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5 tips for being the family holiday sysadmin

Here are 5 tips for preparing yourself for the inundation of technical requests that seem to accompany the holiday season.
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Soft skills for sysadmins

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It’s the holiday season. That means an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family who we haven’t seen for a while, eat too many desserts, and use up the remaining vacation days before the New Year. For those of us who work in IT, that also means a chance to help our relatives with all of their technical problems. Some people love this opportunity to help out friends and family, while others would prefer to just enjoy the holidays without being bothered. Whatever your preference, here are 5 tips for preparing yourself for the inundation of technical requests that seem to accompany the holiday season.

Tip 1: Be nice

I know it seems obvious, but always try to assume good intentions when someone asks for technical help, even if you can’t (or don’t want to) help them. You spent all day in front of your screens. Your close friends and significant others might know to avoid asking you technical questions during your downtime. Your relatives who only see you a few times a year might not. Nobody wants to hear you yell at uncle Rick over slices of pumpkin pie because he asked you to help him set up his printer. Take a deep breath and approach the situation charitably.

Tip 2: Be honest

I spent almost all of my time in Linux, and I’ll often go months without touching another desktop OS. I recently spent more time than I care to admit trying to replace a hard drive in a Mac for someone, primarily because I didn’t know what I was doing. The Linux method of dd’ing the old drive to the new drive and then just resizing partitions wasn’t working so well, and I became pretty frustrated (it turns out that Migration Assistant was the right tool to use in the Mac world).

Many IT professionals are heavily specialized, and setting up the newest gadgets that your cousin just got for Christmas might not be in your wheelhouse. Be honest about that. I often tell people that I’ll happily take a quick look at an issue, but it’s not my area of expertise so I won’t spend too much time on it and that they’re better off having an expert look at their problem. Similarly, you should be transparent if you don’t want to work at all over the holidays. Everyone deserves a break, and a polite (but firm) explanation that you’re not on the clock is appropriate.

Tip 3: If you’d rather not work, provide actionable advice

You might not have any time (or interest) in being the family sysadmin over the holidays, and that’s perfectly reasonable. However, you can still be helpful without ever touching a keyboard. Many of the common complaints, such as "my computer is slow," have known solutions: registry cleaners for Windows, RAM or disk upgrades, and others. Providing just this basic information can be helpful even if you don’t want to be the one making the repairs or improvements. Instead of "I’m sorry, but I’d prefer not to work on anything over the holidays," try, "It sounds like your computer might need a hardware upgrade. I would recommend contacting a local PC repair company and asking them to look for these particular parts."

I also try to be a resource for when my friends and family bring their tech to others for repair. I’ve fielded several calls from relatives asking about whether they really needed a certain repair or software, or if someone was just trying to upsell them. This kind of help only takes a few minutes from my day, and I’m happy to help those who have inevitably helped me during my lifetime.

Tip 4: Give the gift of knowledge

I find that tech folks can be quick to just solve an issue without helping someone understand why the issue occurred in the first place. For some people, that’s fine. I have relatives that have no interest in digging into their issues, and would much rather ask an expert. However, others might show more initiative. I’ve had great success with simply sharing high-quality sources of information, such as vendor support numbers, official documentation, and forums known for their sound advice with my friends and relatives. When they run into an issue, they have somewhere to go before they pick up the phone to ask me a question.

Tip 5: Keep it simple

Finally, if you’re the type of person who really loves being the holiday sysadmin, remember to keep your solutions simple. Setting up a self-hosted Linux RADIUS server so that everyone has their own WiFi password for WPA Enterprise might be a fun project, but remember that someone has to maintain it once you leave. If you’re setting up tech for folks who prefer to remain non-technical, then try to keep your solutions as simple (and secure) as possible.

(Gift) wrapping up

The holidays are a fun time of year, and helping others with setting up their new gadgets or fixing their computers can be a great source of satisfaction if it’s something that you enjoy. By keeping these basic tips in mind, you can ensure that you have a relatively stress-free holiday sysadmin experience, whether you’re the type who enjoys rebuilding computers on Christmas morning or you’d just prefer to sit around and have some pie.

Good luck, and happy holidays from Enable Sysadmin!

Topics:   Sysadmin culture  
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Anthony Critelli

Anthony Critelli is a Linux systems engineer with interests in automation, containerization, tracing, and performance. He started his professional career as a network engineer and eventually made the switch to the Linux systems side of IT. He holds a B.S. and an M.S. More about me

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