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An open letter to the LISA workshop on Teaching System Administration

Since I can not attend the LISA Workshop on Teaching System Administration (I'll be teaching system administration that day!), I'd like to take a moment to say something to the attendees.

Often we are in the thick of things and we lose sight of how valuable our work is.

What you are doing is incredibly important; maybe more important that you realize. IT isn't just important, it is scary-important. The usual old sayings about how important IT is are now obsolete. It isn't that IT is a part of how food gets from the farm to our plate, we, as a society, no longer know how to provide food without IT. Medicine isn't just billed and administered with the assistance of IT, we can't provide medical services without IT anymore. Sysadmins are not just "important", the existence of excellence in system administration is key to sustaining civilization as we know it.

Those teaching system administrators need to step up to the plate. Our world depends on you.

It is time for an organization to take a leadership role in defining a standard sysadmin curriculum and get it adopted at all 4-year and 2-year schools. The 2-year training is embarrassingly bad. The 4-year training is bad to mediocre.[1]

Students are graduating 4-year programs without understanding the internals of systems, nor how they are used en masse in the real world. This would be like auto mechanics not being taught how an internal combustion engine works or doctors some how graduating medical school without knowing that patients are alive between office visits.

10% of us know the right way to do things. The other 90% don't. Why the un-even distribution of knowledge? The trouble this brings is far reaching. Sarbanes-Oxley essentially says, "If you are going to be so unbelievably stupid as to do backups without testing them, create accounts without having a mechanism to make sure they are disabled when the employee leaves, and letting developers have unrestricted raw access to live databases; then we're going to legislate how you have to do your job." HIPAA essentially says that our industry has proven itself too incompetent to be trusted with securing databases or WiFi networks in hospitals. Therefore how to do our jobs is being written into legislation.[2]

What's next? What will be the next example of rampant incompetence that leads to more legislation that tells us how we have to do our jobs? What crap caused by the worst of us will ruin it for the rest of us? What other obvious best practice that sites somehow still successfully ignore will become required by law? "have a helpdesks that don't suck"? "Track your customer requests with a 'ticket' system"? "buy load balancers in pairs"? "ping a machine after you've unplugged it to make sure you unplugged the right one"? "lock our screens when you leave your desk"? Many of these were "rocket science" 10 years ago. Now it's just embarrassing to see IT teams that are blind to these ideas.

This is a problem that is bigger than any one person can solve. You and I know this. We've written books to try to educate, but how much can one person do? These are the greatest challenge to our industry has ever faced. This is the kind of thing that requires group effort.

Creating such curriculum would take a long time, and getting it widely adopted even longer. However, with the power of Usenix, the expertise of LOPSA, and the academic ubiquity of ACM, this could really happen.

I hope that the members of the workshop take the time to think big.

Things don't get better on their own.

Sincerely, Tom Limoncelli

[1] These are based on indirect experience. The truth is that we don't have a measure for how to quantify if a school is doing a good job. First we need a standard to measure institutions by, then we need to go around measuring institutions. Providing a self-evaluation kit would even be a major step forward.

[2] One might say that it is the executive management of hospitals that is to blame. I disagree. We are at fault for not being able to explain the issue in a way that gets executive attention. Worse, often we are at companies that are selling systems with known problems. Why do we even offer a known-bad solution? Is it our own ignorance or is it like the consultant I once saw explain to a customer 3 options, one he pointed out that he recommends against. Of course the customer wanted the one he was recommending against. Why did he even mention that option? It wasn't an option. The customer wouldn't have thought of it on their own. It was a counter-example that you turned into an option. Knucklehead!

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3 Comments | Leave a comment

Looking at most 'service' industries.. eventually many things end up being legislated. Plumbing, electrical work, gas lines, building standards all become 'legislated' because it only takes a few cutting corners to give it a bad name.

It seems to me that the faster, more effective solution to avoiding legislated standards for system administration is to have professional organizations like LOPSA promote self-developed professional standards. Professional standards can apply to system administrators now and in the future. Curriculums for professional fields like medicine and engineering tend reflect professional standards rather than lead their development.

I think the problem lies in the social side of SysAdmin training not so much the technical side.

Yeah we can go on and on about the right way to do things (lock your workstation, make sure you test your backups), but if the SA doesn't care, or believes that 'for the organization I currently work for, I don't have to go to such extremes' things we will never get better.

The other fields you mention, have life and death components to it that can readily be seen. IT doesn't. It's easy to tell an electrician "do this this way otherwise a fire might start, or this life support system may go offline". What do you tell a SysAdmin? "Test your backups otherwise you may find they are no good and ... " Those that don't care will just put it on the user to workaround that situation.

Somehow we have to train SAs to care about more than their paycheck or signing off "WORKSFORME". They need to care about their company and have a healthy attitude towards keeping the company going.

A possibly interesting thing to survey. How many SAs can do the marketing spiel for their employer? How many actually know what their employer actually does, beyond "sell stuff"?

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