A Sysadmin Looks At Forty

Last night, I watched WarGames for the first time in years.

There’s a great quote in the middle of the movie, where Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy’s characters are discussing the untimely (and greatly exaggerated) demise of Professor Falken:

No, he was pretty old. He was 41.

  • David Lightman (Matthew Broderick), WarGames

Oh yeah? Oh, that’s old.

  • Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), WarGames

Thankfully as of yesterday, I’m only 40. Whew.

In January of this year, I set a goal for myself. Lose 40 pounds by age 40.

In May, I crossed the 40lb mark, and stayed there. Yesterday I was just at 48 pounds down.

I took the day off yesterday and I ran around Lake Johnson, my favorite park in Raleigh, Map My Run says the paved parts are 3.35 miles total, I did it in about 30 minutes. The last time I did that was about 11 years ago. And I felt better today at 40 than I did then at 29.

I didn’t make the goal public. I didn’t announce it. I changed my diet, I started walking around the neighborhood. And after a while, the walking seemed like it was taking too long. So when I could, I started jogging to make it go faster.

It was just head down. One foot in front of the other. Day in, day out.

So I guess maybe I’ve been thinking about 40 for a while.

It’s an occasion on which I feel like I’m supposed to have something more profound to say. By the time the day happened, I wasn’t any closer to any grand insights.

It was as I would have had it be. No grand celebrations. A quiet day at home with my wife, my dogs, my cat, a great dinner, and a bottle of malbec.

As for 40? It all feels a little anti-climatic really.

40 is a great age. I feel better than I felt at 29. I feel good about my work, and what I know, and most importantly at age 40 that I didn’t have at 29 – what all I don’t.

I’ve spent my entire life thinking about “what’s next?”. And 40 isn’t any different. I’m not sure about what’s next. I’ve got some ideas. Maybe the next age to think about is 42. 42 is, after all, the ultimate answer – given the right question. I’m just not quite sure what that question is just yet.

Certainly, I’m not at all satisfied with it all. I’m not sure that’s possible for me.

But maybe for the first time in as long as I can remember, it’s okay. It’s really okay. It’s a good life.

And maybe that’s all the profundity one needs.

There is no Spork

Portmanteau is a funny word.

And by “funny” – I mean fun to say, fun to pronounce, and fun to drop with pomp and circumstance into a conversation, but with a twinkle in your eye that belies the fact that you aren’t really completely full of yourself.

But I’m not writing to expound about portmanteaux. I’m writing to talk about DevOps and this war with Eurasia.

“DevOps” is a funny portmanteau.

And by “funny” – I mean to say “strange”.

And what I mean by strange, is that it’s kind of a strange idea to me. And by that I mean strange that our profession feels the need to label it the way it has.

And even stranger is the desire of some ( looking at you Puppet Labs ) to say it’s some how some new thing, practiced and perfected only by some single tech-savvy region.

I’ve spent most of my career at NC State University. I’ve worn a lot of hats, but the one that I have historically most often identified with is “sysadmin”.

Inconceivably, I kept using that word – “sysadmin” – and maybe, at least outside the university, it doesn’t mean what I kept thinking it meant. Maybe it’s a bit like “scale” or “client/server” – words that get redefined by everyone and their marketing department.

At NC State, systems work – particularly on the academic and research sides – has always been development work.

I started my career at the university adapting work from Notre Dame, writing C/Win32 API-based custom logins for Windows NT. I wrote CGI tools in Perl to manage downloads for anti-virus software. I wrote wiki/blog software in PHP before WordPress existed (but not B2). I guided systems staff that did the same, sometimes less or more depending on who was more oriented to what.

It wasn’t until about 8 years ago, when I ended up working with a long-time developer that hadn’t worked at a university that I learned about the war.

I think week one on the job, during some back and forth about developer environments, he told me “The developer is the natural enemy of the sysadmin”.

That’s such bullshit. Then and now.

I’m not naïve, maybe we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

Perhaps custom application development in university computing environments (again, particularly on the academic side) are different. The scope is different, even if the scale is not. Our products are different, our process no where near as (historically) formal. The release cycle/process is (I perceive) very, very different, at least when compared to organizations with the same kind of scale that we operate at.

And as such, the specialization that a lot of shops seem to form (this “developer vs. “systems” bifurcation) may not have the same conditions to grow in.

But I don’t know how you run effective systems – particularly systems that undergird custom applications – without knowing the languages, the tools, and the processes of “the developers”.

And I damn sure don’t know how you can truly effectively develop software without understanding the building blocks that you are using, and an idea of how the systems architecture ties them all together.

