I have yet to meet a systems administrator who got into the field purely because they enjoyed stressful, sleepless nights for often-lower-than-average salaries. Being a sysadmin really requires a love of computers. For a lot of us, this came about in our earlier years as we acquired secondhand equipment and disassembled it to find out how it worked. How amazing and wondrous this world could be! So many cool toys! “I’m going to love working with this kind of stuff for the rest of my life,” you might have said.
One thing that we had no incentive or guidance to learn as young, fledgling hackers was a process for being methodical and thorough in the execution of our projects. I, for one, have several projects open on my workbench in the basement that are in varying states of completion. I can get away with this because they’re personal endeavors and the only person I’m accountable to is me. The problem comes when we translate this type of behavior into the world of business.
Your Office is Not Your Basement
The business world exists really for one purpose: turning a profit. Companies are built around processes and manpower which are (in a perfect world) optimized to produce the most profit for the least amount of cost. Systems administration is not immune to this; we are expected to do things right the first time and do them in such a way that we’re not deferring productivity costs down the road so that someone else will need to “clean up our messes.” All too often, however, we can fall into the habit of treating our job as the hobby we’ve loved since we were younger, and down this path lies the specter of carelessness or incomplete projects.
Lets face it: we love working on fun computer projects. However, I’m sure none of us gets a lot of joy out of pre-planning or cleaning up after we’re done. They’re what I like to call the “toilet plunging” of being a data janitor. Nobody wants to do it, but it has to be done. I have met a few sysadmins in the past who will work on a project as long as it is fun, but then leave the rest of the work to others or leave the project in a semi-functional state declaring that its status was “good enough for now” or “we’ll fix it later.” Doing this sort of thing is extremely harmful to productivity, though oftentimes you won’t realize this until months later where you’re forced to redo the old project before you can move forward with another.
Being Thorough is a Learned Habit
We don’t come out of the womb with an innate ability to understand all of the implications of our choices. This is an ability that one has to learn over time; arguably this is the reason why adolescence is such a trying time in most of our lives. Some people never fully pick up the habit of being thorough in everything they do, and for the most part one can cruise through life without needing to have this skill. Sysadmins, however, do need to have this skill-set and it needs to be taught as early as possible in their education so that the ability to plan and execute is deeply engrained in their own mythos of Systems Administration.
Everyone will eventually learn this lesson the hard way. At some point, some project you’ve taken shortcuts on will inevitably fail in a spectacularly unexpected way and you’ll realize the only person to blame was the original architect, yourself. Did you plan how you were going to execute the project? Did you consider any kind of pitfalls? Did you do any research, if necessary, beforehand? When executing the project, were you sure to do it in a way that would be easy to maintain in the future? Did you clean up after yourself or did you leave the worksite a virtual (or physical) hazard for all who come after you? These are all things we need to be aware of when we’re doing our jobs.
It Might be a Reason, But Not An Excuse
It’s important to understand the pitfalls of complacency, especially when talking about Systems Administration as a proper job. There are many ways that we try to excuse not being thorough, but ultimately they’re justifications for a choice that we feel is wrong but are too lazy to correct. A big one I hear is “this is only going to be temporary.” It won’t be, trust me. You might have a strong suspicion that the temporary fix will only be necessary for another month or two, but those projects you count on can easily slip in the timeline. Before you know it, that patch cable you cross-wired across three racks in a diagonal from top to bottom is in the way of a whole lot of equipment that might need to be maintained that now cannot be because production traffic is going over your “temporary fix.”
Another one I hear many times is “our downtime window was closing and we needed to cut corners to make the deadline.” Every time I hear this I want to strangle someone! First of all, nine times out of ten, the Sysadmins are responsible for setting the downtime window in the first place, so why didn’t they put in a lot of fluff time in case things went south? Also, believe it or not, the majority of users could care less how long the environment is down as long as they’ve been notified first that there was maintenance planned. Most user anguish comes from them being taken unawares that the system is down when they haven’t had proper time to come up with alternative things to do. If your executive has been procrastinating about doing a particularly time-consuming project, having the environment down when she’s spent the last hour giving herself a mental pep-talk about doing the project will assuredly cause angry calls to the helpdesk. If she’s aware that there’s changes afoot, though, she’ll be more likely to understand if the work took longer than initially anticipated. This isn’t representative of everyone, of course, but it’s been my experience with everyone I’ve had to support.
On Feeling Overwhelmed and Slog Overflow
There is another casualty of this problem and it doesn’t often hit your consciousness until long after you’ve gone down the path of convenience, forgoing proper planning. There can come a point where an environment is held together by so many rubber bands and duct tape that it becomes a chore to maintain. Once this happens, you’re in “Slog Overflow.” This condition, which I’ve just now given a name, is something that I’ve experienced in the past and I’ve seen others exhibit the same symptoms. It is the point where procrastination begins to win out over doing a job you once loved. At some point, you wake up and realize you don’t want to go to work anymore. You know that the day will be filled with countless firefights and you will have to tell consumers that their issues are ones you’d like to fix, but to do so you’d have to rip off the bandage on another system which nobody wants to risk. To fix the environment at this point becomes a huge sink of productivity and brain-capital and will vary in cost only based on how much downtime you want to incur to fix everything the “Right Way.” You don’t ever want to experience Slog Overflow, as it can really cause you to dislike a job that you’ve spent years enjoying. If you feel like your world is moving in this direction, TAKE ACTION NOW!
Here are some thoughts on how to fix these problems or prevent them from happening in the future:
- Always plan ahead – Put together (at the least) a rough outline of the work you’re going to do. Be sure that it includes pre- and post-task steps so that the whole process is considered. If you have more than one person on your team, ask them to go over your outline and see if there’s anything you might have forgotten.
- Embrace feedback and criticisms – We’re all in this together! While some sysadmins may not have the best people skills, they usually have good ideas and aren’t afraid to share them. Take what is useful, try not to be offended. Nobody’s perfect!
- Emphasize quality and demand it from everyone – We need to fight the urge to become complacent and make sure we do things right the first time. That sometimes means you should stop yourself mid-task and make sure that what you’re doing is the best choice in that situation. Demand a higher level of awesome from the people you work with, too. It only takes one hole for the boat to sink.
- Teach young Systems Administrators to be thorough – Lead by example. Junior sysadmins absolutely pick up behaviors from senior team members. If your seniors are procrastinators and always do the easy fix eschewing the right-but-harder choice, you’re setting a ridiculously horrible example for the young guys who need proper mentoring.
What are your experiences with these problems? Feel free to comment below; I love feedback.