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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.

stop palo alto evan blaser
The "burbs" in Palo Alto. Credit: flickr / Evan Blaser

How our communities have changed

In 1980, the Apple II computer that sat on a desk in the corner of my dining room had my neighbors thinking that I was a complete freak. To hear them talk, you'd think I had a centrifuge on my kitchen counter. And it was not because the computer was in the dining room or because it was an Apple. It was a computer and why I would have one sitting in my house had them looking at me really funny. Yet it wasn't that many years before anyone without a home computer was considered weird. And these days, we're all pretty much using wireless networks and probably everyone in the household has their own computer. Big change -- even without mentioning all the other electronics that are practically mandated by our modern life styles.

Career Choices

The downside

Compared to many IT jobs, there's not much climbing up the corporate ladder for sysadmins. As a systems administrator, you'll seldom be in the spotlight. You can easily still be a "bottom rung" (nobody reporting to you) worker after 30 years in the field. It's also hard sometimes to get a sense of value. You generally get noticed least when everything is running smoothly. Unless you resolve Big Problems, most of the people you support won't think about you very often. Maybe not even on Sysadmin Day.

Systems administrators are rarely customer-facing unless you count as customers the staff that use the systems that you keep humming along. And, even then, the big changes that you make are likely done after hours when everyone else is off duty and having a relaxing weekend or enjoying happy hour at the local pub.  Do your job really well and no one will remember you're there.

The upside

The work is seldom boring and there's always something new to learn -- something breaking, some new coming through the door. Even after 30+ years, the work is anything but monotonous. And the job pays reasonably well. There's also a lot of variability in what you do and what you specialize in. You might automate all of your tasks or manage a huge data center, but there will always be something that challenges you and problems that need your attention.

Some of the significant trade-offs involve the kind of organization you work for. I worked in one company with only three employees and two independent contractors and other organizations with staffs of tens of thousands. The benefit of the smaller staff positions was getting to touch nearly everything and being involved in almost every aspect of the work. The big ones offered more chance of moving around and changing my organizational role fairly dramatically.


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