% fortune -ae paul murphy

The Unix sysadmin salary premium

According to payscale.com 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".

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.