The Unix sysadmin salary premium

The Unix sysadmin salary premium

Summary: A review of job openings at major American employers shows that there is no "Unix salary premium" but there is a 15% or so skills premium reflecting the typical Unix sysadmin's ability to fill other roles - like those of the DBA or Windows administrator - without, as it were, giving up his day job.


According to the "typical Salary for a Sun Solaris System Administrator in United States is $56,082 - $85,226."

Payscale's software and data don't provide directly comparable Linux and Windows systems administration numbers for the whole country, but approximations suggest that the Wintel range is from $48,000 to $75,000 and that for Linux about $51,000 to $76,000.

Outliers are more interesting. In the somewhat over heated Fairfax county market Payscale's colleagues at simplyhired report a Solaris sysadmin average of $102,000, a Linux average of $95,000, and a Windows average of $87,000.

Those numbers, and lots of others I looked at from major U.S. market players, suggest that the "Unix Premium" runs no more than about 15% nationally and the salaries overlap for better than 90% of the range - meaning that the people who argue that lots of big companies prefer Windows over Unix because Wintel sysadmin staff are a lot cheaper are simply wrong.

In the course of an afternoon wasted reviewing job ads and numbers I came across, however, something worth futher exploration. Specifically, almost every Unix ad written by someone with a clue required additional skills, usually with respect to Wintel and/or RDBMS administration - and comparable Wintel ads did not.

As a result I ended up convinced that the so called "Unix premium" does not reflect the additional cost of hiring Unix skills at all but, instead, reflects the typical Unix sysadmin's ability to provide both the time and skills required to cover a much broader range of responsibilities.

If, for example, you have three qualified Solaris sysadmins each of whom can also act as your Oracle DBA, then the additional 15% per year each of the three Solaris guys costs you still amounts to less than half what that Oracle guy you would have cost you in a Wintel server environment - and because the skills are spread broadly, you get 24 x 7 and vacation coverage on Oracle at no additional cost.

And that, I think, is really the bottom line: not only is the Unix salary premium mostly a myth, but on net the Unix guys cost less than Windows people because broader skills and higher productivity mean that many fewer are needed to achieve the same or higher system wide service levels.

Some notes:

  1. Some Unix ads have, presumably unintentional, comic aspects. Dice, for example, has this "8-9-2008" listing:

    Title: UNIX, LINUX, SOLARIS Systems Administrator 116528


    Education Requirements: Bachelor's degree in Computer Science/Engineering preferred. Excellent knowledge of Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2000/2003, TCP/IP networking technologies. MCP\MCSE preferred but not required.



    Job Description: 3+ year's experience with IT systems technology, hardware installation and configuration of desktop and peripheral technology preferred.

    Good understanding of IT hardware and installation model concepts.

    Candidates should have a strong knowledge of LAN, WAN, internetworking technologies, TCP/IP, and DNS.

    Skills/Experience: Key Responsibilities include, but are not limited to: Installation of hardware and software in current lab systems.

    Support standard hardware platforms and systems installed throughout QCT engineering labs.

    Trouble shooting and resolution of business application and system problems.

    Trouble shooting and resolution of engineering lab Systems related to RF test equipment.

    Installation of MS security patches and Virus protection software.

    Familiar with HP, IBM and Dell hardware. Certifications a plus.

  2. I would have used Computerworld's 2007 Salary data for this blog except that their input surveys continue the data processing tradition under which systems administrators are treated as clerks. That was right for data processing's machine operations in the 1920s, but wrong for Unix - and it reflects one reason almost all data processing attempts to work with Solaris fail.

  3. Payscale needs some help with their own systems -the stuttering grammer suggests a simple minded $i style application, while changing the search criterion from Solaris to Linux produces this:

    The typical Hourly Rate for an Office Administrator in Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, District of Columbia / Virginia / Maryland / West Virginia Metropolitan Area is $13.22 - $19.03.

    On the other hand Adobe FrameMaker's spell checker changes "Word Perfect" to "notepad" and "Microsoft" to "Microstate" -so who knows how clever somebody at payscale might really be?

  4. Those of you who enjoy the GNU naming model might note the strength of character it took not to structure some sentence about the inter-disciplinary skills the typical Unix sysadmin brings an employer around the phrase "contain multitudes".

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Servers, Software

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  • The non-obviously conclusions I draw...

    The non-obviously conclusions I draw from this is that organisations looking fron Windows admins could do well by bring in guys with Unix experience.

    (I can hear someone say "No self respecting unix guy would take the job", to which the answer is "you dont know how to hire people").

    It's never been my job to hire sys-admins, but I do hire developers. It is inevitable that the job ads go out reading something like "Wanted: Java Developer", whereas the people you really want to hire would describe themselves as simply "a developer".

