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49 Honest Senior Systems Administrator Salaries
The controversy has raged for years, but we’ve decided to weigh in. After considerable research and long conversations, we’ve concluded that a senior systems administrator is not an administrator who works exclusively for old folks’ homes, retirement communities and the American Association of Retired Persons. No, they’re systems administrators with formal training, management experience and deep technical knowledge who manage teams of IT staff. We hope that this can be the final word on the matter.
But seriously, senior systems administrators are important members of IT support teams and, often, leaders of whole initiatives for IT systems, networks and organizations. A senior systems administrator can expect a salary that averages around $75,000 a year but can climb as high as $115,000 a year — largely depending on their experience and where they work. Read on to learn what exactly a senior systems administrator does, how to become one, and how to get paid the most as one.
What is a Senior Systems Administrator?
A senior systems administrator leads and manages teams of systems administrators and other IT professionals. Systems administrators organize, install and support the computer systems of an organization. Senior systems administrators are one step removed from that work, often the ones designing, putting into motion and managing the implementation strategies that teams of administrators follow.
In smaller organizations, a senior systems administrator plans upgrades or maintenance work, assigns tasks, and takes part in the technical work themselves. In larger organizations, a senior systems administrator’s role might be entirely administrative. All of their time is taken up with planning, delegating and monitoring the work of systems administration across a large network of devices.
That’s why most senior systems administrators are highly experienced technical experts in their own right. But more often than not, it’s soft skills like communication, prioritization and management that are the key differentiators between a systems administrator and a senior systems administrator.
49 Real Salaries for Senior Systems Administrators
Depending on where you look throughout the country, you’re likely to find different salaries for senior systems administrators. The difference between high-paid senior systems administrators and low-paid ones is significant — sometimes in the same city.
We’ve gathered salary information from job postings and current job descriptions for senior systems administrators from all over the country. We’ve arranged them according to positions suited for senior systems administrators with less experience and those at the tops of their games. We also broke the salary information down according to city and state, because the differences between some job markets is huge.
- The national average salary for a Senior Systems Administrator is $78,200.
- The national average high for a Senior Systems Administrator is $88,600.
- The national average low for a Senior Systems Administrator is $55,400.
Take a look at the following chart of 49 salaries for senior systems administrators throughout the country. In each of the 49 cities, we sorted the salaries listed for jobs in those areas into their three categories.
Salt Lake City
It matters a lot where you get started as a senior systems administrator. In Springfield, Missouri, a first-time senior systems administrator might expect an offer of roughly $42,000. In Sunnyvale, CA, the same position might come with an $80,000 a year salary. That’s nearly a 200% difference, based entirely on where you happen to work. That suggests that if you’ve been working as a systems administrator for some time and you’re looking to make the leap into a management role, you should shop around and consider what neighboring cities and even different states are offering to someone with your experience.
Senior systems administrators in coastal cities get a much higher average salary than elsewhere. Of the top 10 average salaries for senior systems administrators, nine are in a coastal city. Whether it’s San Francisco (overall average salary of $107,000/year), New York City ($89,000/year) or Portland, OR ($81,000/year), coastal cities appear to be where good salaries gravitate.
Before you pack up and move to Seattle or Los Angeles, though, keep in mind that cost of living is also substantially higher in those cities. The higher cost of living may be the very thing driving salaries up, so it’s worth exploring what your living expenses would be wherever you’re considering working. It’s entirely possible that after accounting for rent, food, entertainment and your commute, you’d (counterintuitively) make more money with a lower salary in a cheaper town.
The places where experienced senior systems administrators get the best salaries aren’t necessarily where low-experienced ones are getting paid more. In other words, in the top fifteen cities for highest salaries, only two (both in California) have low-end salaries that are above the national low-end average. This suggests that the market for highly experienced, well-trained senior systems administrators is much more competitive than the market for brand new senior systems administrators.
It may very well be that companies and organizations treat the position of senior systems administrator as a sort of proving ground. Companies might promote systems administrators to manage their teams and watch and see if they can grow into the role. The numbers suggest that highly experienced senior systems administrators are extremely valuable. So after getting your foot in the door with a low-paying senior systems administrator role, you can quickly get promoted to much higher salaries by proving your worth through training, experience and education.
