Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The sysadmin dilemma

I just stumbled upon Matt Simmons' "Culture of Quitting" post where, besides talking about the fascinating concept of Up or Out, he puts in a nutshell his motivations for being a systems administrator:

No, I (and probably you), have intrinsic motivation. I don’t expect direct rewards (or even outward appreciation, typically) from doing my job. The reward is that my infrastructure works the way it should. Sure, I have certain long term goals, but I can’t accomplish them if I don’t accomplish my short term goals first.

That's where I got my motivation, too, for quite some time. I don't know any sysadmin who wouldn't be proud of putting in place a high quality, resilient infrastructure. But the problem with this, though, is that not only can it get expensive, it never breaks. And when nothing goes sour once in a while, it's hard to get noticed (and further motivated) by all levels of management unless you're lucky enough to work for people who are perfectly aware of what you're doing.

So what should be done to get a tap on the shoulder? Be a below-average sysadmin? In other words, don't produce results too quickly, don't try to optimize everything right away so that performance issues are apparent, constantly say no to user demands... so you can come back later as a hero by finding solutions to "complex problems" to save the day? That might not make any sense, yet I'm slowly starting to think it does: Under some circumstances, the only way to actually show you're doing something productive is to spend a great deal of your time addressing issues which are visible to management.

This is the base of what I've learned to mockingly call "the sysadmin dilemma": If you're doing good work, you won't get noticed too much, and will risk either staying where you are for years with no chance of being gratified, or worse, you'll end up having to justify your job. On the other side of the dilemma, do bad work which costs big bucks to your employer, and you'll be shown the door quickly.

So I think the best path to take if you want to avoid a sysadmin dilemma is to put your target on being average. Be necessary, but don't be too good. But it is obvious to me that being an "average" kind of person will probably not be a fitting motivation for types like me and Mr. Simmons.

Up or Out.

That sucks, but life in the enterprise does, doesn't it.


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