Why your SysAdmin SHOULD be goofing off

There is a myth out there that Systems Administrators should be busy, frantic, and overworked. But in truth, SysAdmins should be “goofing off” at work. And that is a good thing. If the SysAdmin in your organization is browsing Slashdot, their Google Reader feeds, or even playing a game, it doesn’t mean they’re not doing their job. Far from it. It means that they’re doing their job perfectly.

Now, let me explain and clarify that. Because I know some of you are calling “bullshit” on that last sentence. First up, a couple of questions :

Do you complain when you see firemen behind the station having a cookout and playing basketball?  Do you complain when you see a group of EMTs sitting around a table playing cards in the hospital break room? No, you don’t. Why is that?

If the firemen or EMTs are able to take “down time” on the clock, it means everything is OK. The equipment has been checked and is working, the vehicles are all clean and fueled, and, most importantly, there are no emergencies right now. And we know that when the alert goes off, they’ll drop everything to do their jobs. And once the engines and equipment are back in place, refilled, and repaired (and cleaned if needed) they go back to what they were doing.

Systems Administrators should be no different, no matter what organization they are working for. But often, they are treated like the accounting staff, or  the janitors. If they aren’t doing something RIGHT THIS SECOND, obviously, they aren’t doing their job. Which is the exact opposite of what’s really going on.

Systems Administrators are somewhat different than their Corporate Brethren. They spend an inordinate amount of time in late, in early, and working weekends. Their work happens in the middle of the night, and goes largely unseen. The security patch that reduced the spam in the VP’s inbox? That probably happened around 2am. The updates to the web server that allow it to run faster? Saturday or Sunday, when the customers aren’t working. One of my favorites :  restoring the production server after a hard drive failure just before end of business for the day. And the list goes on – just ask your nearest sysadmin.

A Systems Administrator lives a life of interruptions, emergencies, and rapid changes. They have to keep themselves up on the latest changes in technology, software, and computer security.  In addition, they’re expected to anticipate the computing needs of the organization before the organization itself knows it needs an upgrade, or expansion, or new technology.

If your Systems Administrator is “goofing off” at work, it should mean that, like the emergency personnel above, everything is running smoothly, all the patches are applied, and he or she is caught up on the rest of their duties. All is well on the network. But rest assured when the pager goes off, or the monitors indicate a server is about to fail, they’ll jump into action.

Because that’s what they do. And when all is settled and stable, and quiet, you can be sure they’ll be getting ready for the next emergency. And maybe goofing off. Just a little.

[Addendum]  It’s also worth noting that if your Systems Administrator is ALWAYS dealing with emergencies, or never seems to have down time, that something is wrong on a much more fundamental level. This is usually caused by one of the following :

  1. The systems are more complex than the current staff can manage. It’s time to expand the systems staff.
  2. The systems are insufficient to handle the tasks at hand. It’s time to look at the design of the systems.
  3. The systems administrator isn’t doing their job.

In cases 1 and 2, the sysadmin staff will usually be telling their management that this is the situation. In many cases, an organization will go through options one and two before realizing the problem isn’t the environment, but the admin (case 3). The admin is either slacking off in general or doesn’t know what they’re doing. If you happen to be that admin, let me give you some advice – up your game. Pick up some new skills, find a mentor, swallow your pride and get some additional help…if you value your job and your reputation, do what you have to do to make that system shine.

Because if you don’t, there’s someone waiting in the wings to solve all the problems in your environment, often at the expense of your  budget –  and in some cases, your job. Not a good place be, in any economy.

About Kevin Sonney

Kevin Sonney - who, contrary to popular opinion was NOT raised by wolves - grew up in central North Carolina. He fell into the technology field by accident in 1991, when he gave up the wild and crazy lifestyle of an on-air AM radio DJ to become a mundane technical support monkey. The technology industry has never really recovered from this. Kevin has worked for such names as IBM, Red Hat, webslingerZ, and Lulu Technologies (we won't mention the ones that didn't survive the experience). He currently works as a Linux Administrator for Apptio. In his spare time he rescues stray animals and plays video games with his two sons. His wife, we're sad to say, helps him get past the really hard bits. Kevin is still not very mundane, he just got better at hiding it.
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One Response to Why your SysAdmin SHOULD be goofing off

  1. wraith says:

    You are totally correct. When I was a Sys Admin, I was lucky enough to have a boss that understood that if I wasn’t busy it was because I had everything running smoothly. I’d play Aliens vs Predator in my cubicle with his blessing as long as the executives never saw it. ;-)

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