What makes a sysadmin a "senior sysadmin"?

This came up in discussion recently. Here's how I differentiate between a junior and senior sysadmin:

  1. A senior person understands the internal workings of the systems he/she administers and debugs issues from a place of science, not guessing or rote memorization.

  2. A senior person has enough experience to know a problem's solution because he or she has seen and fixed it before (but is smart enough to check that assumption since superficial symptoms can be deceiving).

  3. A senior person automates their way out of problems rather than "working harder". They automate themselves out of a job constantly so they can be re-assigned to more interesting projects.

But most importantly...

A senior person demonstrates technical leadership by creating the processes that other people can follow, thereby enabling delegation and multiplying their effectiveness. Maybe the senior person is the only one technical enough to work out the procedure for replacing a bad disk on a server, but they document it in a way that less experience people can do the task. Maybe the senior person is the only one technical enough to set up a massive monitoring system, but they document how to add new devices so that everyone can add to what is monitored. Therefore they multiply their effectiveness because they use their knowledge not to do work, but to make it possible that an army of people can do the work instead. Good documentation is the first step to automating a process, so by working out the process, they start the "guess work -> repeatable -> automated" life-cycle that repetitive tasks should follow.

The old way is to maintain your "status" by hoarding information. You are the only person that knows how to do things and that is your power base. The new way is you maintain your "status" by sharing information. Everyone looks up to you because it is your documentation that taught them how to do their job. As they learn by following documentation that you wrote they get better at what they do and soon they are senior too. However now you are the senior person that helped everyone get to where they are today. In terms of corporate status, there is nothing better than that!

Tom

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Career Advice

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6 Comments | Leave a comment

An excellent explanation of a senior anything.

Along with writing internal documentation, I like to see blogging about problems encountered, the path to the fix and details about the fix itself.

The first effect of this is to get the knowledge out for people with similar problems but it also opens up the case for public discussion. Flaws in the approach can be highlighted and different solutions proposed. It's not quite the same as peer review but has similar effects.

It's a derivative of #1, but we always say that seniors can solve problems on their own, without using google to see how others solved the problem.

If you can use system utilities to fully analyze and test a problem without outside reference, you might be a redneck^Hsenior.

@PBMax Interesting thought. I've noticed that in the last 6 months I more and more rely on 'man' or '--help', or logs or debug modes when troubleshooting and less Googling around for solutions of a would-be problem.

I so appreciate this most recent post where you extoll the virtues of automation and those who utilize it. I've experienced push back for years to keep things done manually...to have that human eye on tasks as they are getting done. Well, the problem is that there is only so much "working harder" can take care of repetitive tasks! I don't have a lot of time to waste babysitting processes, and I'm sure my company doesn't appreciate paying me to do so.

One relevant point that wasn't mentioned is that there is an emergent behavior possible here called the "Tragedy of The Commons" when the boss is not doing their job and the group operates in a laissez fair way that fails to result in a team. That is, this "being helpful to others" (by, say, automating and documenting) only works well if the person who does it gets supported by the boss and gets paid in the reputation economy.

If you have a boss that sees a team as some sort of Blood Sport, then being helpful like this gets punished and the group degenerates into Lord of the Flies. I had a friend who worked at Salomon Smith Barney on Wall Street (now renamed) and the work environment he described was exactly like this. He spent most of his day trying to prevent people from stealing his code.

It is very important instead for the boss to make sure that people who are being helpful are recognized and rewarded as such and that people who are not and who hide information and do crappy work that just barely seems to get the job done but is brittle and unmaintainable are fired.

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