A Portrait of the Systems Administrator as a Young Man (Part 1)

When I started at the Instructional Computing Group, I aimed to be subservient. I was coming from a small fast-paced research center with a lot of strong personalities, complicated politics, and limited technical resources. I had charted my own path there, and I thought it was a good one, but now I was ready to learn how the “professionals” do things. Plus I was looking forward to working normal, non-crazy hours.

Through reorganizations and office moves, I stuck with the philosophy that I was here to do a job, and it would not behoove me to be involved in the politics of the place. Boy was I naive!

I came into the group tasked primarily with maintaining and improving three servers, and secondarily with building some new stuff. Anyone who knows me can guess I was much more interested in the latter than the former.

This was a transitional time in IT, or at least in Harvard IT. At my last job I had stood up virtualization, letting a few powerful servers run many smaller virtual systems. This was a pretty new thing, but it was awesome, and I just assumed everyone was going to be doing it soon. I had no idea at the time how conservative IT organizations often are, or how fragmented. Yes indeed there were virtualization initiatives — four of them that I was eventually became aware of, some well-funded and some small, some for Windows and some for Linux and some for both, none out of the pilot phase.

To do cool new stuff for instructional computing, I needed hardware, and if we were speccing out a few powerful (and expensive) servers, and there was no current virtualization solution available and supported, it just made sense to me that we should install VMWare or Xen on them (this was before KVM) and spit out a bunch of little VMs we could use for experimentation and student projects.

This was when I (and my boss) discovered that things were changing, control was being centralized, and being an “Instructional Systems Administrator” meant pretty much squat when it came to making decisions about infrastructure. Our request was not outright denied, it was just delayed and eventually pocket-vetoed.

Given the new realities, and the lack of enough work on the existing systems to fill my days, we came to the conclusion (my boss and I) that I should be embedded in the systems group part time, giving them a hand, learning about their technologies, and advocating for/formulating plans for ICG’s technical future.

And here’s where things went awry again — the UNIX/Linux team didn’t want me, I got to go sit with the Windows folks. Which is fine and all, but not at all relevant to what I was hired to do. Nor did they seem to much understand what to do with me.

Four months into the new job, I had accomplished very little, and things were not going very well. So I took a vacation to Barcelona. Sitting in a hot hostel common room after a long day I was finally able to cajole my Linux netbook onto the wifi. The first email that came in was from my boss, telling me he wasn’t my boss anymore, and I had been reorganized.

Coming in part two of our gripping tale: becoming a technical architect!

2 replies on “A Portrait of the Systems Administrator as a Young Man (Part 1)”

  1. So now I am sitting on the edge of my chair, waiting for the second installment.
    When can I expect it?

    Have you considered a career as a writer of “computer” mysteries?


  2. I too await breathlessly for the next installment. Perhaps you should come “home” to Brandeis and innovate!

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