Origins of Sysadmins

I've spent the majority of my time in the last few years concerning myself with the development, maintenance, troubleshooting, and occasional violent destruction of various variants of Unix or Unix-like operating systems. One thing you come to take for granted is that system administration isn't so much a job as it is a phenomenon.

Take a look at the attendees at a sysadmin conference like LISA. They snowboard, or skydive, or study obscure languages like Icelandic, or silly ones like Loglan. They're the ones with the piercings, the tattoos, the blue hair. They wear foot-long goatees and leather pants. Or maybe they look like Young Republicans, but practice Wicca and read Tarot. They're Unitarians, vegetarians, Discordians, Libertarians. They know what's important about the number 42. They don't consider it unusual to be able to recite the entire text of one or more Monty Python movies. In short, by and large, they deviate.

So you're looking at these people in some convention center, proudly wearing T-shirts emblazoned with source code or penguins or quotes from other geeks, and you've got to wonder: what's the connection? Why them, why this?

When you ask geeks of any sort about childhood, you tend to get a particular flavor of response : they scored at the top of their classes in standardized tests, but had trouble dealing with school as a whole. Seems that while they're skilled with raw knowledge, they just can't stop there. Maybe they have some form of ADD, or maybe they just move quickly through a range of thought, arriving at multiple conclusions all at once. They see possibilities. They synthesize. They color outside the lines. They were not good students. But they learned anyway.

Something else about geeks: for one reason or another, they often had lots of time to themselves as kids. Homeschooling. Some physical weirdness. Some learning disability like dyslexia, or depression. Ostracized for being too precocious. Maybe they chose isolation over having to deal with kids who seemed boring and stupid.

Whatever the reason, they didn't spend quite enough time with the rest of the kids to absorb the same homogenized sense of culture and standard of behavioral norms. These kids had the chance to READ, and they would tend to read the stuff that rewarded them with new combinations, new factors to consider, new panels to incorporate into the stained glass through which they viewed the world.

The point of so many of the skinny little books targeted toward children is to inculcate in the reader a sense that their experiences are normal, and that everything is going to be all right. The serialized formulaic forty-page tales of prepubescent girls and scandalous slumber parties -- they were fine for the kids who actually got invited to slumber parties. If your life didn't look much like life at Sweet Valley High, you didn't feel reassured. Life was not necessarily going to be all right. It even kinda promised to suck.

Instead of plodding through the equivalent of literary Xanax, the pregeeks go for sci-fi and fantasy: LSD in book form. They read about war, love, death, passion, magic, hope, technology, and above all the potential of the unlikely hero to win through the sheer greatness of his being, not to mention the occasional chance to boink an alien in zero-G.

They feed their minds with this rich mulch of concentrated deviant thought. The weirdness flowers and takes shape. As they get older, they meet other people whose weirdness is more sharply defined and more brazen. They find out about things like Discordian philosophy, Douglas Adams, Monty Python. Weirdness you can really get INTO. Suddenly they have something in common with the other weirdos. If you know why the word "shrubbery" is funny, you're in the club. Finally, you've got cohorts worth having and a collective mission to find the things worth paying attention to.

Back to the sysadmin thing. At some point, the geek discovers computers. Computers are complicated and daunting to most people. To the geek, a computer is a challenge and a toy.

Geeks often turn out to have attention deficit disorders: not a lack of attention, but attention that's not tuned quite right. Given a problem to solve or an intriguing thread to follow from moment to moment, that sort of geek will focus so sharply that they forget to eat when hungry. They find they're good at dealing with computers. Some of them find that they prefer to write code, building new entities a line at a time, tinkering and reworking them, never quite satisfied. They're sort of the architects of computing.

But some geeks are more driven by the adventure of exploration and conquest. Sysadmins are like epic heroes invested with supreme powers and arcane lore, duty-bound to protect their users from villains, fires, and themselves. The typical sysadmin job has no shortage of problems to solve. There's always something to understand more deeply or tweak for more juice. The paychecks buy you the toys and books you want. You can wear what you like. And in the best sort of jobs, you're with people who are a lot like you, who you have a lot in common with, and then you've got the irreplaceable sense of camaraderie under fire. The rewards of the job seem perfected tuned to your needs and the advantages you bring to the job are the ones most required. Finally, you fit right in.

Next: Tactical System Administration

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Copyright 1999 Benjy Feen /

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