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The Totalitarian System Admin

By sudog in Op-Ed
Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 07:00:38 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

I used to travel a lot: back in time when I was younger and still in high school, somehow I managed to find myself on a plane from one end of the country to another on a bi-monthly basis. Flying can be tremendously boring when you're on your own with little to do in seats that crush your knees up to your chin; however, flying is damn interesting when you're sitting next to an intelligent someone who wants to talk. I think part of the reason for that is that there's no escape when the plane's full. You're stuck there and forced to listen whether you want to or not.

On one such flight I was seated next to a woman who looked like she'd come straight from the legislature. She struck up a conversation with me that continues to nag at me; it still finds purchase in the ol' noggin as one of those unresolved somethings that comes back to haunt you when you have a little solitude to think.

She was an interesting woman to say the least. She had short-cropped red hair, very prim glasses, was dressed conservatively, and was old enough to be my mother. Yet she had this twinkle in her eye, and it wasn't because she was being a lecherous old bat. I realize now it was more intellectually predatory than that: like she wanted to spar with me in some kind of Matrix-like dojo where she could beat the hell out of me without actually doing any permanent damage. I've since learned to be wary of that kind of look unless the woman doing it is also taking her clothes off.

I suppose it's easy to spot someone like me on a plane and peg me for who I am. I carried with me computer manuals and periodicals. I used to be tall and lanky, and I didn't care much about how I looked. It's not that I was ugly, but why should I care about keeping my hair combed and my clothes fresh? I was busy burying myself in programming. In highschool I used to tinker endlessly with software on my old Amiga 500 and the fascination of writing my own held me in some kind of bizarre thrall. It was probably due to the fact that my older brother bought a Commodore 64 when I was seven or eight, and we used to play computer games and type in those programs together from the backs of magazines like Compute!'s Gazette, Ahoy!, and RUN. We used a program called MLX to enter pages and pages of seemingly boring machine language. One of us would read the numbers and the other would type them in. The thrill of a running program was great, but invariably we'd only use it for a few hours before getting bored and starting on a new one. I suppose I miss the fun we had joking around and creating our own games and programs, too.

Heck, we lived in Yukon: there wasn't much else to do during those long, horribly cold winters. And since much of Yukon is semi-arid, just how cold it is isn't always immediately apparent. That's a dangerous time to be outside. All we had up there was the intense, bitter freeze and the distant memory of Yukon summers and fireweed honey to almost keep us from going crazy. Almost.

Anyway, on this particular flight I of course had some manuals with me. The woman seated next to me--I'll call her Jane--decided she wanted to talk. Once the plane was up in the air, presumably because she had a captive audience, Jane asked me what I was studying.

Studying! Imagine that. As you all know, studying is what you do for school. I wasn't studying. I was mentally bathing myself in the machine. I laughed and told her as much, and I'm sure it came out sounding just as geeky. Luckily I had a winning smile, so I had been sure the seeming disparity would take her aback and make her leave me alone. It didn't. Jane was unfazed.

She asked me what I wanted to do once I finished school.

Without hesitation, I told her, "UNIX System Administration." There's something sexy about having control over hundreds of machines and a giant, human-fed network of routers and fiber. It's a power trip. Tens of thousands of people turn to you for their communications, their entertainment, and their problems. You are a minor northern deity, user requests are their prayers and incense, and I thought it was cool that my name spoken phonetically backwards was Crom. The power to shut down or make flourish someone's digital life was quite the temptation. Also, I read Bastard Operator From Hell and realized that some System Administrators can, in fact, have that kind of power. If they're good.

Security was also a big thing for me. It was probably spurred on by The Incident. My highschool's pioneering connection to the early internet was the first place I learned to spider. I managed to drop to a shell one day (through a telnet subshell,) fix my login to give me shells in future, and bypass all their quotas to store perfectly legal porn in a directory named after my own user account, sitting next to my mail spool. Well, the porn was legal for me, anyway. I'm sure the fact they were my access to it couldn't have been good for them.

Oh, spidering? Spidering is what the old Nyx system operator called non-destructive system cracking. Think about it: A spider is small, easily squashed, gets in through tiny holes unless you hermetically seal your entire establishment and decontaminate everyone coming in the front door, and generally leaves small annoying messes behind when it leaves.

The Incident was the day I found out my dad thought I was an important person. My "nefarious" activities had themselves been "found out," and my school's principal called us all in for a "meeting." Dad seemed to think it wasn't my fault they had a system I could run all over. He thought that it was their responsibility to keep me reined-in, especially since I was doing no damage and wasn't interfering with other peoples' use of the system.

The funny part is that I had written long notes to both my school and the organization (once Educational Technology Centre, now a very pared-down Community Learning Network) that provided the so-called "hacked" systems with exactly what I was doing, why, and how it was teaching me more about computers. "Found out" indeed. Okay, maybe the porn wasn't such a good idea. But dammit! They never mentioned it, and it was never deleted. It was my .login alterations they were mad about, not the porn I was endlessly ZModem'ing! Hacking. Give me a break--a parlour trick is what it was!

Jane wasn't quite so impressed. She asked me first what a System Administrator was, and then why I wanted to be one. I must've rambled on about it; words like "power" spilled out. I may have meant it in the sense of vast computing power, but there weren't projects like Seti@home back then.

Jane surprised me then with an unexpected question. Jane asked me why a System Administrator should have such power at all.

After a moment I blurted something about how the System Administrator is technically superior in matters about the machine and thus better-equipped than normal people to make decisions about it.

But if all those people are using it, wouldn't it make better sense to be a little more democratic about what goes on in such a collection of systems? Jane asked me.

Being a stupid kid, I stumbled on that one. It seemed self-evident to me that a System Administrator, like a benign dictator or some kind of appointed King, should have the power to block connectivity, keep out intruders, shape the system as he sees fit, and generally have free run. But if it were self-evident, then why couldn't Jane--obviously educated herself--see the same thing with the same clarity?

Jane interrupted my musings with another question: What made me think that technically superior people are better-equipped to deal with issues that affect so many people at once?

She went on: Specifically, what made me think that System Administrators, by virtue of their technical prowess, were somehow superior policy-makers?

She was relentless: Why should I even have the capability to make such far-reaching decisions unilaterally?

I must've mumbled something to the effect of "Because I can."

Looking back, I can think of all sorts of things I should've said. "Because that's what they're hired to do." Even the next day, sitting alone in my room and brooding about it I thought of witticisms, retorts, better argument. "Because a computer network isn't a democratic society--it's owned by the company that hires the System Administrator." I should've defended myself! I should've convinced her that people like me are the best choices for managing massive, powerful computer networks and systems. Should've, could've, would've--didn't.

The truth is, she upset me and angered me because in her own way she was totally right. People get angry and confused when they realize something they took for granted for many years might be wrong. Plus, she made me think: Do we just have the right to do whatever we can?

Now we arrive at an interesting question: Why do computer scientists, System Administrators, and especially engineers, think they're superior decision-makers in the first place? Why do they think they know better when their education and experience centres around how to do something, rather than whether it should be done? I know a Statistics Professor at a local university who is emotionally abused, verbally harrassed, and generally treated with contempt by endless classloads of engineers who don't think they should need to learn statistics. She only teaches that course because she's the only one that will, and she needs the money.

System Administrators regularly manually filter connectivity to other sites because of spam attacks. System Administrators block whole countries because no one they try to complain to speaks any English--so rather than trying to communicate further, they just block the country instead.

And tell me--if you're a System Administrator--can you honestly sit there and tell me you've never grepped for "fuck" or "purity test" in a mail spool directory? Have you never watched someone log in and just bumped them off your dialup pool--because you could? Have you never--even once--played an anonymous prank on one of your users when you knew you could get away with it and no one would know?

I used to sit in a University computer lab and write messages on peoples' terminals. I got many laughs out of it until one fateful day near the end of the semester. A woman who had struck up a conversation with me and exchanged emails found out that I had been sitting behind her in the computer lab without her even knowing it. She immediately broke off all email contact with me and I couldn't figure out why, until months later when I was recounting the experience to my now-wife. My wife's explanation hit me like a thunderbolt, even though it was just her reaction to what I did:

"Wow. That would be creepy."

She was right, of course. A weird guy, preying on the ignorance of the people around him to get his jollies; how utterly disgusting. The point is that even the best and friendliest intentions often turn out to be the furthest things from them, and that technical superiority is something normal people fear and can come to hate.

Years later I got my wish and became the System Administrator of a 50,000+ customer ISP. It wasn't quite the job I had expected, and I ended up being overworked, overpaged, and generally harangued until I realized one day that I had a choice: quit or be driven insane by lack of sleep.

I quit.

I don't think many of my brethren realize the kind of power they wield--and I don't think we quite realize the effect that shutting down a service or changing it without notice has on the normal everyday people who use it.

So we come to the end of this simple little story. Jane spoke to me about plenty of other things on that flight, but they were probably inconsequential because I've forgotten them. Still, it's funny how a few questions like that stick out in your mind, and you remember them again and again, and wonder what the answers could be--or even should be. I don't think I've quite got them nailed down yet, but until then, I'll remain,

--A Totalitarian System Admin


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What is your favourite colour?
o Red 2%
o Green 6%
o Blue 20%
o Blue--no, yellow! AAaaaahhh...! 27%
o It c-o-l-o-r you damn Canadian! 17%
o Pick one--American or British spelling dammit. 5%
o I am a Banana! 20%

Votes: 109
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Commodore 64
o Compute!'s Gazette
o Ahoy!
o Yukon
o Crom
o Bastard Operator From Hell
o Nyx
o Community Learning Network
o Seti@home
o purity test
o Also by sudog

Display: Sort:
The Totalitarian System Admin | 151 comments (144 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
As an interesting mental exercise ... (4.94 / 18) (#6)
by pyramid termite on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 04:42:04 PM EST

... subsitute the word "Manager" for "System Administrator" and subsitute the technical terms for general ones such as "budget", "personnel", etc. etc. etc., leaving out the details that don't fit. It raises some interesting questions, doesn't it?

How many people respect the power they possess over other people's lives and do they retain their respect for other people as they do so? Some do, some don't. One of the great problems of our times is that we haven't worked out what the rules are for who should get that power and how it should be used.

Great article.

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
good call (5.00 / 7) (#14)
by millman on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:05:52 PM EST

You can certainly apply her arguments to any system of power.

What popped into my head upon reading this was that corporations are not democratic.  They're quite the opposite.  You have to follow very specific rules or get booted out with no recourse.  Most sys admins out there work in a corporate setting.

Now if she were talking about the public arena she'd have more of a point.  But the public arena isn't necessarily much different.

In a world full of thieves, the only crime is getting caught.
[ Parent ]

But Why... (4.83 / 6) (#34)
by mberteig on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:51:23 PM EST

aren't corporations run democratically? Did you ever notice that the constituents that management represents are the shareholders? In that regard they are democratic... except that you buy your vote.

What would happen if corps were run democratically by their employees? Some actually are. Co-ops are one example. They work.

Agile Advice - How and Why to Work Agile
[ Parent ]
United Airlines is (5.00 / 2) (#60)
by wiredog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 08:15:16 AM EST

It's employee-owned.

It's also bankrupt.

The greatest contribution of the internet to society is that it makes it possible for anyone of any age to become a grumpy old fart.
Parent ]

Why not democratic? (5.00 / 2) (#65)
by Alarmist on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:37:33 AM EST

Many businesses are founded by one or two people working out of a garage, and they hire people on later. Not so many I think, are formed by several people getting together and deciding to start a business. The early structure of a company plays a big part in determining its culture.

Democratic principles can work reasonably well, but (IMO) only on a small scale. After a certain point (which is affected by individual makeup, communications, and a slew of other things), a democratic society is no longer feasible because a significant portion of the populace succumbs to apathy, or a demogogue seizes power, or the means of communication break down, or it becomes impossible for decisions to be made in a timely way.

While I know that co-op companies exist, I think that the more successful ones are also the smaller ones. Large companies are run in a hierarchal fashion because, as cumbersome as intervening layers of management can be, they are faster at making decisions than soliciting the body of employees as a whole.

[ Parent ]

Nope, they are republics or dictatorships (5.00 / 1) (#100)
by Elkor on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 04:46:44 PM EST

In the case of Sole Proprietorships or Partnerships, the people that started the company are in charge. Effectively they are dictators.

In the case of Corporations, Constituents (shareholders) elect representatives (Board Members) who run the company on the constituents behalf. That is a Republic (a la ancient Rome, with the Senate)

The number of issues that the constituents actually vote on is limited in scope to major issues. The nitty gritty is handled by the representatives.

In a democracy all decisions are handled by vote, or elligible to be handled by voting. A democracy is also comprised of those people that are affected by its decisions (generally). So for a company to be democratic, the employees would have to be the ones that vote, as well.

The example of an employee owned and operated company best fits the democratic model, which is not how most companies operate.


"I won't tell you how to love God if you don't tell me how to love myself."
-Margo Eve
[ Parent ]
I would argue that he gave the right answer. (none / 0) (#123)
by bgalehouse on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 04:24:02 PM EST

I think I heard this on the West Wing the other night "The best argument against democracy is 5 minutes with the average voter."

The sysadmin makes decisions because he can - because he has the training to make them well. In my experience a good sysadmin will politely listen to and even accept sensible technical suggestions which do not ruin his mode of operations. And of course, if he makes them poorly he is likely to be replaced, but only depending on the ignorance of his clients. The analogy to republic governmental systems is striking.

The closest thing to a competent but immature sysadmin I've met was apparently a rather dark hat in his youth who I think had become more gray when I met him. I've seen him get root access with a buffer overflow because there was too much organizational momentum to get the temporary quota increase that we needed. He also demonstrated that the office doors were easy to jimmy. On the other hand, he didn't generally betray trusts that he was given, even to the point of memorizing a finance officer's purchasing card number.

