The System Administrator and successful technology integration

Technology Management

Our goal in writing the Guru 42 Universe was to look at the mindset that creates success and identify the attitudes that cause negative results in using technology and the perceptions of failure, and create a better understanding of technology issues from various points of view

One attitude that causes negative results is the stereotype that computer system administrators are evil power mongers. You'll see online posts and articles complaining that company IT departments unfairly lock down workstations so users can't install software. The articles are often written by disgruntled power users wondering why they have the latest and greatest applications at home but work for companies that force employees to use clunky programs.

To help business professionals better understand technology management in a business network we break down the issues in simple terms. We also hope to give the average user on a business network an appreciation of the reasons behind the decisions made in managing the business computer network.

Understanding how the tasks required of the System Administrator and desires of the Power User often clash is essential to successful technology integration. Let's first look at those two opposing perspectives

The Systems Administrator

The typical systems administrator, or sysadmin, leans towards the applications (software) and OS (Operating System) side of things. Systems administrators install software releases, upgrades, and patches, resolve software related problems, and performs system backups and recovery. Network administrators are responsible for making sure computer hardware and the network infrastructure are maintained properly.

On a small to mid-size network, there may be little, if any, distinction between a systems administrator and a network administrator. The tasks may all be the responsibility of a single post. As the size of the network grows, the distinction between the areas will become more well defined.

The system administrator has the responsibility of making sure that computer network resources are shared safely and efficiently. The role of a system administrator, often abbreviated as sysadmin, may not be considered a management position in many organizations because they do not supervise people. A system administrator is a management role in the sense that they are the manager of various business resources.

In larger organizations, the administrator level technology personnel typically are not the first line of support that works with end-users, but rather only work on break and fix issues that could not be resolved at the lower levels.

The Power User

A power user is typically someone who has above average experience with computers and utilizes many advanced features of applications. They may have experience with multiple computer platforms as well, such as Linux or Mac, in addition to Windows. The tech-savvy power user, who is used to tinkering with applications on a home network, often becomes frustrated when forced to use computers or applications at work that are slower and older than the computers they use at home.

Don't confuse the term power user here with the "Power Users" group on older versions of Microsoft Windows, which attempted to define a system that gives more permissions than a normal restricted user, but stops short of Administrator permissions. The Windows Power User group has been dropped in more recent versions of Windows. I guess even Microsoft realized that trying to put a definition on power user was a difficult proposition.

Can you see the forest for the trees?

The power user sees the tree. They focus on how much can they do with a single computer. Power users will often compare the speed of using their Mac or Linux based computer at home, and wonder why they can't use their personal non Windows-based computers at work.

The power often looks at troubleshooting network problems in the context of their home network of three computers.

The system administrator sees the forest. They focus on how well the computers work together as a system. An application that works well at home on your personal computer has to work well as part of a team of computers, communicating, sharing files between a large number of users.

The system administrator deals with troubleshooting network problems in the context of dozens, or even hundreds of computers using a network resource continuously. Every action they take is in the context of how it will affect many users.

When less is more

The answer to simple network management is to identify what tasks are required to be done, and if at all possible, have one application, and one version of that application, approved for each task. The more types of software, and more versions of software you have, the more time-consuming managing the network becomes.

System administrators work with various software tools to automate routine tasks to increase the efficiency of the technology department. These automated processes included automatic installations and updates to software.

 The simple answer network management is not the most popular

Unfortunately, there is often tension between computer users and IT departments in the workplace. System administrators are demonized for unpopular choices in workplace technology beyond their control.

System administrators are under management pressure to contain costs. While many users wonder what is the harm in installing free software, cutting costs does not always mean replacing expensive software with open source software or freeware.

Sysadmins need to understand the behavior of software and tasks performed by the software to deploy it and to troubleshoot problems. Compatibility problems constantly pop up, and problems with having untrained users sharing files between types of software can create time-consuming training issues.

System administrators are often limited in terms of time and resources. Often a business uses a core piece of software that dictates or limits what operating system can be used, and at times prevents upgrades to more modern operating systems or web browsers.

Star Trek wisdom

One famous quote from the fictional Star Trek universe is from the 1982 movie The Wrath of Khan is "that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

The phrase is a good analogy of the goals and challenges faced by a systems administrator on a computer network. A variety of decisions are made based on what is the best solution for the entire enterprise, or to use the quote, the needs of the many.

I often roll with the stereotype of system administrators being control freaks to make a point with statements like, "Of course I am a communist! If you manage a large number of workstations, if they are all configured the same way, or all use the same software, communist management is more efficient."

In a philosophical sense, communism is a social structure in which classes are abolished and the property is commonly controlled. Goods are owned in common and available to all as needed. In a non-political, purely philosophical sense, the perfect computer network from a system administrator's point of view is one in which all users have limited, but equal rights, and all property, as in workstations, are commonly controlled. Services are managed in common, and available to all as needed.

If you owned a fleet of cars, and you had to do all the maintenance and troubleshooting of problems with them, doesn't it make sense to have them all be the same make and model? It is easier to become proficient at maintaining them, and you can stock parts and supplies more efficiently as well if the vehicles are all like-kind makes and models.

Using the automobile analogy usually leads to a productive conversation, and helps folks to understand why they all can't buy whatever brand of computer they want, and why technology is usually purchased as part of a larger plan.

All network administrators need to be communists. In terms of management, not politics!

Overcoming the stereotypes of the IT administrator

Stereotypes exist out of ignorance, and unfortunately, folks outside the IT profession don't understand that making sure resources are shared safely and efficiently demands a certain amount of control.

Managing resources used by people with diverse personalities and needs, using a logic-based set of rules, requires a strong centralized system. Unfortunately, network administrators are often labeled as control freaks simply for doing their job.

The ability to maintain control of things is not a personality trait, it is a job requirement.

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Tom Peracchio is not a university professor with a team of editors and advisers. He is one man who loves technology and history and tells stories to increase awareness, educate, and entertain. Support the efforts of Tom in developing the Guru 42 Universe by your small donation here at Buy me a coffee.

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