4 Salary Considerations for Senior Systems Administrators
The difference between a senior systems administrator who brings home a salary of $115,000 a year and one who takes home $48,000 a year isn’t based solely on what city they work in. In Denver alone, there are postings for senior systems administrators with an offered salary of $118,000 alongside offers of $60,000. Location matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.
For senior systems administrators, there are four things that will move your salary range: education, actual hands-on experience, certifications, and the industry you work in. We won’t call the most experienced ones “senior senior systems administrators”, but do keep in mind that how much you know and how much you can prove you know is often what divides someone who earns a triple-digit salary and someone who takes home under $55,000 a year.
Experience Requirements for Senior Systems Administrators
First and foremost, aspiring systems administrators mustn’t overlook formal education. Many companies posting jobs for senior systems administrators expect to see a bachelor’s degree on an application — certainly an associate’s degree. What’s harder to say exactly is what field the degree should be in.
A degree in computer science, mathematics or computer engineering can help prove a senior systems administrator’s competency with the day-in and day-out subject matter. But a degree in statistics, business or even communication can help demonstrate some of the skills that are more management-adjacent and might apply to managing whole teams of IT professionals.
In terms of work experience, the step from systems administration to senior systems administrator usually requires at least five years of experience. It’s rare to find a senior systems administrator who wasn’t drawn from the ranks of existing systems administrators. That’s because the position usually depends on an understanding of the effort and complexity of the tasks the senior sysadmin’s teams will be performing.
When companies decide to pay the salary of a senior systems administrator, they want to make sure they’re getting someone who understands the nuances of managing and administering technology. Most companies realize that the job will involve more paperwork and delegation than specific subject matter knowledge, but nonetheless, applicants are expected to have broad knowledge of most, if not all, areas of systems administration.
4 Senior Systems Administrator Tools and Skills You'll Need
You have a sense of what a senior systems administrator does, and what experience they need. But what do they need to know? There are specific tools and technologies a senior systems administrator should know, as well as broad categories of knowledge that can help move your salary range upward.
Managerial or “Soft” Skills
In terms of the things that a senior systems administrator should know how to do that sets them apart from the teams of sysadmins they manage, there’s no more important category than the soft skills. These are things like effective communication, managing conflict, time management, and project management. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because they’re soft skills, they’re the sort of thing you’re either born with or you never get.
It’s not only possible to learn the soft skills that set apart great leaders and managers apart from bad ones, but it’s a part of what companies are looking for when they hire a senior systems administrator. Many companies, when faced with an extremely technically knowledgeable sysadmin and one with a demonstrated track record of excellent management skills would likely opt for the candidate with a strong showing of soft skills.
Salary impact of soft skills: Huge. Companies don’t hire senior systems administrators just because they’re really good sysadmins. They hire them to be force multipliers for their IT teams. The salary that comes with rising the ranks of systems administration comes from whether or not you can lead and manage effective teams. It doesn’t matter how many routing protocols you’ve mastered, if you can’t lead a project to completion on time, no one’s going to want you running their teams. Soft skills are a huge differentiator in the salaries a senior systems administrator can expect.
Microsoft Active Directory
In survey after survey of sysadmins, the skill that reliably sits on top of every list of hard skills is Active Directory. IT teams, sysads and senior systems administrators all use Microsoft Active Directory on a daily basis. There aren’t many tools as versatile and capable at providing the right data to the right users while protecting data across a network. Unfortunately, there also aren’t many tools that require more hands-on attention and correction on a regular basis than AD.
Salary impact of Active Directory experience: Huge. Demonstrated experience with Microsoft Active Directory is a prerequisite for nearly all senior systems administrator positions. There are few teams providing oversight and maintenance for networks that don’t depend on AD, and if you plan to lead teams of administrators, you have to be prepared to lead by example where Active Directory is concerned.
Configuration Management Tools
Not every last organization depends on configuration management tools, but the ones that do can’t afford to have their systems administration team being led by someone who doesn’t have demonstrated mastery over them. Puppet is one of the world’s most popular collaboration, deployment and configuration management tools on the market among Chef, Ansible, and others. A senior systems administrator should be ready to prove mastery of at least one tool, but especially the category of tools.
