Death of the Sysadmin.

A Sysadmin. You usually run into one at your place of work, or school. Heck, you might be one. The term is loosely applied to the person or persons who form the work-force in that department usually referred to as Information Technology.

To me though, the meaning is a bit more specific. Its a term I usually apply as a positive acknowledgement of certain skills. Other folks I might call an operator, a network guy, an Exchange admin, a cable monkey, etc. Generally, Sysadmins are people who have a diverse set of system skills, deep in many important areas, and at the end of they day are the ones responsible for “making things work.” Really good Sysadmins know how to balance user needs and security on a budget. And they usually teach and communicate well.

The job of Sysadmin has changed over the years. Back when a company had maybe a mainframe, he was the guru that could debug the runtime errors and bring the system back to operation. Over time as systems became more diverse, the sysadmin would run the newer Unix stuff, and this new fangled web technology, etc. The skill-sets became broader.

Experienced sysadmins have extreme depth of understanding on the systems that were being run by their organization. In many cases they embody that variable of “organizational knowledge” that is so enigmatic to capture on paper. Not a lot of business people realize that. It’s that depth of system-wide understanding that makes them so effective at figuring out problems, sometimes in seemingly magical ways. A good Sysadmin can add a lot to a company’s bottom line.

I think though, that the job of being a Sysadmin is dying away. And it makes me sad.

I’ve always been tough to peg into a single point on the job board. At different times I’ve held the job of a full-time sysadmin and of a full-time programmer. That mixed skillset of administration and programming has served me very well. Usually my jobs are a blend of both: I was either the programmer that could set up machines to run reliably, or the Sysadmin that could actually talk and work with the programmers.*

The last few years I’ve been working as a consultant on a lot of VMware and virtualization technology. And I see a lot of Sysadmin’s struggling hard. Virtualization requires a fairly substantial knowledge base: systems (of course), networking, storage (NAS and SAN) and the ability to debug and detect non-obvious problems in the interaction of all of the above.

Considering the technical expectations placed on you as a Sysadmin, to find yourself suddenly having to work at “expert mode” on an area you have no knowledge on is scary. Especially when previously some of the fields had a full-time person handling that job. If you are a Sysadmin focused in a relatively small area of expertise, virtualization of servers can see like an insurmountable thing to know. Learning-wise, it’s like trying to read the dictionary in a single sitting.

And aside from raising the tech bar significantly, virtualization is reducing the number of sysadmin jobs out there.

Let me explain: If I were to start a new company today, I would not build a machine room full of computers. Heck, I probably would not rent machine room space in a colo. I’d be leveraging one or more of the existing cloud infrastructures out there.

And its not just getting rid of that machine room. Servers and services are handled offsite as well: Smart** developers will set up proper QA, dev, and prod separation, and make sure things are redundant in their cloud space. A good HR department will leverage things like ADP for processing and books. A good sales staff will probably want Salesforce.com. Email can run through one of several decent solutions out there. Literally, the only job left is cabling workstations and setting up printers: IE: Cable Monkey. And most tech guys will do that on their own to just have it.

You can argue each of these points as a value tradeoff. Cash vs reliability, etc. But when you get down to it, most businesses will err on the side of cash.

And that means, there are going to be less sysadmin jobs. I think there are going to be two levels: those who are able to do the job of what is now 3-people and running the cloud-level stuff. And those who are basically hanging on as vestigial cable monkeys.

I know it’s a harsh assessment. But it’s what I see now.

It is never a pretty situation when you have a large number of people who are going to be vying for a reduced number of jobs. That means salaries are going to drop. And people are going to have to find new areas to work.

The sysadmin job usually collected the people who didn’t fit well or didn’t want to fit well into the usual square-hole roles of the IT department. It will be rather demoralizing for those types of folks to have to go into other areas. I really do think we’re going to see the death of this profession in how morale-crushing that forced movement will be.

I’m lucky enough right now to “get” the virtualization side of the house. I’m studying up in areas I lack and can do the gig. But it feels less fun. You’re spread thinner than before and that true experienced “depth” of knowledge is lacking. That and I know I’m busily helping companies marginalize people like myself.

So I’m half looking at brushing up my programming skills and wearing that hat for a long while. I don’t know. I’ll sure miss being a Sysadmin. It’s more fun.

* I hesitate at times to say “I’m the sysadmin that programs.” For all the respect I have for the Sysadmin profession, many systems administrators learn some programming skills by osmosis and produce write-only code. Everything has its place, yes. But I’ve done serious team programming, understand development models and practices, love source control and documentation. Not that all programmers necessarily do that, but that’s another post.

** Boy is this another post.

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