How do you keep system administration interesting?

Twice in the last few months I've been asked, essentially, how do I keep system administration interesting? (One prefaced the question with, "Tom, you've been a sysadmin for 2 decades, right?" Thank you for making me feel old.)

There are a few things I do to keep it interesting:

  • Do things you enjoy. Each year on January 1st I spend a good couple hours doing nothing but think about my career, where I want it to go, and what I enjoy. What I enjoy changes over time. It used to be unpacking and playing (um... I mean... finding the business value, sir) with new hardware. For a while it was learning new languages. Now it is coding and automating processes.
  • Don't do things you don't enjoy. Often to be a more "senior" sysadmin you have to go into management. If you've started to hate your job, and you've recently taken on more management responsibilities, get out. There are plenty of companies that have a career ladder that lets you stay technical. The companies that don't have that kind of system really need to be put out of business. We can help that happen by making sure the best sysadmins leave those companies.
  • Diversity. Do a lot of different things. Not all at once, but over years. Since I've been a sysadmin I've gone through phases: my VMS years, my Solaris years, my network jockey years, my PSO years, my small-organization years, my big deployment years, my Python years, etc.

But most of all, I keep things interesting by always working to make myself obsolete. I automate and document my job so that other people can do it, and then I let them do it, and then my manager moves me to other things. I strongly believe in "automate/document the parts of your job that you hate". It helps eliminate them quickly. In fact, that may be why I discovered I dislike management... I can't automate it.

It is also important to work at a company you believe in. Even my least liked job (a small company in the telecom billing industry) was a "cause" that I believed in: we were making the world a better place by showing that we could replace some god-awful bad IT with modern stuff and help change an industry. If you are working at a company "to pay the bills" not because you believe in what they do, get out fast.

Now that I've come to the end of this blog post it dawned on me that I've forgotten the #1 thing that "keeps it interesting" for me: interacting with sysadmins outside my current company! That's why I go to so many user groups and conferences, especially conferences like Usenix LISA and LOPSA-NJ PICC. That's why I started a user group when there wasn't one near me. The best way to "keep things fresh" is to be in places where new ideas are shared.

So that's how I kept things interesting.

P.S. The next Usenix LISA is Nov 7-12, 2010 in San Jose, CA.

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Career Advice

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