As a system administrator, participating on Server Fault has made me better at what I do and it has also been fun. Here’s why.
The All-Star IT Department
In many tech companies the IT department is pretty small. Even in the bigger ones you get more specialized admins, say a team of two network admins, a Unix guy with a beard and a Windows lady. That means when you have ideas that you want to bounce off of people or questions that you have, there is only a small group of people you can go to, and even then an even smaller chance that they will know what you are talking about.
Server Fault is a combination of a big IT department and a knowledge resource. Most of the visitor traffic is people finding answers to questions that they have that someone else already asked. However, there is also a community here. The top administrators on the site get to know each other and many also hang out in chat. Spending time with other people who are passionate about what you do improves the quality of your day to day life.
So in my mind Server Fault is an all-star IT department that I get to work with all year round.
The advantages of writing
One of the main things that people value in a system administrator is communication. It seems that a lot of system administrators are just not very good at it for some reason. Whatever that reason is doesn’t matter as much as the fact that writing will make you a better communicator. I would not promise that it will make you a great writer but it will make you a lot better. If you not convinced that this is the case have a look at What Stack Overflow Can Teach You.
When you write out a question it clarifies what you are thinking about. Before you even get an answer from someone else you might have an idea as you write as to what the answer is, or you might realize that you are going down the wrong path.
Staying on top of your game
In the same way that writing a question helps clarify your thoughts, the same is true of writing answers. Every time you write an answer you refresh your memory on the topic and make the thought more defined and fleshed out. In doing this not only does your knowledge on that particular topic get better but also your mental models about system administration improve. Much of system administration has themes that come up and up again with many different technologies. Mastering these themes means improving your mental models that you apply to learn new things. As a result you end up with more facility in that particular area but also at the general patterns that come up in system administration. I believe this is what many people mean when they talk about experience, so in a way you can get more experience in a shorter amount of time.
The site also helps you keep track of what the new technologies are in a field that is always changing. When you see lots of questions coming up on a topic over time you know that you should at least know what it is. You can then take a look at these and be more in touch with what is going on in your field.
Showing off and helping others
It is fun as a geek to show off your knowledge to others and helping other people with their problems satisfies a fundamental desire. Also Sever Fault is usually less rewarding to people who show off their knowledge in an unkind way (i.e. RTFM). Because of this you might develop a better attitude as a system administrator — another thing that the stereotypical system administrator is not always famed for.
It is worth pointing out that people will also help you with your problems. When you are stuck on something you can ask the question, go work on something else, and come back and you will likely have an answer.
A personal and public repository of system administration knowledge
When you answer a question on Server Fault, you not only help the person asking the question, but you also help lots of other fellow system administrators who find that answer through a Google search which saves them time and frustration. That can also be true for yourself, answering questions or having your own questions on Server Fault is like keeping a notebook. I have actually used Google to look up something I did not know and found the answer on Server Fault that I myself wrote but had forgotten.
You might get a better job
By participating on Server Fault you will likely grow as an administrator in your technical knowledge and facility as well as your communication skills. With a body of answers you have written on Server Fault you can demonstrate to any future employers that you are interested in what you do beyond it just being your day job. Next time you walk into an interview you might get asked a question you answered before on Server Fault and will have a lot of confidence in answering that question well. If you are asked about something you don’t know you can have an intelligent conversation with the interviewer about it as he explains it to you since your mental models about system administration will have improved. This will demonstrate that you learn things quickly.
Server Fault is also a way to have a public presence on the web that is a little bit easier to do than a blog. If you do this over time employers will start to seek you out and you might not even have to go looking for your next job.
There are lots of different reasons people spend time in our community. If you are already one of them I hope that this might remind you why you do it or maybe gives you more reasons as to the value of being here. I personally greatly appreciate learning from all of you and have enjoyed getting to know the members of this community. If you haven’t spent much time with us I hope you consider giving our community a try or even just stopping by once in a while.