What users see as benefits from sysadmins

April 18, 2009

Here is something important about system administration: us merely doing our work does not give our users a benefit, not in the sense that users perceive benefits. This is because, fundamentally, the job of sysadmins is to make the systems work the way that they should to start with, much like the job of the janitorial staff is to keep the building clean the way it should be.

(System administration is somewhat different from janitorial work in that what we work on was not 'clean' in its natural, pre-user state, but users don't care about that.)

One of the consequences of this is that it is not a compelling sales pitch to users to tell them that if they do extra work, our work will be easier or we can do more of our job (or do it faster). Users don't care about how easy or difficult our job is, and we should already be doing all of it to start with. (In fact, from a user perspective most of our job should be unnecessary.)

There are situations where you can persuade users that this is not the case, but I suspect that such situations are all deeply dysfunctional to start with; they are visibly understaffed, or they contain lots of things that just intrinsically break all the time (for reasons that are clearly not the fault of the sysadmins) or the like.

To provide 'real' benefits to users we must go above and beyond making the system just work; we must make it work better than the users expect, make things more convenient than they thought possible, and so on. Then we can make a compelling case to users that if they do a bit of extra work, they get actual (perceived) benefits.

(Disclaimer: all of this is for what I will call 'operations' system administration. If your job is to build new and novel things, then I suspect that there will be less of a perception that things should just work to start with.)

Comments on this page:

From at 2009-04-18 13:46:49:

I think I'd disagree with saying we're not like janitors. All my systems are clean and work perfectly. I take efforts to make sure they're that way.

Then the pesky users come along.

If I've done my job right the users will mess things up but it'll be a lot easier to clean up their mess; and sysadmins should always be aiming to clean up the mess to the best of their ability, getting it as close to pristine as possible. To my mind, relying on kludges every day to get you through is like sweeping all the junk and shoving it in a cupboard. Eventually that cupboard will be full, the door will burst open and you end up with loads of crap everywhere, and a bigger disaster than if you'd done it right to start with.

Just like janitorial staff or maintenance team. If they do their job great from the start and the building is spotless to begin with, then it's easier for them to clean, and if they aim for that level of perfection each day the overall task gets easier.

From at 2009-04-22 05:20:09:

It's not a tangible benefit or service, in respect of sales, accounts or marketing. You can't promote that you are giving the users more whilst taking with the other hand. But when it's broken down much more simply:

a) You can submit your request with the required information broken into processable chunks and we will turn it around in 10 minutes.

b) You can submit your request as a permutation of written English, which we will decant and request parts that have been missed, with a turn around of 30 minutes.

Initially they may complain about the additional process on their behalf. But, when it comes to requests, everyone loves response time.

Written on 18 April 2009.
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Last modified: Sat Apr 18 01:59:13 2009
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