I have been a full-time Linux system administrator for more than a decade. This week, I lost my job because I am a full-time Linux system administrator. What happened?
For those outside my world, this is what a system administrator does: We manage server computer and networks. This means Internet sites, your computer system at work, and similar setups. The job dates back to the first time more than one person used a computer and someone needed to manage that.
That’s still the case, and there are many jobs for sysadmins. If you want to get one of those jobs, don’t worry.
However, I’ve been working in the world of leading edge startup technology companies, who write software themselves and also manage its use on the Internet. The trend here is toward something called DevOps (wikipedia article: DevOps). The short version of DevOps is: Software engineers take on the tasks traditionally done by “Ops” (system administrators) and largely automate them. It’s part of a general trend towards very fast product creation, quick response to change, and cost-cutting. (Look up “Lean startup” for more on this.)
Here’s how the whole setup works: You hire some young, energetic people. Make sure that they can pass technology skills tests. Even more so, make sure they are socially and ideologically suited to the environment. The engineers have to get along with each other and help each other out, and since most of them haven’t worked at normal jobs before, this isn’t a given. And most of all, they have to buy the local ideology, whether it’s “lean,” or “DevOps,” or “Agile.”
The work environment for these people is fast-moving and very disciplined. There are daily short meetings in the morning. Programmers almost always work in mutually accountable pairs. Everything is tracked: accomplishments, stumbling blocks, opinions. There’s a heavy emphasis on making new things and getting them “out the door” as quickly as possible. Dreaming at the desk, absent-minded professoring alone at the whiteboard? None of that.
Meanwhile, the job of the system administrator shrinks. Monitoring, software deployment, scaling the size of the systems up and down, a load of tasks are automated after a quick initial assessment. This is done by software engineers. New tools have accumulated decades of knowledge built into them. Other roles have been taken by services; there’s an entire ecosystem of companies who take away one piece of system administration and replace it with an easy-to-use service that attaches to your other easy-to-use services.
Aside from some holes in this fabric, the role of the system administrator in an organization like this has been reduced to high-level technical support. When engineers need to know something serious about the way operating systems work, or what a database server can do, the local unix subject matter expert is useful. Just not useful enough. It has become the Willy Loman profession.
Most of this is an extension of what system administrators have always done themselves. If you do something three times, automate it. Part of it is the result of the dot-com boom and the terrible laziness of its self-identified geniuses. If engineers are forced to work in an assembly-line environment while watching each other, people can’t horse around all day. None of that is unexpected.
The tiresome part for me is that the interesting jobs are going this way. This last gig was the best job I’d ever had. Everyone was smart, interesting things happened all day, and the company was accomplishing things I was personally proud of. There was a real team spirit and a feeling of involvement in something bigger.
Until I found out I wasn’t seen as useful, which is never a good time.
So my advice to you is: if you want to go into cool startups, you should either be a very rich founder, or a software engineer. Don’t go into operations.
And most of all, be young, very young, and inexpensive, and energetic. The startup world is necessarily cruel because it is built on the need of great returns on investment. If you are comfortable in a very interesting assembly line job that could be lucrative, this is your world. If you are someone with a store of knowledge, beware. You will be abstracted, automated, and discarded.