December 23, 2013

Day 23 - The profession of operations and why it's the coolest thing ever

Written by: John Vincent (@lusis)
Edited by: Ben Cotton (@funnelfiasco)

I own a lot of t-shirts. I'm addicted to them. I have the one in this picture and it's one of my favorite ones. It's a favorite because it is the most accurate description of what a sysadmin does: everything.
This is why operations is one of the coolest careers on the planet.

The IT organization

IT organizations range anywhere from flatter-than-kansas to complex hierarchies where each physical cable on the network has its own org chart. Regardless of how they're structured, there's usually one person who has the most comprehensive view of every moving piece and has most likely performed every single role at some point and time. That person is probably the sysadmin.

It's worth noting that every role in IT is important. This isn't an attempt to denigrate those who are in those roles. Quite the contrary. One of the best things about being a sysadmin is that you get to do them all!


One thing that has always fascinated me about systems administration and operations in general is that it is largely a self-taught field. Even today there are, according to Wikipedia, very few actual sysadmin degrees. It's largely an uncodified discipline (though initiatives like Ops School are trying to change that), and yet it is the core and foundation of a company's IT. You can take courses, get degrees and be certified on everything that a sysadmin does and yet there's no official "sysadmin" certification (that is worth anything, anyway).

There are many theories for this but the one I tend to stick with is that to do your job you simply have to understand every single aspect. In fact, it's expected of you.

The sound of one hand clapping

If a server isn't connected to a network is it still a server? Right out of the gate, you're dealing with networking. But what good is a server if it's not serving. Let's throw some database software on there.

Now you've got performance issues. Looks like there are I/O problems. Now you're a storage admin figuring out iSCSI issues (which also happens to be networking). Now you're looking at what your database software is doing to treat your poor disks that way. You look at tablespaces and hit ratios. You're running explains and tuning bufferpool sizes. When did you become a DBA?
Almost everyone I've ever talked to has come to a specialization in IT by way of being a sysadmin (though that could be biased based on my typical peers). The rare exception is development which has always been a more formal discipline.

Called to service

One of the things that has always attracted me to being a sysadmin outside of getting to touch pretty much every aspect of technology is that of service. You run servers. Servers "serve". You serve others.

You keep the lights on. This is a powerful ideal. Permit me a bit of hyperbole if you will: When your servers go down, your company isn't making money. When companies don't make money, people could lose jobs or worse everyone could lose their job.

Even if your primary industry isn't technology, having backend systems like financials offline can lead to lost revenue, delayed payroll and the like. Even if you outsource all of that and have minimal infrastructure, there's still a sysadmin somewhere in the mix keeping things running. It's systems administrators all the way down.

And let's not forget the users OUTSIDE of your company as well. Think about how people have used tools like Twitter to organize the wholesale replacement of corrupt governments. People have used Facebook to help find loved ones after natural disasters.

To the team of system administrators who kept the Neil Gaiman Yahoo! group running 11 years ago - thank you. Without that I would have never met my wife.

Even if you aren't working in operations at some major internet company, there's a person in your company who didn't have to fight technology for a day and it made them happy.

There's nothing wrong with being a sysadmin

Many people think of being a sysadmin as just a stepping stone. A way in the door. You do your time working the pager and maybe at some point you move to another team. There's nothing wrong with that.

But there's nothing wrong with being a systems administrator. Not only is it one of the most important parts of the bigger picture but quite frankly it's one of the most fun.

You should be PROUD of being in operations. Be proud of being a sysadmin. You don't need a new title.

Trust me. I get it. People can be assholes.
"Oh you're a sysadmin? We'll I'M a devops!".
Avoid those people. They're very unhappy people anyway.

Not a sysadmin?

That's okay. You're important too.

The fact is, we're all important. The people who write the software we use. The people who keep the pipes fast. The people who keep the storage going. We're all in this together and having fun. We cross-pollinate. We share. We learn. We thrive.

Sysadmins are still the best though. =)

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