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I met Jeevitha Mahendiran at Usenix LISA last year. She is studying sysadmins and what we do. She writes:

I'm Jeevitha Mahendiran, Graduate Student/Research Assistant Faculty of Computer Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. Currently doing a research on "Understanding the Use of Models and Visualization Tools in System Administration Work". The information that the you share regarding your work will be very helpful for my research.

We are seeking participants to take part in a study about the tools used by system administrators. Participants will be asked to complete an anonymous and confidential survey that should take about 20-30 minutes to finish. The study is an online survey.

If you are interested in more information about the study, please contact Jeevitha Mahendiran by email at [email protected] or proceed to the survey website at

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Academic study of SA

2013-04-18 Update: Check out this article about the Strayer University scandal.

I’m frustrated with DeVry University, Kaplan University, Walden University, Ashford University, Colorado Technical University, Strayer University, University of Phoenix, Capella University, American Intercontinental University and other businesses. I do not encourage anyone to enroll in these “schools”.

Here’s how for-profit “schools” make money: They get students to enroll and help them get government-funded financial aide. The thing about financial aide is that the check gets sent directly to the “school”. The “school” deposits the check. There are no refunds. The student only has to attend one day of classes for this to be legit. So, after the first class students are worked hard in hopes they quit. It is much less expensive and much more profitable to teach a class where everyone has dropped out, especially if instructors are paid by the student. If by week 2 there are no students, you don’t have to pay the instructor anything.

This is not new. In the 1970s there was a big scandal when it was discovered that a number of schools were doing this. 30 years later regulations have been relaxed enough that the scam artists are back and they are back in a big way!

Any business that does this is stealing educational dollars away from students that could be attending actual schools.

What makes this so sick is that they attract poor and middle-class kids that want to make a better life for themselves. Instead they end up having to pay back a big loan to the government. If they are frustrated that they got nothing for their money, they don’t pay back the loan and enter the circle of doom one ends up in when you have a bad credit rating. Either way an innocent person that wanted a better life becomes trapped in the cycle of poverty.

The claim that these schools are “accredited” is a scam too. Any of these schools that claim to be accredited have found some loophole that lets them claim accreditation. For example, one school bought a university that went bankrupt. Accreditation lasts 10 years. Your entire university can burn down in year 2 and you still have 8 years of accreditation. If a for-profit buys a university that was accredited within 10 years of going bankrupt, the for-profit can claim it is accredited for the remaining years. Other for-profits have used lessor accreditations to be able to make this claim.

Sadly these for-profit schools are making big profits and divert a lot of that money into marketing. Good advertising can make a pig look like a prince.

If you are looking for a technical education I recommend looking into the 2-year programs in your area. Depending on where you are in the U.S. they are called community colleges, county colleges, or junior colleges. There are also non-degree programs online that are free or low cost.

If you do attend a school, whether for-profit or not, ask for a written document that shows their completion rate and per-pupil spending. Completion rate is the percent of students that graduate. A for-profit school has an inventive to get people to pay but then fail out. A for-profit school is “successful” if it is making a profit. A non-profit school judges itself on how well it teaches. It should pride itself on being able to see that the people that are accepted are guided through to graduation. “Per-pupil spending” means how much money is spent on each pupil. If you pay $20,000 and only $5,000 is spent on education, where is the other $15,000 going? It is going into the pockets of the executives that are running this scam.

Here are some articles you may find useful: - Students at For-Profit Colleges Earn Less, Study Says - Online Universities: Government Cracks Down on For-Profit Schools

Here’s a quote from the second article:

A motion filed in federal court claims that the school “concocted a scheme to fraudulently inflate revenues and boost profitability by exploiting well-intentioned and often lower-income students, including veterans of the U.S. armed forces, who were hoping to improve their qualifications and employment prospects,” adding that “students often withdrew early or failed to complete degree programs.”

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Academic study of SA

Dear Mom And Dad

Dear Mom And Dad,

Many times I've tried to explain to you what I do for a living. "Computer system administrator" or "sysadmin" is a career that is difficult to explain and I'm sure my attempts have left you even more confused. I have good news. Oxford University Press has just published a book by 4 scientists who video taped sysadmins doing their job, analysed what they do, and explains it to the non-computer person. They do it by telling compelling stories of sysadmins at work plus they give interesting analysis with great insight.

Why did they do this? Because businesses depend on technology more and more and that means they depend on sysadmins more and more. Yet most CEOs don't understand what we do. The scientists made some interesting discoveries: that our jobs are high-stress, high-risk, and highly collaborative. We invent our own tools, often on the spot, to solve complex problems. We are men and women of every age group. It is a career unlike any other. These are things that most people don't know about our profession. The book is very engaging: Some of the chapters read like the opening scene of "Indiana Jones"; others like "Gorillas in the Mist." Kandogan, Maglio, Haber and Bailey have put together a very serious, scientific book with care and compassion.

I'm not one of the sysadmins they studied but every story they tell reminds me of real experiences I have had.