Salary impact of configuration management tools: Significant. A senior systems administrator may not be the person manually inputting configuration rules and deployment policies into network devices, but they will be managing the teams of admins who are writing and implementing them. Companies will value a senior systems administrator who can prove they can competently lead teams thanks to a background in tools like Puppet and Chef.
Senior systems administrators should be prepared to speak knowledgeably about virtualization and be able to recommend paths forward for an organization — and that often requires a background working with at least one virtualization software. VMWare is just one of the many providers of network and system virtualization solutions.
But a systems administrator who understands VMware’s offerings, how VMware accomplishes virtualization, and the costs and benefits of using it can provide a lot of value to their company as a senior systems administrator. That value is often rewarded with a better salary offer as they lead teams in implementing virtualization solutions and troubleshooting.
Salary impact of virtualization skills: Considerable. Senior systems administrators aren’t usually directly responsible for the entire organization’s implementation of virtualization solutions. But they will be leading the teams of sysadmins who get called in when something’s not working or who provide updates to the systems that provide that virtualization. If the company you’re applying for uses a virtualization provider, landing a good senior systems administrator salary with them could very well depend on mastery of that virtualization toolkit.
8 Certifications a Senior Systems Administrator Should Consider
Industry certifications represent proof of a person’s mastery over a narrow topic. Some certifications apply to the skills necessary to execute a certain job while others apply to one specific piece of technology. Certifications don’t replace experience or formal education, but they certainly supplement them. Most times, passing a certification exam is a combination of remembering what you did on the job last week and studying to round out the things you happened not to do.
Certifications almost always lead to higher salaries and greater responsibilities. For senior systems administrators, industry certifications are a way of showing the topics and technologies you’re ready to lead IT teams in executing on. We’ve listed the certifications we find most applicable to senior systems administrators below — this isn’t an exclusive list, though. If you know your organization depends on a technology not listed here, seriously consider earning a certification from the vendor of that tech.
2 Cisco Certifications for Senior Systems Administrators
Cisco, the manufacturer of networking equipment used by companies all over the world, offers an entire series of certifications. They have over a dozen certs for people at different levels of their career in totally different fields. At the professional level, two certifications stand out for senior systems administrators: the CCNP Enterprise and CCNP Data Center. These certs focus on the enterprise and data center technologies and solutions that a senior systems administrator will almost certainly be leading teams in managing and troubleshooting.
Salary impact of earning Cisco professional-level certs: Huge. Obviously if the company you work for (or want to work for) doesn’t rely on Cisco networking technologies, a Cisco cert may not be essential. But for team leads working on network devices of incredible depth and complexity, the training required to pass the difficult Cisco professional certs will prepare you for all the problems and issues that could come up throughout your career.
3 VMware Certifications for Senior Systems Administrators
Like Cisco, VMware also issues certifications that prove mastery of their technology and solutions. Also like Cisco, VMware has a range of certs categorized both by the level of expertise required and the subject matter. We recommend a VCAP — VMware Certified Advanced Professional — in the field that best suits the work you and your team perform as a senior systems administrator. Three in particular that would apply to many organizations are the VCAP Data Center Virtualization (VCAP-DCV Deploy), the VCAP Cloud Management and Automation (VCAP-CMA Deploy), and VCAP Network Virtualization (VCAP-NV Deploy).
These three are advanced certifications that depend on deep familiarity with VMware virtualization technologies. Each of the three advanced professional-level certs we mentioned also has at least one prerequisite — the relevant professional-level certification.
Salary impact of earning VMware advanced professional certs: Significant. If you and your team work with virtualization technology provided by VMware, being certified as an expert in their use can have a direct impact on your salary. Not every systems administration team deals with virtualization, and some senior systems administrators won’t need advanced skills in virtualization. But generally speaking, earning at least one VMware certification will help your promotion and salary prospects enormously as a senior systems administrator.
