In a perfect world, every admin starting a new job would find copious documentation on the IT infrastructure awaiting them. Login credentials would be securely recorded and ready for review. The staff member they’re replacing would be accessible to answer any questions.

In a perfect world, we’d also have 1-terabit Ethernet, quantum computers in our pockets, and biometric authentication on every device.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. That’s why beginning a new IT job can be tough—especially at a small company, where you may be the only IT person on staff and have no direct line to your predecessors in the role.

So where do you start when you step into a totally unfamiliar network? Read on for some tips on taking the reins of an infrastructure you know nothing about.

1. Map the network

You can’t manage what you can’t see. So you can’t effectively administer a company’s IT systems without first learning the topology of the network that binds them together.

The ubiquity of BYOD policies and mobile devices makes network mapping even more important. As veteran admin and IT trainer Keith Barker writes, “In a world where employees bring a multitude of mobile devices onto corporate networks, security pros need to know—and be able to map—which devices are connecting to a network at all times.”

In the past, detailed network mapping could be something of a pain. Luckily, modern network topology tools make mapping the network easy.

You don’t have to trek across server rooms and office floors, clipboard in hand, to figure out which devices are on the network and how they’re connected. Network mappers do that work for you in minutes.

And that’s not all. Good network mappers also provide easy-to-interpret visual representations of your infrastructure, allowing you to understand its complexities at a simple glance. They’ll infer connections that aren’t visible, providing insights into the secrets of your network.

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And they’ll keep topology data updated in real time, ensuring that accurate data on the layout of the network—which, after all, is always changing—is at your fingertips, whenever you need it.

2. Figure out how the network is configured

Ideally, your new company already has a configuration management solution in place and you can simply log into it to see how your network devices are configured. But just as likely, you’ll discover there’s no documentation on configurations at all, or the documentation is static and out of date, or backups have never been made, or any number of frustrating scenarios.

In that case, your first step is to complete a configuration audit. (Again, you can’t manage what you can’t see.) Logging the configs of every device can be a painful, time-consuming exercise but luckily—just as with network mapping—there are software solutions that can handle it all for you.

Install a configuration management system that can not only tell you what configs you have running, but also monitor those configs over time and automatically back them up. Configuration monitoring allows you to keep track of the changes you make as you get to know the infrastructure—and roll those changes back seamlessly when you press the wrong button (it happens!) and break something.

Bonus points: The person who comes on board after you will be praising your name for the excellent documentation you leave them.

3. Patch, patch, patch

Hopefully, your predecessor made every effort to apply software patches regularly to the apps and management tools on the network. Patches, after all, are the main line of defense against known security vulnerabilities. They also eliminate major bugs that can frustrate admins and users alike.

Lest you find out the hard way that the previous IT person did a less-than-stellar job of keeping up to date with patches, however, downloading and installing the latest patch kits should be at the top of your agenda.

And patching gives you bang for your buck in terms of both time and money invested. As Dirk A. D. Smith notes, “Patch kits are free.” They’re also usually pretty simple to install. So without using any of your budget, or very much of your time, patches are a quick and easy way to maximize the efficiency and security of your network early on.

4. Audit licences and certificates

Out-of-date licences are a configuration issue you’d do well to address sooner rather than later. You don’t want to wait until a device fails to find out that the licensing agreement for it has lapsed, and you don’t have access to vendor support at the time you need it most—your first weeks on your new job.

And that’s not all you have to worry about if your licences are out of date. The issue could also result in unexpected bills for your company, especially because software vendors are increasingly seeking to extract revenue from customers who use products without valid licences.

Taking the reins of an infrastructure you know nothing about? Here’s where to start.

Since outdated licences both make your job harder and put your company at compliance risk, don’t put licensing audits on the backburner when you start a new job.

On a closely related note, it’s also a bad idea to let your SSL certificates go out of date, which makes you look bad when the company’s websites and apps generate security warnings that could so easily be avoided.

5. Remove or replace obsolete equipment

Finding ways to cut costs and maximize efficiency is always good, for lots of reasons. It helps you impress your boss. It stretches your IT budget further, a particularly useful feat if you’re at a small company with few resources to devote to new equipment purchases or service contracts.

And, by cutting down on the number of devices you have to manage, it reduces the complexity of your job—not to mention attack vectors that bad guys might use to get onto your network.

Those are all important considerations no matter how long you’ve been at your job. But there’s no better time to eliminate outdated or redundant devices and services than when you first step into the position.

Because you have no personal investment in existing infrastructure, and are looking at the network for the first time, it can be easy to see inefficiencies that would go unnoticed if you were the one who created and lived with them over the course of months or years.

Looking at your network map, you may see servers that could be consolidated, machines that could be turned off, or even unused gear collecting dust in a corner. Now’s the perfect time to get rid of it.

For a real-world example of how much you stand to gain from removing obsolete hardware—and, in this particular case, repurposing some of it—take a look at one admin’s account of the “server room redemption” that followed his entry into a new IT job.

6. Optimize your toolbox

Your first weeks on the job are a great opportunity to take advantage of skills you have, or tools you’re familiar with, that the admin you replaced may not have known.

For example, the person who previously filled your shoes may never have made the jump from on-premises monitoring tools to those that live in the cloud, and therefore offer more flexibility. Or your predecessor may have been running an out-of-date file system on the servers because that’s what she knew best, even though it lacks the advanced features of modern, distributed storage platforms.

Now’s your chance to show the new boss you’re not only capable of managing the company’s IT infrastructure, but you can do it better than before by bringing innovative skills and expertise to the table.

Of course, you’ll want to be careful not to go overboard. Before replacing existing tools and services, make sure there’s not a specific need for them that newer ones can’t fulfill. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that the software you know best is always best for the job—sometimes it’s worth teaching yourself the systems that are already in place.

That said, when you have full liberty to pick and choose which software to run, don’t hesitate to take advantage of that freedom if you can deliver efficiencies, cost-savings, improved stability, or other benefits.

Over to you now. What are some tasks you tackled in the first months of a new network admin role that really payed off? Let us know in the comments.

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