The true cost of sysadmin time (actually, of anyone's time)

October 12, 2011

Here's a question for you: what's the cost to the organization of having a sysadmin spend an hour sorting out a user's problem? At one level the answer is straightforward; you take the sysadmin's fully loaded salary, work out the equivalent hourly wage, and say that that's the cost.

But this is too narrow a view. In most places sysadmins don't have idle time; there is always something that they could be doing (either currently needed work or long term work to improve the environment). When the sysadmin's time is all taken up, that hour of time spent on the user's problem is an hour of time not spent on something else. This means the true cost of a sysadmin's time is the value of what else they could have been working on. The big cost of a sysadmin's time is not necessarily in dollars and cents. Instead it can be in opportunity costs, the forgone gains that result from not doing other work.

Of course, this generalizes. Everyone in busy; everyone has things they could be doing, often valuable things.

(These things may or may not be clearly reflected in the organization's bottom line, for various assorted reasons.)

This is not exactly a new idea. In fact sysadmins and programmers have spent years bemoaning that they're too busy with immediate needs to undertake necessary and valuable long term work. One interpretation of this is that the true cost of doing the short term work is not being properly recognized. From a salary point of view it looks like it is reasonable but in fact it is startlingly expensive because you're forgoing things with a high overall payoff.

(This is not quite the same idea as technical debt, but it's close.)

Written on 12 October 2011.
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Last modified: Wed Oct 12 00:43:55 2011
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