The death of system administration: I'm all for it

January 25, 2012

Recently there was a little Twitter commotion about Julian Dunn's Chef, devops, and the death of system administration (he later clarified his views). Although it may surprise people, my snap reaction to the idea of the death of system administration was 'good'.

(I have a number of other reactions to portions of this debate, but 'good' was my first one.)

Most of what many people think of today as 'system administration' is scutwork, at best boring and uncreative. Racking servers, configuring switches through interminable web or CLI interfaces, running network cables, installing OSes in any way that takes more than about one line of typing, writing an Apache or a mailer or Samba config file yet again, restoring files for people, and so on. That's what I'm talking about. At best these are interesting the first few times you do them; after that, very much not.

(System administration wasn't always this sort of work, but times have changed.)

Unless you really do like spending your time doing that or you feel that that sort of work is all that you have to contribute, you are better off without this near monkeywork. Regardless of what your job is called after 'system administration' goes away and the dust settles, you will have shifted to doing actual engaging and creative work and you'll be contributing much more to your organization's success. As I've written before in a different context, having spare time from ordinary day to day 'system administration' is what you need in order to create the big wins. The ultimate version of this spare time is not to have to do the ordinary day to day gruntwork at all.

As you may have gathered, I am not particularly fond of the scutwork currently involved in a great deal of 'system administration' (although I think there's uses for doing it every so often). As far as I'm concerned, the sooner this sort of system administration dies the better.

(At the same time, let's not fool ourselves. This death of system administration will put a significant number of people out of work, ie those people who are currently well paid to do nothing but this scutwork. Many of them do not currently have the skills to move up in the food chain; they will either move down to be less well paid operations monkeys or have to change fields entirely. This is going to be a wrenching process that will be very unpleasant for the people involved, and we should both have sympathy for them and understand the full implications of this shift we're casually discussing, advocating, and cheering for.)

(As a corollary, if you have junior people in your organization and you believe in this shift you should be working with them to make sure that they're developing the skills they'll need for the future, not just spending all of their time doing scutwork for you. And you should be honest with them about how you see their future.)

Written on 25 January 2012.
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Last modified: Wed Jan 25 01:48:12 2012
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