    Last year we needed more guys and the core need was C#. After interviewing half a dozen "C# programmers", we were left unimpressed. We asked a couple of agencies for people with more experience, and I assume by mistake, one sent us a great CV for a guy with years of experience on all sorts of things; actually just about everything EXCEPT .Net.

    To cut it short, we hired the guy, and he now runs a C# team and he is well respected for his experience and well liked for his patience in sharing it.

    But the strange thing is, it turns out he was looking for a new job for months before he even got an interview. Employers are blinkered into to looking for one skill to the extent that commendable breadth of experience can be a liability.
    • agreed

      The worst category of this that I see fairly regularly is the the HR person who hasn't a clue and looks
      only for matching keywords with no idea how other experience or simply naming builds toward whatever's he's looking for.

      I've seen HR, for example, ignore someone with years of Red Hat experience because they've been instructed to look for someone with Linux experience.
      • Hit the nail on the head

        I live in the UK and agencies over here have an extreme
        addiction to key word searches, which then go to HR who
        also run key word searches, neither of them, except in rare
        cases, understanding any of the content.

        Kind of like advertising for a carpenter and insisting they
        have experience just making coffee tables, from pine,
        power tools from one particular manufacturer using a
        only used in Latvia!

        By way of example I had a call from an employment agency
        saying "ok, I can see you've had experience of
        programming in ASP, Javascript, HTML, Apache, and IIS,
        but what about Internet Explorer?, You have used it?, well
        the client needs to see it on the CV, can you add it please?
        • and see also: "Testilying on your resume"

  • Salary ranges

    Ranges aren't a good measure. If 11 people make $10,000 and 1 makes $20,000, the range will be $10,000 to $20,000.

    Medians would be better, modified geographically, except for the time-on-job effect. Many people at an established company will have increased their salaries over time. Many people at a start-up will be working partly on expectations.

    This can create a difficulty for Unix: many Unix locations have had time for seniority to increase pay for a significant number of people. Many Windows organizations are newer and smaller. And often doing less elaborate work. So Unix is automatically more expensive in staff costs.
    (Hobbyhorse moment: if the Unix outfit can bring in Linux and replace the senior staff with younger individuals, the savings are substantial. Because Linux does in fact usually replace Unix, this must be part of the reason.)

    If you have to waste an afternoon, Murph, you might compare the salaries on offer to the salary range received in the same category. That'll tell you about how well the categories are defined and also something about the labor market.
    Anton Philidor
    • Linux IS UNIX

      "(Hobbyhorse moment: if the Unix outfit can bring in Linux and replace the senior staff with younger individuals, the savings are substantial. Because Linux does in fact usually replace Unix, this must be part of the reason.)"

      Anyone who READS this blogger on a regular basic should understand that Linux is UNIX. With that in mind what exactly is a Unix outfit? Any Solaris guy I know can work with Redhat, Debian,.... no extra training required.
      • Adding a qualifier, then

        An affectation in some dinosaur discussions is to refer to them as non-avian dinosaurs. Just as the worthy brontosaur (thunder lizard) is sometimes misnamed apatosaurus (deliberate falsehood lizard) because of a small joke made by a paleontologist who would have insisted on brontosaur if he'd had to take the issue seriously.

        By comparison, neutrality in this issue is minor and unobjectionable.

        "Because Linux does in fact usually replace a more expensive Unix..."

        Now if you'd complained about the number of modifiers ahead of "replace", I'd agree.
        Anton Philidor
  • UNIX skills are not obsolete, either

    I'll stick with UNIX and Linux, thank you... one problem to remember with MS technologies is they're obsolete almost constantly. You have to basically start over every few years with new training and certification because of their changes. UNIX doesn't change, so you develop more deep expertise and hence a premium because you're getting someone who can do things much, much better because of in-depth experience. With MS, you don't get in-depth experience (anyone seen ATL on a job listing recently? don't you pity people who wasted their time learning that framework?) so there's a constant churn of lower-paid people. A long-term MS skilled person doesn't command a premium because the new stuff is the new stuff to both of them.
    • New can be learned more quickly with experience

      Someone who knows past versions has the advantage at learning an incremental upgrade, especially when as much as possible has continued without change.

      It's analogous to muscles. When someone has been exercizing for some time and then is injuryed within perhaps two weeks it's difficult to tell medically that he had been exercizing at all, ever.

      But when he returns to exercizing his muscles learn to do what they did more quickly than someone who had never done that particular form of exercizing before. (The type of exercize matters. Learning one activity well provides no muscular advantage in learning a differetn activity.)

      You wrote:

      A long-term MS skilled person doesn't command a premium because the new stuff is the new stuff to both of them.

      [End quote]

      Does that mean someone working with Microsoft products is never paid more at hiring than someone with far less experience?
      Anton Philidor
    • No sense whatsoever...

