The Accidental Sysadmin

The sysadmins of the future might be… underemployed arts graduates?

Welcome to first installment of The Accidental Sysadmin, a column for people on the front lines of IT who are still wondering how they got there.

Because I share an office with this guy, I have been hearing a lot about the death of the sysadmin. This isn’t what it sounds like. It wasn’t Colonel Mustard in the server room with the cable crimper.  There are no overworked nerds combusting from sheer stress.  I’m talking about the demise of sysadmin as a job title.

Actually, I’m quite sure that there are overworked nerds combusting from sheer stress, but that’s not what I’m on about here.  Whether you call your sysadmin a computer systems administrator, the IT guy, some flavour of “engineer” or even an “architect”, the jobs are under threat.  Technology is evolving, demands are changing, and this is changing the nature of systems administration.

Corporate IT is getting easier to administer. No seriously, stop laughing for a minute. It is. IT administration is still frustrating and labor-intensive, but it is no longer the sort of job that only a highly-trained, expensively-accredited Mensa member with advanced skills in black magic can perform.

Computer systems administrator covered in network cables.

No, really, corporate IT has gotten easier

Advances in hardware mean that businesses who formerly needed their own data center can make do with a half-rack of hyperconverged gear shoved in the corner of any room with decent air conditioning.  Businesses who never needed a data center in the first place may have simply done away with most of their equipment and turned to various public cloud services for their compute, storage, applications, and analytics.

As my office-mate wrote, “These tools make it easy for a handful of half-way competent generalists to accomplish what once required teams of specialists.”

That’s me: the halfway competent generalist.

Don’t you work at a computer company?

My university degree was in theater, about as far away from computer science as one can get. Since employment prospects for theater people are exactly what you think they are, I went to work at a marketing company. The marketing company happened to create advertising material for tech startups.  And since the technical writers who worked there were trained sysadmins, the company did a bit of sysadmin work on contract as well.

Ostensibly I was there to be “a creative”: to generate offbeat ideas for marketing campaigns.  Whenever there was no immediate need for someone to come up with interesting-yet-humane uses for bearded dragons, I worked as an editor. I proofread other people’s articles about virtualization, software-defined storage, network security, containers, and whatever else Silicon Valley thought was worth spending advertising dollars to promote.

Bearded dragon sitting on a SuperMicro switch

No lizards were were harmed.

This required a lot of Googling. Who knew that “compute” could even be used as a noun? Obviously a “bus” in this context was not transporting schoolchildren, but what was it doing? What was this DevOps thing everyone suddenly needed to blog about?

“Marketing” was a bit of a dirty word in my social circles, so when people asked what I did, I mumbled something vague about “helping software startups.” The fact that some people at my company actually did systems administration no doubt muddled things further.

My friends and relatives started thinking of me as “the one who worked at a computer company,” which in their minds soon became “the one who might know why their laptop was suddenly awash in popups advertising adult videos.”

Look, Ma, I’m a sysadmin (sort of)

And the funny thing was that I mostly did know. After years of eavesdropping on my office-mates’ tech support calls and proofreading hundreds of articles about hardware and software, I could tackle some junior-level sysadmin tasks without disaster.

My co-workers encouraged my attempts to learn more. They gutted PCs and interpreted the entrails for me. They gently explained the difference between a modem and a router.  They nudged me toward learning some HTML.

I thought they were being uncommonly nice about it, until I realized that they wanted to upskill me so that I would take on some of their boring scut work. (Well-played, guys, well played.)

A sleeping cat

Now I see why you wanted me to work…

As part of my attempt to learn more, I asked other people about the IT in their workplaces. “Oh, I dunno,” they would say. “Pat takes care of that, I guess.” “Pat is your IT guy?” I would ask. “No, he’s just good with computers. We don’t need an IT guy; it’s not like stuff breaks that often.”

By now I have heard this a lot. It still makes me twitch.

To be fair, I’m in Canada, where most businesses aren’t huge. Hopefully large enterprises have a more rigorous approach to corporate IT. But even in companies worth several million dollars, IT might well be handled by someone who is uneducated and largely untrained in anything related to computers.

Corporate IT has become more compact, efficient, and easy to use than ever before. This makes it seem enticingly feasible for business owners to avoid paying a trained sysadmin. It’s tempting to just subscribe to a few cloud services and then dump the vestiges of the sysadmin job onto whatever existing employee has a reputation for being good with computers.

IT is becoming the responsibility of the payroll clerk, the junior geologist in charge of the mapping software, or the retail assistant manager who knows their way around Google Docs. If I ever go to a different company, it will probably be the duty that gets pushed on me. “You used to work at a computer place, didn’t you? Can you fix the internet?”

Minion, improve thyself

I’m not saying that this divestiture of responsibility for IT operations from the trained onto the untrained is a good thing. It’s actually the stuff of sweaty, panicked, dystopian nightmares.

I don’t in any way advocate turning network security over to someone who has never heard of a zero-day vulnerability, but I don’t know how to prevent it, either.  The people with the authority to make hiring decisions often don’t have the technical knowledge to understand why they should keep the old school sysadmins around.

I do, however, feel sympathy for all of the non-IT people forced into the role of sysadmin by some executive’s enthusiastic cost-cutting measures.  After all, I could so easily be one of them.

I’m lucky enough to get on-the-job training from experienced sysadmins, but many people in similar positions are not. This doesn’t mean that they are doomed to ignorance and failure. There are resources that can help people involuntarily “promoted” to sysadmin fill in some of their knowledge gaps. Of course, this assumes that they have time to go looking for training material, on top of fulfilling their previous job description and their new IT responsibilities.

Let’s not assume that.

Fortunately, We Break Tech has a very junior arts graduate sysadmin ready and willing to comb the internet, seeking out sources of edification. It’s not pure altruism – I need to learn a lot of these things myself, but I am more than happy to share. The Accidental Sysadmin column will be a collection of resources, tools, and encouragement for tech minions seeking to improve our skills and our lot in life.

Check back weekly for the latest installment.  If you have resources, ideas or stories to share, please feel free to drop me a line below.

About Katherine Gorham

Katherine Gorham is a writer, editor, junior sysadmin and actor. She holds a bachelor's degree and a diploma in fine arts. Katherine blends her knowledge of technology with her creative talents to provide unique insights into problem solving that others often miss.

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