Work: why a good sysadmin has a lot of free time

I’ve talked about this subject before (in the “keeping busy” entries), and I think I mentioned this in passing, but I believe that this is an important point, and deserves its own article.

My theory (which observation seems to validate) is that the better a system administrator is, the more free time he will eventually have.

Many people (including managers, team leaders, etc.), unfortunately, equate “free time” or “not working hard all the time” with “laziness”, and wrongly believe that a good worker is one who is working hard all the time – if he extends it to after work hours and weekends, even better.

Unfortunately, if they thought a couple of minutes about it, they might spot the huge, glaring error in such “logic”… :)

  1. You know the “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” saying? In systems administration, it’s similar. An average sysadmin fixes a problem. A good sysadmin not only fixes it, but he understands what happened, what caused it, and solves the underlying cause so that it doesn’t happen again in the future. Ideally, every problem only happens once.
  2. Many (though not all) sysadmin jobs can be either partially or completely automated. Doing so requires skill and experience, something an average sysadmin may not have. But it saves a huge lot of effort and time. An average sysadmin works, a good one scripts, so that most of the work performs itself.
  3. Systems administration is not a particularly “hard” work (though it’s a very specialized one), like, for instance, farming, in which effort and perseverance are the most important qualities. Instead, what makes a good sysadmin is: intelligence, quick learning, imagination, and, above all, experience. Those qualities tend to make a good sysadmin a very fast worker.
  4. A sysadmin doesn’t just solve problems; he also researches, tests and implements new things. True. But even those don’t tend to take up all available time (except at particular situations, such as the final part of a project), because no “sane” company replaces their systems every month (unfortunately, there are a lot of “insane” companies out there, but that’s another story).
  5. Unlike an average sysadmin, a good one has very efficient monitoring and warning systems. An average sysadmin tends to be “warned” of problems by the users – “this service is down”, “I can’t access my email account”, and so on. A good sysadmin, however, was warned about that abnormally growing log file a long time before it was even close to taking up all free space in its partition. And he fixed the cause of that growth long before it affected any services.
  6. Managers tend to love a worker who works 7 days a week, stays in after hours, and so on. But what does that mean? Either that that worker is slow and inefficient, or that he’s doing the work of 3 persons or more. If the former, they should reconsider his value; if the latter, he’s the one who should reconsider his employment…
  7. A good sysadmin is a master of efficiency and time saving. As I said, he scripts, he automates, he solves problems “once and for all”. He investigates and deploys his own tools for quick remote administration, which are much faster than going to the physical location of a server, for instance.

See the pattern?

Unfortunately, there’s a problem here: visibility. A good sysadmin is like an efficient police force. If citizens constantly see the police running after criminals, in spectacular car chases, they’ll probably be impressed, but a really good police force would mean that most crimes would be prevented in some way. Instead of a police which goes after criminals, there would be an apparent lack of crime. Sadly, that tends to make people start to believe that maybe we don’t need such a well-financed, well-staffed police force…

Here, it’s the same thing. Think of the crash from a rapidly growing log file I mentioned above. With an average sysadmin, it’s “I can’t access my mail!”, then he goes, deletes the file, restarts the service, and it’s working again. With a good sysadmin, nothing would have happened. Nobody would have noticed anything. So, they start to think that maybe that sysadmin doesn’t do a lot around here… maybe he isn’t pulling his weight.

That’s ridiculous, though – that one may have to do his job worse than he’s capable of, just so that people notice his work. It’s something I refuse to do. But maybe some “self-marketing” would be useful – like, when you solve a problem before it happens, you tell your superiors about it. It’s a bit absurd… but I think it’s better, and more honest, than the alternative (doing a bad job on purpose).

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11 Responses to “Work: why a good sysadmin has a lot of free time”

  1. Odrakir says:

    Unfortunately, the portuguese companies and their managers don’t like to see us, Sys Admins, reading a technical book, a manual, or looking at another “thing” other than a computer monitor.
    I understand you, but sometimes you have to let the users complain a little so that the management thinks that we’re needed, or else, for them, you’re just a guy filling up a chair and occupying a computer. It’s hard to say that everything is under control and that you can’t do anything else, more than maintaining the system, and that’s stupid, because, as you say in your post, that’s our job.

  2. Nicholas says:

    Needless to say, the most crucial, vital jobs and roles are the ones that when done smoothly you barely notice.

  3. Bryan says:

    Loved the article. Agree 100% with the basic thrust, ’cause I’m one of those ‘automate and monitor everything’ guys.

    But one quibble. I think a really good admin finds uses for the time he has saved on other things. He learns about some other discipline – networking, or an app the company runs, or even just how the business does it’s moneymaking thing. In time he will find natural ways to apply his automation and stability enhancement skills to these other areas … and will (if lucky) be trusted to do so, since his own areas run so smoothly.

    It’s always worked for me. First I got my windows servers running sweet (and measurably so, by the way … I was able to chart the rise in uptime since my start date). Then I set out to document/diagram the network itself, ad as I became more trusted I rearchitected bits of it to make them cleaner and more robust. Then I doubled back into the area of client security, setting up better standardized builds and inventory/update mechanisms. Then it was off into the land of *nix … and so on.

    Free time? What’s that?

  4. Dehumanizer says:

    Bryan: I mentioned it in point 4. Even self-learning, self-improvement, research, testing and implementation of new things doesn’t take up all available time – if you’re doing it “just” for learning, for your own “growth”, you’re doing it mostly at your own rhythm (and everything you do is a “bonus” to the company); if you’re doing it because the company is really going to replace their mail servers or web servers or proxy servers or change the whole network configuration in a couple of weeks… fine, this is an exceptional period. If in 3 months they’re going to change everything again… then we’re dealing, IMO, with one of the “insane companies” I mentioned in the article. :)

    In my opinion, the only way a good sysadmin doesn’t have any free time is when the company is large enough, and has enough servers and different systems and “special cases”, to require three or more good sysadmins – and they’re making one guy do the work of three. In such a case, I believe it’s him who should think again about his employment…

  5. Bryan says:

    Hello again …

    Well. Maybe our work situations are different then. It’s been a decade or so since I worked for a company with less than 50 people on the IT staff. Net admins, server admins, storage admins, print admins, app admins, developers … the list goes on. So there’s always something happening, always something else to learn or do.

    I like keeping the time filled.

  6. Prathap Rajamani says:

    One thing which the top management must understand about sys admins is that they are vital for the proper functioning of the company. The company can still function is a programmer or a developer is on leave. But what would happen if the sys admin was on leave or comes late to the company?? i guess all users would have to be workless unless he arrives to solve the problem!!!

  7. arensb says:

    A good sysadmin is like an efficient police force.

    I’ve come to many of the same conclusions as you have, though I prefer to say that sysadmins are like stagehands: if people notice us, we’re not doing our job properly.

  8. […] here has discovered the essential truth of most sysadmin or DBA jobs: if you’re any good, you will soon be bored and under-appreciated. (That’s a different […]

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