Jump from Desktop Support to Systems Admin – 5 One-Word Steps

There is nothing wrong with Desktop Support or Help Desk. Some I.T. folks, however, yearn to move from front lines to back office and become a Systems Administrator. I did it. You can, too. Here’s how:

There are many reasons that you might want to  become a Systems Administrator. Some do it for the money, which is good to amazing, depending on your local job market. Some do it for the challenge- the concepts that SysAdmins deal with can be quite deep and require very specialized (and potentially expensive) knowledge and training. Others simply do it because it seems like a logical step after End-User support. Some may even do it because they don’t like users (it goes both ways, more here).

A Systems Administrator’s primary responsibility is to oversee I.T. infrastructure, including networking, servers, applications, and more.

Let’s start with some brief job descriptions. A Systems Administrator’s primary responsibility is to oversee I.T. infrastructure, including networking, servers, applications, and more. It’s a different discipline than that of Help Desk – which is normally phone-based first-line support for lost passwords and basic computer questions. Desktop Support is normally more in-depth than Help Desk, and deals with building and maintaining desktop PCs and sometimes VMs, and may go into some centralized management.

I’ve gathered some tips for you that helped me make the leap, and if you can follow them, you can make it, too. Of course, these tips apply across I.T. disciplines and even industries, but I’ll tailor this for technology pros.

Grind (work really hard)

If you want to move out of Help Desk/Desktop you need to work your tail off. Work harder for longer, with more energy, creativity, and positivity than your peers. This will get you noticed quickly. Tackle hard problems that others give up on. Do the hard things, like documentation and dealing with that one usual suspect user.

Notice that I said be more creative and energetic. I did not say you should try to put in 10-12 hour days consistently. That’s not a good work style if you have family or other responsibilities.

Learn (on your own)

Look- learning is not easy, fast, or comfortable, especially in I.T. Learning means you have to admit that you don’t know about something. Rest assured- you’re O.K. Not having knowledge of a particular subject is simply ignorance- it doesn’t mean you’re not smart.

One of the harsh realities of life is that, in the end, you are solely responsible for your own training and development. I remember the time I was told this by a director of mine, and it stayed with me. At times, my companies have offered to pay for some training on a reimbursement basis or sometimes up front, and yours may, too- just be aware that this is not always the case. Plan to spend some of your own time and money learning additional skills and information. Trust me, they will pay dividends many times over. If the company you work for reimburses, consider that a bonus!

One of the harsh realities of life is that, in the end, you are solely responsible for your own training and development.

Something else you can do to learn is to try to listen in on technical conversations that are above your skill level. If you take part, don’t be afraid to expose your ignorance and ask a question. You’ll be respected and people love it when people get engaged and learn things for free to boot!

Assist (Engage with and help your peers)

Want to get noticed on your team? Be the go-to person. I’ve done this time and time again with great success. I made it my mission to get people the best equipment, the best service, the best treatment, etc, and it worked. Why?

The vast majority of your team mates are probably nice people. Few of them, however, or in few cases, will stick their neck out for others. If you want to break the status quo and stand out, make it your mission to help others get the tools to be successful. Any time I heard one of my peers or my boss ask for something, I made it my personal mission to give them what they needed quickly and with the best possible quality.

Speak (up and tell your boss where you want to go)

Having a career road map meeting with your boss is a fantastic way to get some momentum to improve your working situation. A career road map is just a paper for discussion between you and your leader that discusses what your current role and responsibilities are, some of your last year’s milestones or achievements, and where you’d like to go in the next year. It should also include a compensation adjustment based on the new work. Create bullets with a conversational style, just like you’d say it in person. You then set up a meeting and discuss it with them. When you discuss it, ask for feedback- the role you see yourself in may not be the role they were thinking- they might see you in higher places!

Remember, make it detailed, but not more than 1 page. If you do it correctly, you’ll be able to logically take your boss from A to Z, which will make it easier. I don’t want to say that you’re doing the thinking for them, but you kind of are. And they will appreciate how clear it all is. You must take this into your own hands. Your boss may not chase you down to help you get promoted. You are selling here.

