Making Mentoring a Priority


I always appreciate (and am in search of) tips for how to be a better sysadmin. I’ve never had the opportunity … to be in a large IT org. I think I miss out on a lot of learning opportunities by not being a part of a large IT org.

from a comment by “Joe” to “Queue Inversion Week

This comment reflects an industry trend that I’ve been worrying about for a while now.  Back in the 80’s when I was first learning to do IT Operations, it seemed like there were more opportunities to come up as a junior member of a larger IT organization and be mentored by the more senior members of the team.  It’s not overstating the case to say that I wouldn’t appear to be the “expert” that I seem to be today without liberal application of the “clue bat” by those former co-workers (and thanks to all of you– some of you don’t even know how much you helped me).

These days, however, it seems like there are a lot more “one person shops” in the IT world.  And a lot of IT workers are learning in a less structured way on their own– either on the job, or by fooling around with systems at home.  When they get stuck, their only fallback may be Google.  This has to lead to some less-than-optimal solutions and a lot of frustration and burn-out.

So if you’re a one person shop and you’re feeling the lack of mentoring, let me give you some suggestions for finding a support network.

Local User Groups

See if you can find a user group in your area.  Aside from the fact that most local groups sponsor informative talks, they’re also a good way to “network” with other IT folks in your area.  These are people you can call on when you get stuck on a problem.  There’s also the pure “group therapy” aspect of being able to be in a room with people who are living with the same day-to-day problems that you are and understand your language without need of Star Trek technology translation devices.

Google can help you find groups in your area.  Both SAGE and LOPSA also track local IT groups that are affiliated with those organizations.

If you can’t find an existing local group in your area, you might consider starting one.  I’ve found LinkedIn to be helpful for finding other IT people in my geographic area and contacting them.

Mailing Lists and Internet Forums

I subscribe to several IT-related mailing lists with world-wide memberships.  Some of the most active and useful mailing lists for getting questions answered seem to be the SAGE, LOPSA, and GIAC mailing lists, though there are membership costs and/or conference fees associated with getting access to these lists.  Also, there’s nothing that says you can’t subscribe to the mailing lists for various local user groups, even if you’re not actually close enough to attend their meetings.

There are of course different Internet forums where you can post questions and where you might actually get questions answered occasionally.  I haven’t done an exhaustive survey here, but I have found good Linux advice at the Ubuntu Forums and  If you have favorites, you might mention them in the comments section.

Live Mentoring

This one is scary for most people, but you might consider contacting somebody who you think is an “expert” and asking them out to coffee/beer/lunch/dinner.  If they’re too busy, they’ll tell you.  But if you don’t ask you’ll never know, and you might be missing out on a great opportunity.

You must understand that my expectation is that if somebody helps you in this way, you are morally obligated to help someone else in a similar fashion in the future.  This is why I think you’ll find that most “experts” worth their salt are more than willing to extend this courtesy to you– somebody in their past provided them with guidance, and they’re just “paying back” by helping you.

Teaching Others

If my last idea was scary, this one will probably make you want to hide under a rock.  But teaching others is a great way to motivate yourself to learn.  I find that I don’t really master a subject until I have to organize my thoughts well enough to convey it to others.

Can’t locate anybody nearby to teach at?  Start a blog and write down your expertise for others to read.  Answer questions for some of the users on the Internet forums mentioned above.  Submit articles to technical journals (as the former Technical Editor for Sys Admin Magazine, I can attest that most of these publications are absolutely desperate for content)– some of them even pay money for articles.

If you’ve taken a SANS course and obtained your GIAC certification, you may be eligible to become a SANS mentor.  This can be an entre into becoming a SANS Instructor, and is therefore well worth pursuing.

In Conclusion

It’s unfortunate that there are so many folks out there without the built-in support network of working in a large IT organization.  But if you search diligently, I think you may be able to find some other people in your area to network with and get guidance from.  Remember that we all have different levels of expertise in different areas, so sometimes you’re the apprentice and sometimes you’re the “expert” (I’m constantly learning things from my students– yet another reason to teach others).

For the Senior IT folks who are reading this blog, I ask you to please make it a priority to reach out to the more junior members of our profession and help bring them along.  Somebody did it for you, and now it’s your turn.

3 thoughts on “Making Mentoring a Priority”

  1. Great post Hal! In my travels I have found two other local groups to be useful. Sometimes there is a Snort Users Group, these folks know a lot about security and systems. Also, in every ISSA chapter, there are a few folks that know an amazing amount about all things system admin and security.

  2. Hal-

    Good stuff… one other aspect of all of the above is that by networking you also help out expanding your career options. A byproduct of interacting with you and others locally is that if/when the time comes to find another job, I’m already linked in with dozens of people in my field. Oh, and I do that whole learning thing too…

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