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30 Years a Sysadmin

Sandra Henry-Stocker | Oct. 1, 2015
Looking back after spending more than 30 years as a Unix systems administrator, I have to say that's it's been quite a ride.

30 years a sysadmin
Credit: flickr / Elvert Barnes (runner) & Richard Masoner (data center)

Looking back after spending more than 30 years as a Unix systems administrator, I have to say that's it's been quite a ride. It certainly wasn't 30+ years of doing the same thing. Instead, the technology and the job have gone through incredible changes along the way. There were dramatic improvements in the hardware that I managed and always plenty of new tools to learn and use. Over the long haul, I went from reveling in how much work I could get done on the command line to grappling with some big issues -- troubleshooting some very complicated problems and figuring out how to best protect my employers' information assets. Along the way, I worked with some amazing individuals, got laid off (once), and learned a lot about what works and doesn't work both from a technical and a career perspective.

How the technology has changed

In the earliest part of my career, I actually used keypunch machines -- first, when processing payrolls for client companies while working for a large New York City bank (and putting myself through college) and second, when taking my first programming class. At the bank, I built punch card "programs" to make it easier for the keypunch operators to jump to the next field for the data they were entering. At the college, the class was an introductory programming class based on Fortran. Yes, Fortran. The following semester, the keypunch machines were no more and big clunky terminals took their place.

keypunch born1945
Keypunch operators. Credit: flickr / born1945

In college I had learned languages like Fortran, LISP, ALGOL, and Pascal. And, in one class, I built a simple operating system on a PDP system using assembly language. I remember "reading" the lights on the front of the system and how exciting it was when the attached printer spit out a sheet of paper as instructed. I've used many other languages since -- like C and some Java, but I've mostly worked in scripting languages like sh, csh, bash, ksh, Python, and Perl. But one of the most surprising things is how many languages have been introduced since that time. The number of languages available seems to have increased maybe 20-30 times what is was when I started in the field. This list from 2013 is probably no longer up-to-date: 256 Programming Languages

I remember in the early 80's having to know the topology of hard drives in order to add them to my systems where, today, the systems are able to identify peripherals with very little work on my part. The number of cylinders, heads, and sectors ... I had to describe the disk in these units for the system I was working on to be able to use the drive.


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