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Geeking outside the office

How outdoor hobbies help this sysadmin maintain his sanity.
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Fishing

Sysadmins have plush, easy desk jobs, right? We sit in a nice climate-controlled office and type away in our terminals, never really forced to exert ourselves. At least, it might look that way. As I write this during a heat wave here in my hometown, I'm certainly grateful for my air-conditioned office.

Being a sysadmin, though, carries a lot of stress that people don't see. Most sysadmins have some level of on call. In some, places it's a rotation. In others, it's 24/7. That's because some industries demand a quick response, and others maybe a little less. We're also expected to know everything and solve problems quickly. I could write a whole separate article on how keeping calm in an emergency is a pillar of a good sysadmin.

The point I'm trying to make is that we are, in fact, under a lot of pressure, and we need to keep it together. While in some cases profit margins are at stake, in other cases lives could be. Let's face it, in this digital world almost everything depends on a sysadmin to keep the lights on. Maintaining all of this infrastructure pushes many sysadmins (and network admins, and especially information security professionals) to the brink of burnout.

So, this article addresses how getting away from the day job can help you keep your sanity.

Explore technology away from work

I want to highlight that it is important, in my opinion, for any sysadmin to have a healthy interest in technology outside of their job responsibilities. In fact, it's one of the things that I try to gauge when I'm interviewing technology folks. Whether it's for a development job or something more admin-related, I think it's important that folks working in technology have a passion for technology.

Personally, I have a home lab where I try things out. It's currently running oVirt-node and an all-in-one oVirt manager/hypervisor. I run Red Hat Virtualization in my day job, so it's nice to get my hands on the upstream projects for the hardened, stable products that Red Hat provides us.

I use that home lab to tinker with whatever new technology comes along and catches my interest. Sometimes it's OpenShift, sometimes it's containers, and sometimes it's a Minecraft server for my kids. I also tinker in electronics—it’s not uncommon to find me in my workshop holding a soldering iron. Tech outside of your daily work life helps keep you sharp and lets you explore new technology that you might not have the time or resources to tackle at your day job.

However, this practice is a double-edged sword. I recently went through a yearlong process of simplifying my home’s dependence on my skills. It was getting to the point where I'd come home from work, and step from my professional sysadmin role into a volunteer sysadmin role. Sure, I enjoy setting up services. I enjoy running services, too. But sometimes when you get home at night, you just want to sit down and let your brain relax.

It gets old if you keep coming home to the kids asking why the wifi isn't working, and your wife asking why the Plex server is down. On top of that situation, I was running my own websites out of my basement and running a side business hosting for others. I felt like I never got a break. So, I put a bunch of time into simplifying. I moved my self-hosted email to a free email provider. I moved my websites to a cloud provider and closed up the side business (it wasn't making any money anyway). I even replaced my slick Linux-based firewall with a simple to set up wifi mesh.

Now, when things go sideways, we don't need to be a senior sysadmin to figure out the problem. All in all, it's really helped my sanity. Plus, using technology like an average user helps me understand where they're coming from. Users don't have the level of control that sysadmins have over technology, so they're sort of dependent on us, or on the vendors that make their devices. Sometimes it's good to step into those shoes so you can understand where they're coming from.

There's one more great point I'd like to make though…

Step away from the keyboard

The stereotype says that we're all afraid of the outside world; that we hunker down in basements with the windows closed, and nothing but the glow of a monitor to light our workspace. That rumor might actually be true for some of us, but personally, I have always tried to maintain outside hobbies away from a computer.

Firstly, sitting—or even standing—at a computer isn't all that healthy. Getting away from your terminal helps your brain relax, but just being away from your computer, or your office, might not be enough. It's easy to be away from something and still be preoccupied with it, so don't just go for a walk. Do something.

You need to move around more, and what better way to do that than to go outside. I'm not about to tell you what you should do out there, but make it something engaging. I'll give you some examples of what works for me.

Hunting and fishing

Yes, I know these practices are viewed as barbaric by some, but it's something I did with my father—who is now retired from his own career in technology—since I was of legal age to do so. It gets me away from everything, and I get to spend time with him. It's good exercise, and it teaches me to appreciate what I have.

What better way to spend your time? If you're not into harvesting animals for food, go for a day-long hike in the woods. The point is to get away and occupy your mind with what you're doing. I enjoy the sights of the outdoors and spending an entire day simply paying attention to nature around me. I have to. If I'm not paying attention, I won't be a successful hunter.

Camping. I was a boy scout as a kid. I spent a lot of time in the woods, camping, fishing, boating, and spending time with other boys. I mean real camping, where you've got a tent, a backpack, and enough food to last you a few days. You cook over a fire. You live in your tent. You're self-sufficient while you spend time in nature. (Don't bring your smartphone—or at least try to keep from using it if you can't stand to be unreachable. It's a great escape from the usual stress of life.)

Jeeping and off-road sports

Again, I know some will have an issue here, but give me a moment. For almost as long as I've been driving, I've been a Jeep enthusiast, to the point where I almost have two personas online. One where I'm Nate, the Iron Sysadmin, and another where I'm Nate, the trail guide and Jeep nut. You could say that I'm equally as passionate about jeeps and off-road as I am about Linux and open source software.

I know it's unpopular in some crowds. Off-roading is seen as a detriment to the environment, and Jeeps aren't all that ecologically friendly, but there are lots of upsides to this hobby of mine. I've been doing it long enough that I'm pretty good at it, and I can teach others. Jeeping also teaches problem-solving, which is relevant to what we do as sysadmins. If you're out in the middle of nowhere, and your 4x4 breaks down, you better either figure out how you're fixing it, or how you're getting out without it.

Working together and helping others is a big part of it as well. I've lost count of the number of times I've stopped to help someone in need on the trail, or on the highway, because of the skills I've picked up over my years of Jeeping.

Building things

Related to Jeeping, I also like to build things, whether it's home renovations or upgrades to the Jeep. Sometimes, I even fabricate things myself. Mostly for the Jeep, but I've applied my skills to my house, the kids' Halloween costumes, and projects for friends. It's always a good idea to have a broad range of skills.

I know, you can probably save time and pay someone else to expand your closet or build you a garage, but doing it yourself is so rewarding. Trust me.

Gaming

There are also things like gaming, whether it's board games, console games, or PC games. They help your brain escape and work in different ways than it does as a sysadmin. Personally, I love a good DnD session or a card game with the family. I'm also a pretty avid Doom player.

Get creative

Finally, I'd like to cover creative outlets in general. I touched on this topic slightly when I mentioned teaching and fabricating. I like to teach others what I know, and I like to create things that might help others, like this article!

Writing is an obvious one, as you've seen from my blog and the content I've contributed here. I also run The Iron Sysadmin Podcast. In addition to that, I produce Jeep-related content for another site I run, and have a YouTube channel that I manage. I find creating something like that to be very rewarding, and believe it or not, it's helped me learn about technologies which benefit me in my day job, ones that I'd never have come across otherwise. 

All of these things, while not really IT-related, apply to the skills you need as a good sysadmin. Get away from that terminal. Get outside and do something. Give your brain a break, and try to avoid burnout!

You'll thank me later.

Topics:   Sysadmin culture  
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Nathan Lager

Nate is an experienced sysadmin, with 20 years in the industry. He runs his own blog at undrground.org, and hosts the Iron Sysadmin Podcast. More about me

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