This Friday, July 26th, we’re joining companies around the world in celebrating SysAdmin Appreciation Day. If you’ve been following along on social media, you know we do it in a big way. But what IS a System Administrator? Calling someone a “Network Ninja” doesn’t really answer the question, and google usually spits out a series of technical jargon that takes hours to wade through. As is so often the case, we went to the experts for answers – SysAdmin bloggers from around the net who’ve seen it all:
Philip Sellers, Tech Talk
Matt Simmons, Standalone SysAdmin
Tom Limoncelli, Everything SysAdmin
We asked each of them a few questions about what it means to be a SysAdmin, as well as the ins and outs of the position. Read their answers below – and remember to thank your SysAdmin this Friday! (Gift suggestions at the bottom!)
1.) What does being a SysAdmin mean to you?
TL: Being a SysAdmin means keeping the world running. As “software eats the world”, we’re the people that keep that software going.
MS: Our world is full of complexity. The world of IT, doubly so. Being a system administrator means taking that complexity and harnessing it and turning disparate pieces of unrelated technology into a useful, coordinated infrastructure. It means making something emerge where there used to be nothing.
PS: To me, it’s kind of like being a puppet master – we’re behind the scenes pulling the strings to make things work but people rarely get to see us.
2.) What is the best/worst thing about being a SysAdmin?
PS: The best and worst thing about being a SysAdmin is that the technology is constantly changing. It means we never stay still and our landscape is constantly moving. We’re always chasing a moving target. We have to adapt and change – it’s both exciting and exhausting, but I think most SysAdmins wouldn’t have it any other way.
MS: The best thing about being a SysAdmin is being a person or a part of a team that makes a very real difference to the benefit of the organization. There is probably no other position in the company with the kind of responsibility and ability to affect change – both good and bad – with such immediacy. It’s a position of responsibility, and doing it right is a reward unto itself.
The worst thing about being a SysAdmin is that nearly none of what I previously mentioned is widely recognized outside of our profession. We are often seen as maintenance workers when, in fact, we manage the entire lifecycle of business critical processes. To succeed in this profession and not get burned out, you need to maintain a healthy dose of internal motivation. If you wait around for praise, you’ll die on the vine. Let the successful job be its own reward.
3.) What made you become a SysAdmin?
PS: For me, it’s really a lot of things that came together. I enjoy solving problems. I became obsessed with computers as a teen and got my first taste of systems administration during high school helping to diagnose and fix problems on the school’s Token Ring network. I continue to enjoy getting hands-on with new technology. My dad taught me how to troubleshoot while growing up on the farm and I think that skill, more than anything else, is why I ended up as a SysAdmin instead of another IT career.
MS: Like most SysAdmins, I kind of fell into it. I worked technical support for an ISP and I was the most advanced Linux user in the (small) company, and I would help the admins out when they ran into problems from time to time. Eventually there was an opening in the team and I was made the “Junior Network Administrator”.
I worry sometimes that the path that allowed me in won’t stay open for much longer. When I first got into system administration, the “state of the art” was considerably less sophisticated than it is now. I snuck in because I ran the same operating system on my laptop as we did on our servers – Slackware Linux. Now, you need to be more than a command line jockey to be a good admin. You need to know configuration management, programming, as well as most of the things you used to need to know. The increasing layers of abstraction in play adds to the list of things we need to know even as it removes the boring work we used to spend time on.
TL: I became a sysadmin because I always loved learning the deep internals of any computer system I owned. A side-effect was that I could debug problems better than most people. However, what kept me being a system administrator is my love of operations and figuring out how to improve operations: either by automation or improving processes. I love automating real-world system administration tasks. I REALLY love finding that a process is broken due to a people or process problem, getting all the stakeholders together to discuss it, and getting consensus on how to fix the problem in the future. The big wins are when people get out of their silos and talk with each other.
4.) Why don’t people appreciate SysAdmins like they should?
PS: Few people really know what a SysAdmin does day to day. Most of what we do as SysAdmins is hidden from their view. People don’t see the work we do to architect and design systems that minimize problems. People don’t see the complexity that we deal with on a daily basis – complexity that seems to grow constantly. People don’t see the hours we devote to working through problems step by step until we find the root cause and fix it.
MS: The most commonly stated reason is that we are the “plumbers of the business”, and people only think about us when something breaks. I think that’s a pretty cynical outlook, but not entirely wrong. The bigger issue is that we, as IT professionals, are the “odd bird out” in business. We speak a different language, we use tools that no one else in the business does, and we’re generally thought of as a necessary evil because of this.
The onus is on us to change this. We all need to learn to speak “business” better than we do. We have a lot to offer; more than the business knows – even more than we ourselves know. The number of services we can offer the business to help them run better are barely being tapped. Getting better at what we do doesn’t just mean being more technically proficient. It means doing more with what we’ve already got, and by working with business leaders to accomplish organizational goals, we can make sure that in the future, we’ll be recognized and valued more than we ever have been in our history.
TL: Most people don’t know sysadmins exist. If they do, they confuse system administration with technical support. While many sysadmins spend a lot of their time doing technical support, that’s only because their organization has not grown to be large enough to have dedicated technical support people. In the future, system administrators will spend zero time doing front-line technical support. Devices will self-manage (at least to the point where problems with them are of a tech support nature) and system administrators will be operating services and the infrastructure that supports those services.
5.) What gift would you like for SysAdmin Appreciation Day?
PS: I’d like some home lab equipment or an AMEX gift card with no limit.
MS: Personally, I’m a big fan of space stuff. I’ve currently got a geek crush on Virgin Galactic and SpaceX as companies. If I didn’t already own it, I think a great present would be a copy of Kerbal Space Program (a really fun space program simulator).
SysAdmins are all different, so you should really talk to your admin before going out and getting a present. Check out the stuff on their desks if you want to do it low key, but that being said, I’ve never seen anyone turn down a gift card to ThinkGeek.
TL: The best gift I could get is time. There is nothing more valuable. That’s why I wrote a book on time management for system administrators. Yes, it may help them get more done at work, but my hope is that it will help them find ways to get enough done at the office that they can re-claim the 40-hour work week and spend more time at home with family (or family or choice) and friends. Therefore the perfect gift for me would be a day off!