[ Parent ]

One could also say ... (5.00 / 1) (#128)
by pyramid termite on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 12:35:04 AM EST

... that the best argument against elite rule is 5 minutes with the average elitest. It's my view that both average specimens are bound to be ignorant of the issues they should not be ignorant of. Add to this the inevitable fact that any elite is going to be self-defining - "we're elite because the elite people have the qualities that we have" - and the average voter, who at least knows he is merely one of millions and has done nothing special to acquire his small power, doesn't seem as dangerous.

There's really no such thing as dictatorship of the majority - no, there's just dictatorship of elites who claim to have the interests of the majority as their purpose.

On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
Now, now (none / 0) (#151)
by bgalehouse on Sat Feb 08, 2003 at 11:02:54 PM EST

There are competent policy analysts who do their best at figuring out the effects of policy, without seeming to let their egos be so involved. If you read "Foreign Affairs", you will see what I mean. Quite different than Bush's war drumming.

Similarly, there are plenty of competent sysadmins who set out to do a good job and provide honest analysis. Quite a few even shield their managers from daily technical decisions either literally or by having their recommendations rubberstamped with regularity. At the end of the day they have a lot of power because they are trusted to keep the network running.

Perhaps I taunted with a bit more brashness than what one would expect from either sort. Perhaps in either case a certain amount of hubris is an important part of doing the job correctly. However, in both cases a certain amount of trust must be placed in the experts, lest one wishes to use up too many evenings duplicating their lines of reasoning.

While I actually agree that too much elitist attitude gets in the way of accurate analysis, I also find the attitude easy to understand in light of the great mass of people who can't tell the difference between the competent and the incompetent technical person.

So, what do you think is the more cynical attitude - that the great mass of Americana can't learn to tell the difference, or that they can't be bothered to?

[ Parent ]

Hi, my name's El Volio (4.50 / 4) (#7)
by El Volio on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 04:50:02 PM EST

And I'm... a sysadmin.

What, no applause?

Seriously, there are a lot of reasons why an admin makes decisions for a system, some of which you nailed. Is she able to make a good decision regarding how to stripe a filesystem across a diskset? Or the best MTA to use and how to configure it? It's all a matter of engineering.

That said, I too was a sysadmin — a senior admin for one of the largest sites on the web. Lack of sleep drove me crazy, but I loved the work. Now I've just specialized, doing sysadmin/architecture as just a part of my security gig working for a security operations center (at the same company). The hours are generally better until something happens, then they suck, but that is fortunately a rare occurrence. And actually, given the fact that I'm a "solitary" admin now (the rest of my group aren't sysadmins, unlike my previous job), I'm way more of a totalitarian admin than ever before.

Teaching is the first job (4.25 / 4) (#9)
by imrdkl on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 05:34:37 PM EST

If somebody isnt learning how to do what you do as a UNIX admin, then you're not upholding the tradition properly, imho. Smelly clothes (or breath) is bad, but not as bad as a closed sandbox.

Systems Administration by committee seems a little far fetched, but unfortunately it's being at least partly driven in that direction by snobbery.

I've been guilty of it myself. (except for the bad breath, of course)

Immature viewpoint (4.83 / 12) (#11)
by dmcnaught on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 07:52:50 PM EST

It's not surprising she had a negative reaction to your portrayal of the job--it was fundamentally inaccurate.

A sysadmin's job is (generally) to implement policy, not to make it. The machines are there for a purpose and it's the sysadmin's task to make sure they do that job. To the extent that policymaking, "control" of users, is necessary, it's to keep them from abusing the machines to the point where they (the machines) don't do their primary task. Where to make those tradeoffs is a business decision that you make in most cases, but sometimes you have to buck it up to the "real" policymaking level.

The fun of the job comes from solving problems, from making these damn complicated machines do what we want them to do, and do something useful, and (at least in my case) from having eighty-seven things to do at any given time--if I wanted to work on one thing all day I'd be a programmer!

I think a lot of us go into the job for reasons like yours--they're attractive to the "larval stage" geek--but those who don't grow out of that attitude don't end up as very good sysadmins.

I didn't actually describe that whole bit to Jane. (4.50 / 2) (#16)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:33:02 PM EST

I just said system admin and something about the power of the systems and of the influence I'd have over them. Remember that I was in the midst of highschool at the time, so of course my portrayal would be inaccurate--that's kind of the point of the article.

And I'm still a sysadmin: I just work for a company that doesn't screw me over with machines I'm not allowed to fix and a pager I'm not allowed to turn off connected to aforesaid machines.

And your description of what a sysadmin does sounds opposite to what I had wanted to (and now get to) do: System planning, design, andbuilding, plus network planning, design, and building. I do not implement someone else's policies: I made (and make) the policies that others implement. What you appear to describe is a very narrowed and specialized part of what I (thankfully) get to do now: sysadmin used to encompass all the communications and computer infrastructure of an organization, company, or government.

To do otherwise is to be forced to accept someone else's will, and I'm unable to do that.

It's interesting that you imply that I haven't exited the "larval" geek stage. That's an interesting analogy to a popular hacker myth but of course, in the end, a baseless assumption. :-)

At any rate, good luck in your job, I hope someday you find daily humour in your work.

[ Parent ]

Hmmm (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by dmcnaught on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:32:19 PM EST

I just said system admin and something about the power of the systems and of the influence I'd have over them. Remember that I was in the midst of highschool at the time, so of course my portrayal would be inaccurate--that's kind of the point of the article.

I got the impression you were bemoaning being misunderstood.

And your description of what a sysadmin does sounds opposite to what I had wanted to (and now get to) do: System planning, design, andbuilding, plus network planning, design, and building. I do not implement someone else's policies: I made (and make) the policies that others implement. What you appear to describe is a very narrowed and specialized part of what I (thankfully) get to do now: sysadmin used to encompass all the communications and computer infrastructure of an organization, company, or government.

Of course you're implementing someone else's policies. "Our policy is to make money (or provide government services or whatever) using computers. Your job is to make that happen and keep it all running." Being able to do design work and make your own policies in pursuit of the organization's goals means you're senior and good at your job--not a bad place to be. But you don't pay for the machines and (except in rare cases) it's not your ultimate call what they get used for.

My reaction was to your expressed high-school attitude, not to your reasoned adult approach. :)

It's interesting that you imply that I haven't exited the "larval" geek stage. That's an interesting analogy to a popular hacker myth but of course, in the end, a baseless assumption. :-)

Actually, my implication, if any, was that you hadn't, not that you haven't.

At any rate, good luck in your job, I hope someday you find daily humour in your work.

Loads and loads, every day. Funny that you think I don't.

[ Parent ]

No worries.. :-) (none / 0) (#42)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:48:07 PM EST

No worries dude--wasn't bemoaning being misunderstoof. Just thought I'd open up a little on Kuro5hin and see what happens.

If anything, I was trying to learn from being misunderstood by good ol' Jane.

And in this case, the company is mine: it's all my policy, and all my money I'm spending on the machinery and network.

For the larval bit--yes, then you're absolutely right. Actually at that time I hadn't even begun to learn what really was what and what wasn't.

[ Parent ]

Ahhh (5.00 / 1) (#104)
by dmcnaught on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 07:43:02 PM EST

And in this case, the company is mine: it's all my policy, and all my money I'm spending on the machinery and network.

Lucky you--that's a fine thing. I did it for a while (small consulting company with a couple friends) but we went under. :(

Now I'm back working for the Man again. Luckily the Man in this case happens to be a great guy and I'm having a good time.

[ Parent ]

Implementing policy? (5.00 / 5) (#32)
by porkchop_d_clown on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:37:19 PM EST

Perhaps these days that's all it is but last time I worked as an admin (10-12 years ago) I made policy as I thought of it. I had no choice - problems arose, they had to be solved and I was the only one who knew how to solve them. There was no team, and management viewed computers as magic boxes - they didn't know or want to know what the issues were in making them work.

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

Exactly (3.50 / 2) (#47)
by DranoK 420 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:04:06 AM EST

However, usually I am the one making policy. The thing is, if you make a disruptive policy you need to find a way to still support your users.

The author of this article has a wretched idea of systems administration.... Immature is a great way to put it.


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

[ Parent ]
Ha ha.. it's amazing.. (2.75 / 4) (#89)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:46:10 PM EST

..how many people jump out of the woodwork to pass judgement on what was the perspective of a 14 or 15 yr-old kid.

Do you think a 14 or 15-yr-old could've written this article? Or perhaps you think that I apply my personal ambitions directly to my ethics as a system admin?

Calm down a little--I don't grep peoples' email, and I don't bump them off dialup pools.


(sheesh, that was a joke)

[ Parent ]

Give it up... (5.00 / 1) (#91)
by Kintanon on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:32:32 PM EST

You've spent more time defending yourself from people who have absolutely ZERO reading comprehension skills than anything else with this article. My advice is to just ignore them.
I could understand if there were one or two people who somehow didn't make the connection, but 6 or 7? Just rediculous! Don't these people know how to read?!


[ Parent ]

It's my first front page.. (3.00 / 2) (#95)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 03:26:35 PM EST

... and I should really be following your advice, but I'm not that good at ignoring people yet. :-)

[ Parent ]
Clarity again (4.50 / 2) (#105)
by dmcnaught on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 07:47:47 PM EST

I think it does indicate that the point could have been made more clearly. Reading back over the article, there's nothing really bad I can put my finger on; the English is descriptive and thoughtful. I think the article is just a little too long and kinda rambles a bit, so people tuned out before the end. The longer you write, the clearer you have to be.

My $0.02, anyway. I've enjoyed the article and the discussion.

[ Parent ]

umm (3.87 / 16) (#12)
by omegadan on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:01:11 PM EST

I dont know how this story made the front page, but ...

I've was a unix admin for 3 years, and presumably will be again when the economy picks up ...

You've got about the worst attitude I've ever heard. Your job as a system admin is to enable other people to work by providing an environment that is efficent and secure.

Your job is like a doctor, priest, or a lawyer, and you should take the trust of the people you look after that seriously. If you *have* to violate a persons privacy, you should as discreetly as possible.

One of the worst situations I was ever in as an admin was having to read about 600 pieces of corespondance of a former employee. The employee had left us in a bind by giving no notice she was quitting and moving to the philipines. I felt genuinely bad after having to read her e-mail, if I could identify a piece of e-mail as personal I would move to the next piece, but you can't stop from seeing things ... horrible things, huge secrets no one knew, for some reason living in her mail spool.

If your romantic ideal of being a sysadmin is playing pranks on people, and reading their mail, may I suggest that you are the equivalent of a bad cop, and deserve about as much respect as one. I think you need to seriously reconsider your line of work.

Religion is a gateway psychosis. - Dave Foley

.. well perhaps because it wasn't... (4.25 / 4) (#20)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:45:55 PM EST

... a story about what I actually do as a system admin and was instead a piece designed to appeal to the more non-technical audience: a piece designed to suggest personal growth. Apparently someone liked it or it wouldn't have been voted to the front page.

If you want an accurate portrayal of what I do, it'd be a damn boring piece to everyone but you and me.

Disconnecting users and grepping mail spools is *not* what I do now. Once upon a time, back in the stone ages, sure it was fun for a laugh. However, I'm older than 15 now, and am professionally employed. Try to relax a little.

I do take the people I look after seriously, and I'm shocked you think otherwise.

Finally, a cop enforces the law: Your analogy to a "bad cop" is laughable and of course inaccurate. Perhaps I'll give you an opportunity to realize what I'm saying in this note and not continue to goad you into an argument about me and my attitude.

Instead, I'll pose a few questions: What was it about the article that seemed to insult you to the point where you decided to pass judgement on my current character? What was it that you somehow miscontrued to mean I'm currently a horrible evil prankster who has nothing better to do than log into a portmaster and kick random people off?

Did you never--not even once--do anything prankster-ish when you were younger? Paint grafitti? Throw toilet paper over a house? Soap up someones car? Shoot fireworks off where you weren't supposed to? Did you get into no trouble whatsoever when you were younger?

Now, with that in mind--have you learned nothing from those experiences?

[ Parent ]

Clarity (4.00 / 2) (#31)
by dmcnaught on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:37:15 PM EST

Instead, I'll pose a few questions: What was it about the article that seemed to insult you to the point where you decided to pass judgement on my current character? What was it that you somehow miscontrued to mean I'm currently a horrible evil prankster who has nothing better to do than log into a portmaster and kick random people off?

I think the problem is that you didn't make your point very clearly. There isn't much of a central thesis in your article (or it isn't well expressed) so people tend to respond to the first thing that grabs them emotionally.

[ Parent ]

Thesis (5.00 / 1) (#33)
by mberteig on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:44:37 PM EST

The thesis is incredibly clear: learn from life. The fact that the thesis and its "proof" are presented as a story in no way detracts from it. In fact, it means that for most people it will be much more memorable and will be learned at both a conscious and a sub-conscious level.

I was a totally strait kid up to my early twenties. Then I had about a year of going crazy. I did things that even now I can barely believe. After I snapped out if it, I realized how incredibly arrogant and naive I had been before those experiences. So I learned from life. In this article, the learning comes in a much better way: by the challenge of questions instead of the challenge of mistakes. Lucky!

Agile Advice - How and Why to Work Agile
[ Parent ]
Good judgement comes from mistakes.... (5.00 / 1) (#36)
by nanobug on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:06:57 PM EST

and most mistakes come from bad judgement.

[ Parent ]
About Mistakes... (5.00 / 2) (#94)
by mberteig on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:54:38 PM EST

I only partially agree that good judgement comes from mistakes...

The ideal method of developing good judgement is through education. But in our wester culture we have turned education into a purely academic exercise. Even so, there are some obvious examples where developing good judgement by making mistakes is essentially unacceptable: any person who has the responsibility of others' lives in their hands cannot afford to make mistakes. Instead, those people tend to go through extremely rigourous training programs in order to, as much as possible, eliminate any potential for mistakes. Why can't that apply to judgement in general? I think it can.