I hope you enjoy reading this book. I know I did.

Pre-order it here:

Sincerely your son,

P.S. In all seriousness, I read a preview copy of this book and highly recommend it to others. You may have seen the authors speak at Usenix LISA or LOPSA PICC conferences where they showed clips of the video tapes they made. The book conveys the same stories, plus many more, with interesting analysis. If you think that the profession of system administration would benefit from non-sysadmins better understanding what we do, I highly recommend you pre-order this book and share it. You can pre-order it here: "Taming Information Technology: Lessons from Studies of System Administrators" by Eser Kandogan, Paul Maglio, Eben Haber and John Bailey

More about the book here:

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Academic study of SA

CHIMIT (2007,2008,2009) is a conference for researchers that study the habits and workflows of IT workers in an effort to find ways to make them more productive (they call this "human factors in IT"). Anyone trying to make my work easier is alright in my book.

At the most recent conference I moderated a panel of system administrators who had been in the audience watching the first day of presentations. It was our turn to "speak up" about what we had seen.

One of the useful things that came out of this panel was a list of "signs that a product was designed to be easy for system administrators to install and maintain."

Here is a short version of the list:

  • as a command line interface
  • has an API so it can be remotely administered
  • has a "silent install" mode so it can be cleanly deployed
  • has a config file that is ASCII so it can be stored in a revision control system; and the same file can be input INTO the system.
  • has a clearly defined way to do backups and restores.
  • has a clean way to monitor for up/down issues (know when there is an emergency) AND vital statistics that relate to scaling/latency (know how to debug slowness) AND historical monitoring (be able to predict far in advance when we need to buy more capacity)

What would you add to this list?

Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Academic study of SA

Mark Dennehy wrote and article called, "Joel Spolsky, Snake-Oil Salesman" in response to Joel's article, "Capstone projects and time management".

(I'll give you all some time to read the articles... done yet?)

I want to agree and disagree with something Mark wrote (and a big "P.S." at the end about something he said about my time management book).

Mark wrote:
Undergraduate courses in CS and CEng are not there to teach industrial tools, but basic principles

I agree... but please don't go too far. The use of industrial tools, when used, should be as a demonstration of the principles being taught, not to gain some kind of certification that they know how to use the tool. Eliminating such tools would be going too far. We all know there are students that are "visual learners", "audio learners" and "kinesthetic" learners. Using the tools in a real environment is where the kinesthetic learners will benefit.

When I took my undergraduate class on software engineering methodology I felt it was useless because I couldn't see the point of most of what I was being taught. Most of my programming had been done solo or on a small team. I could not take seriously the problems that were being "fixed" by the software methodologies discussed in our lectures. "Code size estimation? Bah! Impossible, so why even try!" What would have solved this problem? To put me in an environment where we had a large enough team that things started to break down and we needed GIT, Bugzilla, and Tinderbox.

However, that was 1987-1991. Back then basic tools like source code control, bug tracking, and automated testing were uncommon. Today's students get more exposure to those things via exposure to Open Source projects than I got in my entire college career.

What about the students that aren't exposed to how open source projects work? They get no exposure. They don't get taught these principles. My guess is that these students are the majority of college students today. The superstars get exposure but not everyone is a superstar. In fact, by definition most students are not.

Obviously first-semester students should focus on getting comfortable with smaller issues like text editors, files, and getting their first programs to work at al. However, after someone gets some exposure, they should hand their homework in via passing a GIT or Subversion URL to the instructor. Peers should test each other's code and submit bug reports, and be graded by whether they include reproducible test cases or not. Unit-tests and system-tests, in a simple automated test framework ("Makefiles" are sufficient) should be part of the assignment.


P.S. And since you mentioned TM4SA...
At least when Limoncelli wrote Time Management for Systems Administrators he was putting forward a set of skills that had proven to work for him in the field, and he was trying to pass on lessons learnt the hard way.

I made a conscious decision to write what worked for me and people near me rather than write a book about the theory of time management and productivity. Before writing the book I did some research and found that people do not tolerate more than a certain amount of theory in self-help books. A little bit is motivational, too much is a turn-off. On the other hand, research finds that geeks tend to be motivated by knowing how the internals of something work. That's an argument for including more theory. I had to strike a balance.

I don't recommend Time Management for System Administrators (TM4SA) as a textbook. It is a self-help book. People will only benefit from a self-help book if they feel they have a problem. The 80% of your class that doesn't feel they have a problem would hate the professor for making them read it. Oddly enough I had terrible time management skills when I was in college. My low GPA is proof! If only I had TM4SA then! (Go figure out that time paradox!)

On the other hand, I do promote The Practice of System and Network Administration as a text book. It was written with colleges classes in mind (senior undergraduate and masters programs). As proof, each chapter ends with questions, something one generally finds in text books. The questions are designed to help the student review the material with a few "soul searching" questions mixed in here and there. The latter are potentially good term-paper ideas.