taking care of yourself outside work
and by having enough personal time.
Vacations are important. Use them
to give your mind a break so that you
come back refreshed. Disconnect. Be
out of touch. Trust your colleagues to
survive without you.
An SA’s job is constantly changing
because of new technologies and the
growing sophistication of the customer base. How do those changes alter
which soft skills are required, or do
When my mother started out as an
SA (actually an “operator”), only SAs
had access to the machines, and they
fed their colleagues’ programs into
the card reader and handed back the
results when the program was finished. Her colleagues’ expectations
of how quickly tasks got done were
vastly different from what we are accustomed to today. Her customer base
was much smaller and universally
tech savvy but was not as reliant on
computers for everything. Her work
was not as interrupt-driven as today,
she had no email to handle, and her
day consisted predominantly of project work rather than many small tasks
for many different people. The soft
skills required were inherently different from those discussed in this article.
Over the past four decades the soft
skills that SAs need have changed substantially, and I expect that in the next
four decades there will be more significant changes, many of which will
be driven by changes in technology
that are impossible to predict so far in
advance. We can anticipate, however,
that in the coming decades the soft
skills discussed in this article are going to become increasingly important
The connected population contin-
ues to grow, as do the ways to be con-
nected and to (re)connect with others,
yielding ever increasing electronic
communications. There is an increas-
ing “always-on” expectation that if
you are online (and why would you not
be?), you can respond to any message
immediately. Electronic communica-
tions cannot always create interrupts.
Time management and taking control
of electronic communications, rather
than letting them control us, are go-
ing to become increasingly important
for everyone, but especially for inter-
The role of SA can be stressful, but
once you recognize what some of the
stress factors are, you can alleviate
much of that stress and turn the job
into the rewarding position that it
should be. There are various methods
for reducing conflicts with colleagues,
methods for coping with a lack of resources and an interrupt-driven environment, resolving conflicting priorities, and embracing the fact that SAs
are held responsible for every failure.
The discussion in this article was necessarily brief, but for those who would
like more detail, all of these topics
are described in greater depth in The
Practice of System and Network Administration (Addison-Wesley, 2007). 2
Collaboration in System Administration
Eben M. Haber, Eser Kandogan, Paul Maglio
Beyond Instant Messaging
John C. Tang, James “Bo” Begole
1. Limoncelli, T.A. Time Management for System
Administrators. O’Reilly, 2005.
2. Limoncelli, T.A., Hogan, C. ., Chalup, S.R. The Practice
of System and Network Administration, 2nd edition.
Addison-Wesley, Reading, PA, 2007 .
3. Owen, H. The problem of PORCMOLSULB. ;login: The
USENIX Magazine 27, 4 (Aug. 2002).
4. Smallwood, K. C. SAGE views: Whither the customer?
;login: The USENIX Magazine 17, 5 (Sept. 1992).
5. Zwicky, E. D. SAGE views: The customer isn’t always
right; the customer isn’t always even a customer.
;login: The USENIX Magazine 17, 6 (Nov. 1992).
Christina Lear worked for more than 10 years as a
system administrator. She is a member of SAGE (the
Usenix Special Interest Group for Sysadmins) and has
been heavily involved in the Usenix LISA (large installation
system administration) community. She co-authored
The Practice of System and Network Administration with
Thomas Limoncelli, for which they received the SAGE
Outstanding Achievement Award in 2005. More recently
she obtained a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering and has
worked as an aerodynamicist for a Formula 1 racing team.
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