Having a career road map meeting with your boss is a fantastic way to get some momentum to improve your working situation.

Volunteer (for tougher work)

Probably the best thing I’ve done to move from Desktop to Systems is just to start doing Systems work (where permitted). I always volunteered to take on tasks and projects that were a little out of my comfort zone, and it paid off.

You can even try projects that are radioactive. What do I mean? That failed implementation of some technology that needs to be righted or taking on support of a department that is high-maintenance. If you want to get noticed, try tackling these. Remember, since you’re not an admin yet, there’s less risk, and you will get support, so It’s OK to mess up.

Remember, if you dare to step out and take some chances on these steps, you will have positive forward motion in your I.T. career. Comment below if you think I’m on to something, or connect with me if you think I’m nuts. Let’s chat!

Read some more of my stuff if you want to make your end users hate you quickly or if you have no idea what the heck I’m talking about and want to break into the I.T. field. If I helped inspire you to take your job by the horns, please let me know how it goes, ask questions, and keep me posted! You can connect with me on Twitter,Facebook, and of course here on LinkedIn.



  • Julius Reply

    This is great! I truly appreciate the insight. Working my way up. We need more people who are willing to care like this.


  • Sammy Reply

    Nice advice, and so true..that is exactly what my IT coordinator had told me to try this year. They want me to be more productive and pro-active in the team, not to move to a higher position but to be a real senior in the team. Though It could be hard to find new challenges every time , and new projects to implement, but hey.. nothing comes easy this days 🙂
    Right now, i’m working to get some basic certifications on my resume – on MAC, Linux and Win and in the meantime taking over some basic task from networking guys on xen virtualization .

    • wowitsdave Reply

      Nice, Sammy- that’s good stuff. Get the certs and hammer the experience, and you will go great.

      Also, don’t forsake the cloud (Azure, AWS, etc). It’s going to be very big.

  • Jeff Reply

    This is good advice and I am trying soo hard to get out of the desktop support. I have been doing this for so long now and it’s just too easy. I know it like the back of my hand and I definitely want more challenges. I just seem to be stuck and can’t get out of this rut. Honestly, the systems administrator job is a dream for me that I just can’t seem to reach. I am 47 now and should’ve been at least an admin 5 years ago. I have always wanted to be at one place that way I could grow and learn more, but unfortunately layoffs never help. I have tried 2 times already to take the security+ test and failed. I just don’t know who else has it as bad as me I feel like I am the worlds worst IT person. I just can’t get ahead. I am sorry for sounding so negative I just don’t see any light. I have A+, Net+, MCSA 2003, MCP Windows 7, college degree and still can’t seem to get ahead. Anyways thanks for the advice.

    • wowitsdave Reply

      Hey, Jeff- that’s tough and I understand.

      Is there any place in your organization that needs a higher level of skill- maybe something you don’t have yet? Inside the .org moves are often the easiest- second only to referrals from friends and family.

  • Richard Reply

    I graduated in ’83.. I’ve been a rock’n’roll musician, hairdresser, motorcycle courier,.. 1099 jobs… I’m an average to slightly above average computer geek. I’m considering getting A+ certified. (well, try. After I figure out what it entails). Can I get a decent job from there? I don’t expect a 6 figures or anything. I need a decent job that’s not going to break my back. Use my brain. Is this a good road for me at this point? thanks..

    • wowitsdave Reply

      Hey, Richard. It depends on what you want to do. If you are people savvy on top of computer savvy, you could get a support job fairly easily- probably even now without the cert. you also have to look longer: generally folks don’t finish out careers in support roles- so you have to look at what comes next (sysadmin, networking, programming, etc) and make sure you position yourself for that.

      But yeah- since you probably have some interesting stories and a broad array of experiences, you are likely pretty relatable and fun to be around.

      I would start applying and checking out A+ (latest edition) at the same time. The test is not that hard if you’re savvy. You’ll want an exam cram book (make sure it matches the edition of the exam) and get some videos going (Mike Myers, CBT Nuggets, etc).

      Talk to your friends and find out where you can get in.

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