      >one problem to remember with MS technologies
      >is they're obsolete almost constantly. You
      >have to basically start over every few years
      >with new training and certification because of
      >their changes.

      Gee, so you figure changes and improvements are a BAD thing?

      >UNIX doesn't change, so you develop more deep

      Sure, once you've mastered how to make buggy whips, why bother learning anything new. I'm sure it must be very comfortable and easy to develop a deep knowledge of something that is so undeveloped -- however, that attitude really has no place in the world of technology where change is not only a constant -- it is ESSENTIAL.

      >and hence a premium because you're
      >getting someone who can do things much, much
      >better because of in-depth experience.

      Old and unimproved does NOT in any way mean 'better'. I call this the "flat file" mindset.

      >With MS, you don't get in-depth experience

      Maybe if you sit on your butt and never bother to learn anything.

      >so there's a constant churn of lower-paid
      >people. A long-term MS skilled person doesn't
      >command a premium because the new stuff is the >new stuff to both of them.

      Nonsense again.

      Right now, n the UK, I command anywhere between $700 to $1,500 US per day -- if that's what you call not commanding a premium, then I don't know what is.

      The truth of the matter is quite simply that highly skilled individuals will ALWAYS have work and ALWAYS command a premium.

      Slack, lazy people who don't want to upgrade themselves, their education and their experience are the ones who will find themselves either unemployed or under-employed.

      Very simple.
      Marty R. Milette
  • RE: The Unix sysadmin salary premium

    I think that is a bit insulting of Oracle DBA's.
    What you are not considering here is that an Oracle DBA is not just expected to cover databases but Middleware, Applications, Networks and Systems Administrator knowledge. A typical DBA will cover Oracle Application Server, Oracle RDBMS, Oracle Applications, Oracle Fusion, knowledge of storage environments SAN, High Availability etc. Most of these are not covered in a Systems Administrator role. The DBA is expected to cover Development, Test and Production environments, be able to debug Forms and Java applications etc. So this is a specialist role which is busy which is separate from the role of a Systems Administrator.

    • Both yes and no

      Yes that's what a DBA does - and no, only the biggest (or wintel/dp) outfits really need a separate person for this.

      I've been the de facto oracle DBA on a number of jobs - while running the Unix systems and the real right answer for most of that job is to do as little as possible - i.e. it escapes being a part time role only if the person who's doing the job makes it so.
      • Interview test.

        [i]the real right answer for most of that job is to do as little as possible[/i]

        So, the guy who's best at crosswords/sudoko etc, is the man for the job?

        (or the gal with the best nails).

        On a related note, I was once shown the "operations manual" some developers had put together for a new system. The PDF was oddly skinny, and indeed when you opened it, it said

        "Just keep your fcuking hands off!"

        Apparantly the joke backfired in the early hours of one morning when the system keeled over during some sync-up process, and the less-than-amused admin decided to phone ALL the developers for assistance.
        • LOL

          I once did a fairly difficult project on HP-UX with absolutely no tools other than those that came with the box.

          Since output went to a postscript printer, and there was no driver, I ended up writing an awk (no PERL !) script that wrapped custom postscript around the output -

          And the entire documentation at the top of the file consisted of the message you quote above - although I think my spelling error was different.
  • Same applies to Windows...

    ...actually I think more so. The Windows admins I know tend to be more technology generalists (within the Windows domain) than Unix guys.

    Microsoft stuff is generally simpler, and the lines more blurred between admins, developers, and power users.
    Erik Engbrecht
  • And people wonder why Windows systems fail?

    Probably because they have some Unix guy in charge who thinks he knows how Windows works. Isn't it funny how every time there is a *nix failure, the immediate defense is: it was probably some Windows guy in charge. Funny how you guys won't believe the reverse.
    • When the expert works on Windows...

      ... the result is damaged software and poor performance and infection within minutes.

      Proves that there is a role for the less educated and experienced person who is also less avid to visit infectious websites.
      Anton Philidor
      • Ignorance must be bliss...

        Your post was the perfect compliment to the previous one -- you demonstrated with perfect clarity exactly what he was saying. Congratulations!
        Marty R. Milette
    • Well, I know this for sure...

      I don't care what combination of operating systems and sys-admins skills you're using, when the system fails...

      it's NEVER the developer's fault.
      • And don't forget it!

        All professional developers produce code that is composed of flawless logic* and is as clean as virgin snow.

        Therefore, it MUST be the admins' fault when it doesn't work!

        (*) This excludes the class of developers who apply Anton's "quotidian logic" to development. These developers produce code even more convoluted than the organizations in which they work, and full of the same nonsensical tangle of formal, informal, and down right covert interconnections.
        Erik Engbrecht