The surest sign that sysadmins are mis-understood is how difficult it is to install, debug, or maintain various products. Any sysadmin can tell if the installation process was designed as an afterthought. Any sysadmin can point to a variety of... I'll be polite and say... "design decisions" that make a product completely and utterly impossible to debug.
I've talked with product managers about why their product is the speedbump that slows me down when debugging a problem that is buried in a network of 150 devices from 15 different companies. In the old days I was told, "that's why you should buy everything from one vendor... us!" and in today's multi-platform arena I'm told, "but our goal is to make our product so easy to use it you don't need to debug it."
I'm sure that last sentence made you cringe. You get it.
I've explained how GUIs are bad when they prevent the basic principles of system administration: change management, automated auditing, backups, and unfettered debugging. We have practices and methodologies we need to implement! Don't get in our way!
The more enlightened product managers understand that the easier it is to automate the installation of their product, the easier it is for me to buy a lot of their product. The more enlightened product managers understand that an ASCII configuration file can be checked in to SubVersion, audited by a Perl script, or even generated automagically from a Makefile. Sadly, those product managers are rare.
One would think that companies would be investing millions of dollars in research to make sure their products are beloved by sysadmins.
I like to think that somewhere out there is a group of researchers studying this kind of thing. I imagine that they find sysadmins that volunteer to be videotaped as they do their job. I imagine the researchers (or their graduate students) pouring over those tapes as they try to understand our strange ways. I imagine Dian Fossey studying not Gorillas in the Mist but Sysadmins at the Keyboard.
These researchers do exist.
I've seen them.
For the last two years they've met and exchanged ideas at a conference called CHMIT.
Some of them actually video tape sysadmins and examine what is it about products that make our lives good and !good.
My favorite moment was watching a researcher describing their observation of a sysadmin the heat of a real outage. The sysadmin closed the firewall's GUI and connected to the command line interface in two different windows. In one they kept repeating a command to output some debugging information. In the other they typed commands to fix the problems. This was something the GUI would never had let him do without risking carpel tunnel syndrome. The researcher beamed as he explained the paradigm we were witnessing. He sounded like he had been lucky enough to catch the Loch Ness Monster on film but what he had captured was something more valuable: photographic evidence of why sysadmins love command lines!
The person sitting next to me sighed and said, "Oh my god. Is that why nobody uses the GUI we spend millions to develop?"
I love this conference.
These researchers study people like me and it makes the world a better place.
More than researchers attend. Sysadmins make up a large part of the audience.
This year CHMIT 2009 will be in Baltimore, MD the days following LISA 2009 which by amazing coincidence is also in Baltimore, MD.
Will you be there? I know I will.
Mark November 7-9, 2009 on your calendar. Registration opens soon. Papers can be submitted now. www.chimit09.org