[SysAdmin 101] The Scotty vs. LaForge SysAdmins

I found myself summarizing this concept AGAIN on IRC, and figured it was time I actually wrote it down.

Over the years, I’ve found that there are primarily two kinds of Systems administrators[1] : the Scottys and the La Forges. Anyone who is familiar with Star Trek[2] will get the reference. But for those who don’t, let me explain, and then I’ll talk about the pros and cons of each.

Scotty[3] is the Systems Administrator who feels the need to make everything into a miracle. All jobs are extremely difficult or just plain impossible, but they can get that task done. Scotty will tell you it’ll take four hours and won’t be that impressive, then custom builds a solution in two hours with bells and whistles. Server hardware fails at 3am? Scotty emails you that it’ll be tomorrow before it can be working, and then has it back up before 8am.

Scotty, in essence, under promises and over delivers, usually with one-off or custom solutions.

La Forge[4], on the other hand, is the System Administrator who makes everything routine. Everything, from the simplest task to the most difficult, gets done in a timely manner with little or no grandstanding. If La Forge says it’ll take two hours, it takes two hours, and is delivered to spec. La Forge can think on his feet, is cool under pressure, and keeps things running smoothly, even in an emergency. Server down at 4am? The system is redundant, so no-one even knows it went down. Need secure access to a customer site? La Forge builds it so that it can be done the exact same way for the next 50 sites.

La Forge, in essence, delivers to spec and on time, and plans for contingencies.

There are pros and cons to each. And each will excel in different environments.

In a small company, a Scotty will do well. Resources are tight, miracles need to happen regularly, and for the first year or so, one-off solutions aren’t a bad thing. The down side to a Scotty is twofold. One, the miracles they’ve worked for the last year or so can only be supported by Scotty. Sooner or later there are five (or more) different solutions to achieve the same results, each one better than the last, and all five solutions are in production. Documentation is sporadic – either over-complete or missing entirely.

Scotty will either get phased out or leave a small organization when it grows past a certain point. In larger companies, Scotty is either part of an R&D group, or a minor player in a much larger IT department, where these sorts of one-off or customized solutions have a low impact on the company as a whole.

La Forge, on the other hand, excels in medium to large companies. With a focus on stability, repeatability, and scalability, a La Forge is what a lot of people think of when they hear the words “IT Manager.” he can do the job, he has talented staff do delegate to, and has the knowledge to keep big, complex systems running smoothly. La Forge has a plan for almost every contingency, and if they’re hit with something new, you can be sure the solution will be documented, and the exact same solution used next time it comes up. La Forge will make sure that documentation is complete, up-to-date, and that the organization can go on without them.

In Medium to Large companies, La Forge usually rises to either team lead of department manager. In smaller organizations, they often come in after a Scotty has left, or are hired to manage a Scotty (or group of Scottys). A La Forge won’t fit very will in a startup.

Scottys can become La Forges and vice-versa. It’s not an easy transition, and generally a Scotty will transform into a La Forge as time goes on – as the company grows, as they mature as a sysadmin, or as the needs of the organization (big or small) change. If not, a Scotty will move on to the next job (voluntarilly or when they are no longer a “good fit” organizationally).

A La Forge can also turn into a Scotty if the job demands it. But this transition is usually much more painful, and they will do everything they can to re-assert their La Forge tendancies as the job goes on.

As for me? I’ve been both. And in the end, I MUCH prefer the La Forge style to the Scotty style. I get more sleep, my systems run better, and my customers are happier. Right now, though, I have to be a Scotty/La Forge hybrid, trying to convert a set of systems built by a Scotty into something scalable, managable, and repeatable. Something the next sysadmin after me can manage, maintain, and grow.

(Thanks to Scott and Ian for reviewing this post before publication)

[1] And I do mean primary – one of my reviewers of this post identified at least two other types. I’ll talk about those in a later blog post.
[2] Flame wars aside over which series was better, if you haven’t seen or heard of Star Trek, where have you been for the last 40 years?
[3] Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott
[4] Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge

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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