Getting started as a Mac admin
To close out MacADUK 2016, there was a panel discussion about the non-technical skills involved with being a Mac admin. One question was something like this:
“How should a new Mac admin get started?”
The folks on the panel (including myself) had a few answers for this, including doing research and finding a good mentor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my brain had also filed it away for some further processing because it’s a dang good question and deserves more than the few minutes that we were able to devote to it. Because everybody’s different, I’ll just say what my opinions are on the subject.
1. Figure out if this is what you want to do.
You want to be happy in your career, right? Honestly, the first thing to figure out is if going into IT, and Macs specifically, is the way you want to go.
In my case, I figured it out back in college while working for the campus computer labs in the 1990s. The lab I worked in was for the engineering school and had a bit of everything: Macs, PCs running Windows 3.1, and Sun Microsystems boxes running SunOS. I found the Macs easier and more intuitive to work with than the other OSs, and I learned on-the-job how to fix them.
If you’re looking to figure out if this is what you want to do, getting an internship or an entry-level job in the field is a good way to learn. Working at an Apple store, with an eye towards getting on the Genius Bar, is another entryway that a number of new Mac admins have emerged from in recent years.
2. Figure out the best way you learn things. Learn stuff that way. Accept that the learning never stops. Repeat.
The most important element of your Mac admin career is having the skills to do the job. This is an ongoing learning process which you pick up through both training and experience.
How you learn best is going to be different for everyone. Some folks go to training classes and frankly get nothing from them, while classroom instruction is the best way someone else can learn. Ditto for books. Ditto for professional conferences. Figure out how you learn best, then pursue that method to help you accumulate the various skills you’ll need for this career path. If someone suggests an alternate way, try it! But the most important thing is finding what works for you.
In my case, I tend to learn best these ways:
A. Googling – Whenever I’ve got a problem that I’m not sure how to solve, my first stop is Google. I’ve found that very few problems are genuinely new under the sun and searching online may turn up the solution to a problem that you’ve been banging your head against. The solution may not all be in one place. Part may be in a StackExchange post, another part may be in a blog post, yet another part may be through searching GitHub. But a lot of answers to the issues you’re seeing are out there; you just need to find them.
B. Asking questions – We all get along with a little help from our friends, and the Mac admin community is pretty friendly. Asking questions in the MacAdmin Slack community, on the MacEnterprise mailing list, or on Twitter via the #macadmin or #macadmins hashtag, has helped me out a lot.
When should you ask questions of your fellow Mac admins? After you’ve done some research. You may find that the research answers your original question and leads you to ask even better questions, which in turn will make for a better discussion of your problem.
C. Testing – If the question is “What happens if I do X?”, the best answer many times is “Try it and see!”.
As part of this, I’ve got a couple of rules I go by when testing:
i. Have a test environment which is separate from your production environment – Test environments are meant to go * BOOM * on occasion, that’s why you have them. Production is sacred, don’t test things where it may affect the folks you support.
ii. Whenever possible, use virtual machines when testing – Picking up a copy of VMware Fusion or Parallels and running your tests inside VMs running OS X may be what saves you from hosing your own Mac when something unexpected goes wrong.
D. Find problems, then solve them – One of the most frequent ways I’ve learned new things is in passing, while I’m trying to solve a problem. Maybe it’s a problem just for me, maybe it’s a problem for a lot of people, including me. Maybe it’s a problem that’s not actually a problem for me, but it’s a problem for someone else. Any way you slice it, they’re all problems and the journey you take when solving problems is a great way to learn.
E. Documenting – I’ll be the first person to tell you that I have a terrible memory. Writing things down in a lot of detail does two things for me:
i. It actually helps my memory – By going through the process of writing up a problem and its solution, I actually remember more details later from memory.
ii. It’s a prosthetic memory – I don’t have to remember everything, I wrote it down so I didn’t have to. What I need to know is where I documented it, and search functions help out a lot there (see my earlier point about Googling.)
3. Find a mentor
One of the best ways to get experience is finding a good mentor and working with them to get the benefit of their own experiences. This may be tough if you’re the lone Mac admin in your shop, but you may also be able to find one (or several) online, again via the MacAdmin Slack community or via Twitter, or via meeting someone at a professional conference and then working with them via email or other ways of communicating online.
4. You will make mistakes
Nobody is perfect, nobody knows everything and failure is always an option. Accept that, and plan how to minimize the consequences to others from your mistakes.
I always try to learn from my mistakes, and some days it feels like I’m learning constantly. But I work very hard to make sure others aren’t affected by the commission and consequences of my mistakes. It’s not only the right thing to do, it will save you time because you’ll only have to fix your stuff and not have to fix others’ stuff as well.
5. Be flexible
There may be multiple ways to solve your problem; be open to alternate approaches. The important thing is solving the problem and there’s usually more than one way.
6. Accept that the solution you adopt today may not be the solution you need tomorrow
Over the past 18 years, I’ve seen Apple change some pretty fundamental things:
- Moving from a non-Unix-based operating system to a Unix-based operating system
- Changing processor families three separate times (68k to Power PC to Intel)
- Changing from a new OS every few years to a new OS annually
You have to be able to pick up which direction Apple is signaling that it’s moving to, and adjust your tools and solutions to match that direction. Sometimes that may mean you have to stop using a tool that’s worked for you a long time and pick up a new one to learn from scratch. Be prepared for that possibility and embrace those changes when you see them coming.
To close out, welcome to the craft! This is a really good time to start being a Mac admin, as Apple’s gear is on the ascendant in a number of places it traditionally hasn’t been and it’s an exciting time to be a part of it. Good luck, and may you have great success.