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Perception and reality: What my family thinks a sysadmin does

A family's thoughts on what a sysadmin does at work.
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What my family thinks a sysadmin does

Photo by Bruno Henrique from Pexels

We have all seen the memes for different occupations or hobbies. You know, the one that has usually six funny pictures that depict a response to "What my mom thinks I do," "What society thinks I do," or "What my friends think I do," and always ends with a more accurate depiction with the subtitle, "What I actually do." Well, there is no shortage of these memes for us sysadmins, and in some cases, even though they are meant to be funny, they are fairly accurate. In this article, I take a little time to talk about my family and what they think I do as a sysadmin.

Over the years while visiting my parents, invariably I am asked the question, "How is work going?" While I want to be specific with my answer, I usually end up giving a vague "good" or "staying busy" type of response. It’s not that I give vague answers because I don’t think they comprehend what I do, it’s that there is not enough time to cover all the different aspects that determine the answer. In fact, I recently posed the question "What do you guys think I do all day for my work?" to my family on the Slack workspace we use to communicate and collaborate on vacations and meetups. While the majority of my family does have a general understanding of what I do, there were a couple of, while not totally inaccurate, comical replies.

"Eat Cheetos and play World of Warcraft," was my youngest brother’s humorous response, and while I do enjoy the occasional Cheeto snack, I think that all of us sysadmins would agree that there is not enough time in our day to play games. On a more serious note, it’s understandable that there are those in my family who relate what I do to whatever front-end or publically facing interface the company I work for has. For example, I’ve worked for companies that have a website, so to them, "I build or manage the website." While there is definite truth to that answer, doing so is a small part of my responsibilities.

Another accurate interpretation of what my family thinks a sysadmin does is "fix broken computers.' Again, there is so much truth in this idea, but it is a severe overgeneralization of what we do. Break and fix plays a huge role in being a good sysadmin. "Fixing a broken computer" looks like so many different things, whether that is patching or upgrading operating systems or software, replacing a hardware component, or applying a custom solution to change functionality. Still, fixing things is just a fraction of my day, if at all. Sometimes it’s just a few hours a week.

When I go out with my wife and we meet someone new, I eventually get asked what I do for work. My wife almost always chimes in with, "He stares at a black screen with white letters all day." I can’t blame her for that interpretation, because it just so happens that when I am working remotely while she is there, it is usually because I was called for a priority issue that requires me to log into a terminal for troubleshooting.

Ultimately, the truth of one sysadmin’s day might look completely different from another’s when it comes to our specific tasks, and we are often misunderstood. The biggest commonality I believe we all have as Linux sysadmins is that we are the glue that binds multiple IT teams together. We are the ones that interpret what developers need when they make requests to the networking or security teams. We are sometimes at the beck and call of the database teams. Meanwhile, we’re diligently striving for fast, secure, and reliable operation with our servers while trying to stay under budget.

So, the next time a stranger asks me what I do for work, maybe I’ll answer with something besides, "I’m in IT."

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Topics:   Career   Sysadmin culture  
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Brady Thompson

Brady is a Sr. More about me

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