December 6, 2011

Day 6 - Always Be Hacking

This was written by John Vincent (

I got my start in computers a long time ago. Our school library had, if I recall correctly, a few Apple IIe systems in a room off to the side. I remember pretty clearly the first time I wrote something in BASIC. It was so awesome watching this machine do exactly what I told it to do. I was in second or third grade at the time.

The only computer I ever had at home as a kid was a Mattel Aquarius; thankfully it had the cassette add-on.

I dabbled in some form of 'programming' over the years from typing code using edlin out of Byte magazine and writing little gui apps in Tk to do most of the system administration related stuff I write today.

Evidently, I've always been hacking, and you should be, too.

Sysadmins of the Future

Adam Fletcher did an open space at DevOps Days Boston this year about what system administrators would look like ten years from now. The truth is that sysadmins in the future will look a lot like they did twenty or thirty years ago - programmers.

It wasn't too long ago that the same guy who ran the system also wrote the code that ran on the system.

That's what sysadmins need to get back to, today, if they have any hope of being employable in the future. I'm not necessarily talking about writing the application code that runs your business, but I'm not ruling it out either. Of course, you might be thinking, "I'm not a programmer! I can't do that stuff". In the words of Stephen Nelson-Smith, "With all due respect, I call bullshit".

You Already Program

When someone tells me that they can't program, I ask them to show me the last shell script they wrote. Look back over the scripts you've taken from company to company (you know you've done it). Look at the hyperconvoluted pipelines of awk, sed, grep, sort, cut and uniq. Look at the command-line argument handling. Look at the bash functions. Look at the loop constructs. Look at the subprocess you spawn.

I want you to listen to something. It's a talk that Uncle Bob Martin gave at RailsConf 2010. It's called "Twenty Five Zeros". Once you do, come back and reread this. If you weren't convinced before, you will be after listening. Bob Martin talks mainly about traditional programming languages and history in, but also talks about interpreted languages and the ever-common ground of sequence (assignment), selection (conditionals), and iteration (loops) - you think you don't do all of those in a shell script?

The fact is that, as a system administrator, you probably know more about the inner workings of the systems you manage than anyone at your company. Not only do you understand the details of what happens at the OS level but more often than not, you're the one person with the most holistic view of how all the components fit together, probably because you or your team were the ones to glue all those components together.

But Why?

There are several reasons WHY you should learn to program, but here are the three main ones in my mind.

So That You're Self-Sufficient

Remember the first time you found a newsgroup post or web site that told you the exact solution to the problem you were having and how to solve it?

No? Me either.

That's not to say it hasn't happened, but what is MORE common is that you found a solution that ALMOST fit, and you munged it until it worked.

Then you left it there hoping that it never stopped working. Just to be sure you could always find it again you bookmarked the page, printed a copy and also ran a wget -m (because there might be pictures) and saved that somewhere. In fact, I probably still have most of Ben Rockwood's Solaris articles from Cuddletech saved off somewhere on a dead hard drive.

But really, wouldn't it be more awesome if you could be the person who WROTE the solution that someone else found? Adding Epic to Awesome, imagine if you could just write it yourself from SCRATCH?

So you'll have a job in the next five years

This one is probably the most painful for folks. The fact of the matter is that sysadmins who CAN'T program and contribute more than just keeping the lights on are going to find themselves less and less employable. The times, they are a changing. Fish or cut bait. Insert other random phrase here. You aren't likely to have a choice in the matter. This isn't a DevOps thing. It's just the reality of the situation. The 'new' crop of operations folk are already ahead of you.

You might disagree with the above, and the future might prove it wrong, but what if you find you like writing code? What if having programming skills improves your business value and thus reflects positively upon your salary and benefits?

Career Flexiblity

I wish I had someone tell me the stuff I'm telling you years ago. Interests change. People change. Economies change. You may discover that you enjoy programming more and want to make a career shift. Better to learn that now than when you're unable to switch financially or you find yourself out of work in your originally chosen field.