I learned ruby by writing ruby-based systems management tools on top of subversion so that I could support our “developers” that were writing “Rails apps”.

I learned Rails when I wrote a Rails-based identity management/directory tool because I was responsible for the security and the authentication in the systems.

And over the years, as the needs in the organization evolved, I’ve spent more time developing than administering systems. I’ve written an awful lot of the code in our applications. Enough to know that true wisdom is being able to answer both questions: “Who’s the best programmer you ever saw” and “Who’s the worst programmer you ever saw” with “You’re looking at him” and your best Gordo Cooper grin.

But every new application I’ve ever written has always combined “development” and “systems”. I’m not sure how you’d even draw the line between them. It’s about solving problems. Having been a sysadmin made me a better developer. Being a developer made me a better problem solver.

By far, the best developers and the best sysadmins I’ve ever known, and particularly the ones that started the computing revolution can’t really be classified as one or the other. I’ve tried to spend my career emulating their example. And I’m by no means unique in doing that.

I greatly appreciate those that do care deeply about finding best practices in how we develop and deploy systems for trying to find touchstone terms that we can agree on and for walking back these ridiculous silos that never work out well for us in computing.

If we call that “DevOps” then that’s okay. I understand why.

But I’m calling it “spork” And I’m here to say there is no spork. It’s made up world that we created, and more than a little pretentious and funny.

Like a portmanteau.

The Wedgebuster

Just about 25 years ago, for one week at the start of football season in 1988, I had the nickname “The Wedgebuster”

See, I played junior varsity football in high school. “Played” is a bit too charitable for my participation. I was 3rd-string center for a team that only had one other center, which was appropriate for a 14-year kid that was about 5’3” and 130lbs and ran the 40 in a blistering sub-8 seconds with the wind at my back, downhill.

But I went to every practice, listened to my coaches, paid attention, knew all my plays, hustled at (almost) every drill. To this day, the smell of just mowed grass and tobacco herbicides on a balmy August evening brings back almost fond memories of up-downs and ladder sprints.

I became The Wedgebuster because my sub-Rudy hustle earned me a place on the kickoff team the first two weeks. Our team didn’t kick off very much except if we won the toss. But there I was, the ceremonial arm-dropper, closer to the center where you stick the slow kid, and there I went, down the field right to the wedge, running as hard as I could right at the kid from two counties over, eyes filled with some combination of faux anger and bemusement.

And there I was – with what I can’t for the life of me remember happening, but game film clearly showed, lumbering down into the wedge, and managing to defy Newtonian physics by coming off it, backwards, with a velocity greater than the forward speed of the wedge. Which was replayed three times on whatever 70’s betamax reject VCR the athletic department owned, with the coach gleefully explaining “There goes The Wedgebuster”

I loved every minute of it. No really. Because I ran as hard as I could, did exactly what I was supposed to do, and left it all right there on the field. Seriously, I think I lost my mouthguard when my ass hit the ground.

But this isn’t about being the Wedgebuster. It’s about what happened the next week.

One of the coaches on the team was also the school’s wrestling coach, and loved to have us do all kinds of wrestling drills, from “monkey rolls” – but his favorite was the sumo drill, which is clearly supposed to be done between similar size kids.

Which is a little tough when one of those kids is a 6-foot close-to-300 pound 9th grader, that has beat every kid to that point, whereupon the coach announces “Who will take Sterling on next?”

And no says a word. No one. You know where this is going of course.

No one, until me. “When no one else will say it or volunteer for it, he will” – I’ve been the damn A-Team of speaking up all my life.

I held my own for about 25 seconds, and then all 300 pounds of Sterling landed on my outstretched leg, and the knee had nowhere to go but out, and being a knee on a 14-year old, right back in, in two loud pops that probably sent every deer in the county running away in fear, if not from the pops, than the otherworldly screams of a not-pain-tolerant child.

At that, the wedgebuster was gone, replaced with stories told by my teammates the rest of the season, full of high school sophomore sexual euphemisms at my 25 seconds of grunting, groaning, and straining, followed by two loud pops and high-pitched screams and wailing.

For my part, I won no awards, no medal for heroism. I ended up with a hairline fracture of my growth plate, which put me on crutches for nine weeks.

I never played football again. I mean who wants to play 3rd-string center and still have to run all the ladders the starters do? I shot golf, acted (okay, recited lines) in plays, and found out that I was pretty good at Calculus.

My A-Team volunteerism was as dumb right then as it was the next day.

