Enterprise IT Watch Blog

Oct 18 2011   8:25AM GMT

Is the Sysadmin a dying breed?

Michael Morisy Michael Morisy Profile: Michael Morisy

The “Death of IT” has been heralded for years, probably since around the time Grace Murray Hopper literally quashed the first computer bug. All that computer mumbo jumbo is destined to get simpler, right? That’s the Pointy-Haired Boss dream, at least, and it was one posited strongly in Nicholas Carr’s now infamous 2003 essay, “IT Doesn’t Matter.”

In that essay, he suggested that IT-based initiatives were rarely if ever a strategic priority; instead, such investments were generally a cost center. Technological advancements and falling prices meant any major investments today would likely be proved standard tomorrow and obsolete a generation later.

But since 2003, IT has managed (somehow) to stick around, and yesterday I came across an interesting point/counterpoint on the fate of the beleaguered Sysadmin, via Hacker News.

John J. Peebles kicked things off with a post saying he’ll probably never hire a sysadmin again, driven largely by cloud computing:

What’s missing here is the configuration, setup, provisioning, doc writing, black magic and/or prayer of setting up the software, hardware, and getting the code running that used to be the domain of the Systems Administrator.  In just a couple of years, deploying a web application has now become almost identical to deploying a desktop application – instead of an installer we’re using Git or Puppet/Chef. Instead of a customer’s computer we’re using a cloud platform or cloud server.

Joe Russ Bowman responded, saying Sysadmins weren’t going anywhere anytime soon:

I’ve never worked for a technology company. I’ve always supported businesses that focus on non-technology endeavors. What I can tell you is that these companies are going to want to Sysadmins for some time to come. Some may try to do without them, but eventually they’re going to need them.

Simply put, the cloud can’t offer business the expertise it needs to be successful. The most the cloud will be is another tool in the Sysadmin arsenal to provide to best level of service to it’s customer, which is the business professional. That’s what we’ve been doing for decades and what we’ll continue to do.


Commenters took sides (Peebles later updated his post saying everyone either lumped his post as genius or idiotic), but what interested me was how much the two writers agreed on: That there would be leaders and laggards, that things are moving towards new and different skill sets.
Beyond that level, however, Bowman stressed that IT served the ultimate business needs, whether that was specific periods of perfect e-mail, a customized CMS or a calling system that ensured sales calls weren’t dropped. As he put it:

Business often dictates technology to you. This is actually one of the frustrating things you learn about being a Sysadmin. Yes, from a pure technical sense you probably are the most qualified to make the choice on what software the company should use. The reality is, you provide a service to that company and they’re going to tell you what software they want. It’s your job to make it work, no matter how frustrating it can be.

Sometimes, that service or software will be cloud-based, sometimes it will be a “solution” from a big enterprise vendor, and sometimes it will be a Frankenstein-mashup of in-house customization and all of the above. What we’ve seen in the ITKnowledgeExchange community, however, is that being able to guide your favorite Pointy-Haired Boss down the right path when making these decisions, and then having the expertise to execute on those strategies, is what tends to make you valuable.

Or as Bowman summed it up: “The most the cloud will be is another tool in the Sysadmin arsenal to provide the best level of service to it’s customer, which is the business professional. That’s what we’ve been doing for decades and what we’ll continue to do.”


Michael Morisy is the editorial director for ITKnowledgeExchange. He can be followed on Twitter or you can reach him at Michael@ITKnowledgeExchange.com.

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