Chapter 26

The sysadmin vs. the world

Thomas Scoville
June 12, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The sysadmin looked darkly upon the queue of trouble-ticket headers on his screen. "Need app uprev," demanded one. "Printer problems," declared another. "What did you do with my files?!?!?," still another accused.

In the technical hierarchy of any software powerhouse, the systems administrator was virtual janitor. In the halls and chambers of the corporate datacores, the sysadmin swabbed the disks, plumbed the network lines and generally kept things free of any otherwise unsavory digital encrustations.


Peter continued his glowering, trying to remember why he ever liked this job in the first place. He slurped his double latte.

There actually were a few compensations, now that he thought about it. For alongside the unsavory labors of online hygiene, the sysadmin also held the delicious office of gatekeeper -- controlling access, granting resources and otherwise implementing the vagaries of MIS policy. And just like any other janitor, the sysadmin had keys to everything.

Certainly Peter loved all the power. It felt good to have all those virtual keys jangling from his virtual belt loop, or to know that no corner of the file system was outside his reach.


Another advantage: Systems administrators never had to wear anything nicer or more binding than jeans and a T-shirt. Any day might find them burrowing like a rodent under a dropped floor, or contorting themselves, yogi-like, in some impossible position to pull a circuit board from the backplane of some topologically inconvenient host. A measured slovenliness was part of the job description.

It was a great career for hardware fans, too -- the kind of people who could enthusiastically recite the specs of any server, modem or router months before its appearance on the market. And there was always an entertaining, trivial-pursuits-for-nerds angle, too: You got paid to cultivate an encyclopedic knowledge of every revision, patch and CERT advisory pertinent to your computing environment. There was a certain amount of camaraderie, even, as you developed first-name relationships with the entire product support staff of each and every one of your vendors.

The paramilitary gear was cool, too. Though the sysadmin carried most of the necessary tools in his head, he was never without a Leatherman -- an extremely strong, compact tool that contained, origami-like, a pliers, wire cutters, a set of screwdrivers, and a half-dozen other critically useful weapons packed into an enclosure that measured 4 inches by 1 inch by .5 inch. It was the bastard child of a Swiss Army Knife and the Terminator. An experienced admin could tear a million-dollar server down to its component parts with nothing more -- though reassembly might also require a little duct tape.


Peter furrowed his brow. Unfortunately, his office didn't stop at binary spit and polish. The job embraced formidable human challenges as well. It was his responsibility to support users. Hold hands. Dispense clues to the clueless.

No admin could ever muster much enthusiasm for this role of digital den mother. In a job already overburdened by technical minutiae, it put the admin in a chronic state of "everybody wants something from me now."


Peter felt this pressure keenly, being constantly pulled in many directions at once. This led to the sullen, passive-aggressive, victimized mentality that generally characterized his species.

Yet in spite of the weight and variety of these technical demands, sysadmins were invariably treated like shop clerks or errand boys, a distinctly lower caste of functionary. Programmers and developers regarded systems administration groups as dumping grounds for downscale technical talent. Marketeers and executives treated sysadmins as their personal servants for even the most simple and trivial computer operations. And nearly everyone in the company held them responsible for the various entertainments of corporate life; when the staff found they no longer had access to or alt.erotica.binaries.wombats, they landed hard on the systems administrators.

In this culture, it took a sysadmin a very short time to develop a potent disdain for all users. Because, with very few exceptions, users insisted on torturing sysadmins with their computational witlessness and pointed reluctance to educate themselves. Yet their every whim must be granted, each and every act of ignorance must be tolerated, every refusal to learn must be overlooked.


Peter pulled the least offensive-looking report off the queue. This in itself was significant: When you picked up a trouble-ticket, you became part of the ticket log. You owned it. At that point, getting rid of it was tricky.

The trouble-ticket window snapped open on the display. "Description: Printer Problems. Contact: Jerry Murton, x2536." Uh-oh. The extension suggested a member of the rapidly growing sales division.

He punched out the extension on his telephone.



"Ah, this is Peter from System Support, responding to your trouble ticket."

He heard muffled voices on the other end as Jerry wrapped up another exchange, hand over the receiver. Multitasking was a way of life.

"Yeah, yeah. My printer doesn't work."


Steve began his diagnosis. "Okay, what's the platform?"

Jerry hesitated. "Um, it's right here on my desk."

Here we go, Peter thought to himself. "I mean, what kind of computer is it hooked to?"

"Oh, that's easy. It's a desktop computer," Jerry said confidently.


Easy, Petey, easy. Try and tease out the details without betraying your complete loathing for his phylum's monocellular nervous system. He tried an oblique approach.

"Okay, is the control bar at the top or the bottom of the screen?"

"Uh, what control bar?"

Okay, maybe a direct approach. "Is the machine running under Windows?"


Jerry's response came quickly and confidently. "No, my desk is next to the door. But that is a good point. The guy in the cubicle next to me is under a window, and his printer works fine."

Peter could feel his blood pressure rising. He clenched his jaw, leaned forward, and gently thumped his head against his monitor.

Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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