Making mistakes also has its down side: mistakes can often hurt other people, mistakes can also damage one's own development. I'm sure you can think of a multitude of examples of both sorts of consequences.

Finally, it is quite a wonder that we trust politicians with literally millions of lives - where is their training? How can we possibly accept mistakes on their part? Alas, I fear that it is only because we are all completely ignorant about how to run societies - there is noone to train the politicians.

Agile Advice - How and Why to Work Agile
[ Parent ]
I suppose I should've eased up on ambiguity. :-) (none / 0) (#37)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:15:05 PM EST

I'll try to be clearer next time. Promise. :-)

[ Parent ]
No, I've never done the things you describe (4.77 / 9) (#13)
by synik on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:04:04 PM EST

And tell me--if you're a System Administrator--can you honestly sit there and tell me you've never grepped for "fuck" or "purity test" in a mail spool directory? Have you never watched someone log in and just bumped them off your dialup pool--because you could? Have you never--even once--played an anonymous prank on one of your users when you knew you could get away with it and no one would know?

Any behaviour such as that would be unprofessional.

I work as part of a systems administration team. Any and all interaction with machines is logged, and leaves a trail. Screwing around with users would just be a stupid way to risk my job.

I'd rather have users that forget that I'm here, working away in the background. I don't want users that have to worry about whether I'm snooping on them, or wasting their valuable time with pranks.

I'm afraid I couldn't work like that.. (4.66 / 6) (#21)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:52:48 PM EST

Of course, I suppose I have the luxury of thinking that. Are you honestly saying every single command ever typed into the machines is logged and stored somewhere permanent? That each of you watches each other like a hawk for any hint of impropriety?

Everyone needs a little glory in their job. If your whole userbase shouldn't know you exist, you become just that much more replaceable, and that much more forgettable by your teammates, and your employer. It seems to me that the old days where a job meant security for decades and was treated as such is being thrown away in favour of the ultimately replaceable worker-zombie with generic skills.

I prefer to foster a sense of community without sacrificing professional conduct and an instantaneous response time when trouble crops up.

But geez--how do you deal with someone who kill -9's their own shell? Sounds like you're part of a team paranoid enough to assume a security compromise and fire that admin. Doesn't feel right to me. I doubt that a nonconformist such as myself would enjoy my job there, and you really make it sound like your workplace is a joyless atmosphere--so, my condolences.

[ Parent ]

I can't work like this either (4.00 / 1) (#142)
by synik on Mon Jan 13, 2003 at 01:02:43 AM EST

The job is boring me to tears, and my skillset isn't being utilised. My contract finishes in 5 weeks, and I'm free :>

As for what you were saying, no we don't watch each other like hawks, but we do have a system in place to ensure that a sysadmin run amok can be caught.

I do have a little glory in my job...sometimes the boss will tell the division that the servers I maintain are all working well. That's all the glory I need.

[ Parent ]

I put it to you (4.33 / 3) (#26)
by Fuzzwah on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:13:13 PM EST

That if you've never been in a position where you could do the things you've quoted, then you're only a minion rather than a system-god.

Don't get me wrong here, I've never done those things either; but I have been in a position where I could have. I had the knowledge which would allow me to do it and get away with it. I figure this entire discussion reminds me greatly of the inner virtues of martial arts; with power comes responsibility, you may know how to kill someone but you also must know why you shouldn't and can't.

The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris
[ Parent ]

I'm first to admit I'm not a sysadmin god.. (4.00 / 2) (#38)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:19:30 PM EST

.. I hadn't realized I implied that. The Crom impression was that of a 15-yr-old with ambitious leanings towards sysadmin godhood. :-)


[ Parent ]

Unprofessional maybe, but it is fun (4.00 / 2) (#39)
by tzanger on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:31:43 PM EST

Hooking up the phone system and the computer system so that you could click on a contact and have your phone ring when the system's picked a line and dialled the connection. To test it I dialled the local pizzeria and transferred the call to the general manager. A minute of confusion, some laughs and a congrats -- the system works.

Unprofessional? Sure. But christ man, we're not stiffs, either. Good clean fun has its place in any career.

[ Parent ]
Some people can never take a joke (3.00 / 2) (#53)
by xL on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 02:52:22 AM EST

For the previous place I worked at, I rigged the POP3 server to mirror all the email on April 1st. At 9am. "popicuc" went live. We instructed the helldesk to refer people to a different port for the normal mail. It generated quite a few laughs, but one customer was really really upset for some reason. It was not really a big problem, but it shows that some people just can't take a joke.

I think that one customer somehow got it into his head that the action had somehow touched his email, not just the transport.

[ Parent ]

I can see why. (4.00 / 2) (#67)
by Alarmist on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:44:44 AM EST

Your joke was unprofessional at the very least. While a lot of people got the joke (or didn't care), you happened to trod on someone's toes and upset them.

Not everyone has the same level of technical knowledge that you do. It's on a par with a priest telling someone that the proper way to confess their sins is to do so while standing with one foot in a bucket of water and juggling mice: the person confessing might not get the joke, and might not accept the humiliation lightly.

Pranks in your personal life are one thing. Pranks on a professional level when they can affect co-workers or customers is something entirely different.

[ Parent ]

Ugh. (4.00 / 2) (#70)
by JKew on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:54:54 AM EST

I would be hacked off too if I'd been forced to call a helpdesk and reconfigure my email program simply to work around someone's weak April Fool. A joke for you, an interruption and lost working time to your users.

[ Parent ]
I probably wouldn't pull something like that again (5.00 / 1) (#80)
by xL on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:41:40 AM EST

But it fit neatly into the culture we had at that time with our customers, plus if I recall correctly it was on a sunday, so the only people affected were the hobbyists that could take such a joke better than most.

[ Parent ]
You have to have a sense of ha-ha. (5.00 / 1) (#101)
by Dr Caleb on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 05:45:47 PM EST

I have no problem with harmless pranks. I enjoy them too.

My favorite to do to a non-technical person is relatively harmless. I wait for the system to notify me that their printer has run out of paper. Then I print a little note I have pre-done. In random fonts, with random sizes it says: "We have hacked your computer and stolen all your data. We want a ransom of one million helicopters and a dollar. We will contact you later with more details."

Sometimes the printer is in another time zone, and I never do it more than once per user. It's harmless, and gives me a laugh. I've also never got a call on it, and I'm the only Admin.

Vive Le Canada - For Canadians who give a shit about their country.

There is no K5 cabal.
[ Parent ]

So... (none / 0) (#137)
by Tau on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 04:16:00 PM EST

...how exactly do you print to a printer that's out of paper?

One million helicopters and a dollar... heheheh, I'll remember that one.

[ Parent ]

explaining a joke (none / 0) (#140)
by Fuzzwah on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 09:53:16 PM EST

The job is spooled and waits in the queue until someone puts more paper in the printer. Then as they are still standing there patting themselves on the back and thinking that all this computer stuff is pretty simple (mainly because it's taken them 30 minutes to work out why the printer wasn't working before realising that it was just out of paper), said print job comes out and scares the poo out of them.

The best a human can do is to pick a delusion that helps him get through the day. - God's Debris
[ Parent ]

Anonymous prank (5.00 / 1) (#117)
by pyro9 on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 12:57:37 PM EST

IMHO, mild pranks on other admins or technical staff MAY be O.K. I have played such pranks, but freely claimed responsability (specifically, adding xsnow to the .xinitrc of an admin one fine December morning). A good rule there is if you wouldn't happily claim responsability, it's probably a bad idea.

On the other hand, pranking non technical users, or pranks that will result in loss of time or productivity are far out of professional bounds. Snooping user email or data just for jollies is not only unprofessional but unethical IMHO. Going through someone's mailspool should feel mildly creepy even when the user requested it (e.g. "someone sent me a HUGE attachment that's going to take hours to download, can you delete it for me?")

The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
Re: Proper sysadmin behaviour (none / 0) (#125)
by K speedfreak on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 07:15:47 PM EST

I couldn't agree with synic any more.I work for a small start-up company where I am responsible for keeping systems running beside my primary job description. The sysadmin is there to implement the policies set by management and nothing more If I read users' mail etc., I wouldnt't be worthy of the trust users place in me. The users have been made aware of compacy policy and what will follow from not complying to it. I am not the police, a benign dictator, or anything like that. Normally, a sysadmin should only keep the company's systems running as intended, but if some indiscretions are detected, the sysadmin should, with management approval, have the right to find out who's responsible.
Brain fried - Core dumped
[ Parent ]
Calm down... (none / 0) (#130)
by sudog on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 02:39:24 AM EST

... the last time I grepped a mail spool was when I was in highschool. That was *gasp* coincidentally the same period of time when the experiences described in this article happened.

Stop your holier-than-thou pontificating: I never once described what I would do as an adult. Read the article again.

[ Parent ]

SysAdmin mentality (3.71 / 7) (#15)
by smallstepforman on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:23:59 PM EST

You young whipper-snipper sysadmins think you control the world - the be-all, end-all of computer systems, the deity of computing power, will all the keys and access to all the locks... 31334 h4X0p5 etc, masters of Zen and Chi etc...sandle wairing, long haired GNU hippies...

Listen buddy, speaking as a kernel engineer, master of C/C++ and embedded systems, conqueror of IRQ routines and device drivers, let me tell you a thing or two about who **really** controls the box you work on. Who do you think created the tools you use, the protocols you communicate with, who do you think made possible that keypress's are dispatches to appropriate programs? I'll tell you who, software engineers.

Going even lower than that, who do you think designed the IC's and fabricated the chips we all rely on.  Who is master of the NPN junction, the CMOS creators, the ECL gurus?  How about we go even lower than that - who creates silicon from sand, who blasts a mountain looking for copper, aluminuim and other precious metals used in these devices?
<end sarcasm>

Why do sys-admins suffer from a god-like syndrome?  I've never been able to figure that out.

Hrm.. (none / 0) (#23)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:58:41 PM EST

I'm not quite sure what the intent of those sarcasm tags was..

But for the love of pete--I was a kid! What did you expect? Perfect, mature behaviour? Have you no memories of when you were younger and yearned for power? Have you forgotten your own sense of ambition? Of your goals and determination to rule your own destiny?

I'm surprised again that someone'd think I indulge in such silliness now that I'm professionally employed and enjoy my work and my job (and salary!)

Are you a kernel engineer? A master of c/c++?

What are you trying to say? That a story about self-realization in my youth is somehow an exact parallel of my professional ethics and behaviour?

..  well, I'd like to set the record straight--it's not. I swear! :-)

[ Parent ]

Who... (5.00 / 3) (#41)
by skyknight on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:45:47 PM EST

grows your food for you so you can have the opportunity to specialize, and devote significant portions of your life to posting on blogs?

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Old fart. (5.00 / 1) (#102)
by Dr Caleb on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 05:48:03 PM EST

Man, you are old if you worked with ECL. *Shudders*

Vive Le Canada - For Canadians who give a shit about their country.

There is no K5 cabal.
[ Parent ]

because that's what they hire you to do? (3.42 / 7) (#17)
by autopr0n on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:39:39 PM EST

Seriously though, who on earth would hire anyone to do that?

It's always irritating to see sys-admins think they can set policy just because they know the root password.

If you haven't been given policy authority in an organization, you don't have it.

[autopr0n] got pr0n?
autopr0n.com is a categorically searchable database of porn links, updated every day (or so). no popups!
nonsense (5.00 / 5) (#22)
by treat on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:57:22 PM EST

If you haven't been given policy authority in an organization, you don't have it.

Nonsense. In most organizations, the sysadmin must take it upon himself to make relevant policy. If the management refuses to make policy when told it is necessary, but the sysadmin can implement policy and force it to be obeyed, the sysadmin IS making policy. That is simply how the real world works.

[ Parent ]

Democrazy (4.00 / 4) (#18)
by nanook on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:41:41 PM EST

As the whole western intelligentia are indoctrinated from very early childhood that democracy is the One True Way of doing practically everything, Jane's questions are easily explainable.
It seemed self-evident to me that a System Administrator, like a benign dictator or some kind of appointed King, should have the power to block connectivity, keep out intruders, shape the system as he sees fit, and generally have free run.
Yes! It is self evident! And quite un-democratic too! How to explain this to the fundamentalists? (The "It may work, but it's wrong in principle"-people). You can't I'm afraid, and so this whole discussion is redundant.

The self evident conclusion: In every situation the best suited for the action at hand should be the most powerful. This applies not only to system administration. Nature seems to favour opportunism and realpolitik, but in reality sees to that "the meek shall inherit the earth".

"I am a charlatan, a liar, a thief and a fake altogether." -- James Randi

Explaining... (4.00 / 1) (#52)
by NFW on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 02:49:38 AM EST

How to explain this to the fundamentalists?

Good responses, depending on circumstances, might include:

1) "Because an un-administered system is not democratic, it's anarchic. That works great with small numbers of trusted and wise individuals, but the first pinhead to come along with a 'rm -rf /' will spoil it for everyone else."

2) "You lock your front door to protect your material posessions. I maintain the locks that protect your data."

3) "Ooh! You're so right! And for that matter, why not do away with the executives and corporate officers, and let all of the workers vote democratically on the decisions those authoritarians used to make?"

4)"Because even the finest democracies need legislators and police. I don't force policies upon users, I enforce policies set people higher in the org chart (see previous response), and advise my superiors on policy changes." (Don't mention the fact that your higher-ups mostly just say stuff like, "make sure everyone can get their work done" and let you take it from there.)

Got birds?

[ Parent ]

Wow, serious issues (4.62 / 8) (#19)
by coljac on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 08:43:28 PM EST

I was a little disturbed by this article. Grepping the mail directory is dodgy enough (and then reading the interesting mails?), but the whole relish for God-like power over the users struck me as really unhealthy. If you feel such a need to wield control and superiority over other human beings, you probably shouldn't be in a position as to wield such power.

