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What language should a sysadmin learn?

Someone recently asked me what language a sysadmin should learn.

If you are a sysadmin for Windows the answer is pretty easy: PowerShell.

The answer is more complicated for Unix/Linux sysadmins because there are more choices. Rather than start a "language war", let me say this:

I think every Unix/Linux sysadmin should know shell (sh or bash) plus one of Perl, Ruby, Python. It doesn't matter which.

The above statement is more important to me than whether I think Perl, Python or Ruby is better, or has more job openings, or whatever criteria you use. Let me explain:

It is really important to learn bash because it is so fundamental to so many parts of your job. Whether it is debugging an /etc/init.d script or writing a little wrapper. Every Unix/linux sysadmin should know: how to do a for loop, while loop, if with [[ or [, and $1, $2, $3... $* and $@, case statements, understand how variable substitution works, and how to process simple command-line flags. With those basic things you can go very far. I'm surprised at how many people I meet with a lot of Unix/Linux years under their belt that can't do a loop in bash; when they learn how they kick themselves for not learning earlier.

The choice of perl/python/ruby is usually driven by what is already in use at your shop. Ruby and Python became popular more recently than Perl, so a lot of shops are Perl-focused. If you use Puppet, knowing Ruby will help you extend it. I work at Google which is big on Python so I learned after coming here; it was a shock to the system after being a Perl person since 1991 (someone recently told me Perl didn't exist in 1991... I introduced him to a little something called Wikipedia).

From a career-management point of view, I think it is important to be really really really good at one of them and know a little of the others; even if that means just reading the first few chapters of a book on the topic. Being really really really good at one of them means that you have a deep understanding of how to use it and how it works "under the hood" so you can make better decisions when you design larger programs. The reason I suggest this as a career-management issue is that if you want to be hired by a shop that uses a different language, being "the expert that is willing to learn something else" is much more important than being the person that "doesn't know anything but has great potential" or "knows a little of this and that but never had the patience to learn one thing well".


P.S. Other thoughts on this topic: Joseph Kern has advice about the three languages every sysadmin should know and Phil Pennock has great advice and an interesting summary of the major scripting languages.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Career Advice

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4 Comments | Leave a comment

I recently learned PowerShell so I could work more powerfully with our VMware and Compellent systems. I wish they offered more options, but it was at least a chance to learn yet another language. The secret is to never be afraid to pick up something new, whether it's a new language or a new platform.

I have been spending most of my time over the past year with Perl and Python. I viewed a link somewhere which described the best uses for both languages depending upon what task you want to accomplish. Example: Perl is good for doing regular expressions. Python is good for doing large projects.

A few points to understand is that using the language that will solve your problem and the one that makes most sense to you is important.

One more thing to add: Learning programming fundamentals will greatly help in understanding any language. Concepts such as variables, control structures, data structures, design patterns, functions and abstraction, etc...

Here is the link for Joseph Kern's advice:

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