SysAdmin Day or The decline and fall of the system administrator
July 24th, 2010 by ravi

There is an unfortunate class of jobs, the need for which are noticed only at times of failure. System administration, the hidden art of keeping the computing universe humming along, is one such. When all systems and services are operating smoothly, the role of – or at times even the need for – a system administrator is little understood. Should the smallest problem arise however, in one’s ability to surf the net or email gigabyte sized files to fellow suits, cries of anguish abound for the nearest IT professional to be strung up in retribution.

In attempting to balance this state of affairs, one might be tempted to quote Milton who reminded us that “they also serve who only stand and wait”, were it not for the likelihood that matters are only made worse by describing the godforsaken system administrator’s work time as “stand and wait”. Instead, the well-intentioned leaders of the community have come up with a different approach, designating July 30th a “System Administrator Appreciation Day”.

The hope, I sense, is that by highlighting these individuals on a particular day, we bring them and their role out into the view of the indifferent users (his or her co-workers) and thus gain them a dose of respect and appreciation, that persists for the rest of the year before the next instance of the annual reminder rolls around.

Endearing as this tactic might be, I think it is not a very effective one. Employing a method (“Appreciation Day”) that has [arguably] failed for even lesser appreciated groups (such as secretaries or administrative assistants), especially by encouraging co-workers to buy gifts to express their appreciation, infantilises the group at worst and further contributes to the misunderstanding at best.

Ironically, the world has progressed (independent of “Secretary’s Day”) to the understanding that the job of the administrative assistant is to perform administrative tasks, not serve coffee or run errands for their boss or other staff members. Like any other employee, his or her job is to carry out certain functions that satisfy the larger goal of the organisation (in the process, administrative assistants might indeed assist their co-workers).

System administrators have disturbingly taken the opposite path. From being (and being perceived as) the high priests of computing – the übergeeks who understood the innards and interactions of complex systems – to service personnel who cater to the whims of users, often by off-loading the most mundane chores. At the other end, the IT support organisation has taken the role of a life-sapping bureaucracy intent on erecting roadblocks and limiting user freedoms often in service of nothing more than nebulously defined “cost-cutting” or homogenisation (that serves the interests of the IT support organisation, not the user). In sum, the system administrator is today either a peon or a pain.

To call for a token gesture or gifts, to address this misperception and misalignment, could very well achieve the opposite effect of further alienating the user (with legitimate grievances about modern enterprise computing) as well as further marginalising the system administrator (through the unintentional suggestion that he or she is in need of a gratuity).

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