I have not a few people working for me, and the thought of using my power over them just "because I'm God" or because I'm bored is abhorrent. What would be next, asking a female employee for a backrub?

As a sysadmin, this attitude seems kind of amusing and harmless - hence the article, I suppose - but it's lucky you're not a cop or, heaven forbid, a Catholic priest. :)

Luckily all of the syadmins I've worked with have been perfect professionals, so gentlemen, I salue you and your healthy psyches.


Whether or not life is discovered there I think Jupiter should be declared an enemy planet. - Jack Handey

Okay, last time. (4.50 / 4) (#24)
by sudog on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 09:11:06 PM EST

I was a kid. The ambition of a kid is not necessarily rooted in the Real World, and nor should it be judged by an adult measure.

Besides, it's not the power over the people themselves, but the machines and the network--that's the power that was the most attractive to me. The people were mostly incidental. Now, of course, my motivation is otherwise entirely. Now I have one simple goal: financial independence.

But, see, then, as now, it was the creation of something that tens of thousands of people would usee and love and it was the building of a system where a community could develop, that really excited me.

Did the mention of endless creation for the sake of creation not make sense? (The program typing-in.)

And a cop, a lawyer, and a doctor have to worry far more about ethics than I ever will. Lives are not directly placed in my care. Heck, even a lifeguard on a beach has more worries than I do or will.

[ Parent ]

True (5.00 / 4) (#25)
by coljac on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 09:43:15 PM EST

Your second point is quite valid... wielding power over machines, now that is healthy. :)

You are right about the doctors & lawyers, but that kind of dodges the point that we all have to behave ethically in our jobs and lives. Sure you probably won't cost anyone their life, but are ethics unimportant when lives aren't at stake?

Anyway, the article was interesting and thought-provoking, and well written, so thanks for the contribution.

Fascist. :)


Whether or not life is discovered there I think Jupiter should be declared an enemy planet. - Jack Handey
[ Parent ]

sysadmins setting policy (5.00 / 2) (#59)
by orlyandico on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 07:30:27 AM EST

now here's a good one. at some point in my career as a sysadmin, we (the team) collectively decided that having antivirus filtering was a Good Thing. so we went ahead and implemented it, with management's blessing of course. then something happened which made me feel guilty. there was this one customer who all of a sudden couldn't send his Excel files. because they all had some macro virus. "great! the system works!" you might think. the problem is, this guy was sending his company's PAYROLL to their branches. in Excel format. and now he couldn't. and so a bunch of people couldn't draw their salaries because of that. and he wanted to know "how come this doesn't work anymore, when it used to?!!" so in spite of the best intentions, i felt somewhat guilty about that for a while..

[ Parent ]
Say What?!? (5.00 / 1) (#90)
by virg on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:31:53 PM EST

> i felt somewhat guilty about that for a while..

Why in the world would you feel guilty about that? It's not rational that you should blame yourself because the person in question was transmitting hazardous data (it's irrelevant what data was infected), could not extract the important data from the poisoned data and couldn't send the data at all without his PC. Would nobody get paid if his PC crashed? This customer is entirely at fault for not having a backup plan in place for transmitting such sensitive (and time sensitive) data. You are not.

"Imagine (it won't be hard) that most people would prefer seeing Carrot Top beaten to death with a bag of walnuts." - Jmzero
[ Parent ]
You're not alone. (5.00 / 4) (#29)
by porkchop_d_clown on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:32:17 PM EST

There's a reason programmers like to use terms derived from wizards, magic and demonology - programming is the closest thing to real magic we can experience, and the feeling you get when everything works is like an intellectual orgasm.

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

The programmer's epiphany (5.00 / 2) (#61)
by phony on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 08:34:52 AM EST

That's an interesting and poetic way to put it (programming, that is). The intellectual orgasm is the only reason I keep banging on computers (and probably other folks too), the actual word for it is "epiphany" - A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something. It's a great feeling huh :-)

[ Parent ]
Nah. The "epiphany" comes (5.00 / 1) (#68)
by porkchop_d_clown on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:48:34 AM EST

When you realize you can get paid for what you were doing for fun!

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

The second epiphany comes (5.00 / 1) (#106)
by felixrayman on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:15:57 PM EST

when you realize getting paid for something has taken all the fun out of something you used to love...

Call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home. Tell him to come spend a night in our building. - Pfc. Matthew C. O'Dell

[ Parent ]
Oh, man! (5.00 / 2) (#107)
by porkchop_d_clown on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:36:17 PM EST

I didn't realize you worked in my office!

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

I worked for a company that fired a sysadmin (5.00 / 2) (#27)
by porkchop_d_clown on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:29:54 PM EST

for reading other people's e-mails. The big problem was he couldn't keep his mouth shut about what he learned. Stupid.

Wouldn't it be a victory for the oppressed people of Iraq, of North Korea, of Iran, if their police-state regimes were overthrown? Even by a cowbo
[ Parent ]

Organizational Models (4.50 / 2) (#28)
by CaptainSuperBoy on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 10:30:11 PM EST

This was an engrossing article. One point we should remember is that there are many organizational models, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to competent system administration. There is certainly a place for the benevolent dictator as sysadmin, just as there is a place for the dutiful subservient admin. Your model of administration has to fit with the size, purpose, and philosophy of your organization - and this doesn't just apply to system and network administration, it applies to the entire technology strategy. For most uses, computers are just tools and the proper approach is to protect your investment by maximizing efficiency and reducing cost. Many of my clients fit in here, using three basic tools - accounting software, custom frontoffice systems (this is where I get paid), and office suites. The best approach here is to lock everything down and treat your users like idiots.

Supporting R&D and engineering is a much different task. Frequently those users need much more control over systems, and there's a guarantee of animosity between power users and BOFHs. Ridiculous or incompetent policies end up making more work for everyone because they have to tiptoe around the sysadmin. Decisions that are made in order to make the admin's job easier end up making everyone else's job harder. This kind of situation indicates a lack of understanding by the admin's management. Clearly IT managers should be aware of how their staff is affecting the enterprise - you know, the part that actually makes money.

The key decision here is applying the right model to your situation. My company supports a lot of small to medium-sized businesses who have decided the best way is to outsource their administration, and I'm being honest when I say this is often the best approach. I've seen too many in-house IT guys with egos way out of proportion with their skills, and they usually end up going down the BOFH path.

jimmysquid.com - I take pictures.

Ah, the power mad sysadmin (5.00 / 1) (#77)
by Karmakaze on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:24:51 AM EST

Decisions that are made in order to make the admin's job easier end up making everyone else's job harder.

One of the more frustrating quotes I got from a sysadmin was "Don't tell me what you need to do your job!" He thought he not only knew the network better than we did (indisputably true) but he knew our jobs better than we did (not at all true).

The end result was that every time our research firms sent us data, I had to put it on disk, walk down two flights to Marketing, beg someone to borrow their PC, save files down to an earlier version (the research firms couldn't seem to remember that we were two versions behind them and took days to respond to requests for new copies) and then go back upstairs to work on them. I always wondered what Marketing thought was going on.

[ Parent ]
For the record. (4.37 / 8) (#35)
by Apuleius on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:04:59 PM EST

I have sysadminned. I have never, however, grepped the mailspool for anything, I have never tapped outgoing port 80s for anything, and I have never booted users without cause. That Would Be Wrong (TM). With Clue comes Power. And with Power comes Resonsibility. And if you want to know your responsibilities, read the ethics chapter of the Unix Systems Administration Handbook by Nemeth, Snyder, et al. Remember, if you misbehave as an admin, a record of your misbehavior may wind up on the Web, courtesy of your former employer, and you may find it necessary to change professions.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
Ethical? (none / 0) (#143)
by gruk on Mon Jan 13, 2003 at 08:59:02 AM EST

I have grepped mail spools. However, when doing so, I was trying to pin down why it seemed that mail was being silently dropped. I could see the mail being accepted in the logs. I could see teh mailer claiming to have delivered the mail. However, I could not spot the mail in the spool file where it was supposed to be.

So, one script to send mail every 15 seconds or so (after having talked to the userc laiming lost mail) and one script to grep for a cookie in the spool file. If I recall correctly, the user had managed to set up POP collection from two machines and forgotten about one.

Reading mail? Hell, even reading my own email takes up too much time, if I tried to read the mail of anyone else, I wouldn't have time to eat and sleep.

[ Parent ]

Indeed. (4.22 / 9) (#40)
by moho on Thu Jan 09, 2003 at 11:45:22 PM EST

And tell me--if you're a mail sorter--can you honestly sit there and tell me you've never pried open someone's packages or letters, looking for dirty photos and correspondence for your own amusement? As a police officer, have you never pulled someone over in their vehicle, searched and detained them--not because they'd done anything wrong, but just because you could? As a utility employee, have you never--even once--anonymously disconnected a customers gas or electricity for a prank, knowing that you could get away with it?

Whats power if you can't have a little fun with it at other people's expense, right?

Seriously though, people with this sort of attitude should be psychologically screened or something before they're given jobs which give them power over other people, and especially if they can use their power anonymously (as the power-tripping sysadmin does). If you can't be given sysadmin power without feeling the need to abuse it by violating other people's privacy or anonymously harassing and picking on your users, you have serious problems. The only thing worse than this is actively seeking this power, which apparently you do. Anyway, the childishness of this attitude is pretty disturbing.

My old post office... (none / 0) (#43)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:07:08 AM EST

...used to open up my magazines all the time and read them. I knew because I had specifically ordered comics and magazines that were wrapped in cardboard and plastic--yet they'd arrive opened and crinkled.

Used to bug the hell out of me.

A sealed envelope might have a more appropriate analogy than a simple text file sitting on a hard drive, where the act of reading it would go completely undetected and not impede normal mail delivery in any way whatsoever.

A police officer enforces the laws and protects the lives of the citizens of the city, province, state, or country. Searching and detaining someone is dicking around with their personal, physical freedom.

A utility employee shutting off the power to someones house has a high likelihood of putting that person in danger--either by shutting the lights off, or removing that person's ability to keep themselves warm in winter (for example.)

I think your analogies need a little work. :-)

At any rate, the perspective of a youth is far different from that of an adult. I'd like to state for the record that I am no longer a youth, and that you should harken back to when you were also (you were a youth at one point weren't you?) and consider how you used to view the world and experience your own ambitions.

[ Parent ]

wow you get it (3.25 / 4) (#44)
by turmeric on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:23:31 AM EST

i thought of this back in the day. i mean DOS is all about this. every screwball wingnut computer genius in 1980 was saying how stupid PCs are and making fun of them, right on up to 1999 when i last heard 'pee cee' used derogatorily. and yet, pcs are the thing. pcs are the shit. pcs are the best, and always will be, just like timeshare was better than handing your punchcards to a 'professional sysadmin' who would put them in the card reader and hand you the output thru a hole in the wall.

just like fortran is better than machine code because ordinary engineering people have a chance of using fortran.

just like all elitists dont want to lose their jobs when something new comes along (even though they shoved plenty of people out of the way to get their job in the first place)

but really a democracy actually creates a huge need for administrators, so tthey shouldnt be afraid of anything.

Let me guess... (3.77 / 9) (#45)
by DranoK 420 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:53:22 AM EST

You're one of the people who's complaining about the tech downturn? You know in the interview room when people kinda silently sit there, listening to you stammer out answers while they seem bored and un-interested? It's cause they are. Having the responsibility of higher new admins, I have the misfortune of doing the interviews. Let me tell you, there are very few gems.

First you get rid of all the damned resumes who's authors can't even be bothered to spell correctly, then dump the ones which list absolutely no relevant experience or education. This is far more than 75% of resumes it seems. THEN to the interview. The first five questions I ask are innocent "hey I'm interested in XYZ and I see you list it on your resume, what can you tell me about it?" where XYZ is some random acronym the applicant placed on his resume. Guess how many just wrote down random skills? *sigh*

But I ramble. Here I am trying to explain why you are un-qualified to be an admin and I go off on a rant about the swarm of unqualified applicants.

"Totalitarian Systems Administrator" -- wow, do you really fancy yourself as that? Why? Have you ever been the admin of a network with more systems than you have digits on your hands? Do you somehow think admins spend all day monitoring users, telling them what they can and can't do, sniffing traffic and ever on the lookout for intrusions? Blech.

Here is how I spend my day normally, in order of most time spent to least time spent.

1) Planning for and deploying new projects 2) Writing scripts to simplify future management of systems and speed maintenence/modifications. I'm not sure about you, but I don't like logging into 80 different systems to fix a stale NFS error. It is my firm belief than any administrative task which needs to be performed more than once should be done with a documented script. 3) Upgrading/migrating legacy systems into current design philosophy, and to obtain new functionality required by developers, or to fix security issues. 4) Researching future purchases from various vendors, renewing support contracts. 5) Responding to user requests

Having said this, I find it unbelievable you were at a loss of words to answer this woman. "Why can't system and network decisions be more democratic?" You seem to believe the only thing admins do is restrict users and impose silly policies.

What you seem to overlook is the primary purpose of a system's administrator is to administrate your organization's systems. Duh. Would you like to be involved in the sale's pitch to potential clients? Would you even be allowed to? What the hell makes you think your coworkers would enjoy helping you design an expansion to your corporate network, or help you impliment a new backup proceedure? They don't. That's the whole reason they hired you. Your job is to make the network and servers available to your clients much like the power company makes power available. Nobody but you should have to think about your job.

Yes this means restricting user access and telling them what they should not do, same as power companies tell you not to place your dick into an outlet. You don't tell developers you won't allow ftp access to machine XYZ because you say so and then leave. Your job is to accomidate developers -- not hinder them -- so if your security policy doesn't allow for ftp access to a system, you need to find a solution some other way. Very rarely do you need to tell a user "no, this is not possible" Remember -- your company won't make money by maintaining a secure environment.

Further, when a disk fails on a RAID array, nobody needs to partake in some kind of discussion about what to do. It's your bloody job to determine what to do and do it.