But 25 years later? I wouldn’t change it for the world. For two consecutive weeks in the late summer of 1988, I went as hard as I could, did exactly what I was supposed to do, and I left it all right there on the field.

And that, really, is what it’s all supposed to be about, then, now, and tomorrow.

And when your 39-year old knee is sore on a warm April night, think about August, freshly mown grass, and call it “an old football injury.”

Divesting in Google

Three years ago, at OSCON 2010, I was ready to go all-in with Google.

I came in a Google fan-boy. I used every Google service I could, both personally and in shifting (particularly mail and chat) any IT services that I would have traditionally provided at work. And while I hadn’t yet shifted to Android by July 2010, I would have imagined it would have only been a matter of time and the next cell-phone contract. I was, and am, still in favor of a lot of the ideals of Android, and functionally if I was all-Google all the time, it would make sense.

And maybe it was the excitement of my first OSCON, by far the best conference of its size I had ever attended. But I came away ready to build on Google Wave, ready to come back and spread AppEngine throughout the services I hosted, and evangelize it among my colleagues in Higher Education/Extension throughout the nation. I wrote Wave notes on multiple sessions, interacted with the Wave Team listened intently in every training, built a gadget, even if the platform was a little mystifying. I really, really liked AppEngine.

And while I couldn’t get the AppEngine developer evangelist to respond to my wave-based communication and questions about the training materials and licensing ( “hey, he’s busy, maybe he hasn’t caught the wave internally yet.” ) I left OSCON all ready for my Google future, and immediately announced a multiple-part training series on AppEngine.

The next month, Google killed Wave.

You know, I don’t blame them for the decision. Wave had incredibly interesting technology, but, honestly it was weird. It was never going to acheive mass-market, ever, in the form that it was. And I’ve seen Apache Wave since, I’m not going to run one, and I understand Google not running. And honestly, I admire Google for saying “no” – well sometimes saying no. It’s not an “Apple No” – but it’s more “no” than any organization in which I’ve worked.

But to have that much evangelism of the platform, and then weeks later ended – well, that still stung. It’s totally weird, I know, to have feelings about a platform I had been pretty skeptical of before – maybe I was scared of what was next of the free products that I really, really depended on? Notebook? Docs? Reader? Mail?

Well, Notebook died next, but I had already moved on to Evernote, and I couldn’t ever see Docs, Reader, or Mail going away. Reader had no advertisements, but it felt like almost the entire tech illumanati had shifted to it to have something server-side. And everything I actually cared about, every attention I had, from products to services flowed through Mail, and even importantly Reader, and I figured Google was mining the hell out of it to sell me things in my search.

And in the three years after Oscon, I started drifting back to Google. Chrome everyday over Safari and Firefox, Mail, Reader, an uptick in Google+, other Google products at work. And while the whole quagmire over Google’s caving on Network Neutrality in cell networks ticked me off, I still value the Android ideals and the unlocked Google-provided Nexus hardware was tempting from time to time.

Occasionally I’d think about writing my own feed reader, because the outage here and there made me nervous. And I’d think about paying for email, even paying Google for it.

And then, the thing I didn’t think would be killed was. Reader is the third Google product I depended on the most, and knew the most about me after Search, and Mail. But for Google that’s not enough. I was mad, but that’s just silly, so I’m not mad anymore. Like others are saying, it’s going to unleash a wave (pun intended) of new products in the Atom (and RSS if you must) parsing space. I’m looking forward to that.

But it is the stark reminder I needed again that I can’t depend on Google for anything that I want to keep around. I’m not sure you can depend on anyone’s technology/service or anything that’s not an open standard and that you run yourself, but still, I don’t want to run everything.

But with Google there’s no customer relationship. Their customer are the advertisers (as I’m reminded of in the Google snail mail I get for my registered LLC offering AdWords credit) – and the only products staying are the ones that achieve the advertising volume they need (and a few really incredibly interesting future pet technology projects, yes I mean Project Glass).

I can, do, and still love their technology, and will continue trying it and using it, but just not depending on it.

So personally, I’m done. Google has lost my investment. I get my Mobile OS from Apple, my desktop OS from Apple (for now, and that’s as much Apple Hardware and Lightroom as anything). I’ll get my maps from Apple on mobile, and just as often as Google from Microsoft on the desktop. My work browser stays Chrome, my personal browser is back to Safari (for now). My feeds I control, for now from Fever, but I’ll write my own reader, starting with Sam Ruby’s Mars – or one of the twenty bajillion readers that will come out of the community or the market now. Opera Software/Fastmail gets my mail. My google spreadsheets get replaced with Numbers sync via iCloud. My bookmarks and notes are in Pinboard and Evernote (though Evernote makes me a little nervous long term as well). Google analytics for my personal sites, gone (I’ll replace it with Gaug.es when the time comes that I want analytics again).

