Whatever happened to system administration?

You hardly hear anyone speak of “system administration” anymore. Now everything is “IT” (information technology). System administrators are now “IT professionals.” Why the change? Has it become politically incorrect to call the people who administer computer systems “system administrators”?

I’ve never liked the term “information technology.” For one thing, it has a confusing abbreviation. For another, it’s terribly vague. It would seem to include programming, but I thinkĀ  programming is about the only thing it doesn’t include.

6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to system administration?

  1. As someone who chaired a master degree in IT, I can tell you that IT goes waaaayyy beyond sysadmin. And it does not exclude programming or software engineering.

    Actually, there are still sysadmins out there, except that instead of getting paid 60k$ they get paid 40k$ (or less) a year. And sometimes, the sysadmins are in India. In a world where anyone can install Linux and a network at home, it is no longer so difficult to learn to management a server and even a small network. You can learn all that, even on a tight budget.

    There has always been a problem with sysadmins: not only do you need to hire a sysadmin, but you need to find them a boss that can take IT-related decisions.

    Wait! When not merge the two and save a bundle?

    So, companies seek people who will be able to manage a budget, manage projects (incuding software projects), hire consultants when needed, make executive decisions, all the while mastering the technical skills (maintaining the network and the machines).

    That’s like asking where the secretaries are. Way back, university professors had secretaries who would type their stuff up. This no longer exists (at least at my school). The world has changed and what used to be a valued job (secretary, sysadmin) is now a low-level position most companies try to do without. So, now we have administrative assistants instead of secretaries… and they need to balance the budget, apply rules and regulations, and so on, and they no longer type stuff up or bring coffee to their bosses.

    To a large extend, we are going to go through the same kind of deal, all of us. Professors and lecturers are less and less necessary in a world where you have wikipedia and Google Scholar. Statisticians may even be much less necessary given better, smarter tools, combined with more complete data than ever (nobody needs confidence intervals when you no longer do sampling… you have all the data right there!).

    We are, collectively, going through amazing changes.

    I have invited professors, on my blog, to stop lecturing (http://www.daniel-lemire.com/blog/be-a-good-teacher/) and this sounds crazy now. But wait… wait… soon enough, lecturing will feel just like going to a library to buy books (never heard of Amazon?).

    What were difficult sought-after skills a few years ago (like lecturing), are going to be obselete soon enough.

    It is not just technology. It is technology + social progress.

  2. I agree that IT goes way beyond system administration. And in part, that is my complaint. The term can be so broad as to be useless. For example, there are people who focus on legal issues in IT. I propose we call such people “lawyers.” And there are some people who administer systems. I propose we call them “system administrators.”

    I don’t mean to underestimate the breadth of responsibilities people have. I understand, for example, that software developers have many responsibilities beyond programming: graphic design, copy editing, testing, interviewing, etc. Still, their primary job is to develop software, so “software developer” is a meaningful title.

  3. As the population gets more proficient, the skillset becomes lower status. Once, professional scribes made a good living. Now the expectation is that everyone knows how to write. Likewise, in an increasingly computer-literate society, sysadmin tasks are not seen as highly skilled labor anymore.

    As for I.T., it is a domain rather that a profession. Like law or medicine. I am a medical professional and simultaneously an IT professional, and neither describes what I actually do for a living.

  4. I understand how system administration may seem to have gotten easier, but expectations have outpaced improvements. I think a system administrator’s job has become more challenging over time. For example:

    • Security challenges and concerns have increased.
    • Operating system diversity has increased.
    • Availability expectations have increased.
    • The number of machines and mobile devices has increased.

    It’s easier to do specific tasks that administrators would have done a decade ago, but the number and complexity of new tasks has increased.

    I have great respect for system administrators. I just like to call them system administrators.

  5. This is a very interesting discussion!

    I think part of the story with sysadmins is that we no longer work on VT-100s attached to a mainframe. As the “systems” have changed, so has their “administration”.

    Speaking of medicine and tecnical jobs, I think the same thing is happening with general practitioners, both in terms of underlings taking on more responsibility (PAs and NPs) and the scope of the job changing and balooning into may different specialties. Also, people’s expectations have changed — when was the last time you heard of house calls? Quite by accident I stumbled upon Google’s archive of old medical journals. One hundred years ago general practitioners were expected to perform all sorts of duties. The particular article I came across initially was practical advice for a GP who is called on to perform breast cancer surgery in the patient’s house, suggesting the dining table as an operating table, effective use of pots and pans from the kitchen and linens from the closet, as well as how to marshall the other family members as surgical assistants. The general tone of the journal was very similar to general IT (sorry) magazines of today, or sysadmin magazines of not too long ago: advocating different styles and philosophies, discussing the merits of new technology, giving practical how-to advice, relating personal experiences as case studies, cautionary tales or success stories, etc.

    I think part of what John is thinking about when considering the IT label is that for a lot of people, maybe most, IT = help desk (sorry, “customer service” or “technical support”). [Anyone else feel the urge to begin every phone call with an advisory about recoding it?]

    Daniel’s points are very well taken. I think lecturing might remain valuable, but that depends on what is meant by lecturing. Certainly as Daniel points out lecturing is no longer the primary way content is delivered in the academic world, but I think there is value in the editing, editorializing, organizing, and illustraion that goes into preparing a lecture, and these functions I suspect will remain valuable, although the venue may change. I get the impression Daniel wouldn’t disagree, that his main objection is to rote recitation of content better provided by another means. Also I think that the tutorial interaction in lectures is very valuable, because you can tailor your lecture on-the-fly to the students, their abilities, and their needs, and you can have a real-time dialogue.

    That being said, I think the most valuable parts of lectures for me personally were the approach taken to the material (especially critical thinking and problem solving) and the time before and after the lecture proper, rather than the material itself.

    As to the future of statistics, a famous cliche in experimental science is “if you need statistics you just don’t have enough data”.

  6. I agree. I think some other posters have drifted from the point, which I think was semantic. A system administrator administers systems, but does not technologise (?) information. While we can debate whether system administration is still needed or valuable, that’s beside the point. I’ve been in an organization where sysadmins were called “engineering” and tech support did something else. We also had an IT department, but their role wasn’t clear. Quality Assurance was under development. It’s all very confusing. We can argue about the accuracy or suitability of titles and responsibilities, but I believe the same jobs still exist, and so do the same departments, but where there used to be clarity about their responsibilities, the industry, in the name of political correctness, dumbing down, or misinformation has made it blurry. And the answer isn’t to come up with new, equally ambiguous terms that aren’t “loaded”. It’s education. I recently decided to go back to calling sysadmins by their old name, except to their faces if their bigger than me and indicate a displeasure with the term. In those situations I’d use bofh, but don’t know how to pronounce it.

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