I love my job. I like the satisfaction of maintaing a well-oiled production environment which is secure. I like UNIX. Hell, I like scripting. And yes -- you are in a very trusted position. That doesn't mean you have some kind of godly power. And no, knowing how to use UNIX doesn't make you special, just like knowing how to be an accountant doesn't make you special. It just means you are capable of doing your job.

From all indications, you abused this position of trust, and your attitude is woefully unacceptable. *sigh*


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

Mistake (3.00 / 1) (#46)
by DranoK 420 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:58:05 AM EST

D'oh, before someone flames me for this:

Remember -- your company won't make money by maintaining a secure environment.

Should read:

Remember -- your company won't make money by ONLY maintaining a secure environment.

IN other words, if you don't let your developers develop, you'll soon be bankrupt.


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

[ Parent ]
MistakeS (5.00 / 3) (#64)
by synaesthesia on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:11:57 AM EST

I'm not the flaming sort, so I'll just gently point out the irony:

First you get rid of all the damned resumes who's authors can't even be bothered to spell correctly

Thanks for playing!

Sausages or cheese?
[ Parent ]

Minor difference (2.00 / 2) (#109)
by DranoK 420 on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 12:55:22 AM EST

What? Was this a resume or something?

There's a fucking HUGE difference in spell-checking emails and silly posts to a silly site versus a document which will potentially land you a job.

Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

[ Parent ]
You've either got it or you haven't (5.00 / 2) (#115)
by synaesthesia on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 10:33:57 AM EST

Personally, I find it very easy not to make spelling mistakes: incorrect spelling just jumps out of the page at me. Some people need to think for a second or two which is their left hand and which is their right, which is equally as alien to me.

So if I were employing someone for a job and they needed to produce material with correct spelling, I would hire someone like myself, who'll do the job more efficiently than someone who needs a spellchecker. But for a sysadmin? Hire them on their technical merits.

Sausages or cheese?
[ Parent ]

Scripting (5.00 / 1) (#71)
by nic0 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:59:54 AM EST

Scripts are wonderful beasts, but I wouldn't necessarily write one just to avoid doing the task a second time. Mentally, the equation for me is if the amount of time to write the script is less than the amount of time I will likely have to use in order to perform the task in the future, then I will write a script. The task might need performing 2 or 3 or 10 times in the future, but if it is an easy or short task it might not warrant a script. (Some of the things I do at year-end for example).

To say you write a script to avoid doing anything twice might end up being a costly error in terms of your own time (but certainly not in experience of script writing!)


[ Parent ]

Well... (3.00 / 1) (#110)
by DranoK 420 on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 12:57:36 AM EST

The nice thing about scripts is they tend to auto-document the network. It's much easier to give a junior admin a list of scripts you've written over the years to accomplish his tasks, and they make knowledge transfer easier.

Obviously I don't write scripts for everything I do. I don't even write scripts for everything I *want* to write scripts for. I said I firmly believed I should :) It would make things easier.

But you're right -- time constraints rarely allow you to write scripts for every small thing.


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

[ Parent ]
Okay, you've trolled me out.. (3.50 / 2) (#88)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:39:08 PM EST

..but I have a job. I make a regular salary. I have been professionally employed since I got out of University. I'm not complaining about the downturn.

It's interesting that you are filtering out people who "can't spell" and yet spell "hire" as "higher."

I "fancy" myself a totalitarian system admin because I own the company I sysadmin for. Because of this, I "fancy" myself the best person to decide in which direction--both technical and business--to take the machines in.

I was at a loss because:

1. I was 14 or 15.
2. I was flying back from where I went, it was through many time zones, and I was fighting off soul-drenching fatigue.
3. I had too many misconceptions about what sysadminning was all about.

When a RAID system fails, I have disaster recovery plans in-place. I don't "determine what to do and then do it." That's far too reactionary and not something I regularly indulge in.

Again, for the record, I don't consider myself a god (nor did I--I did say minor northern deity, didn't I?) and just because I happen to enjoy an active imagination doesn't mean that what motivated me when I was 15 still motivates me now in a professional setting.


[ Parent ]

Forgive me... (3.00 / 2) (#111)
by DranoK 420 on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 01:04:12 AM EST

If I have a hard time believing you. You just sound too much like punk-ass kids I've met. Shrug.

As I've said in a different reply, there's a gigantic difference in caring about checking your spelling in a resume vs a silly post. C'mon, don't be dense.

Yes, I'm sure your disaster recovery plans are 100% thourough. *cough* Let's see, you get the page at 2am. Does your plan tell you if you need to fix it right away or not? You need to think of the impact this will have. You need to determine if you need to fix the issue right then at 2am, or if you can let it ride another 12 hours knowing if another disk fails your app dies. You need to find out if the problem lies in the disks themselves or the controller. My point is...

"Disaster Recovery Planning" is a buzzword for saying "I'm not a total and complete git". It means you aren't so deficient at your job that you would need to read up on the system every time something happens. It means you've simulated failures during development and documented the steps required to solve the problem.

I really hate that in every other profession save sysadmins people aren't rewarded for not be stupid. I firmly believe more than 50% of UNIX sysadmins are incompetant.

Moreover, I hate that people like you set the image in people's minds as to what a sysadmin is.


Poetry is simply a convenient excuse for incoherence.

[ Parent ]
I suppose.. (3.50 / 2) (#122)
by sudog on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 02:59:15 PM EST

.. we could argue about what makes a "good" system admin. Disaster recovery plans are there not for the person who wrote them or designed the systems, but for everyone else. In other words, if I'm vacationing on the East coast of Mexico, the disaster recovery plan is there for the people I left behind. Training them to be familiar with "what to do in a bind" when they never built the system or aren't as technically capable as I am is precisely what keeps uptime at the maximum and my headaches at a minimum.

I don't get paged at 2am because I'm not a moron and my systems aren't overloaded.

*shrug* You might hate that people like me set the tone for what other people think a sysadmin does, but only because you apparently don't have the ability to comprehend what I'm actually saying.

No worries--still a thoughtful post, so +4.

[ Parent ]

Take a pill. (4.00 / 1) (#108)
by duffbeer703 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 11:53:34 PM EST

Most IT/SysAdmin organizations are more concerned with "building an empire" and concentrating political power than accomplishing anything of value to an organization. IT departments are cost-centers and not revenue generators, so they tend to use policy and procedure to exaggerate their value.

A Systems Administrator is a combination of facilities manager, designer and mechanic. He configures computers so that an organization can effectively do business.

In many larger organizations, the IT Department takes on a life of it's own, and sees itself in an "us" versus "them" conflict with the user community. There is a attitude that things should be done "right" (right according to what Gartner and vendors say is right) rather than delivering usable and efficient business systems.

[ Parent ]

One word answer: (4.50 / 4) (#48)
by damien on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:13:10 AM EST

And tell me--if you're a System Administrator--can you honestly sit there and tell me you've never grepped for "fuck" or "purity test" in a mail spool directory? Have you never watched someone log in and just bumped them off your dialup pool--because you could? Have you never--even once--played an anonymous prank on one of your users when you knew you could get away with it and no one would know?

Re: One word answer (4.00 / 2) (#55)
by egeland on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 04:45:41 AM EST

It's nice to know most sysadmins are ethical.

The BOFH has always been a joke to me, something you'd IMAGINE being (on a bad day), but never actually becoming.

Reading other people's email is down in the ethical gutter alongside drowning kittens, in my opinion.

BTW, at a company I worked, a sysadmin was 'let go' due to breaching a lot of trust:
He read others' mail.
He misappropriated hardware. (In plain english, he stole expensive stuff, and almost got away with it)
He is a good example of what a sysadmin ISN'T.

Some interesting quotes
[ Parent ]

Drowning kittens? (2.50 / 2) (#98)
by ph0rk on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 03:48:47 PM EST

Everyone knows they taste better fried alive :)

[ f o r k . s c h i z o i d . c o m ]
[ Parent ]

A brief anecdote, hopefully entertaining. (4.50 / 6) (#49)
by amarodeeps on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:15:36 AM EST

I worked with this guy once in a medium-size corporate setting (my small company had been eaten by a somewhat bigger company looking to 'diversify it's potentialities'). He was relatively new to the team, and we were somewhat close-knit. At least, we knew each others' minds, and were comfortable some of us being conservative, some of us being liberal, etc. We at least all worked together well.

Well, this guy was given the task of begin the sysadmin for our web server. He actually had to set it up from scratch, installing all the software he wanted to, he actually had a lot of leverage. Probably the first problem...no one really looking over his shoulder. Anyways, around about the time a big virus hit, he was one of the ones to open up the email in his outlook mailbox. He was obviously pretty upset and embarassed about it, and tried to actually pin it all on us...like we should have made sure he didn't open the email. He didn't get enough warning he said.

Later that day, we all had lunch together for some reason or another. We were all joking around, as we were used to doing, all in good fun. Our team could get a little vicious, but we could all take it, so it was okay. Boundaries were established. But I didn't really understand what this guy's boundaries were, so I made some crack about how he opened the mail and let the virus loose. It was all just relatively gentle prodding, I thought. But he lost his shit. Almost the first thing out of his mouth was "let's see what you say if I lock you out of the server." And then he went and did it. Ran `passwd -l` or something, thought he was so clever and even suggested that I didn't understand what he did, that he was more clever than I. I was just more perplexed than anything.

I went and talked to my boss about it, more because I didn't know how to handle the situation than anything. My boss asked me if I wanted him to do something or say something to this guy, but I declined. I went back and sent him an email with a link to a page about Aikido (I knew he was into this). It said something about how the warrior doesn't use his skills aggressively or whatever. Unsubtle, but hey, it did the trick. He let me back in with a note that I should "play nice from now on." Actually, I think the fact that that worked says something even more about the guy.

Moral of the story? I don't know; psychotic dicks shouldn't be allowed to be sysadmins? Sysadmins should be able to take a joke? Fact is, I never trusted that guy again, and I never played nice or mean again with him; didn't play at all.

I guess thinking back on it my boss should have canned him right then and there. Thoughts?

scary sysadmins (5.00 / 2) (#50)
by dilinger on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:25:57 AM EST

System administrators who have tempers, and/or fly off the handle at little things are scary.  Even scarier are those who are willing to abuse their administrative powers when a personal issue upsets them.  I would've canned the dick; the machines are property of the company, and he has no right removing machine usage privileges for co-workers because they hurt his feelings.  

[ Parent ]
Actually, you are responsible (4.50 / 2) (#73)
by Silent Chris on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:04:14 AM EST

Sorry, but if you're not attentive enough to install the latest security patches for Outlook (assuming they were out), or at least take the relevant steps suggested by Microsoft when these viruses hit the mainstream, it IS your responsibility.  If the CEO gets a virus that deletes half a day of work, they don't want to hear that they shouldn't have opend their email.  They want to know why you haven't updated their program.

[ Parent ]
Sorry; you don't understand. (5.00 / 2) (#83)
by amarodeeps on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:01:35 PM EST

And I guess I failed to make myself clear. We were not the IT department. We were the web developers. I was a perl hacker. This guy we hired to have some departmental autonomy from IT, he was setting up a web server for our department exclusively. None of us (including myself) were in the least responsible for him opening the outlook virus that he opened. In fact, if anyone in our department was responsible, it was him because he was the most 'sysadmin-like' of any of us, and should have known better. Perhaps the IT department for our company, but not me, nor the rest of my department was responsible for his fuck-up.

Clear now?

[ Parent ]
Lovely. That guys sounds like a... (3.50 / 2) (#87)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:25:46 PM EST

...real winner.

My condolences for having to work with someone like that.

[ Parent ]

Yeah, definitely. (5.00 / 2) (#93)
by amarodeeps on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:43:02 PM EST

He always kind of scared me. One of those people you didn't really know what was going on underneath (I guess we are all like that, but some people are trying harder to hide than others). I had a feeling someone hurt him pretty bad in his life. But who knows.

[ Parent ]
Use to play Quake with someone like that.. (3.50 / 2) (#96)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 03:31:03 PM EST

A real badass, and it was extremely difficult to understand what precisely was going on underneath. And the verbal violence that would spew forth if he started losing!


Touchy, jumpy fellow. And he was big too--that was what made us all walk on eggshells around him. Of course, he was the source of much software, so we all kept up appearances, but deep down somehow we knew that we should just avoid pissing him off, and never rely on him in a bind.

[ Parent ]

Eh (5.00 / 1) (#97)
by EriKZ on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 03:42:04 PM EST

Depends on what kind of person you are. The guy was just being a dick. Your boss gave you free rein to deal with the situation, so you did.

If he became a serious problem, your boss would of had more ammo to fire him. If he was just being stupid, he had a second chance.

[ Parent ]

Sysadmins are a rare breed (4.80 / 5) (#51)
by xL on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 02:34:37 AM EST

First of all, let me agree that the issue of power with sysadmins is something potentially dangerous. Companies realize this and tend to go through greeat lengths to diminish risk when they have to let one go. On the other hand, the power that a sysadmin wields is not easily turned to his own advantage unnoticed, less so if the actions actually affect people (and thus involve policy). The sysadmin's power, in that way, is no different from the power of the machine operator at a power plant.

What makes the sysadmin's power more dangerous, is that their presence creates an inbalance in knowledge within the organization. This results in technical decisions being left largely in the hands of technocrats, who may be not the right people to evaluate the business merits of their decisions. They may recommend one technology over the other because it excites them, not because it can do the job economically.

Once you get a team of them, a lot of these drawbacks disappear. Nerds like to argue, they like their principles, and in the midst of their peers they will uphold these principles with vigor. They will update your servers at 3 am and not write overtime because they thought it was an interesting experience. If the culture is right, they will even check their plans on business merits. Peer review keeps everybody honest.