I still need a replacement for Google Voice – but I seem to be keeping that around only for the email notifications of messages and because the transcriptions are like subscribing to some mashup of LOLCats and Damn you Autocorrect and are worth the humor factor alone

Google still gets my search. Maybe Google+ keeps making that better, but I’m not so sure. My content is mostly coming to me from my feeds, and twitter, and facebook, and specialty sources these days.

And they get my work (well everything that’s not my code) But my work email and docs, and plusses are just as temporary as Google, Just for an age. Not like Shakespeare, or my personal data or my code history: “for all time”. (and probably not anywhere near as valuable as my personal interests to Google’s advertisers)

Google you’ve been an awesome date, but really, I just need more, and you just don’t have it in you to be long-term.

We’ll still be friends in Facebook though.

In Memory, Aaron Swartz

When I begin to write, I start with an almost audible internal monologue, a set of rambling and rarely cohesive set of words and fragmented sentences that if I’m lucky, I’ll edit later into a rambling and barely cohesive set of run-on sentences.

But until I wrote that sentence, every time I’ve started this post, I had not gotten farther than “I… uh”

I… I’ve never really completely understood that when a tragedy occurs, particularly with famous people, the reactions, the emotions, the out-pouring of grief, or anger, or sadness. I don’t mean that I don’t logically, or psychologically, or sociologically understand the connection that people form to a person that they’ve never met, but yet touches their lives through music, or art, or politics, or whatever bridge that forms with someone you never know, but still know through that connection. I’m not a stranger to suicide, but even then, I’m not sure that even that particular tragedy when it has happened to strangers, celebrity strangers, has ever really moved me prior to now

Now? Now I can’t stop thinking about Aaron Swartz.

If you know anything about that how’s and the why’s and the who’s of the technology and the politics and the issues of the internet, you’ll know about Aaron. If you don’t, you should. Start where I learned about his passing – from a link by Jason Kottke to Cory Doctorow’s post. Then others, from Duncan Davidson to Larry Lessig to danah boyd and maybe what touched me the most, from Quinn Norton

You should know, and once you know, I don’t know anyone in my life that wouldn’t care. Aaron seemed to be able to make you care.

I never knew Aaron Swartz, I never met him, I never interacted with him. But I’ve known a little something about Aaron maybe as long as anyone has known about Aaron in the internet world. I had vague memories of Phillip Greenspun’s ArsDigita prize – I remember (after Phillip’s reminder) when Dave Winer bitched about the 17 year old kid, Reddit, Recap, the MIT/JSTOR incident, all that I had read.

Most of all, I’ve read and known as much as you can know a stranger through his own words

During a particularly difficult conversation with a colleague last year, I linked to Aaron’s words post-Steve Jobs biography, because it said what I was trying to say, about how I approached things, and even sometimes, and unfortunately, how I expressed things.

Another time I had linked to Aaron’s “Sweating the Small Stuff” post in the attempt to explain to others just what it took to do the job we do.

Aaron could communicate things and see things in ways that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to do.

Aaron was 26 years old. I’m almost 40. I’ve worked very hard and very long and I’ve been lucky as well to be in a position to be good at what I do, but in what is part of a source of both connection and conflict with friends and colleagues, my work and the work I’m involved in is never good enough.

Because I want to be as smart, and as lucid, and as good at what I do as Aaron Swartz.

As Duncan pointed out, Aaron once said that “I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.” I don’t disagree with that, but the most awe-inspiring thing about Aaron was his ability to act on that curiousity at the level in which he did.

And even still, like all of us, Aaron was human, with all the foils and flaws of us all, maybe made even harder and harsher by his intellect. Our greatest strengths are just as often our greatest weaknesses.

I can understand where he was, at least as much that anyone that can only know him through his own writing and through the writing of his friends can understand. I went through some things in my 20’s that were a pale comparison to what Aaron was facing with the federal trial. Had I faced what Aaron was facing, I don’t know that I would be here today. Looking at 40, I want to say the same things that Duncan Davidson would have said and that Quinn Norton said to him and undoubtedly others in his life have said and would say. It gets better.

Aaron’s life inspired his friends, and those of us that were his fans. And those friends and fans will make sure that his life continues to effect change.

I just wish for Aaron, for his family, for his friends, for all of us, that he was still with us to see it.