on the proper use of the hardware and software on the system.

Sysadmins are ultimately responsible for the upkeep, configuration and reliable operation of computer systems, especially those with multiple users like servers. They aim to ensure that the uptime, performance, resources, and security of the system they manage meets the users’ needs within their company’s budget.

The Cloud and the Shifting Nature of the SysAdmin Role

As cloud technology continues to gain in popularity and the availability and adoption of modern tools that allow anyone in the IT department, from developers to administrative assistants, to procure and provision servers and services, it’s become en vogue to believe that the role of the sysadmin is obsolete.

As companies outsource administrative and non-critical apps to public or private clouds, junior or entry-level positions and other admin roles are disappearing. Despite grim predictions, the role of the system administrator is alive and well as its duties and responsibilities continue to evolve and change while remaining critical to cybersecurity and IT.

However, the sysadmin role isn't going away, it's just evolving alongside the rest of the technology industry and becoming less focused on hardware and infrastructure and more on services delivery. Rather than feeling threatened by cloud computing, many system admins think the cloud is a way to actually reinvent and do their jobs better. While there will certainly be sysadmins in the on‑premise world who are hesitant to this change, once they realize an integration platform and report are still needed, the cloud simply becomes a different way of provisioning and getting things done.

While security-related incidents would be impossible to prevent or work through without the guidance of a system admin who knows the network like the back of their hand, security is not the main focus for most sysadmins. But it does comprise a solid majority of their workload.

Whether actively working to prevent cyber threats, performing a trend analysis, implementing policies or engaging with third-party vendors to make sure they are not allowing a lapse in security, system admins help protect the integrity of the operating environment by leveraging closely collaborating with security teams.

Misconceptions Around Cybersecurity Skills

Unfortunately, there appears to be a number of misconceptions around the skills people think are needed to work in cybersecurity. For starters, many people believe that a career in cybersecurity revolves around coding.

Believe it or not, you don’t need to know how to code to work in cybersecurity. In fact, many cybersecurity roles, including that of sysadmin, do not require programming experience, and the majority of roles do not require the people filling them to write a single line of code. Instead, security professionals often possess a combination of knowledge across security tools, project management, regulatory frameworks, process development, and technology architecture.

Bridging the Cybersecurity Skills Gap

Companies who reported gaps in skill sets revealed that the shortage oftentimes results in ballooning employee stress levels, trouble meeting quality objectives, slower hardware and software deployments and delays in new product or service development, among other issues.

While sysadmins are a key element of a sound infrastructure in any IT environment, especially when it comes to network security, the role is changing, revealing a gap in skills. In order to bridge the system admin skills gap, relevant experience is required. What used to be the domain of a general sysadmin has evolved into a more specialized role today. A sysadmin used to be able to install antivirus protections, spam filtering and maybe even some perimeter defense tools and voila! You’re secure.

But today, these security solutions must be thought of as time-consuming projects that need to be integrated with the rest of an organization’s systems. From there, training, maintenance, and upgrades can all be added, but security-centered project management skills have become incredibly important.

Training and Experience to Fill the Gaps

Additionally, some businesses may require formal education in a computer-related field as training and certifications can strengthen a candidate’s position, but hands-on experience can’t be beaten. In fact, a significant number of sysadmins have no formal training but instead have learned on the job, according to a 2016 survey.

The emphasis on skills and experience in place of a formal education isn't unique to sysadmins or the IT industry. As the role of sysadmin evolves and changes, education surrounding system administration and security has failed to keep pace. As a result, having that real-world experience is vital to a candidate's success.

Even with formal training, learning on the job is critical to success. While college courses generally don't cover sysadmin tasks, vocational training does. However, that vocational schooling would also be out-of-date quickly. Consequently, all system admins are learning on the job, regardless of the training they had before. IT changes so quickly that formal training rapidly falls out of date, so vendor training and vendor certifications help fill the gap.

Today, the most important technologies to focus on include the automation of sysadmin tasks, the cloud, and software as a service and virtualization.

What Can Companies Do?

From a hiring perspective, it’s important to understand that cybersecurity goes well beyond the myriad of roles and responsibilities that require technical depth. As a result, more companies need to broaden their range of potential candidates to seek smart, motivated and dedicated individuals who have different types of skills and work well as part of a team.

In fact, about three in ten cybersecurity professionals came to the field from a background outside of information technology. As a matter of fact, the 2017 GISW Study revealed that 33 percent of cybersecurity executives arrived in the industry via non-technical careers.

Beyond a formal education, high-quality system administrators should also possess several other abilities, including analytical, communication, multitasking and problem-solving skills. Unlike some other IT positions, sysadmins have a unique responsibility to communicate and solve problems with colleagues — both inside and outside the IT department. Because a sysadmin helps to solve problems for and train all users, including non-IT employees, effective communication skills are imperative.

No longer can a system admin sit alone at their desk all day poring over manuals. Sysadmins must understand the business and be collaborative. While colleges and universities can provide training in communication and mathematics, the other — more technical — skills are developed largely by way of experience.

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