The sysadmins I have worked with were without exception of this rare kind. I have met all of them in ISP environments, and I think these are companies that are so technical in nature that sysadmins get and know their proper place. They are the product being sold. The problem of the knowledge gap is not as big. Sysadmins at other ventures may be much more "dangerous". A Windows PFY, getting $20K/year in a small-sized company probably, working alone as the only person with technical knowledge amidst technophobes, probably has less motivation to not read other people's mail.

offtopic, but ... (3.00 / 3) (#54)
by daemonchild on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 04:45:00 AM EST

are you the same sudog who went to UVic for a while? it's Steve here ... was in your Seng 265 class, and did a group project together, back in '99 or '00 if memory serves (memory is hazy)

if not, then feel free to ignore this :)

-- steve

Yep. 'Tis me. (none / 0) (#86)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:22:22 PM EST

If you'd like to get ahold of me I'm at the same email address as you used to write to. :-)

[ Parent ]
Never. (4.66 / 6) (#56)
by Lynoure on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 04:48:29 AM EST

> And tell me--if you're a System Administrator--can you honestly sit there and tell me you've never
> grepped for "fuck" or "purity test" in a mail spool directory? Have you never watched someone
> log in and just bumped them off your dialup pool--because you could? Have you never--even
> once--played an anonymous prank on one of your users when you knew you could get away with it
> and no one would know?

Yes, never. I care about my users, therefore I treat them with respect.

I know how even bringing a computer down for maintainance can ruin their day (yes, even when scheduled and informed about well before), so I try to life easy and nice for them whenever I can.

BTW, there is a book that in my opinion tells what good sysadmins are made of: The Practice of System and Network Administration, byt Limoncelli and Hogan.

Who's got time to grep people's mail? (4.25 / 8) (#69)
by Mohammed Niyal Sayeed on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:49:12 AM EST

I'm yet another UNIX sysadmin, and I must agree that I have never grepped anyone's mail spool, for two reasons: 1) I have other things that need to be done, and 2) if I were an end user, I wouldn't want people doing that to me. Those reasons don't *have* to be in that order, but they usually are. To tell the truth, I don't want to know what my users are saying or reading in their inboxes and outboxes. Not knowing more about them as people allows me to treat them equally; they are users, who use the mail system (and every other system I administer) to do their jobs. And if they do their jobs well, the company does well. And if the company does well, we all stand to profit. And that's why I'm here.

It's the same reason I go without sleep when I need to; I know I can count on me to do my job, so in order to make sure it's done, I do it.

Rather than make aspersions as to the poster's moral structure or desire for power, I wonder whether or not the real abuses of power tend to occur only in a reflective capacity (with exceptions, of course). For instance, if you work in an environment in which you are valued, and cooperation helps everyone, free of petty political backstabbing, you're more likely to not abuse power by grepping someone's mail (or Ettercapping their data through your localhost, or what have you). However, if you are working in an environment in which you aren't as valued, are treated as a faceless non-human resource, and are working for people you neither trust or respect, you're probably more likely to snoop on them just to see what exactly is up. Not to mention it's an exhibition of the limited power you actually have. You may not be able to sign your own paycheck, but you can read the email of the guy that does.

I've worked in environments where the MBA holders at the top looked down upon their employees as simple, disposable resources to be used and abused in order to make profit for themselves. It isn't a healthy environment, and for me the solution was to get out.

Having been in much better environments since then, I now recall a more recent incident in which through a little routine forensic research, I determined that one user (who wasn't an admin) had been intruding in another user's mail on an almost daily basis. The intruder was also a really good programmer and a definite value to our bottom line, so rather than making a big deal out of it and getting him canned, I simply made it such that he couldn't do what he was doing any more. Whether or not he ever knew that I knew what he was doing, it stopped, and became a non-issue. Ultimately, this is what I feel my job is; prevent abuse of the system while maximizing the smoothness of all network and systems procedures. I don't care if my users are downloading porn all day, to be honest. That's their business. They can play Quake all night long if they want. But if they start interfering in live server processes or doing actual damage to our bandwidth at the expense of productivity, I will make whatever changes necessary to change that back. Preferably without being a dick about it. Silently. Thanklessly. It is the code of system administration, after all. First to take blame when things are broken, last to get credit when things are running. But I chose this career, and I love it, even though there are times I think the French Foreign Legion would have been a smarter choice.

"You need to get your own point, then we can have an elaborate dance fight." - jmzero

[ Parent ]
My first thought... (4.00 / 5) (#57)
by joto on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 05:41:00 AM EST

would be that you should get professional help. You seem to have really strange thoughts revolving around power, and using other people.

On the other hand, the article was about personal growth. Most likely, you are not the same person now as you was then. And I feel more sorry for the persons who haven't experienced the same kind of eye-opening experiences a few times (at least I have), then us who do.

So, in the end, I guess you just opened yourself up more than what most people do here, which is ok. For some reason, this is confusing.

Maybe you should have emphasized more what your current views are, and how you got to them, rather than only your reactions then, in finding them false. That would make the article easier to understand. But it might also remove the point of the article, which was to explain how stupid we can be, and what kind of input we need to get it fixed.

In the end, I guess you (and any employers you've had) must feel lucky that you once met Socrates on a plane.

Democracy (4.00 / 2) (#58)
by khakipuce on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 07:00:20 AM EST

Even democracy isn't that democratic! We elect "leaders" to make decisions for us, we might not like the decisions but we may accept that for the good of the majority the decision is necessary. If we don't like it we vote them out at some point in the future.

You cannot ask your users every time you need to do something, generally they will simply not respond, or the ones that do not have enough to do will waste your time for a while before agreeing that it should be done.

Most organisations run a command and control structure, not a democracy and they rely on that structure being populated by professionals. Professionals do not harass their users, play tricks or in anyway mess around with the valuable systems which are under their control. The big issue for systems professionals is often they are a very small group who do things that no one else really understands. So the rest of the organisation has to trust them, the "control" aspect of the command and control has gone. So you have only your conscience to fall back on, and if it isn't telling you that doing the things you have done are bad then you need HELP.

using just and only reason (3.50 / 4) (#62)
by kipple on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 08:49:40 AM EST

I remember one thing from the book "hackers: heroes of the computer revolution" that really shocked me: 'hackers' don't like to follow any rule or just don't like rules at all because they think that there should be no rule.
Not just anarchy, but the use of "reason". A logic reason has no need to be declared or chosen with a democracy.

System administrator (former hackers in the pure sense of the term) are just using logic and reason. Yes, they are human and can do "bad" things against one single user, but on the long run this proves to be counter-productive. Having a system that works smoothly (under reasonable directives) keeps you away from troubles. That's all. No need for laws - they say.

Scary? I don't know you, but I would prefer a logic- and reason-based government over a money-based one. But the issue is more complex, I know.

--- There are two kind of sysadmins: Paranoids and Losers (adapted from D. Bach)

Logic and reason. (3.00 / 1) (#72)
by Alarmist on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:00:51 AM EST

The problem with using logic and reason alone, without outside consultation, is that you might be proceeding from false data or faulty principles.

For instance:

1. Puppies are evil.
2. Evil will corrupt good whenever and wherever possible.
3. Puppies cannot be contained.
4. Ergo, it is permissible to kill puppies at any time, anywhere.

This line of reasoning is perfectly logical, but relies on some things that are obviously untrue. However, without someone else to throw ideas at for sanity checking, I might never realize this, and so embark on my plan of puppy genocide, convinced that I was doing the right thing.

[ Parent ]

history (4.00 / 1) (#81)
by kipple on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 11:28:13 AM EST

Ok in my comment I did not mention it. But it is obvious that the 'sanity checking' should be done considering facts. And also 'evil' and 'good' have no meaning unless taken subjectively, thus are to be avoided.

Better would be, following your topic:

- the majority of puppies (over a statistically valid amount of data) are proven that after a certain age or a certain situation (insert here situation), they harm (this category of person)
- this situation must not happen so it is necessary to change the environment situation that generated it

and so on.

--- There are two kind of sysadmins: Paranoids and Losers (adapted from D. Bach)
[ Parent ]

yep, you were a kid in high school! (4.00 / 3) (#63)
by senjiro on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:11:02 AM EST

I'm a Unix Sysadmin. I, like you, and every other sysadmin ever, am overpaid, underworked, and beaten on a regular basis. So I feel qualified to make the following observations:

First, the concept of a "democratically run" system is absurd. Please point to a functioning democratic system. No corporations, agencies, bureaus, military outfits, or businesses are run democratically. At a very Meta level there is usually some semblence of collaberation in terms of 'direction' and strategy, as in the Board of Directors in a corporation deciding "we want to make money this way". A computer system is about the worst thing you would want to try democracy on. Yes, I'll setup a ballot initiative, and a program to inform hundereds of users about the pro's and con's of increasing the amount of swap space allocated. If you aren't cringing at that thought you should be.

Second, your idea that Sysadmins are totalitarian dictators is equally absurd. Are you sure you're not still in high school? I am the one, and only, admin at my company. I work with our technical staff of developers, my VP of Tech, our CEO, the sales staff, the Customer support folks, and our secretaries on a daily basis. I constantly ask them about ideas they might have, or complaints about the current system setup. My door is open. I don't believe I am unique, most professionals in any job function the same way.

I cannot believe that this thinly veiled diary got voted FP. A fun read, I'll grant you, but the central premise is steeped in 13 year old hallucinatory imaginings.

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
plutocratic propaganda (5.00 / 1) (#74)
by dirtmerchant on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:15:50 AM EST

First, the concept of a "democratically run" system is absurd. Please point to a functioning democratic system. No corporations, agencies, bureaus, military outfits, or businesses are run democratically.
I'll bite. Show me a specific example of a functioning corporation, agency, bureau, military outfit, or business that couldn't benefit from a more open dialog between top and bottom, client and reseller.
-- "The universe not only may be queerer than we think, but queerer than we can think" - JBS Haldane
[ Parent ]
agreed! (3.00 / 1) (#78)
by senjiro on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:26:53 AM EST

but at the end of the day, committees don't make decisions, let alone good ones. Many corporations get bogged down in endless consultation and committee, as does the American congress. Part of the problem is knowledge. Democracy only really works on an informed populace. Getting input from the mailroom on the latest merger is just as silly as asking the Chairman for his input on how to fix the Air Conditioner.

I'm all for democracy, but only if it is, in fact, the best way to go. As I state in my post I try to function as a benevolant dictator. I make the final decisions about our systems, but those decisions are intrinsically tied to feedback from the users of said systems.

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
[ Parent ]
I hope it wasn't voted FP because of technical... (3.50 / 2) (#85)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:07:22 PM EST

... accuracy. :-)

And everyone should be able to to immerse himself in his imagination now and again.

System admins who own the company they work in are totalitarian. I am such a person. Thus, it's perfectly acceptable that my will is equivalent to a benign dictator--or in this case a Totalitarian System Admin. Sure, the people who work with me have input, but I am the final arbiter of what happens on the systems I slave away on day after day. And I do slave away on the machines.

[ Parent ]

bad form (4.00 / 1) (#99)
by senjiro on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 04:24:17 PM EST

it is generally considered bad form to go through your own posts and mod down comments that don't agree with you. Moderation is typically to determine the general value of a comment towards a point or towards fostering discussion.

But if you want to start a Mod war, we can do that too!

it is by will alone that i set my mind in motion
[ Parent ]
Simple, really. (3.50 / 2) (#121)
by sudog on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 02:51:15 PM EST

I mod constructive criticism, literary criticism, editorial comments, and most comments a 5.

I mod a 2 when the poster hasn't the reading comprehension to understand that what I thought as a 14 yr old isn't what I think as an adult, and then posts a note that attacks me personally.

I mod a 3 or a 4 (that's neutral or slightly on the positive side isn't it?) for any other post just because I appreciate the time they took to post and am thankful for the discourse.

Is this not supposed to be something to do? Okay. You'll notice I never modded a 1. I'll go back and switch them all to 5's (thanks for participating) if this isn't something "to do". But why then does Kuro5hin give the story poster the ability to mod at all..?

Ah well. No matter.

[ Parent ]

Ethics: What computing USED to be (4.50 / 2) (#66)
by Silent Chris on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 09:41:29 AM EST

I mentioned this before, but you nailed the head quite succinctly in your story.  For an interesting read on what computing "used" to be, try Steven Levy's Hackers.  

In the beginning, those who dabbled in computers were just like us.  The only difference is that information was truly free.  Wanted source code?  Grab the tape that's in the (unlocked) desk drawer.  The first multiuser system had usernames -- but no discernible separations between user accounts.  In other words, all users had access to all files in everyone else's folders.

Somewhere along the line, people moved from "sharing" to "control".  Passwords completely separated peoples' information into partitions.  "Security" because a focus to guard networked systems.  The default value of "trust" became "never trust".

I always find it ironic that most crackers nowadays use "secure" systems, but make efforts to break into other "secure" systems.  They want information to be free, but not their own.  It's a double-standard.  I say, if you're going to topple the NASA website and post new engine specs online, feel free -- as long as you open up your system completely and let me read your email.

I'm recalling all this "history" on what I read.  I didn't live it (I'm only 23 years old).  My life began with "copyrights" being plastered all over source code.  But something idealistic in me says this older time was better.

Steven Levy's Hackers is superb.. (none / 0) (#84)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 12:01:46 PM EST

..I read it a few years ago when I picked up the old version of it (with the electronic pencil on the front) at a garage sale.

Great book! Highly recommended for insight into what the original hackers felt and thought.

[ Parent ]

Trust & TRUSTNO1 (4.50 / 2) (#75)
by Stomil on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:16:38 AM EST

This is a complicated issue.

I'll start by an anecdote: once I was visiting a friend who was a VM/SP mainframe admin, in his work (it was summer vacation). He was bored to death and while we talked he was doing something on admin console. I asked what he was doing, and he said I'm checking how many people are subscribed to a stck market discussion list. He was doing an VM/CMS equivalent of grep -c on VM's equivalent of /var/mail (the READER device). I then said - this is why I use PGP (there was no GPG back then.