Puppet Certified Professional for Senior Systems Administrators
For senior systems administrators whose teams use the deployment and configuration management tool Puppet, earning their certification can help ensure you’re always able to lead and direct your team to success. Not only does earning the cert make you more capable with the tool, but you’ll also be able to lead your junior members through their own certification process and act as a mentor if they run into trouble.
Salary impact of earning the Puppet Certified Professional cert: Considerable. Puppet is one of the de facto leaders of the automation and configuration management industry. Even if your company doesn’t use it yet, having the Puppet Certified Professional certification can prove that your opinion on adopting and implementing it is worth listening to.
2 Project Management Certifications for Senior Systems Admins
The ability to take a project and bring it to completion on time and under budget isn’t something that some people can do and others can’t. It’s a skill. Different approaches to project management exist, like the methodology of Project Management International (PMI), Agile, and others. Two certifications stand out from the pack as particularly useful for senior systems administrators: CompTIA’s Project+ and PMI’s Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). CompTIA’s in particular is great for technical professionals like sysadmins who need to master managing and controlling a project’s technical pieces.
Salary impact of earning project management certs: Significant. When projects get to a certain size and level of complexity, knowing how to break them down and assign them according to timelines is a skill that you simply need to practice. One of the things that sets the best-paid senior systems administrators apart from the lowest-paid ones is how comfortable they are leading large teams working on many different parts of the same project and getting it done on time. A great salary as a senior systems administrator can depend on project management skills, and a cert from CompTIA or PMI can help validate those skills.
What Type of Companies Need Senior Systems Administrators?
There’s one last thing a senior systems administrator should consider in order to qualify for the best salaries: what industry they work in. Different fields and industries are able to support IT teams of varying sizes. Your career could have a low ceiling for advancement, based on whether or not the industry knows how to promote and make use of senior systems administrators.
The most obvious place for senior systems administrators to consider work is in the information technology world. This is the industry that birthed sysads, but because it’s heavily saturated with IT professionals, competition for the best senior systems administrator salaries will be steep.
Career impact for senior systems administrators working in information technology: Huge. The impact of the IT world already knowing what a sysadmin does and what their career trajectory looks like can’t be overstated. In many other fields, companies know they need teams of sysadmins, but they don’t always know how to mentor a new IT professional through their career. Many IT companies are populated with people who’ve walked the exact path ahead of time and can provide a good career for senior systems administrators.
A high-tech company like Lockheed Martin can’t manufacture advanced-technology systems like aircraft, space launchers and satellites without highly reliable networks and devices. Senior systems administrators will always find plenty of work in a company like that, whose profits and operations depend on teams of sysadmins ensuring their advanced networks always work flawlessly.
Career impact for senior systems administrators working in high-tech manufacturing: Significant. Companies in the high-technology scene aren’t going to suddenly stop needing systems administrators or senior systems administrators to lead their work. The devices, technologies and networks of those companies are often extremely advanced and complicated, so a senior sysadmin who can prove themselves capable in that field can probably expect great salaries for their entire career.
The medical field includes health care providers like hospitals and clinics, but also insurance companies and the huge industry that exists to connect them to one another. These companies are only expanding, as is their need for teams of systems administrators who keep their devices connected and their cloud networks running.
Career impact for senior systems Administrators working in the medical industry: Considerable. Many hospitals outsource their technological service needs, as do health insurance providers. It may be difficult to keep a strong hand on your career progression as a senior systems administrator in that field. Senior systems administrators working in the medical field can expect good salaries, but should always be on the look-out for better career opportunities in different fields and industries.
How to Increase Your Salary as a Senior Systems Administrator
The very best senior systems administrator salaries go to the men and women who have mastered all the technical and technological aspects of keeping devices running and network downtime low but have also found the time to master the soft skills of managing big teams of people. A healthy combination of soft skills like project management and communication with harder skills like automation management and network virtualization deployment is how a senior systems administrator qualifies for an industry-leading salary.
If you’re a sysadmin looking to take on more responsibilities and earn a better salary, consider whether your education and training are sufficient and what certifications you have. But don’t neglect the importance of where you live and work. Location matters a lot for senior systems administrator salaries, almost as much as being able to prove your ability to manage your teams and handle your devices.