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Let's be serious about System Administration

© August 2013 Anthony Lawrence


Two days ago I wrote a bit of satire that pretended to be a job posting for a System Administrator job. It got mentioned on Reddit and that sent us a lot of traffic and a few comments, though most of the comments were at Reddit.

One comment noted "This is so close to reality that it is almost not funny anymore." I agree, and as I explained in my own comment, the basis of everything I said was taken from real life: things that have happened to me or from conversations I've had with other people.

For example, I have had someone insist that I had to be in two places at the same time. Of course she didn't put it quite like that, but she did insist that I must go see two widely geographically separated customers, both of which had thorny sounding issues that might tie me up for many hours. When I pointed out that I might not be able to do both, she simply kept insisting that I had to. Of course I "had to" because she had promised both customers that they would see me that day.

That the satire hit the mark is seen in that some people thought it was real. The exaggerations do echo what seems to be a lack of respect for this kind of work. Given the amount of responsibility the job carries, why is that true?

No degree needed

According to Wikipedia,only five schools offer graduate programs in system administration.. Although many more offer Information Technology or Computer Science degrees, those are often overkill for a sysadmin position: you don't need to know how to write N-way caching code to do this job!

Indeed, ubiquitous computers have been here only a few decades, so many of the older folks doing this kind of work fell into it. They knew a little about computers and as their company increased its complement, they became the "guy", which eventually formalized into some sort of title. Those people sometimes get the least respect of all; the company doesn't see them as a "professional".

It doesn't look hard

It is sometimes said that if the system administrator is doing their job well, they have nothing to do. That's not entirely true: there will always be problems to deal with, but a good sysadmin is a bit like Smokey the Bear: they stamp out small fires that nobody notices so that they do not have to deal with major conflagrations.

But there's more to it. Much of the more visible (and time consuming) may involve user problems. To some eyes, this looks much like bringing your car to the mechanic: some mysterious thing under the hood isn't working, the grease stained guy in the blue shirt pulls a wrench out of his pocket and fixes it. It's "blue collar" work, and while the reality is much different, that's what it may look like to upper management.

It doesn't look hard II

People "fix" their own computer problems. Everyone who uses a computer has probably fixed something, even if it was just adjusting a setting. The sysadmin job may look like more of the same - it's something "anybody could do" - if they weren't tied up doing more important things!

It probably doesn't help that sysadmins sometimes have to ask Google for help. That knowing what to search for and knowing how to discard chaff in the results is a skill is irrelevant: you didn't know how to fix it, so you looked it up. Anyone could do that!

No tie needed

If the sysadmin is also charged with diving under desks or opening machines with a screwdriver, you are more likely to find them in jeans than a suit.

Suit work gets respect. Screwdriver work, even when what follows the unscrewing might require far more accumulated knowledge than many so-called "professional" jobs, does not get respect.

It doesn't seem critical

That may seem impossible to believe, but there is a certain amount of complacent disregard for the systems that really are the heart of most businesses today. I think part of it is that computers are, after, just a tool. In the minds of some, the real work takes place in their minds and the computer systems are nothing more than glorified screwdrivers. Because they don't understand the technology that makes that screwdriver work, they tend to diminish its value. Sure, there will be panic if the systems are not working, but the panic has its roots in the interference with THEIR work. The sysadmin sees a downed server as a downed server, but the people who use that server see the down time as an impediment to their more important work.

If the system gets no respect, either does the administrator.

By the way, that Wikipedia article would make a good reference if you are a sysadmin and need to defend your value to a somewhat clueless boss. You might iterate the duties you have and compare them to those listed there, but you might also point out this sentence from the "Skills" section:

Perhaps the most important skill for a system administrator is
problem solving-frequently under various sorts of constraints
and stress.

That's "knowledge work", not "screwdriver work". The stress is real and the constraints are real. The skills are important, and worthy of good compensation.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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1 comment

Inexpensive and informative Apple related e-books:

Are Your Bits Flipped?

iOS 8: A Take Control Crash Course

Take Control of Upgrading to El Capitan

Take Control of Pages

Take Control of Apple Mail, Third Edition

More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Mon Apr 7 16:06:12 2014: arrisi.com (company I work for)12430   Keith


This should be required reading for any manager of a sysadmin.
Sometimes the role can feel like the most thankless there is. When I'm buried in a server room with 600+ Linux and Solaris systems, the suit and tie guys view me as a wrench turner. No regard whatsoever for what is going to happen once the system comes back on-line and needs to actually be fixed. Not that any of them would have a clue what to do.
But, after all these years,,, I still love the heck out of my job.


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