Search this site:

University degrees and sysadmin skills

I’ll tune in to the post-based conversation being held on Planet Debian: Russell Coker wonders about what’s needed to get university graduates with enough skills for a sysadmin job, to which Lucas Nussbaum responds with his viewpoints. They present a very contrasting view of what’s needed for students — And for a good reason, I’d say: Lucas is an academician; I don’t know for sure about Russell, but he seems to be a down-to-the-earth, dirty-handed, proficient sysadmin working on the field. They both contact newcomers to their fields, and will notice different shortcomings.

I tend to side with Lucas’ view. That does not come as a surprise, as I’ve been working for over 15 years in an university, and in the last few years I started walking from a mostly-operative sysadmin in an academic setting towards becoming an academician that spends most of his time sysadmining. Subtle but important distinction.

I teach at the BSc level at UNAM, and am a Masters student at IPN (respectively, Mexico’s largest and second-largest universities). And yes, the lack of sysadmin abilities in both is surprising. But so is a good understanding of programming. And I’m sure that, were I to dig into several different fields, I’d feel the same: Student formation is very basic at each of those fields.

But I see that as natural. Of course, if I were to judge people as geneticists as they graduate from Biology, or were I to judge them as topologists as they graduate from Mathematics, or any other discipline in which I’m not an expert, I’d surely not know where to start — Given I have about 20 years of professional life on my shoulders, I’m quite skewed as to what is basic for a computing professional. And of course, there are severe holes in my formation, in areas I never used. I know next to nothing of electronics, my mathematical basis is quite flaky, and I’m a poor excuse when talking about artificial intelligence.

Where am I going with this? An university degree (BSc in English, would amount to “licenciatura” in Spanish) is not for specialization. It is to have a sufficiently broad panorama of the field, and all of the needed tools to start digging deeper and specializing — either by yourself, working on a given field and learning its details as you go, or going through a postgraduate program (Specialization, Masters, Doctorate).

Even most of my colleagues at the Masters in Engineering in Security and Information Technology lack of a good formation in fields I consider essential. However, what does information security mean? Many among them are working on legal implications of several laws that touch our field. Many other are working on authenticity issues in images, audios and other such media. Many other are trying to come up with mathematical ways to cheapen the enormous burden of crypto operations (say, “shaving” CPU cycles off a very large exponentiation). Others are designing autonomous learning mechanisms to characterize malware. Were I as a computing professional to start talking about their research, I’d surely reveal I know nothing about it and get laughed at. That’s because I haven’t specialized in those fields.

University education should give a broad universal basis to enter a professional field. It should not focus on teaching tools or specific procedures (although some should surely be presented as examples or case studies). Although I’d surely be happy if my university’s graduates were to know everything about administering a Debian system, that would be wrong for a university to aim at; I’d criticize it the same way I currently criticize programs that mix together university formation and industry certification as if they were related.


gwolf 2016-06-08 11:19:29

That’s why I specified “in Spanish”…

And maybe I over-reached, I don’t know if the same holds for other countries, although I expect it does.

In Mexico, a “licenciatura” is a ≥four year degree, usually started as soon as you graduate from high school (18 year old). Some “licenciaturas” are longer; in UNAM where I teach, computer engineering is five years. In Argentina, they are usually six years. Masters programs require candidates to hold a licenciatura.

So, yay for cultural bias.

Lucas 2016-06-08 11:03:18


An university degree**


An university degree (BSc in English, would amount to “licenciatura” in Spanish) is not for specialization.

Well, the BSc where I mostly teach about sysadmining is not a typical “licence”, but a “licence profesionnelle”. this is a special kind of degree targeted at getting people out of the university, and ready to get a job, after 3 years (vs 5 for a master). Their degree is not equivalent to a normal “licence” (e.g. they cannot enroll in a master with it).

So, while I agree about the need for BScs to be generic and broad, this is an exception.

mirabilos 2016-06-13 05:57:48


I agree, and I believe that both good programmers and good sysadmins do not come from universities (in fact, I believe universities’ curricula hinder them, so the only successes is when the students learn this by themselves) but from job apprenticeships (with some formal learning, but more craftmanship-style than academic, although a bit of academics doesn’t hurt).

There’s a reason the university stuff is called “Computer Science”, while the vocational stuff is called “IT” or “ICT”.