A year ago, in July of 2020, I started my SysAdmin Day post with the words,
“I’m not going to even try to pretend SysAdmin Day arrives this year under conditions anyone would call ‘business as usual.’”
Here we are, 12 months later, and a lot has changed, but life (and tech) continue to be extraordinarily not-normal. The challenges we face as IT pros in general and SysAdmins in particular push us to our limits daily, and there’s no hiding or sugar-coating it.
In the face of all this, I’d like to offer some new thoughts for my SysAdmin family to help process the year that was and navigate the challenges to come.
This time last year, we were just 5 months into the pandemic. While the worst of the lockdown was behind us, and outdoor gatherings were still considered a relatively safe option, it was still a time a huge uncertainty and massive change. Having navigated a frantic shift to work-from-home, many of us in IT were deep in discussions with leadership about a potential return to office in the fall. We saw September on the horizon and believed a return to the office was imminent.
It’s easy now to look back and shake our heads in disbelief at our own naïveté. I am here to tell you, on this SysAdmin day, it would be a mistake to do so.
The urge to second guess our past choices is proportionate with the criticality, if not the urgency, of a decision. And—while so much of the work SysAdmins do can be considered both critical and urgent—the tasks over the last year have taken it all to a completely different level. It only stands to reason the self-criticism is equally intensified.
With that in mind, my first piece of advice on this SysAdmin Day is to remember to be gentle with our past selves. In every moment, as we face each new challenge, what sets us apart is our ability and willingness to do the best we can with what we have and what we know. We act now, because to do otherwise would mean allowing things to become so much worse. Even as we accept that none of our choices will ever be perfect, so too must we accept that most of them will be very good; and more to the point, the vast majority will be “good enough.”
© 2021, “dinos and comics” all rights reserved, original work here
With the benefit of hindsight, I want you to recall how much we didn’t know and how long we didn’t know it. Yet we still had to make decisions, minute by minute and week by week. Sometimes we guessed wrong. But as my friend Denny LeCompte likes to say, “Sure, we shot ourselves in the foot, but there aren’t any vital organs there; and limping will get us where we want to go, too.”
You did good. I promise.
I once worked at a company with a serious backlog of issues. Not only was there a “healthy” supply of problems to solve, but there seemed to be a revolving door of crises further distracting the team. These weren’t simply pet peeves or minor inconveniences. These challenges required long hours, changes in process, and the adoption or creation of new solutions to address.
When I brought the latest crisis up to management, the answer was “give it until next quarter.” To be fair, by the following quarter the issue was no longer a focus, but not because we had resolved it. Rather, it had been eclipsed by the next five-alarm-fire-level problem.
After several quarters of this, having received the same “just give it until...” answer from leadership, I pointed out things weren’t getting better, it was just a different problem we’d be facing. With an unexpected level of candor, the upper-level manager I was talking with responded “Oh, of course. I never meant to say it would be better. It never gets better. I just mean you wouldn’t have to deal with this problem for much longer.”
Many cultures have a story surrounding the phrase “this, too, shall pass”—a phrase simultaneously reassuring because no predicament lasts forever, but equally cautionary because no period of joy is necessarily permanent. But when you’re faced with a never-ending parade of problems, knowing the current one won’t hang around long but will be replaced by an equally irritating issue is less than helpful.
My advice is to be honest about your workflow. Solving problems, fixing issues, and finding solutions are a SysAdmins stock-in-trade. Nevertheless, there’s a balance one must strike between fighting fires and clearing undergrowth, so fires don’t happen in the first place.
According to some predictions, 25-40% of those currently employed may change jobs in the coming year. You might be one of them. But even if you’re not, this trend is going to affect you.
I’ll elaborate on the last part first: if you have no plans to leave your current job because it’s everything you wanted, I say to you, without sarcasm or irony, “That’s wonderful.” It’s truly a delight to hear about folks who love what they do and the company where they’re doing it.
For many of us, part of the joy we feel about the work we do is the camaraderie with people who work with us. If many people were to leave (or if it feels like many people were leaving), it can create a downward drag, emotionally.
While it’s great to get a lift from team spirit, it’s important as IT pros to remember we often must go it alone. Not just in terms of working on projects or problems in solitude, but also deriving satisfaction from the work itself rather than seeking external validation. After all, if a server upgrades seamlessly in the dead of night and there are no CTOs to pat you on the back, did it really patch? Yes.
Departures from your team and the wider company will feel bittersweet, but if everyone’s running TOWARD something better, you can allow their success to temper the feeling.
And the inevitable uptick in account changes, password resets, new employee onboardings, and such? It’s an opportunity to streamline processes in need of a fresh coat of automation anyway. Which is, in and of itself, another chance for you to shine in the work you’re doing.
But maybe you’ve realized it’s time for a change yourself. That’s also OK. If this is one of your first moves, I want to share with you a useful tidbit: job changes in IT are more common than in other industries. The joke goes something like: In other careers, if you change jobs every two to three years, by the third hop, HR is looking at your resume asking, “What’s the problem with this person?” In IT, if you HAVEN’T changed jobs every two to three years, when you do finally switch HR is looking at your resuming asking, “What’s the problem with this person?”
For a slice of truth that supports the cute punchline, here’s a true story: I’ve worked in IT for 32+ years. During that period, I’ve been a full-time employee at 13 different companies. I’ll let you do the math.
My point? If you’re ready for a change, embrace it.
Regardless of whether you stay or go; whether you’re able to achieve better or something that’s just “different;” whether you can make peace with past missteps or even feel proud about past decisions—regardless of which path you take in this endless choose-your-own-adventure career, I hope you can focus your energies on moving forward. Look at the coming months, with all the uncertainty they’re likely to hold, as another chance to make the best choices you can with the information and resources you have now.
On behalf of the entire SolarWinds family, the wish for you this SysAdmin Day is to have the very best day your users and ticket queue will allow. Here’s to another year of facing and overcoming challenges, increasing our knowledge and experience, and making things—in our professional and personal lives—better.