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Sysadmin careers: How sysadmins can pay it forward

These sage words tell you how to leave your infrastructure better than you found it.
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Sysadmin careers: How to pay it forward
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

With new projects to complete, fires to put out, and new skills to learn, preparing for the day that you leave a company is probably the last thing on your mind as a sysadmin. It's easy to view doing prep work for the person that comes after you as something that should only be completed during your last two weeks at a company. However, it's actually pretty easy to adopt an overall mindset that will set a future sysadmin up for success, while still benefiting the work that you're doing today. Whether you plan on being with your current employer for 12 months or 12 years, here are some tips that will help you "pay it forward" to whoever comes after you.

Document, document, document

Writing good documentation is one of the best things you can do to help out your successor. Strong documentation provides several benefits:

  • It can give context about why certain decisions were made, technologies were deployed, or configurations were used. This can guide an organization for years to come.
  • It helps in a time of crisis (e.g., an outage). Nothing is worse than having "something" broken and not being able to find any topology diagrams or even a configuration overview of the broken infrastructure.
  • It helps the new person get up to speed in an environment at their own pace without feeling overwhelmed.

Entire books have been written about creating high-quality documentation, so I won't try to reconstruct that here. Just know that writing complete, high-quality documentation is a sure way to set your successor up for success.

Simple is better

It's tempting to use the latest, bleeding-edge tech when trying to solve a problem, especially in smaller environments where you might be a lone sysadmin. After all, who wouldn't want to try deploying their own on-premises Kubernetes environment just to host a few websites? It's a great learning experience and lets you play with cool tech. But is that level of complexity really the right choice for your company?

Similarly, it's easy to suffer from Not Invented Here syndrome. This often manifests as an insistence that something is reimplemented from scratch, even when perfectly good tools exist to solve the problem. This is an easy trap to fall into for the sysadmin who loves to write code, as it can be tempting to write complex software and scripts without considering their maintainability. In some environments, that's not a problem; a dedicated tools team or just a software-driven mentality may be a core part of the sysadmin environment. In other environments, it's easy to create critical tools that can't be maintained in the long term, either after you've left or just moved on to other projects.

Before you give in to the urge to reimplement something that already exists or test out a web server that was just written six weeks ago in a brand new language, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will my successor be able to support this technology?
  • Will my company even be able to hire someone who has the skills needed to support this environment?

Stick to simple, easily understood solutions wherever possible. Rewriting your own task scheduling system in Go might be a fun exercise to help you learn a language, but your successor will thank you for just using cron.

Have others review your work

It's easy (and fun!) to take an idea, put your head down, and work away on it until it's fully complete, and you have a final tool or solution to show. While many sysadmins work on teams, the nature of the work itself can be very individualistic—sysadmins often have their own tasks that they are solely responsible for. This can make it very easy to avoid asking for input on your work for long stretches of time.

Allowing others to review your work is an important way to vet the strength of your ideas. If one of your colleagues is pointing out a problem with an approach, then it's very likely your successor will be scratching their head with the same question, only you won't be there to clarify.

If your business doesn't have processes in place for peer review, it can be tempting to live on an island and do your own thing. Avoid this temptation and actively solicit input from others, even if they're in other departments. If you work on a team, you likely have co-workers who can review your work. If you're a lone sysadmin, you probably have a network of trusted peers who you can run your ideas by. Use this network to your advantage.

Soliciting the feedback of others isn't just a great way to improve the work itself; it's also a chance to sharpen your people skills.

When it's time to leave—final prep

The time has finally come for you to leave your current position. Maybe you're retiring, moving on to another organization, or switching careers entirely. Whatever the reason, it's helpful to prepare a written, high-level overview of your environment and responsibilities for whoever comes after you. This overview should contain, at a minimum, the following:

  • An overview of the technical aspects of the environment. What are the critical parts of the infrastructure, and what do they do? Link to other documentation wherever possible.
  • A list of current projects, their purpose, and next steps
  • A list of top improvements or projects that you think will take the environment to the next level

This document should be something that your successor can pick up during their first week, and it should get them up to speed on the more important functions of your job. As an added bonus, sending this document to your boss before you leave is a great way to depart on good terms, as you're showing that you care enough about the organization to set them up for success after you're gone.

In conclusion—it's all about mentality

I hope that the previous tips have given you some ideas about how you can start now to ensure that whoever comes after you will be in a good position to succeed in your environment. These tips all come down to a certain mentality—you should always approach things with the idea that you may not be in that role or even that company forever. It's simply the reality of this industry that people move around, hopping from engagement to engagement. Taking this approach will not only help you pay it forward to your company's future sysadmin, but it will also help you to build higher-quality infrastructure during your tenure.

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Topics:   Career   Sysadmin Appreciation  
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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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