Having worked as a sysadmin with many colleagues and later on as a sysadmins manager, I thought it would be good to share some of my experience in this area with hopes that current managers and managers-to-be might find some useful hints.
Managing sysadmins is, in many aspects, no different from working with any other group of people: Planning vacations, discussing salaries, setting targets, making certain skills and tools are up to spec. Your management style reflects who you are, and the crew is that fantastic blend of personalities and abilities. Together you can deliver projects and maintain complex technical environments.
There are, however, some things you should be aware of that will improve your ability as a manager when you interact with the sysadmins.
The nature of a sysadmin is that of logic and reason. The systems have a structure, and (almost) all things can be explained. So when you want to give a message, make sure you can explain it thoroughly and provide logical answers why. Nothing becomes more valid or true just because you repeat it or use stronger colors in a PowerPoint presentation. Make sure you have thought through the message and can provide useful information to support it. If you, as a manager, have to deliver a message that lacks good explanations but is something the team has to do anyway, be clear and open about it from the start.
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Trust your team of sysadmins; they are the experts. Don’t let the snake charmers from other companies present tools or solutions that look fancy and fantastic without listening closely to the advice from your team of sysadmins. Let them have the final word on what is possible or not and how to do things. This will create trust and stability—fundamental for prosperous working conditions—which will be reflected in a stable and effective IT environment. You have to acknowledge that your sysadmins have both the training and the experience to judge the situation and make the right decisions. It is absolutely OK to enter an argument but make sure you have facts or proof that one way is better than another.
Sysadmin tasks are often complex, and each one carries potential consequences in a long chain of events. Since each change can have many consequences, you, as a manager, need to take your time and listen when sysadmin discussions are on the table. Explanations can take time because of the sheer scale of the subject, and the outcome might not be possible to understand unless some specifics are properly explained. Note that a sysadmin does not aim to be a know-it-all or a backward-striving road blocker. Instead, the aim is to make you understand the bigger picture and the different consequences that decision A or B might have. If you as a manager can understand, you can have more qualified discussions with other teams (e.g., developers) and find a well-balanced way forward.
Prepare to hear the truth - as it is
The personality of a sysadmin is often that of understanding machines better than humans. So with facts exchanged, humans face the same feedback as machines. As a manager, this means you need to be ready for facts in all aspects of discussions. Comments and arguments may not be delivered gently but more likely straight to the point. There is seldom any malicious intent with this direct way of communicating. Rather it is honest and fact-based so take it for what it is.
Introducing new services and pushing the boundaries
Change is sometimes good, and sometimes it forces us outside of our comfort zone. Your sysadmins may maintain old systems that desperately need to be upgraded. However, once started, it’s a bit like ripping out the plumbing in your own home—you may not be satisfied with what you have, but at least you know what is wrong. Entering a major change can be a daunting and unpleasant task.
When facing a massive change, you as a manager should help pave the way by having a clear plan of how to get through the transition. Serve as a communicator, let the sysadmins focus on the needful, and do your best to ensure that the sysadmins are not blocked or conflicted by other parts of the project. Expect technical challenges and never underestimate the complexity. Old systems always have undocumented nasty surprises in store. Make sure your sysadmins have enough time to do things correctly from the start—cutting corners to meet over-optimistic deadlines will create long term problems for you, your sysadmins, and the company.
Not everyone is comfortable in customer-facing situations
To work every day with computer systems means getting to know them very well. The systems all have their quirks and different behaviors. The systems become, in a sense, colleagues because of spending so much time with them. Therefore, moving a sysadmin from this realm into a customer-facing situation might be uncomfortable to the point of irritation. Make sure you discuss with your sysadmin if they are OK with such a situation and set a clear time frame. This way, your sysadmin can join the meeting, share the information or answer some questions, and then leave before the discussions lose relevance from a sysadmin perspective.
No, I don’t know
This phrase usually means a sysadmin knows a lot about the subject but not everything. So if you ask a sysadmin if he or she knows a specific product, the correct answer is often “no.” As a manager, your job is to determine which parts they know and which parts need to be studied and more closely investigated.
Good tools make for a good working environment
The correct tools can provide control, transparency, and the possibility to plan ahead. Please make sure that your sysadmins have the tools required to get the job done. There is some excellent freeware that can fill gaps but consider the axiom “you get what you pay for,” so make room in the budget for tools.
It is, of course, a good practice to challenge a sysadmin why a particular tool or product is needed, but please note that the answer will have a technical/practical focus and not come to you in the form of a business case. The latter is the responsibility of you as a manager to sort it out.
Keep your sysadmins outside the line of fire during times of high profile incidents. Don’t allow users or managers to call and disturb your team with annoying questions and demands on progress or root cause. Place yourself as the protective layer in front of the sysadmins and handle all communication with the rest of the organization. This mode of operation will allow your experts to focus on what needs to be done. I have written more about incidents in my article How to approach router (and other) network incidents at Enable Sysadmin.
Neurodiversity: autism spectra and other superpowers
People with autism and similar conditions can be ultra-high performers within IT. I have worked with a few, and since it also runs in my family, I have had time to learn and better understand the opportunities that follow. The brain that is wired differently from what we regard as “normal” enables some people to have areas of extreme focus. This focus allows them to learn much faster and to see and relate to things in different ways. To have a very high focus is like a superpower, but that also comes with the drawback that other areas will have less bandwidth. One such place could be social skills, which calls for you as a manager to both prepare and guide your sysadmins to create successful social interactions.
To promote your best sysadmin to manager could have negative consequences. First, you lose the sharpest tool in the shed, and second, you gain a manager that is always operating outside his or her comfort and skill zone. Instead, I suggest you work with HR to find new ways of promoting good performance. Consider other incentives, such as salary, car benefits, extra holiday, free travel to meet with relatives, etc. Perhaps there can be a technical career track that allows for increased decision-making power in technical matters. Do consider that a well-organized sysadmin with time to spare is usually a reflection of a stable and properly maintained environment—that means a job well done. The opposite, a sysadmin that is always busy and has loads of incidents does not inherently indicate that he or she is doing a bad job. Still, it should be an indication for you as a manager to go for a closer inspection to understand the situation and see how you can contribute to bringing better balance.
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Sysadmins have the ungrateful task of keeping all the IT systems up and running, which means they are doing a sterling job if they don’t hear anything. Often, developers perceive sysadmins as blockers because of the need to balance system reliability, capacity, and application requirements. Sysadmins are, by nature, technical and usually operate best within a defined comfort zone. As a manager, your task is to balance requests from other managers and departments and provide the tools and training that will allow smooth operations. Strive to let the sysadmins keep everything up to date and don’t let outdated applications championed by demanding managers become blockers for the platform's life cycle management.
The sysadmins manager is the enabler and the facilitator. Trust your crew and allow time for discussions and explanations. Never underestimate the complexity of what the sysadmins are working with. Take care of the questions and demands from users and management during high profile incidents—let your crew focus and do the needful while you, as a manager, do the reporting and communication.
New technical requirements from the sysadmins will not come in the form of a business case—that part belongs to you as a manager. Expect facts and be open to what you hear. Every day is a learning opportunity, and you are blessed to work with some of the most focussed crew members in the whole company.