I have worked as a sysadmin (mostly Unix / Linux) for most of my professional life (not right now, though), and I’ve been meaning to write a few thoughts about it for a while.
My experience is that working as a sysadmin is, to me, interesting and fulfilling on a technical level, but ultimately disappointing and frustrating on a career and personal level. Why is that?
Let’s say you’re a good, competent sysadmin, and you’ve just joined a new company. During the first few days, you get acquainted with the company, the department, the sysadmin team (if any), the network, and the servers. Soon, any technical problems the company suffers from become apparent. Maybe a particular service is too slow, there have been security problems in the past, a server or application crashes often, there is some network congestion, that server’s logs tend to fill up the entire drive and need to be deleted from time to time, and so on. Or maybe you spot a need for something the company doesn’t have: a caching proxy server, an anti-spam / anti-virus email gateway, etc..
So, you get to work on those problems. Some software upgrades here, some tuning there, some cron entries here, some scripting there, some changes to the network, and so on. In months — maybe weeks, if the company is small — all the problems are mostly solved, and everything runs smoothly. Sure, you still have to reset users’ passwords (they keep
losing the Post-Its forgetting them), keep software versions up to date (at least concerning bug fixes or newfound security holes), and, since you’re not dead and therefore haven’t stopped learning, maybe you later realize how a redesign or change of some particular server or software application can make things even better.
But, for the most part… most of your job is done. In the Unix world, with a decent knowledge of scripting and a good deal of experience, you can make your servers almost administer themselves, and you will be warned (by scripts) of potential problems in advance, so that they never actually happen. So… what now?
Now, you have a problem… especially if you’re an honest person. Because managers — and this has been my experience almost everywhere I’ve been — still tend to measure an employee’s work — and worth — by how busy he looks. Many people, then, simply pretend to be busy all the time (“change your email password? OK, I’ll get back to you next Monday.”), but such an attitude may be repulsive to you (it is to me). Explaining things to your manager doesn’t really work; even if he begins to understand, his own bosses won’t, and, if some head must roll, better yours than his…
So, after solving the company’s problems, and assuming you refuse to act busy when you’re not, what next? Well, you’ll get a reputation for laziness, for not “working” all the time, when everyone else does it (even if they’re just faking it). You’ll probably get assigned, in addition to your “proper” work, all the dumb, repetitive, non-sysadmin (and therefore non-scriptable) tasks — which, since you have free time, you probably can’t refuse, or at least feel you can’t. Any raise or promotion will certainly not go to you, but to your “hard-working” co-workers, who are always so “busy” and have so much “work” that they stay at work every day after 6, that they can never do a task “right now”, but only in a week’s time, and that, even their own results are much inferior to yours, it’s you who’re not “dependable”, “dedicated”, or “competent”.
Which is why I think it’s time for a career change. I currently work at home, in personal projects, but I’m probably going to look for a new job soon (for the extra money, and for learning something new “on the job”), and I’m thinking of programming, probably in PHP. I love the idea of creating something, instead of just making existing things work. And of (hopefully) being measured by results, not by how busy I look. I’m not a PHP “expert” (far from it), but I learn quickly, and I love to learn — even at 32 years old. Stagnation is always bad (though it seems that’s what most people seek in a job, especially in Portugal, oddly enough — learn a couple of skills, then do exactly that for the rest of your life), and, paraphrasing Duke Leto Atreides, a person needs new experiences… and new challenges.