On The River

It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

A lot of life has happened in the last few months. After four years of searching, we finally found a home that we liked – on the western side of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Triangle” area. Five acres of mostly trees on a river just north of Hillsborough, N.C.


And along with that new home is a new virtual home: http://littleriverview.org (currently an Apache redirect to a wordpress.com blog at http://words.littleriverview.org).

I would imagine that much of has made rambleon.org what is it is, rambly meandering posts about Life, the Universe, and Everything, and almost all of the photography will find its way there, basically most of what made rambleon.org, well, rambly.

The technology posts? I’m not so sure. There’s a lot of that part of my life that’s been in transition as well, and I’d imagine there’s a lot more transition to come in the next few months (not the part of being a technologist, like Shakespeare, that’s not of an age, but for all time with me).

I’m not sure of the future of rambleon.org, but if you’ve made this far with me, you probably can best find me in twitter or Github

For now, so long and thanks for all the fish.

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.”