Which programming languages are useful for sysadmins?
Life as a systems engineer is a process of continuous improvement. In the past few years, as software-defined-everything has started to overhaul how we work in the same way virtualization did, knowing how to write and debug software has been a critical skill for systems engineers. Whether you are automating a small, repetitive, manual task, writing daily reporting tools, or debugging a production outage, it is vital to choose the right tool for the job. Below, are a few programming languages that I think all systems engineers will find useful, and also some guidance for picking your next language to learn.
The old standby, Bash (and, to a certain extent, POSIX sh) is the go-to for many systems engineers. The quick access to system primitives makes it ideal for ad-hoc data transformations. Slap together
jq with some conditionals, and you've got everything from a basic health check to an automated daily reporting tool. However, once you get a few levels of iteration deep, or you're making multiple calls to
jq, you probably want to pull out a more fully-featured programming language.
Python's easy onboarding, wide range of libraries, and large community make it ideal for more demanding sysadmin tasks. Daily reports might start as a few hundred lines of Bash that are run first thing in the morning. Once this gets large enough, however, it makes sense to move this to Python. A quick
import json for simple JSON object interaction, and
import jinja2 for quickly templating out a daily HTML-formatted email.
The languages your tools are built in
One of the powers of open source is, of course, access to the source! However, it is hard to realize this value if you don't have an understanding of the languages these tools are built in. An understanding of Go makes digging into the Datadog or Kubernetes codebases much easier. Being familiar with the development and debugging tools for C and Perl allow you to quickly dig down into aberrant behavior.
The new hotness
Even if you don't have Go or Rust in your environment today, there's a good chance you'll start seeing these languages more often. Maybe your application developers are migrating over to Elixir. Keeping up with the evolution of our industry can frequently feel like a treadmill, but this can be mitigated somewhat by getting ahead of changes inside of your organization. Keep an ear to the ground and start learning languages before you need them, so you're always prepared.
[ Download now: A sysadmin's guide to Bash scripting. ]