My point is that in a design way computers are inherently totalitarian and if we want privacy we should fight for it ourselves.

I'm also a sysadmin (in a supercomputing center) and when users come here and ask if we can read their email, I answer: We can. I don't do it because its so boooooring. I also own a private server used by me and by my friends, and there I'm a benign dictator. Not because I want to feel the power. Power in computer acpect Because users want things that aren't good for the service - for example there isn't plain ftp or IMAP access to the server. Users would want it because majority of (Windows) tools supports only those. But its no good for the security of the machine. The server is first - it is too important for me and my friends who are hosting domains and mailboex on it, to risk its security because somebody else can't configure his Bat! The service isn't obligatory and if someone doesn't want to use sftp enabled file transfer program, or a MUA that supports IMAP/SSL, its fine by me. Not anyone have to live here.

I'm also encouraging use of OpenPGP among my friends and users. If you want to write me offsite, download key 46399138 form keyserver.pgp.com and write to any address on the key. Encrypt your mail.

You are the cop (3.00 / 1) (#76)
by richieb on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:17:50 AM EST

Sys admins are like the police or fireman. Your job is to keep the infrastructure running smoothly and orderly. That's why you are given some extra priviledges (i.e. the root password). That's why the policeman carry guns.

I'd be concerned about a policeman who enjoyed being policeman because of the power that the position gave him. Just as I'd worry about a sysadmin who thinks he is a absolute dictator because he knows the root password...

It is a good day to code.

I'm not the cop... (none / 0) (#82)
by sudog on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 11:57:53 AM EST

...society isn't trusting me to enforce the law and save innocent lives from criminals.

And for the record, what drove me to excel when I was younger is not what motivates me now as an adult.

Perhaps I should've been more clear that this perspective is through the eyes of a highschool teen, not a professional adult.

:-) No worries, dude. Just try not to take it so literally.

[ Parent ]

OK. You're not a cop (3.00 / 1) (#127)
by richieb on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 12:09:38 AM EST

...society isn't trusting me to enforce the law and save innocent lives from criminals.

Well, your users are trusting you to keep their computers running, their email private and their data safe.

Others expressed it better. Just keep in mind what your job is and don't let the fact that you know the root password go to your head. :-)


It is a good day to code.
[ Parent ]

sigh... (none / 0) (#129)
by sudog on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 02:36:14 AM EST

...Just because I thought what I did when I was a kid doesn't mean I think it now.

Repeat after me: a public human-interest story with little to no technical accuracy is not a description of the author's adulthood policy and ethics.

[ Parent ]

enjoyed it (5.00 / 2) (#79)
by joeyo on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 10:27:16 AM EST

Good article-- clear and thought provoking. I quite enjoyed it.

I will note this, however:  If a sysadmin or enginner finds himself with enormous policy-making power it is often because the people or organizations who should be making those decisions don't care enough to do so.  I think this often happens when a domain is new, its value is poorly understood, and there have been few abuses of power.  But is it really the fault of a king for being born before the age of democracy?  

I say enjoy your power while you have it, try to be a good monarch, and set good examples.  You'll be remembered fondly when democracy finally takes hold.

"Give me enough variables to work with, and I can probably do away with the notion of human free will." --

Compare to an ocean-going ship. (3.00 / 2) (#92)
by duffbeer703 on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 01:37:50 PM EST

I think the best analog for a business computer system is a ship.

On an oceangoing vessel, the Captain is god. There are officers and crewmen who specialize in running the various engines and boilers, navigation and whatever else. The specialists might know more about turbines, navigation systems, or pumps, but the Captain is ultimately responsible for the ship's functioning and well-being.

On a business computing system, users are analogous to the officers and crewmen on a ship. Some are webserver experts, others accomplish tasks in applications. The System Administrator insures that the systems are running correctly so that everyone has access and can accomplish business objectives.

The SysAdmin, like the Captain, has the ultimate responsibility for the system. If things break in the middle of the night, he responds. If the system is inoperable, it is his responsibility.

I think the role of SysAdmins is often too tightly focused. A sysadmin is not responsible for a few computers, but for the business system running on them.

Bad analogy (5.00 / 1) (#113)
by cameldrv on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 02:51:13 AM EST

An ocean-going ship is a self-contained world. The Captain is important because he is the final authority figure in this world. In the world most of us inhabit, there are lots of interlocking networks of power and responsibility. The sysadmin is responsible for the computers, but ultimately computers are subsidary to the function of the organization that owns them. The problem with a lot of sysadmins is that they see computers as being the only important part of whatever the organization to which they belong is doing.

There are lots of other service professions that understand this, and don't have the same power problems as sysadmins. Janitors typically don't go around rearranging your office because it would make their job easier. You would be angry if the maintanence man dictated that the thermostat be set to sixty five degrees. Ultimately the basic issue is that a sysadmin exists to make the computers run as well as possible for the users. When he loses sight of this, people get annoyed, and rightly develop a distaste for sysadmins in general.

[ Parent ]

Who Should Wield the Power (3.66 / 3) (#103)
by MyrddinE on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 06:06:49 PM EST

The main question brought up by the article is 'who should wield the power?' What way should technical systems be governed. On one hand, you have the idea that the users should govern. But democracy is a poor way to govern when the populace is not very knowledgable about the things they are voting on. Very few organizations of any size run as a pure democracy.

Another possibilty is as a republic, with user voted representatives. This is better, as the representatives are able to devote more time to understanding the technical challenges of technical systems. But you now require MANY people to devote their very valuable and expensive company time working outside their job description making infrastructure decisions.

The most common choice is to give dictatorial power to the Network Admin... the guy who theoretically knows the most about the systems also decides the policy. This is often ok... but network administrators are notorious for putting their needs ahead of the users. They are chosen for their technical expertise, not their interpersonal skills. This leads to friction.

How would I do it? Give implimentation power to the Network Admin, but give policy making power to the lead of the help desk.

The Help Desk is (theoretically) technically competent. Theoretically, the head of the help desk is the best at providing support. At least they have better interpersonal skills (because that's what gets you promoted). And they have to deal with the consequences of policy changes. They deal with the users on a daily basis, they understand what is causing problems and what is not. They have enough information to make informed decisions, and empathy with the users over the consequences of those decisions.

Of course, all this is presuming the Help Desk is competent. :-) I've known several that are not. But the skills that make the best technical support person... good technical knowledge, user empathy, and communication skills... are the skills that would probably do well for the person in dictatorial control over the network policy.

What do you think?

I don't buy it. (2.50 / 2) (#112)
by MessiahWWKD on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 02:39:56 AM EST

I used to travel a lot: back in time...

I'm sorry, but I seriously doubt that you have the means to travel through time.

Sent from my iPad
Thoughts from a 43yo, sys admin of 22 years... (4.87 / 8) (#114)
by weave on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 09:38:01 AM EST

I notice a lot of immaturity and maturity in your article. The fact that you are asking yourself these questions is a good sign. You should never stop working on self-improvement, no matter what your age. (And I realize you're reporting on your conversations and reactions when you were very young...)

Just some random thoughts of some points in article.

  • Trust is job #1 of a sys admin. Absoultely never ever read anyone's e-mail or files because you can. On the very rare rare occasion where my job requires to do that (like a corrupt inbox or something), I usually opt to write a perl script or something to grok and reassemble it. Besides the ethical issue, sooner or later you'll start to forget where you heard so-and-so and later in a converation, you'll be found out. "How's your dog doing?", "What, I never told anyone I got a new dog except my best friend in California. You read my e-mail, didn't you?"
  • Get humble. In the end we are only overpaid high-tech custodians. That's what most of the world thinks at least. For example, I could slave away for weeks on some processes, scripts, and code that will make employees' lives far more productive and easier and no one notices. But if I make up a web page for some department that takes 45 minutes, they think I'm god.
  • Find a balance. Being a totalitarian control freak is not good, neither is being a democratic make-em-all-happy guy either. You need to understand what it is that users want and if it's in the best interest of your employer, discuss those goals and issues with a decision maker, then go off and find the best solution to implement it. Sometimes you can't win. Like, people want you to stop spam, but don't want you to block any legitimate e-mail. So you find ways to block 95% of it, you drop some legit e-mail, and spam still gets through. People only see that e-mail is blocked and they still get spam, so you're a failure.
  • You're a necessary evil. In just about every employment situation, you are a cost overhead in operations. That is what you'll always be viewed as, even if you are saving the company more than your salary and benefits. You're going to have to constantly fight that perception and the problem of your worth only being judged by output of projects that are visible and understandable. If you sit in a dark office 14 hours a day doing wonderful technical things that people can't understand, they will think you're back there playing games or wasting time writing articles for kuro5hin! :-)

I can't stress enough ethics though, and the often turmoil of deciding what is the right thing to do with all that "power" that you have.

For example (true story), I had a female employee complain to me that she was being harassed by some guy sending her love e-mails saying that he watched her every day, tried to be near her all the time, was in love with her, and thought about ways to please her (sexually implied, but never overtly stated). Nothing gross, but scarey to the employee all the same. It was from a hotmail account. So I look in the headers and found originating IP that hotmail puts in. I found that the e-mails were coming from various locations throughout the building. So I dig into the event logs of Windows to determine who logged onto each location. I traced it to the account of ANOTHER FEMALE. A female I knew, a female whose would be devistated if anyone knew she was a lesbian, a female who is very shy and timid. Now at this point, what do you do? Turn over the results to your superiors? Go tell the woman that you know and won't tell anyone as long as she knocks it off? I think a lot of you might answer the latter, but then that female may feel intimidated by the fact that you know and have that fact over her and may view that as a quid-pro-quo sexual harassment issue. You have a power of her now. But if you turn it over to your superiors, she'd be ruined anyway. So what do you do?

If that kind of power turns you on, you should beat yourself with a stick. Sometimes my job sucks like hell, and the above example is one of those times. If this note gets any interest and people post what they'd do (cause I'm curious), I'll later come back and post what decision I finally made on this one...

My opinions on this matter (5.00 / 1) (#116)
by klykken on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 11:00:08 AM EST

But if you turn it over to your superiors, she'd be ruined anyway. So what do you do?

As you said yourself, ethics is the main issue here. Sending psuedo-anonymous messages on the corporate network for sexual harassement is misuse of the network and (most likely) the company policy.

But if there's one thing I've learned through my seven years of sysadmin experience, it is that it does not benefit you to lose the trust of the users, because it's the feedback from them that gives you the understanding of how your network works for them, and how it can be improved for them in the future. Amongst other things.

On the other hand, you have an obligation to report serious breaches to company policy. Now, in my mind, this doesn't seem like a serious breach to network security, but nevertheless something that another user needs your help to figure out. Best thing would be to mail the offending employee, informing her that you have her figured out, and that the offended employee are not interested in her sexual solicitations. If the activities stop, you will not report this to her superior officer or HR. The fact that you know her should not be in the way of you doing your job, but nevertheless trying to keep this from escalating out of proportions by letting the wolves in management "making it disappear" by having her escorted out by security.

By doing it this way, it will be only you who know her true identity, while reporting her will most certainly destroy her future in that company. Witch is in my mind somewhat overkill (although depending on the circumstances). My guess is that she'll get over the fact that her cover is blown. Who cares about her sexual orientation anyway? The alternative is that everyone else also knows, without her being prepared to handle it. She'll have a chance of sending another anonymous mail, offering sincere apologies to the offended users. And if it stops with that, then you all can move on in your lives.

Systems administration is as much human psychology as it is technical engineering. Our actions can both better people's situations, and destroy them - all depending on the choices we make. So as the article contributor said, we might have some powers. But we have a big responsability witch implies that we don't misuse our position. That will eventually turn on ourselves.

Good luck.

[ Parent ]

In my job... (5.00 / 1) (#119)
by El Volio on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 01:43:06 PM EST

This is a situation I haven't run into personally, but I could see this happening at my job. I would probably have a discreet conversation with the e-mail sender, reminding her that this violates company policy (if need be, citing specifically where, but this isn't always necessary), and that it would be best to let the matter drop, or at the very least not use company resources to pursue it. Depending on how well you know her (is it just an acquaintance or someone you know well), it might even be appropriate to offer some limited advice ("I don't believe the other person is interested in such a relationship," etc.)

But then again, I'm technically in the Security department, so it's in my job function and I don't really want to see anyone get fired for a simple mistake. This is my response off the top of my head; after thinking about it for a few hours (and obviously being closer to the specifics), I might change it. I'm actually curious: what did you do?

[ Parent ]

Some additional tidbits... (5.00 / 1) (#120)
by weave on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 02:25:51 PM EST

I thought about this, and since the situation happened years ago and it never leaked who was involved, I think it's safe to offer a little more info. The e-mail sender was a student in a college, the receipient was a teacher (not hers). So it's not a case of corporate life or being fired, and does introduce some more complications into what to do...

As for knowing her, I should have said I knew "of" her, from seeing her around and a professional contact or two, but certainly not on a personal friendship level or even as an acquaintance. I just knew she was very shy and withdrawn.

I have to run out for a bit, will post in a few hours what I did. Don't hold your breath, it's not earth shattering or anything! It just kind of goes along with the main article and what we should do or not do with our "ultimate powers." I will also admit right away that I don't think I was right or wrong or there may be a better way of handling it. I'm not perfect, but my years have taught me some often painful lessons. I hope I'm at least getting better as I grow older...

[ Parent ]

ok, this is what I did. (4.00 / 1) (#124)
by weave on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 06:04:16 PM EST


A tough decision, but I had to understand it wasn't my job to make the decision. I turned it over to the people who are trained to handle these sorts of issues. I'm a sys admin, not a counselor. Which is kind of my point, we have to get out of the power trip. It affects us all at times.

What could have been some worse case scenarios if I acted on my own. Let's see, I could have told her, she could have freaked and hurt herself, and the college could have been held liable. Or she could have misconstrued my intention and felt threatened or blackmailed and filed a complaint against me.

