Open Letter to my fellow sysadmins

I have been fortunate to have worked in a university environment for 14 years. University environments enjoy a protection of openness that corporate and many government environments don’t. I have not had to work in either network operations or in residential networks, where the constant threat of RIAA and MPAA shakedowns placed me in positions where I had to broadly restrict services because of filesharing, either legitimate, or not.

Certainly I have not faced corporate pressure that abdicates supervisory responsibility for IT solutions to people playing Farmville on company time. But I sympathize with those under those pressures. Some dude’s Farmville or my own job? Go take a long lunch like all your bosses do, dude.

So I have enjoyed a halcyon existence in these regards. There was a time in college where I did the desktop support and management for a building full of System 6 and System 7 macs. I remember fighting some of the group’s software developers and systems architects — who installed all manner of inits and extensions on those macs, to either make their mac more fun, or just work better. Sometimes it was a complete pain in my ass to upgrade things, and I became an anti-init and extension fool, deleting them whenever I found them. But they practically affected nothing. If they affected system stability — it was their own system, not mine.

18 years later, I want to go back and yell at that idiot kid (and tell him to buy Cisco and Apple stock) — but mainly I’m just embarrassed for him.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a control freak. While I mainly do development most days — at my core I am a sysadmin — we are all control freaks. It makes who we are and great at what we do. But every single act as a sysadmin, I have to balance my control freak with reality. The reality that actions that I take to keep others from shooting themselves in the foot can and will be misused by people who don’t understand what we do, and the power we have over our systems.

I have colleagues who revel in their control freak. I know one colleague outside the university that I’ve heard tell stories about how they go back to their desk, fire up their monitoring software and “go bust” the facebook users. Mainly I just bite my tongue and shake my head and hope they’ll grow up, and think to myself “You’re a fool, and I swear I hope every SAN you install fails, and your backups along with it.”

But sometimes you are reminded that sometimes what we do in this business goes way beyond a completely harmless game of Farmville

Sometimes it looks like this:

[ ][3]

I can imagine those sysadmins had a gun put to their head. You know, if my government put a gun to my head and told me to push the big red button, I’d like to say I’d take a stand. But I can’t say that, faced with death or system shutoff, I would probably do it too, and hope beyond all hope for a better day for those depending on those systems I just cut off.

But thankfully I don’t work in a country like that. I don’t work in an organization like that. Again, I don’t even have to “go bust” the Farmville users.

But what I hope is that we all remember that even in the little things, what we know, and the systems that we run have an impact on those that we support with them. And every single time we have to give in to some coward’s request to monitor and curb harmless activity because they aren’t doing their own job with their own employees — a little part of freedom dies — and sometimes the stakes are way bigger, for all of us.

I can only hope that we all might know when we have to take a stand, and find the courage to do so when the time comes.