Learning To Program

We've already established that you can program and why you should learn more, so how do you go about it? I'm going to make some assumptions, here, based on my experience and how I learn.

Tight Feedback Loop

I was never formally educated in computer science, and I find myself missing quite a bit. One thing that made learning to program easier was using a language with very quick feedback - how quickly can you try something? How many steps does it take? I don't care what the language is that you start with, but my personal preference is either Python or Ruby.

Both of these languages can work in the style you're familiar with in shell scripts, but also ease you into both functional and object-oriented programming concepts. They're very easy to get started with on any modern distro and have amazingly rich REPLs (Read-Eval-Print Loop, an interactive shell for Ruby, Python, etc). I'm not ashamed to say that I learned what I know about both languages more via IPython and irb respectively than ever cracking open vim. REPLs also provide instant gratification when you do something right. This provides encouragement to keep going.

Scratch an Itch

Regardless of which language you pick, don't start theoretical. Find a problem you have or recently had and solve it using that language. I like to credit the phrase 'Hate Driven Development' to Jordan Sissel, but really sysadmins are more likely to practice NDD: Neccessity driven development. We don't typically sit down and write an application just to write one (not that you shouldn't do that).

Once you've solved the problem, rewrite it to be a bit more flexible. Throw in some parameterization and configurability. Try and make it a little more generic.

Don't just write one-offs.

I know for a fact that a few scripts that I thought were one-offs are still being used, today, to keep some core business functionality running.

Don't screw yourself with bad solutions. Don't screw the person who comes after you.


Rewriting and refactoring also helps you practice the language. The next time you have a problem, don't immediately reach for bash. Take a few minutes and think about possibly writing it in your new language. If you have to solve the problem immediately, go back and rewrite the solution to be less fragile.

Publish and Share

Create public repo on Github or Bitbucket and start putting what you write there. Share it with the world.

Don't let ego get in the way.

You never know who you'll be helping down the road, and you never know who will be helping you in the future.

Next Steps

Remember, you should always be hacking. Here are a few things that I think we as sysadmins need to know beyond the basics

  • Perl

Every sysadmin should know some Perl. It's on every system. You might not be able to get the latest and greatest dynamic language on the system, but Perl will always be there.

  • At least one functional language

Don't know what 'functional' means? This might help

Functional programming concepts provide a new way to look at problems and often can be a better way to solve them. If you're an emacs user and you've ever modified your config, there's no reason you shouldn't go learn Clojure right now. Otherwise, it probably doesn't matter which language you use.

  • Learn to read Java

You don't have to learn to WRITE Java, but you should be able to navigate your way through the basics of a Java program. Additionally, the JVM is becoming a popular platform outside of Java with projects like Scala, JRuby, Clojure and others. Those languages will often be coupled with leveraging the existing Java ecosystem. Quite honestly, you should be able to at least read whatever language your company writes its applications in.

The dirty secret is this: once you learn one language, the others become easier.

  • C

Yes, you should learn C at some point. It's not going anywhere.

These things won't happen overnight, and I don't know all of these languages, either, but if we can manage to keep track of the differences between 5 different Linux distros and 3 flavors of Unix, we can handle learning a few different languages.

Remember that inside your head is the most amazing computer ever. Use it to the fullest and remember:

Always Be Hacking.

Futher Reading


Anonymous said...

I'm going to ignore the fact that you don't think that Perl is the latest and greatest dynamic language. ;) Great article!

lusis said...

Hah! Well when Perl6 hits we can talk about trouble upgrading all those systems =P

Unknown said...

I'm one of those sysadmins who keep kvetching, I'm not a programmer. But this write-up, very interesting. May just be the fingertip I need.

jmcalvar said...

An interesting article. I like the point view you have of the future. I think that we could say "the future has arrived"

battlesysadmin said...

I've been a non-senior sysadmin for TOO long, never quite crossing the line into that senior echelon. Your article has motivated me to install GitHub and get going already.