It's also interesting my reaction. Since I was given the messages from the then anonymous person for investigation, I read them, and in doing so, got to know a poor confused young woman who wasn't that attractive and must have been the victim of a lot of not-nice guys. So it was clouding my judgement for a while. I had to ask myself, what if this was a guy hitting on another guy? My first homophobic reaction would have been to crucify the ass hole. Now who died and appointed me judge over others?

I'll tell you another (quick) story when I was younger and did the wrong thing. It involved a student who was using our unix boxes to hack into other boxes on the net, launch DOS attacks, and be obnoxious to our users (like cat'ing crap to user's tty devices back in the 80s when one could default to open on a system). I repeatedly warned him, but he wouldn't stop, so I turned it over to my superiors for disciplinary action. It got carried away a bit and there was some talk about legal charges against this student. He was just stupid, but didn't in my opinion deserve that fate. No one would listen to my opinion, so I told a co-worker in ear shot of one of this student's friends that they were considering charges and this guy probably should get a lawyer. I did it on purpose hoping to help the guy avoid a record. Well, he got a lawyer alright, and the college was sued for me violating FERPA for discussing the incident with third parties (student confidentiality law). My intentions were good and I was trying to help, and I landed myself and my employer in hot water for being stupid... It wasn't my job after I handed off the evidence to others and I should have just STFU at that point.

[ Parent ]

Not that you asked... (none / 0) (#131)
by kerinsky on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 04:47:17 AM EST

Not that you asked but after about 30 seconds I decided what I probably would do in similar circumstances. To me the ideal solution seems to be to e-mail the hotmail account that the offending e-mails are coming from and state that you're the sysadmin and that if the e-mails don't cease immediately that you will conduct a complete investigation to find out who is sending the e-mails. List in detail that you can track IP addresdes and compare against serveral logs and that you are certain you can identify them if the e-mails were indeed sent from computers on the network as implied.

Of course this might be a breach of your employer's security policy. Perhaps you could have asked the teacher to send an e-mail threatening to contact the sysadmin if the e-mails don't cease.

It's not an easy issue... Certainly your actions didn't result in any harm, but I don't really see doing nothing as being an ideal solution.

[ Parent ]

Not a bad idea.... (none / 0) (#133)
by weave on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 08:38:59 AM EST

Unfortunately, I sealed that avenue off the first few seconds. The "victim" had me read a few, I looked at the headers, and immediately remarked that it was coming from internally and I'd have to dig to see if I could determine who sent it. The vic did ask the sender to stop via e-mail, the sender must have thought she was anon since she was sending from a fictitious name on hotmal.

While at it, I'd like to add that when I turned it over to the counselor, I stressed that all I knew was that someone using that account was sending them so there was a chance that her account was compromised and it wasn't her sending them. I didn't want them accusing a possible innocent person.

[ Parent ]

It's your responsibility... (3.66 / 3) (#118)
by Open5uit on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 01:14:47 PM EST

I enjoyed the article, thank you.  It is difficult to write about personal growth experiences and even more difficult to open them up for criticism.  You came to a realization that has not only made you a better sys admin but also a better person.  The "things" you did to come to this realization are your own skeletons.  What is important is that you did grow.

The issues you have developed are not new nor are they isolated to system administrators.  To quote Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men".   'Almost always' is the key part.  I prefer to say: "Good men do bad things only when they have the power to do so, and only other men can give them that power."  Is it worse to grep e-mail accounts or knowingly misrepresent your companies financial position to stockholders?  Like it or not both happen and both are wrong.  The difficulty lies in developing one's own standard of personal responsibility.  And, by personal responsibility I not only refer to the level of respect you give the power or authority entrusted to you but also the respect you give to those that can leverage power over you.

Do you trust your system administrator not to grep your e-mail account or do you wait to send personal e-mail from home?  Do you research the people that run the companies you invest in or do you trust their reports?  People rise to power through different avenues and with different virtues.  However, only you can decide whether or not to let that power effect you.  When you are at work you have a job to accomplish.  If your system administrator is keeping you from doing your job is that his/her fault or yours?

Abusing authority is something that happens daily.  System administrators, accountants, doctors, lawyers, journalists all have professionals that fail to live up to their accepted responsibilities.  This does not make me mad or surprise me.  I reminds me that I have an extreme responsibility and that is to myself.  I also have the power to choose the people that I let affect my life.

Thank you for the article. It has been sometime since I have thought about this stuff.

Damn... (none / 0) (#126)
by faustus on Sat Jan 11, 2003 at 07:34:52 PM EST

...Zmodem!! I remember Kermit, Xmodem, Ymodem...but Zmodem was the shit with my 14.4. I think there was a variant of Zmodem that was even faster. Then there was the sweet terminal program called Telemate. Those were the days when getting some warez meant something. Now it's all on Kazaa.

The feeling of power (none / 0) (#132)
by faecal on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 08:30:30 AM EST

I remember the one time that I ever used the sysadmin priveledges I had on a network in a subversive way. This was in a school, so it was sanctioned that the admins could look into the pupils' home directories. Some kid had been downloading software that he was not permitted to run, and rather than bothering to deal with the kid, I just corrupted a few of the relevant files and left it.

My point is this: the stereotypical power-mad sysadmin may well be so simply because he would rather influence the users through controlling the system's behaviour than by actually interacting with the user. It's where a geek feels comfortable.

Of course, schoolkids generally have much more interesting illicit digital property than office drones : it's all those hormones buzzing around ;-)

All sysadmins are social cripples. (none / 0) (#134)
by Phillip Asheo on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 09:30:21 AM EST

Now we arrive at an interesting question: Why do computer scientists, System Administrators, and especially engineers, think they're superior decision-makers in the first place?

Autism ?

"Never say what you can grunt. Never grunt what you can wink. Never wink what you can nod, never nod what you can shrug, and don't shrug when it ain't necessary"
-Earl Long

refreshing honesty (none / 0) (#135)
by neb beaker on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 12:39:29 PM EST

i know ive had feelings like that before, ones of power and control, and although, according to the responses here, not all people feel it once in a while, kudos to sudog for acknowledging a part of himself he may not totally like i dont know why he was attacked for his ethics, the last person one agrees with is himself so why say he's immoral? if anything, he has greater morals because he admits to things he thinks that he doesn't actual agree with. at any rate, nice article, with a universal theme
I hope I didn't ramble too much...
Sorry if what I say has been said before... (none / 0) (#136)
by MacD on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 04:06:51 PM EST

...but your answer should have been simple: democracy is a provably dumb system.

This is especially so as a sysadmin: one system is demonstratably more secure than another. The company has hired you to make their system as secure and productive as possible. Their IT should be as hidden as any other infrastructure...you don't think of road repair crew, or city planners, or the guys who paint the lines on roads, unless they go wrong. You are paid to make it so that thing just /work/. You, by your education (gotten by whatever means), know how to do so. A democracy would like nothing more than to log on everywhere, to not have to rememeber more than one different password (if that). 'They' don't know any better.

Here we come to the simple truth. Make a gauss curve (or Bell), with a distribution of intelligence (not IQ, as that has no qualitative info whatsoever). Notice that this too is just another bell vurve, whatever the distribution. By it's very nature, there are at least three quarters more dumb people than intelligent ones (depending where you put your normal, of course). There are more dumb people than intelligent ones. QED.

Personally, IMO there should be an intelligence test (or at least a test to see of you've done your homework) for voting. Most people don't even know what the party they're voting for has on it's agenda. So why give them the right to vote? WTF do they know? A little knowledge might be dangerous, but deciding without any is just plain dumb.

And that is why "the people" shouldn't be given a right to decide in matters they know nothing of.
"There are only two things that are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the universe." A. Einstein

bell curve (none / 0) (#139)
by jolt rush soon on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 06:29:17 PM EST

on a normal bell curve with no bias, considering normal to be in the center, isn't there an equal amount on either side?
Subosc — free electronic music.
[ Parent ]
Re: bell curve (none / 0) (#147)
by Socrates on Tue Jan 14, 2003 at 06:40:12 AM EST

Well, I'll answer this one.

We are not talking about the normal here, we're talking about "intelligent" people. Whichever way you put it, intelligent people do not fit the profile of the normal of a bell curve. They would be, as the original poster points out, some epsilon away from the center of the curve. How big this epsilon is would be defined by the interpretation of intelligent. And how you would define intelligence is a different matter altogether, on which many a scholar has broken his brains.

[ Parent ]
You should done this (2.00 / 1) (#138)
by Stick on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 04:47:49 PM EST

Rented out a motel room. Call the victim and tell her to meet you in the motel room at a certain time. E-mail the lesbian with the victims email address, and tell her to meet you (posing as the victim) at the motel room at the same time as the victim. Invite them both in and according to the laws of porn an orgy should begin shortly.

Stick, thine posts bring light to mine eyes, tingles to my loins. Yea, each moment I sit, my monitor before me, waiting, yearning, needing your prose to make the moment complete. - Joh3n
It's a computer, right? (none / 0) (#141)
by seeS on Sun Jan 12, 2003 at 11:02:46 PM EST

I find it funny when people talk about power and computers. So what if you lock someones account or delete email. You're being annoying, that's all.

Try working in a industry where mistakes kill 10s of people at once and you get put up for manslaughter. I did, but quit that industry, far better to be in one where if you screw up, they pay you to come and fix it.

Get over it fellars, its computers, not real-life.

Though it was an interesting article.
Where's a policeman when you need one to blame the World Wide Web?

"root" is a Unix thing (none / 0) (#144)
by spring on Mon Jan 13, 2003 at 11:24:35 AM EST

A system administrator does not necessarily have to be all-powerful. Traditionally under Unix, root can do anything, and all other accounts are constrained by the self/group/world permissions framework. This is partly due to the design of Unix, and partly due to its culture, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Other operating systems allow for a more fine-grained approach to permissions. On these types of systems--like VAX VMS? my memory no longer serves--the mail administrator doesn't have permission to affect backups, the administrator in charge of backups can't configure the mail server, and so on for every service that a working system provides. There is no "god" in heaven, just a collection of people with specific administrative jobs to do.

"power" => property rights (none / 0) (#145)
by nsayer on Mon Jan 13, 2003 at 01:00:35 PM EST

The answer to a lot of her questions lies in the difference between the actions of the government and the actions of private citizens in control of their own property.

I have the right to forbid enterance to my home of people wearing green if I wish (unless they are peace officers exercising a warrant or a variety of other exceptions that are uninteresting in this context). Is that caprecious? Sure. It is me being the king of my castle. It is in no way different from the actions of caprecious sysadmins. But they have the right to do so because they own the box (or are delegated such authority by the owners). Everyone can be the tinpot dictator of their property, to the extent that their actions do not violate the law. This is one of the few things that separates our current society from that of Orwell's 1984. In that society, there was almost no difference between one's rights and privileges in their own abode (I won't say "in the privacy of their own abode" because they simply had none) and their rights and privileges anywhere else.

Rights vs. Ethics (5.00 / 1) (#149)
by flimflam on Wed Jan 15, 2003 at 08:48:25 AM EST

We have the right to do a lot of things, like spread Nazi propaganda, but there is a difference between what we are able to do legally, and what is the ethical thing to do. That very notion, in fact, is one of the central concepts of our (US) society -- we don't believe that the government should be arbiter of public morality (present administration excepted).

This doesn't really get you off the hook for descriminating against people wearing green, however. Though it may be legal, it isn't ethical -- which I believe is one of the points of this article.

-- I am always optimistic, but frankly there is no hope. --Hosni Mubarek
[ Parent ]

Re: Rights vs. Ethics (none / 0) (#150)
by nsayer on Wed Jan 15, 2003 at 03:26:24 PM EST

I fully agree with that. I was merely addressing the question posed by the lady on the airplane, which was "what gives you the right to be a BOFH?" The question of "should you be a BOFH?" is a separate one.

But the answer is, "Hell yeah! Oh, and what's your username again?" :-)

[ Parent ]

System Admin and Power (none / 0) (#146)
by samdad on Mon Jan 13, 2003 at 09:02:13 PM EST

There is probably no one LESS qualified to make the kinds of decisions you speak of than a typical Sys Admin, which you clearly are not. All of us who have specialized education about some aspect are guilty at one time or another of thinking that this specialized education somehow makes us more intelligent than those who do not have our education. Doctors think they know some-thing about politics; lawyers who think they know something about history;IT admins who think they know something about music. I have found over many years that the most intelligent people I have met are those who are aware of what they do not know. Really stupid people think they know everything. People of average intelligence think they know far more than they actually do. I love reading letters to the editor in the paper to see how many outrageous claims are made as facts when these claims are often not only not fact, they are demonstrably incorrect as even claims. The creationists who see every new archaeological find that causes a revision of previous theory as proof that evolution is wrong comes to mind. Most Sys Admins are no more capable of making policy decisions that are not purely technical than atheists are capable of deciding doctrinal matters for the Catholic Church. Stcik to what you actually know. If you only think you know it, you're probably wrong

The reason Sysadmin's should have a say... (none / 0) (#148)
by edpowers on Tue Jan 14, 2003 at 04:33:37 PM EST

I'm not a System Administrator, I'm a Network Engineer. My opinions are second to money considerations when it comes to network policy changes. The reason for this is because no one else but me understands how our complicated network completely works. Furthermore they have explicitly said they don't want to know. I've been told to use pictures or graphs when dealing with upper management. So the actual policy makers come to me and say "Can we do X?" and if X is dumb I say yes you can but you really don't want to because X will cause Y and Y will hurt more than X feels good. Having said that I never just make up my own policy on the fly. While I have the power and ability to do what ever I want on the network, my main goal it to keep it running as smoothly as possible. If it weren't for the users, I'd be unemployed. I only enjoy messing around with my other MIS coworkers.

The Totalitarian System Admin | 151 comments (144 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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